I have been in Manizales, Colombia now as a Fulbright scholar for three months. Three months is enough time for my daughter to have worn down the blue shoes that accompany her school uniform. It is enough time to have chosen a favorite brand of arepa and store in which to buy them. It is enough time to have insinuated myself into a group of friends with whom I exchange kissy face emojis and poetry and times we will meet up for coffee. It is enough time to have had a few magical conversations with the hummingbirds that populate this part of the Andes that my daughter and I, for two more short months, are calling home.
Three months is also enough time to witness some ways in which the legacy of Colombia’s brutal decades’ long civil war resonates in daily communal life. And it is enough time to witness acts of resistance, bravery, and hope.
I came here, you see, to study peace—namely to learn from the way that people, from youth to adults, are using writing to construct it.
It is in the context of fieldwork on peace that, over the last three months, I have encountered the violence in my own country—most recently the murderous attacks on Jews in Pittsburgh.
The violences here and there are not equivalent. They are distinctly and uniquely horrific. Yet for me they are clustered together in a moment of fieldwork that, though I wish it didn’t, takes on more and more urgency with each news cycle.
I witness these violences not directly, but instead peripherally and binationally, in ways mediated by the Internet, art, conversations, stories, by young people’s words penned on school graph paper in multi-colored ink.
I believe it is my responsibility, as a still-living human being, occupying this space and time with other still-living human beings, to listen to those words, to listen really hard.
As the pain of hate reverberates across our borders, as the mourning continues, I’d like to share here a bit of what I have been privileged to observe of how people are writing for peace—both on the streets and in classrooms.
Despite the two-year old peace accords in Colombia, forms of violence here continue. Importantly, so does the protest against it. On the streets of Manizales, the violence is named.
“They are killing us,” reads a marker-scrawled message on paper taped to a pillar on the street I walk to bring my daughter to school. “Sincerely, a social leader.”
On the same walk, we see graffiti in blood red: “And the children of the war?
And further still, a spray-painted white outline of a body, flat against the sidewalk on the city’s busiest street, a red heart in its chest, accompanied by poetry: “We need to continue the march and erase your blood.”
In addition to the work of naming and remembering, writers are also looking forward. Young people in particular are actively working to both name the past and to imagine a world that is better than the one we are currently inhabiting.
Here are some examples from the school in which, along with a committed Spanish teacher and the gifted writers/teachers of Encantapalabra, I’ve been co-teaching writing-for-peace workshops.
This from a tenth grader, displaced by the war, now studying in a school in a vulnerable area: “I am from a war. It made us much stronger and more united so I have many beautiful stories to tell. If I tell them I won’t stop.”
Her alter ego, she added later in pink to another poem is, “chica de corazón grande.”
And this from a sixth grader in the same school, written two weeks after a classmate was shot and killed in his neighborhood’s streets:
“In my neighborhood people say to me, ‘Hey friend, let’s play.’ and we make harmony, and we ,sing, ‘Let’s make peace in our neighborhood and enjoy tranquility,’ and when the birds sing, one feels the folklore of their song.”
And this from another tenth grader, describing her barrio:
“[There are] many gossipy people and many mountains in which they hide cadavers or go “fly” for a while. If I could be a superhero, I would be someone who ends the arms the death the screams the cries to fill my neighborhood with a great peace.”
There is bravery in naming pain. And there is bravery in telling beautiful stories, in singing songs of tranquility, of imagining the heroic act of filling one’s community with a great peace. Even as our hearts are breaking and our bodies are trembling with sadness and rage, the words of these writers invite us, fellow humans de corazón grande, to imagine it together.