Tuesday, January 23, 2007

the VIVA! conference in Mexico

In December i participated in a conference that was ending a three year project linking community artists and popular educators across the Americas. I wrote this chunk of words as a record of the thing, and as a way to explain to my grandmothers what the heck i was doing.


December 14th to the 22nd, I went down to San Cristobal de las Casas, a town in the state of Chiapas in Mexico, to attend a conference on community arts and popular education in the Americas. I was part of a Canadian delegation, representing the company that I’ve been working with on and off for the past five years, Jumblies Theatre.
It was a really amazing and rewarding experience. I was in Mexico for only eight days, but we managed to pack a lot into those days! We flew into Mexico City on the first day, and spent the evening wandering around, catching a small glimpse of the largest city in the world. We got to see Diego Rivera’s murals in the Ministry of Education building – 3 floors of continuous murals encircling 2 beautiful courtyards. The architecture was so beautiful too: because of earthquakes things don’t get built much above 4 stories, so the city is low but sprawling. It fills entirely an enormous valley with mountains on all sides. And it’s wall-to-wall city!
That night we slept in a hostel and the next day gathered all together – almost 30 folks from all over Latin America, Canada and the States. Then we got into 2 big 15-passenger vans and drove for 13 hours across a quarter of the country of Mexico to get to Chiapas. We passed through 3 different states – Puebla, Veracruz and a good part of Chiapas itself – and very late at night arrived in San Cristobal, where we had dinner before heading to the Universidad de la Tierra, an indigenous university on the outskirts of town.

The university is a place for the indigenous communities can go be educated without having to give up their languages or customs, and is very self-sufficient and extremely rustic. No running water, the electricity goes off at 11pm and is supplied by a noisy generator, and hot shower-water was heated by generous students who woke up before dawn to light fires to supply a small trickle. Most of the time I opted for cold showers, in gratitude and guilt-- and was also grateful for the hard beds and plain nourishing food – it was a taste of how a lot of folks in this world live, and getting a sense first-hand is unbelievably valuable. I’ve lived rustic before, but this was something else entirely.
The next day, my third in Mexico, we all went into town to have a little exploration time, after an orientation meeting about the conference. The whole conference was bilingual – both in English and Spanish. We had two translators and fancy radio receiver equipment and each had our own headset, so if someone was speaking Spanish the translator would transmit in English and vice-versa. My Spanish wasn’t very good to begin with, but rapidly got better out of necessity. My Spanish-speaking friends and the friends I made at the conference helped immensely.

The next day the conference started in earnest.

We met morning, noon, and night – while we ate and right before going to sleep. We disagreed with each other about some things, and did our best to do it gently, and agreed about other things. We gave presentations about our different projects, had discussions about what the heck community arts and popular education are anyways (the debate is still raging, I have to say, we didn’t come up with any unified definitions or theories, but did have some important conversations). We watched videos, participated in workshops, and tried our best to build bridges across gaps between our disciplines and cultural differences.It was a lot of work, and I came away feeling very rich, and enriched. It was a very open and critical environment, where we were very happy to offer constructive feedback about other people’s projects and receive some about our own. I came back even more excited to listen to people and make art together with them, and to learn more about power structures and how to operate in healthy ways inside them, and also how to build healthier ones. I’m excited to try to apply what I learned to my work.

The conference made me feel like I have so much more to learn, which I think is a really healthy attitude. I came back with more questions about how I work and how the projects I work with do things, and a couple of useful tricks up my sleeve. I need to learn more about power structures, all different kinds – within organizations, interactions between people, and in communities – and learn how to make healthier ones. Keep asking questions is a new motto of mine.
We ended the conference deciding to decentralize the organizing body of the project that had brought us together, and to become a network across the Americas. Pretty fantastic – our next meeting will be in Nicaragua in 2008.
A lot of people had stomach problems on the trip, but mine didn’t start until I got home! We had a long trip back to Mexico City and then parted ways. After such an intense time together we’re trying to stay in touch with each other with the VIVA! Website and working together in ways and workshops.

Photo by Nancy Zuniga of Universidad del la Tierra's view of San Christobal

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