Once more, living outside of the U.S. has meant that the fourth of July has snuck up on me, unheralded by department-store sales and recipes for red, white, and blue desserts. In my small town, there will be no fireworks. All the men will go to work in the morning, hiking into the hills to check on the corn, and will come back sweaty and hungry to their wives, who will have worked all morning to clean the house and put sancocho (the Costeño stew) on the table.
My brother was just here visiting from the same U.S.A. for a few days, and besides the early morning cow-butchering and horseback trek to visit someone's fields, we spent a lot of time chewing on the stark differences between our current lives. I think, for my part, this translates into me venting about various aspects of my job. Perhaps venting isn't quite right, but I remember that I would repeatedly have a conversation with a community member about some aspect of our work, then as I translated to Dylan, I would explain why this part of my work was frustrating. The word I use most often is “try,” as in, “we're trying to involve the younger men in our projects” or “we're trying to promote democratic participation” or “we're trying to creates channels of communication between leaders.” Once more, I feel like the beautiful conflict analysis diagrams and development project plans from EMU are bare guidelines, and the real work is just years of slugging away, piece by piece building process.
I asked Dylan once if he thought I was being overly negative about my work, and his reply put to voice something I'd been thinking for a while. He said no- rather the context was wrapped in negativity. The people here are extraordinarily brave and loving, but they wrestle constantly with a host of things that try to cut them down. I think living here is most importantly an experience of structural violence in almost every form, and I'm not exaggerating. This is a community of poor peasant-farmers, living on rich land, but without the tools to profit from it. They are recovering from a massacre and mass displacement, which caused unimaginable material losses, tears in family structure, fear and distrust in others from the community, and on and on. The government is unresponsive to their pleas for better roads and schools, and folks here are too busy, without resources, and underprepared to organize well. The worst part is that most of the influences around appear to be working against them. The Colombian and international vision of development doesn't have a place in it for the preservation of the small-scale farmer. Reparations and aid for displaced people tend to be monetary hand-outs, which negatively affects the pride and resilience of independent farmers, now reduced to spending days filling out paperwork in Colombia's bureaucratic behemoth. Even the weather seems to be conspiring against them. An unscientific understanding sees climate change warping the rainy season patterns, meaning that every year, many of the farmers simply bet wrong. As we speak, there is rice turning yellow in most of my friends' fields, thanks to the lack of rain all June.
Over and over, I get this feeling that this village is at the algae end of the food chain. A rural agrarian community in a country hell-bent on reinventing itself as an economic power... globally, it is not a promising story. Another village of campesinos is expendible, especially if there is something valuable under the soil. The passion that people have for their yuca crops, the knowledge of exactly which tree has the best mangoes, the lengthy arguments over the price of cows, and the fierce bonds of family and community... these things are not worth developing or preserving from the standpoint of progress. I should say, from the disassociated plans for progress. If we educate, if we rethink, if we rehumanize, if we listen to the campesinos themselves, these things can be understood for their true values. How strange, that something can be worthless from one angle and priceless from another.
And so we keep on trying. I keep on trying to express to my community my vast appreciation and wonder at this way of life, and we keep thinking of ways to strengthen it.
As we approach July fourth, I find myself in a different place than last year. Last year, I thought long and hard about the things I loved about the U.S.- especially the brilliant, vibrant people who resist the push for global dominance, by living and loving each other in their own communities. This year, I'm trying to understand a helpless fury drected at the top of the food chain. I could qualify this fury for pages- I know that the American Dream isn't true for so many within the U.S., and I know that it isn't the only factor that plays in Colombia's (or many other developing nations') path to economic and political success- and it isn't helpful to flatly blame anyone, especially not a nation as huge and diverse as the U.S. I do know that something is deeply wrong, and I think it's perhaps the myth of the American Dream. Maybe it's still the blessed myth of the bootstraps that stalks us, as we desperately try to believe that the problems in a Colombian village are centered around lack of organization, not the demoralization of centuries of having everything held just out of their reach. Maybe it's the fact that people in my village ask me over and over about the U.S. as if it's the promised land, not the land that has stolen that promise at some point from every country in Latin America.
I don't know where to direct my anger. I don't know how to understand the incredible gap of opportunity and possibility for myself and the average 23-year-old in my town. I don't know how we can start to value community, sustainable planning for the future, resilient economic systems, and transformative relationships. I don't know how not to feel guilty about everything (although I cope, and I ignore, and I don't). I don't know how to talk about development- what is essential? What is a right?
The only thing I can think recently is that we have to learn that not everyone has bootstraps, and maybe a better model is talking about hands. Maybe we need to reach out our hands more often, and help pull each other up.