Semester reflection

This class has gotten me thinking about learning as an act we do subconsciously and intentionally. I’ve thought about my intentions for taking this class and questioned whether it was a self-indulgent way to dwell on the experience I had recently in Buenos Aires without an eye toward its long-term relevance to my or anyone else’s life. I quickly realized that the simple act of studying this material is a mysterious portal into vicariously experiencing and or fighting against injustice. Paradoxically, although the violence we studied is tucked away into the past (or so I thought), to draw it into the present in my own head or in conversation with others, felt like an act of defiance against the sadistic torturers, power-hungry liars and hatemongers who aim to reduce the most disadvantaged or innocent people to worthless parasites unworthy of being considered human. We tend to beat up on ourselves, us Obies, and I not infrequently listened to my inner self-critic who worried that the amount of time I spent reading about torture or trying to sort out a nuanced chronology of the sequence of political events could be better occupied working toward organizing to fix problems that are current, geographically accessible to where I am, and relevant to my life insofar as I could classify myself as antagonistic toward or complicit in allowing such problems to continue (like institutionalized racism on campus, the prison industrial complex, the lack of sufficient arts education in schools, bridging the town-campus divide, etc.). I worry that this discipline, easily couched in its ivory tower isolation, could be enabling my fetishizing a history that is not mine, nor will never be. The temporal and geographic detachment from these events can be a major disincentive to act upon such knowledge. As participants in academia we can sink into a routine where learning simply becomes an entertaining way to pass the time, practice cerebral acrobatics or test our intellectual stamina to ingest, regurgitate or reframe information. This is certainly the case in my major department (Comparative Literature), and I have searched for ways to make the act of “comparing” relevant to my interests beyond literary theory and illuminating of deeper truths rather than subjectively making generalizations about “other” cultures or translating irresponsibly. Yet as I sat in a cozy coffee shop in Ohio learning about the intricacies of a military dictatorship in the Southern Cone four decades ago, I knew the indignation, incredulity, and desire I felt to unravel the psychological and moral wrong turns these countries took, came from a deeper place than mere curiosity and fascination. It came from a human need to somehow dismantle the oppressor by understanding him. As Vietnamese Buddhist philosopher Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “No one among us has clean hands…The wealth of one society is made of the poverty of the other…The truth is that everything is everything else. We can only inter-be, we cannot just be. And we are responsible for everything that happens around us…We are not separate. We are inextricably inter-related.” Indeed, the country in which I live so comfortably was indispensible in training and incentivizing Latin American militaries to seize power in those years, and we continue profiting off their industries and the debt amassed during the neoliberalizing of those countries at the friendly guidance of the US. It is also imperative to know that this epidemic of military dictatorships has left an indelible mark across the board in Latin America, which is indispensable knowledge for college students such as ourselves when choosing where to go “save the world” after college, and generally to orient ourselves as Americans living in an ostensibly democratic society where horrific mass murders and torture do not happen. Such an observation, when unpacked, proves to be wrong when we recognize that our own way of life is built upon violence; the internal terrorism and police violence against black and brown bodies is part of a centuries long history of apartheid and discrimination in this supposedly “developed” nation, where we continue to profit off egregious resource extraction and exploitive cheap labor domestically and abroad.

I’ve gone on a tangent.

This class has given me a great deal of perspective.

The avatar project facilitated my acercamiento to the material, allowed the events to become more than a timeline but a series of mini-traumas I could register internally through the act of telling someone else’s story. This isn’t to say that the majority of the time I felt like a fraud, trying to articulate in my non-native Spanish the feelings of someone who had been tortured, lost his wife to the dictatorship, and lived under fear of censorship or death for nearly a decade. But in those moments when inventing and expressing the details of this made up individual, who actually spoke in my voice and conceptualized the world much the same way I do, gave me a chance to try empathizing with the experiences of thousands on a profound guttural level, I felt extremely appreciative of this assignment.

This history offers the keys to the enigmas of the present in Argentina: despite knowing some history while I was in Buenos Aires, I couldn’t for the life of me understand Kirchnerismo, the word montoneros that kept cropping up, the proliferation of independent theaters and circuses and cultural centers, or the abundance of pensive faces I saw in sidewalk café’s who seemed not quite connected to the present but were searching for answers about a mysterious past I could not conceptualize. Especially having spent time in Argentina and formed personal connections there, it was difficult to grasp the notion that these people were living in such an oppressive environment so recently.

With all the intentional factual learning we did in this class, I also realized that the learning I did in Buenos Aires went deeper than linguistic or historical knowledge; through dancing, picking up on cultural idiosyncrasies in the language or mannerisms, and simply walking down the streets, I connected with layers of a culture inarticulable with historical narrative. In my final project I intend to explore the ways in which movement and performance are ways of connecting to history, healing from it, and reclaiming spaces that had been vacated or charged with trauma by oppressors.

This has been a difficult and illuminating journey on which I intend to continue traveling.



1 thought on “Semester reflection

  1. ssvolk says:

    Thank you, Miguel (as I will continue to call you), not only for this deeply significant reflection, but for the effort you put into the project, the writing in (excellent) Spanish, the insights that you came across on the journey. Many students have expressed their sadness at putting their avatars “away.” For my part, the sadness is in ending such a rich conversation – but the joy is in the fact that it was begun. Thank you.

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