Interview with Hector Aristizabal, Colombian theatre-activist and artistic director of “ImaginAction”; the interview took place after a 5-day introductory workshop to Theatre of the Oppressed in Milan, Italy.
July 2012 by Robert Klement
Editing by Robert Klement, Hector Aristizabal and Olwyn Williams
Robert: How did you start practicing theatre, how did you get to Theatre of the Oppressed – and why did you actually stick with it?
Hector: I started doing theatre in high school. I was 13 years old when our Spanish teacher asked us to create a play after reading a play. He also asked us to write a short story after reading a short story. He was a communist (laughs). We ended up doing all plays about revolution – our concept of revolution at the age of 13. We enjoyed it so much that we created a theatre group for the school. My first play was about how the students took over the palace of government and kidnapped the president, the priest, the bishop, the gringo1 and the army colonel and then took over the country.
1 Wikipedia: Gringo is a slang Spanish and Portuguese word used in Ibero-America, to denote foreigners, often from the United States.
R: And you were showing that at school?
H: Yeah, those were our plays in school (laughs). They were very naïve and very ideologically driven. But soon we started doing more sophisticated things. And then, we started travelling. Theatre gave me access to things that I didn’t have before and I also enjoyed the attention from the girls. We created another theatre group as we entered university, an independent group that we had for the first three years of university. With that group we went to unions and visited the barrios outside the skirts of the city. Then, we started going to theatre festivals, which opened a new world for me. I hadn’t travelled with my family; they never had money for that.
On the other hand, there was a great deal of violence around me connected to the civil, social and political situation in Colombia. The cocaine mafia was growing. They were recruiting a lot of the kids that I played soccer with. The guerilla was also growing. Many of the young people like me, who were sympathizers of leftie’s ideologies, started being recruited to go to the mountains and fight. I didn’t feel as connected to the idea of killing people, so I didn’t do that, I didn’t go that far. I had problems with the narrow ideologies that most of the lefties groups were offering. Somehow I convinced myself that the main revolution was on stage. Our job as artists was to inspire revolution.
R: Do you still think it’s your job to inspire revolution?
H:It’s not about inspiring it, it’s about living it. The main inspiration we can give to anyone is our own lives, so the revolution is to become oneself. It’s not outside. We all come to the world to give something, something that is needed for the world – you can find that in Greek mythology, in many African stories, in South American Pre-Colombian stories, etc.
The Greeks believe that the spirit decides to incarnate when it sees a paradigm, a life that it wants to live. When we’re born we forget what we came here to do – so our job in life is to remember. I like that idea. I cannot prove it but I like what it does for me, the belief that we all came here to live a meaningful life.
I always thought that I was going to die very young because I saw many people like me dying. Then, I went to university, which was a miracle; it was part of my fate to be able to get into the university, to study psychology and to continue doing theatre.
I started seeing many people being tortured, disappear, being killed. I myself was tortured by the Colombian military after they raided my house. But then, I survived that as well.
In 1989, I ended up leaving the country, going into exile. I wanted to go to France to study psychoanalysis, like most of the intellectuals at the time. I wanted to become a Lacanian psychoanalyst2, we all wanted to study structuralism. But I ended up in the United States, which was the worst place, the last place in the world I wanted to go. It was the empire, the society I blamed for all the evils in South America and certainly in many other places. It was not where I was planning to go and I wasn’t planning to stay. But I went, by fate again, and I fell in love three days after I had arrived. Love and sex fortunately always overwrite any ideological framework that you might have.
2 Wikipedia: Jacques Marie Émile Lacan was a French psychoanalyst and psychiatrist who made prominent contributions to psychoanalysis and philosophy.
R: So she was American?
H: Yeah. She didn’t speak Spanish, I didn’t speak English. She became the mother of my kids and 13 years later we divorced. We still have a good relationship, especially in connection to the kids.
But it took me many years to realize that I had a role to play in America and that I could do many things for Colombia from the outside. But your question was about theatre and arts (laughs).
So I became a psychologist, a psychotherapist. In America, I had to go to school again and became a Marriage Family Therapist. All the time I continued doing theatre. I worked with community-based groups and sometimes I invited my own clients to be in my plays. When I worked with gang members, the best therapy I could offer was to do theatre with the kids, rather than to have them coming to my office and talking about their families, their societies, how they saw no future in their lives or how they were not seen by anyone as worth anything. So I started getting grants to do community-based theatre.
One day in 1998 I heard that Augusto Boal was in Omaha, Nebraska at the PTO conference and I decided to attend. That encounter with Boal changed my life completely. It offered me a methodology and a philosophy, an understanding on how to use theatre not only for social change but for healing and for activism. It gave me a very clear framework to bring together psychology, theater and activism. It wasn’t that clear back then but something very strong happened and I began to train with Boal every year that he came to the United States. Eventually, we brought him to Los Angeles in 2005, with a group called CTOATLA, Centre for Theatre of the Oppressed and Applied Theatre Arts in Los Angeles. That allowed us to train ourselves and to train a lot of people in Rainbow of Desire, in Legislative Theatre, in Forum Theatre, etc. I began to use Theatre of the Oppressed techniques more and more, even in my work as a psychotherapist. I worked with lots of different groups. I worked with youth at risk, which is every youth you can think of, but mostly incarcerated youth, gang members, immigrants, kids of immigrants, second and first generation. After my youngest brother died of AIDS in Colombia, I started working in Los Angeles with the Latino community affected and infected with AIDS and HIV+.
R: Did you also use it for your efforts as an activist in connection with Colombia?
H: We have a group called the “Colombian Peace Project”. What we do is we educate Americans about the role of American foreign policies in Colombia, the role of Plan Colombia, of the FTA (Free Trade Agreement) recently passed and other policies in oppressing communities in Colombia. I have also worked with “Witness for Peace”, PBI Peace Brigades International– the international observers that serve as human shields to protect people who have received dead threats, FOR – Fellowship of Reconciliation and the SOAW. So I started associating myself with groups who were interested in Colombia, but not only Colombia. Colombia’s situation is unique but it is very close to the US policies in Guatemala or Palestine. So I started connecting to all these different issues around the world.
R: …and you used theatre in those contexts?
H: With some of these groups I used image theater and forum theatre to invite for action. I noticed that there was a lot of talk but very little action. All the action was usually very safe, very ideologically driven, made a lot of noise…protest. I noticed over the years that even though protest is important it’s not enough. When you protest, when you say ‘no’ to war, ‘no’ to torture, ‘no’ to the occupation of Palestine and ‘no’ to violence in Colombia, ‘no’ to…whatever…you’re trapped in the same paradigm. I am more interested in using theatre and art to create the images of the world that we want.
One of the places that I have been able to develop this is the “School of the America’s Watch”, which is an organization that was founded 22 years ago, by father Roy Bourgeois to close the “School of the Americas”. SOAW has been able to document that over a hundred of the ex-graduates of the “School of the Americas” have committed massacres and other atrocious human rights abuses in South and Central America. Some of them became dictators in Bolivia, in Argentina, etc. These atrocities were so well-documented that in the year 2000 the US Congress closed the school [of the Americas]. So we thought “Wow, what a great victory for human rights”. But the school was reopened a month later, in January of 2001, with a different name and a few additions to their curriculum. It’s now called WHINSEC – Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. The same location, the same school, and the same students, which are mostly South and Central American soldiers trained in counterinsurgency and now counterterrorism. So these are people trained in torture, they are trained to create havoc, to create fear in the civilian population. We have lots of information about their links to coup d’états, the recent coup d’état in Honduras was orchestrated by one of their graduates. In 1980, trainees of the school killed Monsignor Romero. In 1989 (the year I arrived to the US), 6 Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her 14 year old daughter were assassinated by the Salvadorian army. 800 people from the village of El Mozote were also killed by the Salvadorian army. There are endless lists of atrocities and assaults committed by SOA graduates in many other countries.
R: Before you mentioned that there is a lot of talk and very little action. In such a difficult political context of heavy oppression and violence what do you think theatre can actually do?
H: I don’t think theatre is the only solution to anything. Hopefully, through theatre we find ways to inspire ourselves into what each person can do. It’s important to write letters to congress, to document, to denounce, to go and accompany human rights activists, to go and see with our own eyes what is been financed in other countries in our name, with our tax dollars. But it is also important to change things inside the US. So for example with the “School of Americas Watch” we do a vigil every year in front of the school gates, in front of the place where the soldiers have been trained. We use giant puppets and street theatre as a vehicle. Every year we create a pageantry of puppets that tell a story connected to the atrocities that the school graduates have committed. At the same time, we do a vigil, a mourning ritual, where we mourn the deaths of all the people, all the atrocities that have been committed in the name of the United States, in the name of so-called democracy, using the tax dollars of the American people. Then, using the puppets again, we return to life. For me that’s very important. Every mourning ritual has to end in a dance or something that symbolizes a return to life. We cannot die with the dead. We have to stay alive in order to stop the conditions that created those atrocities. So for me, theatre is a ritual and it’s a powerful one. Street theatre and the puppets remind us what has happened but they also allow us to be creators, to learn from those wounds and transform them into something different. In order to create a new world, we need to understand the one we’re living in. We need to destroy the one we’re in and create something new. Theatre like art is the place where imagination resides; it’s the place where we can really imagine what we want. It’s very difficult to transform the world if you don’t know what you want. It’s very easy to protest, to say ‘no’ to what you don’t like but it’s not powerful enough. And I think it gives power to the powers that be. We need to regain that power, the power to make decisions, the power to create new social experiences.
R: You grew up in South America, have lived a long time in the US and saw many realities around the world – when you work in Europe, comparing to your prior experiences, where do you see the biggest differences in what people want and what people don’t want, in the problems they face and what they want to create?
H: I have impressions; I really don’t have an analysis of that yet. In South America life is happening. Life is been created as we speak. Part of the reason is because death is everywhere. I noticed that when death is around the corner, life is sprouting everywhere; people are very connected to the urgency of life. Everything is to be re-invented, everything is to be re-created.
At the same time, the corporations are ransacking the resources that are left. Colombia, for example, is being turned apart by bulldozers and entire mountains are being destroyed, seeking coal, gold, diamonds and all kinds of minerals. It’s unbelievable to see the level of destruction, the insatiable greed of corporations, the complacency of our ruling classes, and the use of military might to oppress the people that oppose this exploitation.
In the United States there is a great level of ignorance and denial on what is done in their name. The United States is roughly 350 million people, that’s 5-6% of the world’s population and it’s consuming still more than 30% of the world’s resources. That is insane. I really like the saying that “we can never have enough of what we don’t really want” which describes this phenomenon in the US and the world of consumption.
Also, the United States is directly linked to 31 armed conflicts in the world. When you look at those conflicts they’re mostly conflicts in countries with rich natural resources like Iraq, Nigeria or Colombia. They are conflicts in places where there are still natural resources that the corporations want. Those are not even US corporations anymore; corporations no longer have a country. Even the United States has been abandoned by the corporations and they haven’t noticed it yet. They still think they’re the number one country.
R: You have told us about your work in contexts of violence, contexts of war, invasions and occupations, having to face the threat of death in South America. I am curious to know about your thoughts in comparison to your work with a school class, in other contexts where participants are seemingly privileged, with teachers or people who are afraid to lose their jobs. Does the work with politically urgent, apparently unchangeable situations make the other part of your work seem less serious, sometimes like a “game”?
H: Hm. There are so many paradoxes… Let me give you an example from some of my work last year. I went to Colombia and worked with internally displaced people, mostly women. They created a new word to call themselves “lideresas” or female leaders. Women who had lost their husbands, their sons, theirs relatives to the conflict. Some had been killed and many kidnapped and disappeared. Around 90,000 have disappeared in Colombia and their relatives assumed them buried in the multiple mass graves that exist. These women had received death threats and had being told that their organizations were lefties, Communist and that they would be killed by the paramilitary groups. Some of the men and women came to the workshops accompanied by bodyguards. And when I asked “So what about the bodyguards?” they said “Well, we don’t know if they’re protecting us or if they are the ones who are going to kill us.” Under such level of uncertainty they did not hesitate to come to the workshop. They did not hesitate to create images of their oppressive situations, express their anger and their desire to fight for their rights, their desire to change their lives. It was very inspiring for me.
The week after I finished in Colombia, I went to the Netherlands. I went to work with Swiss Visual artist, Marianne Flotrom who wanted to see if Theatre of the Oppressed could be used inside a big corporation to reflect on the conditions of modern workers. (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qSGtT4f-5JE) We worked at the headquarters of an insurance company where the workers had no fixed offices but could chose where to work in very unique environments designed for their comfort. We interviewed several of their workers and every person we spoke with argued that they were happy in their jobs that they liked their salaries, liked their co-workers, they felt they had a job security and that they could progress inside the company. They added: “this is a lifestyle, it’s not a job.” I was shocked… I tried every trick. I used my actors to create desperate situations, you know, to raise the stakes but they insisted that they were happy. A place where everybody was happy, where everybody was free, not one person was critical of anything.
And I had just been with people who had received death threats, who were critical of everything in their lives. Although they [the internally displaced people] had suffered the indescribable, in the workshops they were a community. We danced, we loved, we cried together. In the other place people seemed happy – seemed happy. But it was like a mask of enthusiasm…it’s like (makes a forced, exaggeratedly smiling face)…I can’t say it in words. It’s like a mueca3. It’s like a frozen gesture. “I am happy”, you know. It was strange. I don’t know if that explains anything about the contrast.
In Northern Europe, on the other hand, it looks like many things are already done. The infrastructure is very much built, the roles are taken care of, and social security is somehow in place although I know everything is corroding right now. But people seem comfortable. And people seem to be looking for something meaningful to do with their lives. I notice there is a great deal of interest in this kind of work; and there is a great deal of interest in working with racism, with refugees and other immigrant communities, the gypsy communities, or all the people coming from Africa. It’s as if people from all the colonies that Europeans destroyed for years are coming to hunt you. Now, people who don’t have anything in life are starting to invade Europe as immigrants and refugees. It’s a huge issue around the world. It’s not that we want to leave our countries, our cultures, our families, our lovers or our kids behind. We’re starving and you guys have it all – in the United States and in Europe. This movement is going to continue, no matter how many walls they keep building – as people say to me in the border of Mexico and the United States, “They can continue expending millions building walls but we will dig a hole with a 5 dollar shovel or use a latter to jump over it.”
3 mueca – antic, grimace
R: You said there is a great deal of ignorance, that most Americans don’t know or notice this is happening. What do you think is the awareness about this issue in Europe?
H: There is a great deal of denial of society in general. I see no evil, hear no evil, talk no evil. But in young people, I see a lot of interest, awareness and a desire to find meaning. I think they’re looking at their old generation and don’t find any explanations.
More and more people are finding themselves going to college, having degrees and having no jobs or no meaningful jobs; they’re being lied to by the system. If you look around, almost everything needs to change – our relationship to ourselves, to our health, to our food, to nature, to each other. Everywhere you look there is crisis. So there’s a lot of work that needs to be done and there are no jobs. A lot of the resources of the world are now in very few hands, but are producing very little.
R: Talking about jobs and not-jobs – in these days, during your workshop, we were talking a lot about precarity4. You mentioned it to be a very European concept…
4 Wikipedia: Precarity – a condition of existence without predictability or security, affecting material or psychological welfare
H: (laughs) It exists everywhere. People have forgotten about the poet’s statement that “A false sense of security is all we have”. But I hope that people don’t get confused with the concept of scarcity – a very Capitalist concept convincing us that there are very few resources and therefore, ‘we need to go and get them, because they belong to us’. All the oil is in someone else’s soil. ‘Too bad but it belongs to us’, said the corporations and the rich countries. We are precarious for as long as we continue using the same paradigms to measure our lives, the ~isms of capitalism; the ~isms we have known so far are the only ones. I think that we are wealthy when we connect to who we are; that once you find your work, your role in the world you find how abundant we are. That’s what I understand as my work with ImaginAction. When you find the work you want to do, the more you do, the more you want to do. The more you give, the more you have to give. You’re not holding it for yourself. You’re not thinking “If I give you my secrets, then I will have no more.” It’s the opposite. The more you work with your imagination, the more there is of it.
Another issue that creates this sense of precarity is the absence of elders in our world. Even though we have the biggest number of old people in history they don’t seem to be getting wiser. They are getting decrepit and forgetting who they are. Alzheimer and dementia are not only a disease of the brain, it‘s also a cultural disease. In a culture that forgets its elders they end up forgetting who they are. We need elders, people who have learned from their lives, who didn’t only have experiences but who have reflected on the meaning of those experiences.
So there is so much that needs to be done and that’s exciting for me. The Occupy Movement is an expression of that. People say “Oh, there is no aim in the Occupy Movement. They don’t know what they want.” I’m glad. We need to re-occupy everything. We’re preoccupied5 with everything. No, we need to re-occupy our hearts, our lives, our bodies, our banks, our resources.
4 Spanish – preocupado – worried, afraid
R: What do you think about the movement’s possibility to survive? We’re living in times where people expect fast answers to complex questions.
H: I feel it’s clear that things cannot continue the way they are, that most people are feeling that this is unsustainable and absurd – that we destroy nature, that we destroy ourselves, that few people have access to so much wealth, that Bill Gates has more money than entire nations. I mean, what can the guy do with it? What can his family do with it? What can people do with twenty yachts and private airplanes while every 4 seconds someone dies of hunger in the world? This has to change. Thousands of human beings have died as you and I have been talking but we know that there is more food than the world can consume. The examples are unending.
I feel that the occupy movement is going to continue and evolve. But I think it’s a problem that we use the old paradigms to evaluate them. “Oh, there is no political discourse, there is no organization, they have no proper leadership…” I tell the progressive groups that have been working for years on these issues to better jump on the wagon of the Occupy Movement, to let go those old paradigms and to open their imagination to what’s happening. I know that what occurred in Egypt, for example, is not enough. Now, they’re dealing with this new election, now they’re dealing with the brotherhood, the Muslim brotherhood in power. The struggle has to continue. In the United States, for example, the most successful occupiers are the ones now working with the housing crisis and the millions of people that are losing their homes. Loans were given very easily. People ended up owing more than they started with and owning a house that was over inflated, whose price they could not pay. So who enriched themselves? The banks, with their own speculation! Now what would happen if all of us said “We’re not going to pay!”? Can you imagine if all the countries that owe said “No, we’re not going to pay our external debts.”?
Talking about contradictions - I have been in China recently. China is the most capitalistic country I have ever experienced; it’s a sweatshop, the most consumer-driven society. They’re copying everything they can in the world to mass-produce it with cheap materials and cheap labor; and then they’re selling it like trash. They’re producing garbage like no one has ever imagined – and they’re a communist country. I mean it’s…
H: The contradictions of the world we’re living in couldn’t be clearer. They’re also buying the debt of the United States and paying for the recent wars. Regardless of their staggering debt and the terrible effects in their economy, the US government continues their policy of unending war against terrorism. They have all this machinery of destruction and they’re willing to use it. They think they have the moral authority to tell Iran that they can’t develop atomic capacity while Israel has been able to do so in that region. The US is the only country that has ever used the atomic bomb. And they think they have the right to tell everybody else that they can’t.
There are all those contradictions; the spirit knows that there is something terrible here. Now, how can we change? I think the change is not so much of political or economic nature. It sounds to me that we have been sold the idea that the change has to be economic. I think the world needs a great deal of healing. There is something called recurrency of the symptoms in an individual psyche. The psyche keeps reproducing the conditions for the healing to take place and if it doesn’t happen, more of the same symptoms reappear. I think the same is true for nations. When a nation is not engaged in healing it continues engaging in killing.
R: I think it was Jefferson who said that every new generation needs a new revolution.
R: Do you think healing in this sense would be a revolutionary act?
H: I feel that it’s unique and different for each reality. I grew up with the Cuban revolution. I felt almost more Cuban than Colombian. Yet, when I go to Cuba, a country that is very close to my heart, I cry when I see what the revolution has become, when I see the lack of personal freedom, when I see how behind they are. You are from East Germany. East Germany was trapped in time in comparison to what happened in West Germany. Recently, in China, people were laughing at me because I had this idea of China of the 70s where everybody was going in bikes and was wearing the same clothes and working together to build a new society. And I found people dressing even more fashionable than in any other place in the world – cheap fashion but fashion. So what is revolution? I feel that the main revolution is that we all become who we are; the change we can affect in the world is by being who we are. I don’t think it’s with these big ideologies. It’s by responding in a creative and authentic way to the conditions we are facing. It’s a privilege for me to be able to travel and to see different experiments that are happening everywhere. Hopefully, I will learn to share this with other people, share how poverty, joblessness or the educational crisis are addressed in different places in the world.
I also feel I’m training everywhere to be able to go back to Colombia one day, to be able to sit with the people who killed my brother, the paramilitary groups, the people who tortured me, the army, the guerillas that I think betrayed any ideological principle many years ago, the mafia, etc. It’s our country. And we all need to learn to live together. So I try to arm myself with as many tools as possible to participate in that healing process.
R: A last question before you have to leave. There seems to be an ongoing discussion on what Theatre of the Oppressed is and what it is not, about its political but also its cultural roots. At times, I noticed a strong need to protect it from moving into too many different directions. You have seen many different contexts and practitioners all over the world. Do you think Theatre of the Oppressed has to adapt to different contexts and changing times, and how?
H: I think it is happening. It’s not whether I think it should or it should not. When I met Boal one of the first things I heard him say was: “I bring you these techniques. You use them in your context and transform them as you need to in order to serve the people you are working with.” His own life was like that. He constantly readapted to the new conditions and ended up developing and creating new techniques. The philosophy of Theatre of the Oppressed is that human beings use theatre as a tool to transform their lives. And people in Brazil cannot determine that for people in Canada or for people in China. It’s the people in China that have to do that themselves and create their own ways. I agree with some people that there are things that are being called Theatre of the Oppressed but don’t seem to respond to the ideology, the methodology or the philosophy – and that we should be alert. But I think those fake efforts will disappear on their own or will become something else. I’m more interested in developing things, in creating things, in paying attention to how these powerful tools are being re-created. I like that idea that we’re all participating in the ongoing creation of the world versus the idea that someone created the world millions of years ago and now we’re going to an end. That’s a very Christian, monotheistic idea. Or that Boal created TO, that what he did is what TO is. I don’t think Boal was Boalian. Some people think they are Boalians. I hope they do good things with that. But it’s like if now someone thinks they have the church of TO. Like every other church it should be burned. When you build a church, you kill spirituality. When you think you can sell the path, you end the search.
R: Thank you!