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Lessons From Bolivia

Imagine working in an office where as people enter they hug and kiss all their co-workers every morning. You start the day with about a dozen hugs and kisses and of course more each time you leave and return. Here we might call it sexual harassment. But I loved these gestures of affection and solidarity while I was collaborating with Educar es fiesta, a nonprofit organization in Cochabamba, Bolivia, serving young people living in difficult circumstances and families in crisis.

Edson Quezada, known to all as “Queso” — Cheese (from his last name, not because he’s the Big Cheese) founded the organization believing that training in the arts is also training for life, that children have an intrinsic natural right to joy, and learning must go hand-in-hand with happiness.

Educar es fiesta draws young people into the program by offering theatre and circus arts–trapeze, aerial dance, juggling, unicycle riding, gymnastics, even some tightrope-walking, to develop self-expression, self-confidence, and perseverance. The kids learn that to develop a new skill, they may fail many times till they achieve success.

The traditional schoolroom is too often a site of frustration, failure, and disrespect for Quechua-speaking indigenous migrants from the rural zones and for the poor, so Educar es fiesta teaches in environments as different from the classroom as possible — for example, with kids sprawled out on the floor of the circus tent. The team also offers workshops on health, sexual health, nutrition, nonviolence, rights and responsibilities of citizenship, tutoring, and more. And as children arrive for their workshops, every child gets a hug and a kiss on the cheek.

By contrast, when I worked with kids in Los Angeles, I had to sign a document agreeing I wouldn’t allow any game — even tag, that required touch. If a child asked to be hugged, I was to acquiesce, squat down and allow the child to hold my side.

Of course I am cognizant of the realities of sexual abuse. In Bolivia, the children who are hugged also receive training in the campaign “My body is my territory: no one touches it without my permission.”  But touch is primary to human beings. The baby knows touch before it can interpret visual signals or understand words. If children aren’t hugged and held in healthy ways by responsible adults, surely that makes them prime targets for predators who will exploit their need. For children who’ve been abused or abandoned, hugs can heal.

Back in Los Angeles, I watch the local news and see that a prohibition against touching would not have prevented the abuse that recently came to light of an elementary school teacher allegedly feeding his bodily fluids to children in his class.

In the Andean nations, educators like Queso now talk about what Peruvian Alejandro Cussiánovich has termed La pedagogía de la ternura — the Pedagogy of Tenderness.  In Peru and Bolivia, with past histories of military dictatorship and violent repression, and Colombia with its elected civilian government and an ongoing armed conflict, the idea is that school needs to be a place of nurture, not discipline, for people who’ve been silenced, hardened and traumatized by years of violence. Tenderness does not mean sheltering kids or being overprotective: the point of this education is not to indoctrinate, but to nurture children so they can become the protagonists of their own lives.

Tenderness. It’s what I wish for American children who are growing up in some of our inner-city neighborhoods where due to crime and gang violence kids show a higher rate of PTSD than their counterparts in Baghdad during the worst days of war there.

The Educar es fiesta staff also offers workshops to public school teachers to share the techniques of “buen trato” — techniques of classroom management based on mutual respect rather than the more military model of discipline and punishment. This reminded me of a friend here in California who was so disgusted with her teaching job in an inner-city elementary school, she talked about quitting. But when I visited the school a couple of years ago, the children seemed happy, bright, and eager to learn.

“Oh yes,” said my friend. “We have a new principal and she’s turned everything around.”  What did the miracle-worker do? “She called a meeting and told the teachers they could no longer yell at the children or insult them.” Buen trato, no?

The children of Educar es fiesta know what it is to be disrespected. In its first year, a little more than ten years ago, Queso reached out to the kids who waited at the cemetery for mourners who might give them a tip for cleaning windshields. The children were often abused by the cemetery guards. It was a great joke to take a little boy and throw him into a newly dug grave from which he would not be able to climb out. But when these same kids performed their plays in public, they were greeted with applause and cheers. Their status changed, not only in their own eyes, but in the eyes of the larger community.

But in many neighborhoods, community is broken by poverty. Families disintegrate as parents migrate in search of work to Argentina, Chile, Spain, and — most recently, Japan. The kids get left behind.

There’s Laura. She lives with her grandmother who can put a roof over the girl’s head but has little to offer in the way of food or affection.Laura goes to school in the morning. Then she goes to “work” — standing outside a modest restaurant where she’ll guard cars for people as they eat in exchange for tips. Few people arrive in cars. Without tips, she goes hungry. While we in the US worry about “boundaries,” in Cochabamba, if Jimena Ari, teacher and facilitator with Educar es fiesta, is going home for lunch, she takes Laura along for a meal with her family — and to take chess lessons from niece Ceci who’s already obsessed with the game.

In the afternoon, Laura’s at the circus tent, eager to learn.

When the other kids have left, Laura hangs around the office. Until it’s time to lock the doors, no one chases her away. If there’s a project that can use an extra pair of willing hands, she helps out. Otherwise, she experiments with the computer. Maybe she’ll get a glass of milk and some bread. She’ll definitely be hugged. And someone will tell her how intelligent she is, and how beautiful, and that she is loved.

Diane Lefer is an author, playwright, and activist whose recent book, California Transit, was awarded the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction. Her stories, novels, and nonfiction often address social issues and draw on such experiences as going to jail for civil disobedience and her volunteer work as a legal assistant/interpreter for immigrants in detention. Her new book, The Blessing Next to the Wound, co-authored with Hector Aristizabal, is a true story of surviving torture and civil war and seeking change through activism and art. Her crime novel, Nobody Wakes Up Pretty, which Edgar Award winner Domenic Stansberry describes as “sifting the ashes of America’s endless class warfare,” due out May 2012 from Rainstorm Press. More about her work can be found at: http://dianelefer.weebly.com/.

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