by Martin McKinney
Recently, I visited a community in the Colombia state of Sucre. Named La Alemania, the community of twelve families is rebuilding after being assaulted by the paramilitary, assaults that were occurring as recently as 2010. Nine members of this community have been killed and one person has never been found.
La Alemania is a rustic place with a single road connecting the community to the main town nearby, called San Onofre.
Dilapidated houses, built by the government to allow the displaced to return to their homes, line the main thoroughfare as the community becomes a place of people, and not only mountains and lush green as far as the eye can see. There is no running water or electricity, and the roads are made of dirt, with some stretches mixed with gravel. Cows, goats, horses, fowl and pigs roam freely and as a result, animal waste is everywhere, but these people interact with this in a normalized way. Here, what needs disposal is eaten by the animals, burned or tossed aside to be gobbled up by Mother Earth.
Water for cooking, cleaning and drinking is collected when nature blesses them with rain, but even the rain comes with strings attached, in a proverbial bittersweet quandary.
It immediately occurred to me that, while I rested in comfort because of the rain, others wrestled in the night because of the destruction that await them at daybreak.
While there, I slept in stifling heat with, what seemed like, the world's entire supply of mosquitoes and a family of bats that seemed to gain their energy just as I tried to fall off to sleep. It was nighttime when the rain came, and I felt relief wash over me indescribably. As with many, this rain made sleeping better for me and had delivered needed cooler temps, and as a bonus, the bats seemed humbled by the thunder and wind. I slept peacefully. The next morning, Nacido, one of the community leaders, arrived and told me that the storm had done excessive damage to many of the community's crops. They would need to spend time recovering from this rain. This was rain that they needed for drinking, but that had also dispatched damage with its arrival. It immediately occurred to me that, while I rested in comfort because of the rain, others wrestled in the night because of the destruction that await them at daybreak.
The families in La Alemania, and many who pass through this 3 square mile community, walk and work barefoot. I remember thinking of the times I would spend with my family in the south and how we would walk everywhere barefoot, never concerned about glass, dirt or disease. The men all carry machetes. I looked at these men through the prism of the society in which I am a member and could not divorce myself from the violent visual prism that I use to justify and protect myself, and justify violence against men of color carrying machetes. As I approached these men and shook their hands, some of them offered a reticent hand in return, while others grabbed me and hugged me. All of them were kind and gentle, even as I tossed around my own selfish ideas and perspective in each moment.
As with any community, the hearts of these people are exemplified through the children. Where I'm from, we tend to show care by creating law and policy, but we don’t prioritize restorative responses or limiting the long-lasting damage that we inflict upon communities when we see people as spots. These children are unkempt by my standards, loving and seeking, willing to trust. As with most children, they encountered me and, from a distance, studied me. After some time, they began to gather around me and pepper me with questions. We talked about my own daughter, where I live, my friends, and my diet at home. They were most interested in the camera I carried everywhere. I convened a photo session with each one of them.
It occurred to me that perhaps the visitors, like me, did not see these lives as important enough to speak them into existence for me
As I sat with them one day, they asked me if I knew a few visitors who had stayed with them months before. And I did know these people. As these children told me, with great enthusiasm, about playing games with the visitors who preceded me, I departed the conversation emotionally and wandered, half-listening to the kids, while I had a conversation with myself. I wondered why hadn't the previous visitors, whom I know, dispatched a message to these children and this community? It was in that moment that I felt my heart breaking. It occurred to me that perhaps the visitors, like me, did not see these lives as important enough to speak them into existence for me.
A friend in Guatemala learned that I was visiting the country. After dinner one evening, she told me she had a package for her mom and asked that I deliver it to her in the U.S. She said it was inconsequential in its value, but a token of meaning that her mom would understand. I suggested that she mail this package because I did not want the responsibility for its journey. Her reply? “It will mean more if I send it through you, Martin.” What we treasure, we speak and we pass through one another, despite the possibility of its non-arrival. My heart broke, not as a judgment against myself or my predecessors, but because the children remembered and spoke the visitors into existence for me. They had revived these people in the place and asked that I deliver a message of compassion. These children, and this community, with odds against their survival, see so many who are promising so much, but they are the ones who see hope, and another chance to exist, in each new visitor.
Nacido, the community leader, told me of the continued work of this community to resist the theft of their land by the multinationals, with the aiding and the abetting of their own government. Palm oil is one of the culprits. This oil is inexpensive and transports well because of its ability to maintain solidification in high temperatures. Inevitably, we will one day learn that the oil is somehow damaging to our bodies and, as with those children, we will discard it and move on to something else.
Nacido spoke of the world’s thirst for organic and exotic crops. It’s also the world’s thirst for how we want to think of the growth of these organic and exotic fruits and vegetables. We want the label, and the right circumstance for the crop, because we want to feel good about the food. We never think of the violence that corporate markets create for the poor, weary, stretched, small farmer. We demand this happen at a reasonable cost, never realizing that economic violence, implicated in the lowest prices, is a particularly troubling kind of violence because it is insidious and it is specious. It compels old and new violence.
It must become real to me that what I actually need to live results in the death of others, both physically and emotionally.
It would be easy to think of the computer that I use, or the metal that was mined for my iPhone as a source of this violence. I could think about the comfort my home provides me every time my furnace fires with the natural gas, stored just below the surface, in wells that children live (and play) on top of around the world. But the water I drink and the food I consume, necessary for my life, that has been gathered and produced for me on the backs, and with the necessitating abuse, of others creates violence that justifies itself simply by my consumption. It must become real to me that what I actually need to live results in the death of others, both physically and emotionally.
Nacido said to me "we want to produce. We are ok with production. But, we don't want multinationals to take our land and to produce, primarily for markets, what we need to produce to simply eat." If I don’t share his plea, I extinguish his community. If I don’t will myself into a discomfort that requires that I constantly question these things is to extend violence over this and other communities that simply see land as ancestral and primarily as a community resource. It is to see my role as civilizing and not as membership.
In the United States, we are engaging in consistent protests and discussions around wealth distribution, wages, police violence and gender inequality. These are incredibly necessary actions in which to engage because without them the tide toward oligarchy would be much further along. But the reality is that my position in life cannot improve without someone else's diminishment. It is the metaphorical rain that serves as a gift to some, while serving as misery for others, even when those others need rain. I am constantly arguing for inclusion into a rigged game as though my racial or gender inclusion will somehow change the outcome of the game. And it isn't so.
Our commitment, and the daily choices we make, should reflect the people who are not inside the safety of the boat and don’t see hope in the boat. But receive life in the water.
I am heroizing voices to serve as the voice for the masses, never realizing that all of our voices are somehow tainted with the realities of self and systemic preservation. A rising tide does raise the entire boat, but the tide, while raising my boat in one part of the sea, lowers another's in another part. Worse, I forget that this boat-tide metaphor forgets the people who are in the water, whom we cannot forget. I'd like my life commitment, and the daily choices I make, to reflect the people who are not in the boat and don’t see hope in the boat. But receive life in the water.
I have tired of these arguments for proximity. I've tired of seeing life from the perspective of those who simply want their piece of the pie. A pie that is not properly nuanced and varied, has a mushy crust and also has a huge hole in the middle. This pie is bad for most, but for a few, it is delectable. This pie is always presented on a lovely platter, with a gold-plated fork and a digestion aid that masks its flavor and entices me to consume it, never mind its distaste. Those of us who live in economic certainty carry this clump of mess around and entice those who live in uncertainty to partake, promising that the pie is good and that the hole is just a result of shifts due to shipment. But it isn't so. To not share the story and to speak the names of the dispossessed is to supplicate that this pie is good. This community simply wants its land and to commune with it and to see it as a source of sustenance for them, with a reasonable sacrifice to the world.
If I fail to see, and speak the existence of this community, I fail to breathe life into it and connect it to the communities in my country that are also suffering. This failure to see and speak allows me to return to my comfort, to my world-view, to my privilege, and to my power without vested interest, without challenging my representation, without breathing into existence the lives of people that desperately need me to tell about them and their stories.