They can burn books, destroy libraries, forbid languages, ban beliefs, delete past times,
draw new present times, order future actions, torture and execute people...
But they still don´t know how to kill the intangible and bright
bodies of ideas, dreams and hopes.

Monday, December 17, 2007

The world belongs to the baddies

The world belongs to the baddies

Will imagination be the goodies preserve?

By Sara Plaza

It was the 59 anniversary of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights; 2007 Nobel Prizes had just been awarded, which, as Dr Marckus Storch said during the opening discourse "this year ... [Nobel Prizes] can be seen from a different perspective ... from the research applied to social development"; and in Bali it was being celebrated the Climate Summit (10 years after Kyoto Protocol signature), which should reach an outline agreement on the 25% – 40% drop in greenhouse gases emission, in 2020. At first sight, we would think that one week ago our planet, as Hemingway's Paris, "was a party" with so many things to celebrate on its international agenda... However, in my humble opinion, there are too many unresolved matters, and while I was reading the news in the paper I could not avoid kicking and screaming and getting angry because I still do not understand too many things (or maybe I do, but I cannot believe them), because there are a lot of unfair situations, because day after day more examples of actions threatening our common sense, even our own life... My continual comments and complaints did not allow Edgardo to keep on working, so he stopped his writing, sat next to me and asked me why I was so angry. Then, I made him a summary of the general issues under the headlines, and gave him a few more details about the opinion matters; finally, I reviewed with him both national and international issues. When I had concluded, he looked at me with a smile (mine had disappeared with the fit) and said: "What do you want? The world belongs to the baddies". I went quiet for a while trying to digest those two sentences slowly. I kept on reading here and there and found that this year Literature Nobel prizewinner, Doris Lessing, did not have shown too much optimism either when she denounced in Stockholm (throughout a text that was read by her publisher, because she could not be present at the ceremony) the visible line, the deep gap that separates those few who have everything from those many who have nothing, and criticized the fact that despite the lack of textbooks and chalk in many Indian and African wretched schools, there was a great interest in reading. In relation with literary creation (though, in my opinion, it might also be an ingredient for daily life), she observed:

Let's suppose that water flooded our cities with the rise in the sea level; narrator will remain, because fantasy is what enriches us, what supports us., what creates us, for better or worse.

On the one hand I could not avoid getting back a number of pages and read again the article Contaminemos como los ricos. India reivindica su modelo de fuerte crecimiento con alto coste ecológico [1] (Let's pollute as rich countries do. India claims for an economic growth rate with high ecological cost). The last paragraph states: "... climate change effects have reached at India: a number of hours far from Calcuta, on the coast of Western Bengala State, two populated islands of the Sundarbands archipelago have immersed in the water leaving thousands of refugees as a result of the temperature increase".

On the other hand, I sought for one of my old writings that I had prepared as collaboration on the collection that a Ecuadorian university librarian was publishing in order to let students, through brief essays, know more about the life and work of main characters of culture, education, social struggle, etc., in Latin America. Among my lines I quoted many written by Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, and found ones very special to which I have always gone back for moving further:

To accept in the essence of human nature, historically constituted, the need of dreaming seems fundamental to me. I find dream as a core project of historical individuals ... Today I defend, with the same strength as I always did, the right to dream.

Talking about advocacy, I remembered when Mario Benedetti defended joy, and his poetry took me up to the doors of utopia and, once more, before Freire's words:

Revolutionary utopia tends to be dynamic more than static; tends more to life than to death; to the future as a challenge to men and women creativity rather than to a repetition of the present; to love as individual's liberation not as pathological possessiveness; to life emotion more than to cold abstractions; to living together in harmony instead of living gregariously; to dialogue rather than to silence; to praxis more than to "law and order"; to men and women that organize themselves thoughtfully for action, rather than to men and women who are organized for passivity; to creative and communicative language more than to prescriptive codes; to thoughtful challenges rather than to domesticating slogans; and to values that are lived more than to myths that are imposed.

Little by little, at the end of the morning, I still thought that maybe Edgardo was right and the world belonged to the baddies, however, it was doubtless that Lessing's imagination and Freire's dreams belonged to everybody who still believes in our own capacity to imagine and dream, to those men and women, children and elder who still get angry and protest, and are not satisfied with a reality that, even dressed in fancy clothes to celebrate statements of the past and agreements for the future, continues to fail its most important goal: the present of millions of people who live badly today and will hardly survive tomorrow.

It depends on us to make use of our imagination, to put our dreams into practice, to take utopia one step further. I do not know whether this makes us good guys, not even better, but it will make us more human and will give us opportunities to feel alive and to defend our life, our illusions and our joy without ruining millions of other people's.

[1] Newspaper EL PAÍS, Tuesday 11 December, 2007. International Edition.

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Sunday, December 09, 2007

What our books tell

What our books tell

By Edgardo Civallero
Translation by Sara Plaza

"None of the other Indians from the Río de la Plata area were more implacable in their hatred, more cruel in their revenges nor more terribly anthropophagous."

This sentence refers to Guaraní people, and was written by the Jesuit Father Guillermo Furlong in his book "Missions and their peoples of Guaraníes" (Buenos Aires: Theoria, 1962, pp. 72-75). I have kept Furlong's book in my library for a long time, as an example of total lack of understanding. It is curious to know that the texts written by this Jesuit continue to be included in many bibliographies about indigenous peoples. Do we know what is inside the pages of our books? Do we know whether the knowledge kept in them is true or false? Would we be able to orientate a user's reading through pages similar to the ones I want to show you in this post?

The Guaraní call themselves Avá, which in their language (Avá-ñe'é) simply means "mankind" (the name of their language means "the language of mankind"). The epithet "Guaraní" means, in their language, "warriors", something that they were really and truly along the many centuries of their history, which was never written by themselves but by the pens of those who visited them, who knew them, sometimes better and sometimes worse. Guaraní people belong to a bigger group, the Tupí-Guaraní, a linguistic family that covers a wide territory inside South America, from Brazil to Argentina and eastern Bolivia. The first Jesuit missions in the southern part of the continent were placed in their ancestral lands, which were turned into a true empire (following the words written by the Argentinean writer, Leopoldo Lugones during the first part of his life as intellectual). Practices that some people consider to have had a "civilizing" influence on the original dwellers, while others think of them as a good example of "acculturation", took place in those "reductions". The detailed examination of such different perspectives, in order to understand more about the missions result in many contradictory statements inside the books that we are checking.

It was in those settlements where the first printing press within the Río de la Plata viceroyalty was built, which afterwards would be moved to the city of Córdoba, from where I write now. There, in those missions, the first books of the region were printed, written in Spanish and in Guaraní. They were mostly dictionaries, vocabularies and sermons, which would have been very useful for missionaries to continue with their work of persuading people to become Christians, and keep on being of much help for all of us who want to recover the customs and linguistic characteristics of Guaraní.

There are a lot of historians, anthropologists, and linguists who describe the Guaraní language as one of the richest and sweetest of the continent.

The beauty and the poetry that impress its construction can be appreciated in the variety of Guaraní languages at present, from the Avá-ñe'é from Paraguay (official language of this country that is also spoken in the Argentinean provinces of Corrientes and Misiones), to the Aché, the Pai-Tavyterá, the Kaiwá, the Avá-Chiriwano and the Sirionó. Its melodious pronunciation and the many possibilities that are open with its vocabulary, tell us a lot about a wonderfully complex language that is still alive. It would be said by another Jesuit, the Father Ignacio Chomé:

"I should confess that I found it very estrange to discover its sheer majesty and its energy. Each word is an exact definition that explains the nature of what it intends to make understandable, and every one gives a clear and distinct idea of it. I had never imagined that, in the middle of the barbarism [sic], it was spoken a language, which, to my judgment, for its nobility and harmony, is not inferior to the ones that I had learnt in Europe. It has, on the other hand, its delicacies and likes, and it demands many years to be able to achieve it to perfection".

At the same time, the different literatures (oral and written) and the Guaraní cosmogony are highlighted by their exquisite richness, by the use of metaphors and by the possession of a very complex cosmology, both magic and religious. In addition, the universe, its origin and its development is enclosed in the language: the words have power and also a sort of spirituality, as it was signaled by Lucía Gálvez in her book "Guaraníes y Jesuítas. De la tierra sin mal al paraíso" (Buenos Aires: Sudamericana).

If we continue with the quotations from the book of Furlong, I would like to note down a long fragment, which explains by itself the prejudices that many religious men (and non-religious as well) carried with them when they came –and still come– near to the native peoples.

"During a century and a half, the missionaries were intimately connected with those Indians, and we do not have found a single offensive statement towards them among the many writings, anuas [a very complete report written annually], accounts and letters that we have had in our hands. However, a few years after the Jesuits were forced to leave the continent [1767], a man to whom some people have incorrectly given the name of 'wise', treated with some Guaraní persons, and this supposed wise came to classify Indians not among the rational beings, but among the four legged animals. After writing down a series of incongruities, Don Félix de Azara continued with his unconcerned attitude: all of these qualities seem to approach them to the quadrupeds; at the same time, they seem to have a sort of relationship with the birds on account of their sharpness and sight. The language unity among the Guaraní who occupy a large part of the country, an advantage that none of the learned nations have managed to achieve, similarly indicates that these savages have had the same teacher of language who taught dogs how to bark equally in every country.

Azara doubted, at the end of XVIII century, whether Guaraní people belonged to the human genus, incurring in a manifest philosophical aberration and showing, in passing, his complete misunderstanding of everything made by those indigenous people in the reductions.

Other 'wise' men, made of the same raw material as Azara, have pointed out the total parity between the Indian man and the European, since the former, once he had left the forest, was able to think, speak and do in the same way as the latter. Today, science has proven how childish those statements were, and more than four centuries of history firmly rejects them. The absolute abandonment of any kind of mental effort, the neglect and the idleness of countless generations, the inveterate vices through centuries, the wild environment in which they had been born and lived, and many other recurrent factors, had degraded the Indian man so much, and it was humanly impossible to promote him to the European normality all at once.

Historical reality is, on the other hand, quite eloquent. After four centuries, and despite of the worthy efforts on the part of the governments and the missionaries, the American Indian man, from the one who inhabits the surroundings of the big cities of the United States to the ones we have met and treated in the Patagonian valleys, and the ones who are in the deep narrow valleys with step sides of Jujuy, as well as those who dwell in the plains of Chaco, continue to be as much Indian as they were when Columbus first set his foot on the American lands. The fact that they get dressed in European clothes, or know how to scribble down a few letters, what some ones call to write, does not modify in substance what has been said, and the Indian man is what he was centuries ago".

Far from stopping at these "appreciations", which were similar to reasons that made famous debates to happen, such as that one of Valladolid, in the XVII century (where took part the well-known Bartolomé de Las Casas, supporting the principles on which he based the theory that Indian people were human beings as well), Furlong (who writes in the second half on the XX century, at a time when indigenous peoples were still included, in some Argentinean primary school books, in the Zoology section) keeps on putting his opinions in writing:

"None of the missionaries ever doubted, as Azara did, whether Guaraní people were true human beings; however, with relation to them, similar to what the Father Cardiel acknowledged, 'their understanding, their capacity was, and is, very restricted, like the one of a child; their spoken discourse was very weak and faulty. When we asked them a disjunctive, v. gr., where are you going, to the village of San Nicolás or to the village of San Juan?, they answered: Yes, Father; what did not allow us to find out to which of the two parts the 'yes' or the 'no' was referred, and having to make our question once more, asking for one of the parts only'. This is what the Father Cardiel wrote in the middle of the XVIII century, a century and a half after the existence of the reductions, and half a century ago, the Father Lozano had written down that they had not managed to understand yet the fact that our death was something natural that would happen to everybody; however, they persuaded themselves into believing that it was something fortuitous with external causes. They thought the same about illnesses, whose causes, in their opinion, were always external and beyond the very human nature".

The misunderstanding of the philosophical structures of the "other" (whoever he or she is; in this case, the Guaraní people), and the analysis of their linguistic patterns with the European languages logic (completely different from the logic of the native languages) as if that logic was the "only" and the "true" one, is clearly expressed in Furlong's discourse. However, do not misjudge the importance of the previous lines: it is a discourse that continues to be present and active in the Latin American society in general (and in Argentina in particular). The indigenous customs, habits, ways of life, attitudes and idiosyncrasies are fiercely criticized, forgotten and discriminated, even made fun of in a wide range of contexts, from the political to the scholar, and along the social as well. All of these perceptions "overpopulated" with preconcepts continue feeding the walls and the racist remarks written on them, and regretfully make it possible that the intercultural dialogue collapses and ends in a complete disaster.

Let's expect that our steps and our actions in the future will allow us to overcome such barriers and divides.

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Sunday, December 02, 2007

The house of words

The house of words

By Sara Plaza

3rd anniversary – Helena Villagra dreamed that poets came to the house of words. Words, kept inside old bottles of glass, were waiting for poets and offered to them, mad keen to be chosen: they begged poets to look at them, to smell them, to touch them, to lick them. Poets opened the bottles, tasted the words with their finger and then, they smacked their lips or pursed their nose. Poets were looking for words that they did not know, and they also sought words that they knew but had lost. In the house of words there was a table with colors. Colors were offered to poets in big dishes, and each poet served the color he needed: lemon yellow or sun yellow, sea or smoke blue, bright, blood, wine red...

Excerpt from 'El libro de los abrazos' (The Book of Hugs) of Eduardo Galeano

Edgardo and Sara also went to the house of words. However, there have passed many years since poets crossed its threshold and the old bottles of glass had fell and rolled around, and words were now scattered on the floor. They had to tread carefully among them, squat on their heels, clean the dust that covered them and bring them closer to their ears in order to listen to their sound. There, crouched in a corner, they two discovered the paths that words had walked, the trail they had left behind, and their influence on spoken and written languages, literatures and cultures. Among their whispers, both of them could open their eyes in surprise, grit their teeth with fear, smile or tremble. They could find forgotten tales, contemporary legends, creation myths and death premonitions; they could meet urban chronicles, rural settings, lullabies, declarations of war, peace treaties... They could be up all night listening to the words' stories and awake dreaming about them to fill the empty pages of their log later.

The table had disappeared and the colors had set off in search of new horizons: flying on the dusty broom of a some mischievous witch, entangled in the twisted stick of wise shamans, hidden under the pointed hat of a gnome, climbed on the single horn of the only blue unicorn lost, playing with the strings of an old troubadour's guitar, embracing the canes of Andean panpipes... And exactly there, Sara and Edgardo found them: touring the open veins of a continent, crossing the seas that separates it from the other four, pointed with their fingers those thousands and thousands of white bells that always made a little prince laugh and covered the sky of the five...

And with those words and colors, they have drawn the pages of this weblog: Edgardo started to sketch them, three years ago and more than one has passed since Sara drew her first strokes. Each one with a style, for the things they tell him are different from those said to her, and the colors have nuances that are not the same for blue and chestnut eyes. Week after week, spring, summer, fall, winter and... spring again they both have shared what they thought about, believed in, dreamt about, what made them unhappy. And here they are, they continue walking and telling: with the same curiosity as ever, with more doubts than never, tiptoeing into the house of words, stealing colors from the horizon to outline their own path...

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