Keepin’ It Real

As I told you in June, responding to the assignments in this blog has been your summer homework. It is important that you complete all of the assignments by August 31, 2012. The blog will be locked at that time and further comments won’t be allowed. 

Please reach out to your friends who might be behind and motivate each other. Nobody should start the year by being behind. Remember, too, that you can not received over 65% on this assignment unless it is completed by the deadline. Or have off-campus lunch. Or really do anything. 

 

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Now what?

You already know that I came to South America to study the revolutions that have happened in these countries. I wanted to know why times of unrest and revolution seem to create such awesome writing. I was expecting to come here and interview people who lived through the dictatorship and wrote about it. I have done that, and I have some great stories and some fantastic unpublished writing to share with you.

However, to my surprise, the most powerful moments of my time here have not been learning about the past. Don’t misunderstand. I have been nearly moved to tears visiting detention centers and reaching out and touching items that were used as instruments of torture. Of course I will never forget visiting those places and hearing the stories of the victims and survivors. I feel privileged to be able to carry some of their story back to you. It is a responsibility that I do not take lightly, and I promise that I will share the stories with integrity. 

Here is what has surprise me almost beyond words: in Argentina, Uruguay and Chile, revolutions are not a thing of the past. The revolutionary spirit is alive and restless in these places and in these people. I felt it when I marched with the Madres de Plaza de Mayo. I felt it when I looked up at the humble office building of the president of Uruguay and learned that he was democratically elected and also played an active and visible role in the resistance during the dictatorship in his country. I felt it when I breathed in the tear gas and heard the cries of the students in Chile. Revolution and repression is the legacy of the people in these places, and they are carrying that legacy into the present. 

Until the madres de plaza de mayo have answers, people will march for truth and justice in Argentina. Do you want to know what makes me so sure? The moment the madres finished marching they were mobbed like they were holy or like they were rock stars – and not by adults, either, by young people about your age. They lived the revolution, and they are passing it on. It is working. I desperately hope that the youth of Argentina have inherited this capacity for asking tough questions of the people in power.

 As long as quality education is not accessible to all the people of Chile, there will be caused for tear gas and tanks with water cannons in the streets of that country. It is the young people who have inherited the legacy of activism and who are speaking loudly and boldly and with once voice about the future that they want for themselves and their country. I can’t allow myself to think about a world in which the demands of those brave, bold students are not held up as ideals for every country, everywhere. They are not showing any signs of stopping or even slowing down. There is great struggle there. There is great hope there. 

So where does that leave us? You are a group of young people who will come together to study English and Literature with me this year. You will bring who you are, and the communities to which you belong, to your study of the stories of others. You will find places to connect with the madres and the students and the democratically elected presidents. If you are brave and have trust, you will find a part of yourself in their stories. You will find that you can write and read with enthusiasm and passion, and you will find that you have your own stories to tell about your own revolutions. Not better or worse than the ones I have taught you about here, just different. And all your own.

I am getting ready to leave South American and come and meet you in our classroom in just a few days. I can’t wait to see you and start our work together! 

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Pablo Neurda

It is hard to discuss literature in Chile without talking about Pablo Neurda. He was a Chilean poet and politician who also acted as a diplomat. He is well loved in Chile to this day. He wrote exquisite poetry that is descriptive, sentimental and often simplistic in its universal themes. What’s that? You would like to study some this year. Don’t worry. We will.

I could say a lot about Neruda (and likely will this year) but what I want to tell you tonight is about what happened to him at the end of his life.

Pablo Neurda had three homes in Chile, and I have visited all three of them over the past few days. One is a beautiful house by the sea called Isla Negra. One is a house called La Sebastiana on a high hill in the city of Valparaiso. The last one is a house called La Chascona right in Santiago, the biggest city in Chile. Neruda designed and built all of his own homes, but they aren’t huge or fancy. They are mostly beautiful because of their location. Isla Negra is a long, narrow house by the sea. Every single room in the house has a stunning view of the wild ocean. The house is even designed to look like a boat. In fact, all of his houses were designed to look like boats. La Sebastiana has sweeping views of the harbor and the other colorful houses that dot the hillside. La Chascona used to have a beautiful view of the mountains that surround the city before the city got too big. Anyway, you get the point – beautiful, inspiring houses.

Pablo Neurda won the Nobel Prize for Literature as well as many other prestigious literary awards. He was a diplomat and a supporter of the communist party in Chile. He became a diplomat in the socialist government of Salvadore Allende and had the tough job of convincing the country of France that Chile was not going to become a communist state like Cuba or the U.S.S.R.  It was a hard job, and Neurda never really got the chance to give it a try.

Pablo Neurda died just a few days after Augusto Pinochet and the military dictatorship overthrew Allenede’s government on September 11, 1975. At that time Neruda was at his house on the beach trying to get well. While he was there officers of the new military dictatorship raided his house in Santiago. They damned up the canal system that surrounded his house so that all of the rooms flooded. Many precious objects, including novels and manuscripts, were lost. They also visited his house in Isla Negra, and found him ill in his bed. When the officers entered his bedroom he called out to them: “”Look around—there’s only one thing of danger for you here—poetry.”

So the question is: why? Why did the dictatorship think that Pablo Neruda was dangerous? What were they looking for in his homes? What could have been so very dangerous? How can poetry possibly be dangerous? Please respond to these prompts in the comments as your next assignment. 

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Isla Negra, Chile 

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Chatting with Neurda at La Sebastian. 

 

 

 

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An Accidental Solidarity Protest

I have been in Chile for about a week, and I want to tell you a story about what happened on my very first morning in Santiago.

After arriving very late from Uruguay the night before, I was happy to sleep in a little bit on my first morning here and relax. It was about 10 am when I left the apartment where I am staying. I had no agenda for the day except to find some stories to tell you about this country, the people who live here, and the kind of revolutions that have taken place here that have inspired amazing writing. I left the apartment with a map in my hand, some comfortable boots on my feet, and my journal in my bag. I stopped at the end of the street to take a picture of a heart on a fire hydrant because I thought it was pretty. I looked around wondering what direction I should choose to walk in first.

All of a sudden I heard the roar of a large group of people. It sounded like it came out of nowhere. I looked around but couldn’t see anything but people enjoying café on patios and rushing across streets to work. Nobody seemed bothered by the sounds at all. I had no idea what it was, or where it was, but I immediately felt like I needed to find out.

I started running down a side street and, looking up, I noticed that people were crossing the street at the next intersection. Not just a few people – a lot of people. As I approached the cross street it became clear what I was seeing: the crowds were protest marchers, and they were on their way to the presidential palace.

I don’t know if you know this, but there have been protest in Chile for over a year on a very regular basis. The protesters are students. Very many are high school students. They are angry about the inequality in the education system in Chile. They believe that there is too large of a gap between the public school system and the private school system. They are protesting for one centralized system of education that is run by the government that is fair and accessible to all citizens of the country. The students have organized themselves and they protest often. They have even occupied some of their schools. Currently, students at the University of Santiago are on strike and refuse to pay fees or attend classes until a dialogue starts about access to post secondary education for all people. It’s really intense stuff, and it is happening right now.

It was a student protest that I came across by accident on my first morning here. Knowing about their cause and believing in it, I immediately joined them in solidarity. What they are fighting for is something that I will fight my entire life for as well, and it was really an honor to be able to join with them. There were so many people, and it felt impossible to me that people would not listen to such strength. I felt inspired and grateful to be a part of their cause.

Before I knew what was happening we had turned a corner onto the major street that leads up to the presidential palace. I had been talking with some of the students and wasn’t looking very far ahead of me when I realized that people were screaming and running in the opposite direction. I looked up and saw huge tanks spraying onto the protestors further ahead of me. I started running with the crowd, and we ran until we reached another cross street. Suddenly the crowd in front of me turned and started running the opposite direction again. I had no idea why, so I stood off to the side and watched to see what was going to happen next. I didn’t know what to do. On one side of me were the tanks with the water, creeping closer and closer to me. On the other side of me was a group of people running fast and looking scared. I looked at the people running away and finally saw what they were running from. From around the corner what looked like a huge tank, but much longer and twice as high, turned the corner. It wasn’t spraying anything, but it looked terrifying. Mostly it was the pointy guns at the top that I noticed that made me really scared.

I started running back with the crowd toward the tanks spraying water. I thought that would be better than whatever that big truck/tank was going to do to us, and I followed what the crowd was doing because these students are experienced at this by now. The water tank stopped spraying water and the massive tank just kept driving down the big street. Everybody stopped running and it seemed okay for a second. Then, at regular intervals down the street, I noticed that there were these little packages that looked like they were steaming. They looked like a cup of hot tea on a cold day. What they really were was tear gas, and before I knew it I was breathing it in. By the time I realized that it was tear gas I was coughing and my eyes were watering. I followed a smaller group of people who ran back to the next side street away from the strong gas. Some people had gas masks or held scarves over their mouths, and some people ran, like me, away from the fumes.

On the next street over I leaned against a wall and caught my breath. I could hear screams, cries and sirens from the next street over where I imagined people were being arrested and people were in pain from the gas and the water. Shopkeepers were beginning to close the metal grates on the front of their shops – even this far away from the crowds – and it started to feel deserted. More and more riot police filed past and started to close streets to block the protesters in, and I started walking quickly away from all of it as fast as I could. I walked for a long time until I was on a busy street surrounded by lots of people and open shops. I had no idea where I was or what time it was. I was shaky and in shock. I found a place to sit down and got out my journal and started to write this to you, but it has taken me a few days to figure out how to say it. Words are hard, remember?

As I stared at my blank journal page trying to figure out how to tell you this story I could only think about the fact that I walked, no ran, away from the protest. I was scared, and I left. If everybody did what I did there would be no movement for change in Chile, or anywhere. I like to think that if it was my fight in my city I would have stayed, but I don’t know if that is true. Also,  it really is my fight. It is our fight. Equitable public education in any country is a victory for the rest of us, and I hope the students in Chile don’t back down until their dream is realized.

I learned by reading the BBC news that 130 students were arrested that day.  We are going to learn all about their fight this this year. You will be able to decide  if you think the cause for which the students are fighting is worthy. You will also be able to decide what you think about the way these students are voicing their concerns. I have collected some great writing by the students and by their opponents about what they believe education is, and I can’t wait for you to read it. It is so important that you know about this, and I am going to teach you all about it.

Here are some pictures of the protest. They are not the best, for obvious reasons, but I wanted you to be able to see what it was like. I have a tiny bit of video as well that I will post soon.

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You must do something to make the world more beautiful

Miss. Rumphius is a book for children (but really for everybody) that my mom, the best librarian ever, used to read to me when I was little. The story is about a girl who is told that she must do three things over the course of her life. First, she must travel to faraway places. Second, she must settle and live by the sea. Third, and most important says the book, young Miss. Rumphius must do something to make the world more beautiful.

I won’t tell you about Miss. Rumphius’s adventures. You will have to read the book for yourself. However, what I want you to know now is that you can make any kind of difference anywhere in the world, with whatever you have. I have proof of this, too.

In Montevdieo there lives a man who is now retired. With his working years behind him, he started to find that he was very restless and even a little bored. He walked the streets of the old city day after day and started to notice that the stone tiled streets of the city were in poor repair. In fact, many of the stone tiles were missing altogether, or coming up from the pavement in a way that was dangerous. It made the old city look run down and even a little ugly.

One day, on one of his walks, the man had a brilliant idea. You see, he was an artist, and skilled at making mosaic tiles. Mosaic is when you make a bigger picture out of a bunch of smaller pieces. The very next Sunday the man went to Feria de Tristán Narvaja in Montevideo and bought a bunch of mismatched plates and cups and saucers. Then he went home, placed the dishes in a big pillowcase, and smashed them to bits. He mixed a bit of cement with water, and waited for the sun to go down.

At about two o’clock that morning, the man set out for the streets of the old city. He found a square of tiles that were missing, and he placed a beautiful tile mosaic in its place. He did it in the middle of the night so that by the time the city was filled with workers and tourists the next morning, the mosaic would be set and ready to be walked on. He continues to do this regularly even to this day.

If you go to Montevideo today you can see these small bits of art all over the old city. They are unexpected and lovely, and the artist is certainly doing his part to make the world more beautiful.

Learning about this artist made me consider my contribution to the neighborhoods where I live and work. If that man’s materials for change are broken up plates and an artist’s heart and mind, surely I can find a way to contribute to my community in a profound way, and so can you. Remember that your contribution does not have to be something that people can see. In fact, some of the most brave and honest examples of beauty are hardly noticeable unless you are really close to them. For example, think about a teacher who helps you with a problem that isn’t about school. Think about when you make yourself uncomfortable to help somebody on the street. Think about a friend who needs a lot of your time or energy. That kind of helping is revolutionary, too, and there are examples of it everywhere.

Enjoy these pictures of the artist’s work, and complete assignment number six: What are some things that you can do to make the world more beautiful?

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Artigas

In the centre of the city of Montevideo is Plaza Independencia. The plaza is dominated by a statue of Jose Gervasio Artigas. Most people consider him be the founding father of Uruguay. As my new Uruguayan friend Alberto described it to me, Artigas is an important part of Uruguay’s mythology. That is, his story is important to the cultural identity of Uruguay.

Artigas fought for independence from Spain, and then from Argentina, and then from Spain again. Although he was exiled from Uruguay one year before the country gained independence in 1828, he is considered the father of the country because of his visionary leadership and because of the way people followed him and took up the cause of an independent Uruguay along with him.

There was no statue of Artigas in the plaza until the 1970’s. It was Uruguay’s dictatorship that decided to place his statue in the centre of the city. This is confusing. You can imagine that the Uruguay that Artigas fought for and the Uruguay that the dictatorship had in mind were totally different things. Artigas wanted independent states and freedom, and the dictatorship wanted centralized power and control. So why did they place that statue so many years after Artigas had been exiled and after Uruguay had signed its own constitution?

It is about stories, just like almost everything else. The dictatorship needed Uruguay’s national story. It needed to unite the people around the historical figures and the mythology that would make people feel like the dictatorship had the best interests of the citizens in mind. The dictatorship had to give the impression that it wanted the same things that Artigas did. Since Artigas had been dead for over 100 years, it was kind of hard for anybody to argue. All they knew was the legend of Artigas, and he was such a well liked figure, a legend, really, that the dictatorship knew it could use his popularity to their advantage.

So, the dictatorship placed his statue in the middle of the Plaza where it stands today. Unlike many other statues of historical figures, there are no words anywhere to be found either on or around the statue. There are no quotations from Artigas’s speeches to the people. There are no mottos or sayings that are attributed to the great leader. The dictatorship could not find one sentence or phrase that Artigas spoke that they thought was safe. The words of Artigas encouraged people to unite and work together to gain power and freedom. That, of course, was the last thing the dictatorship wanted the people to read about. After all, who knew what the people would do with those words? Words, after all, are unpredictable. They need to be interpreted by each individual reader. Controlling how a person experiences words is impossible. It doesn’t matter if the person is a dictator, a teacher, or anybody else. Words are wild things, and they can not be reigned in just because people are scared of their power. 

The words of Artigas were deemed too dangerous for the people by the dictatorship of Uruguay in the 1970s. If you travel to Plaza Independencia in Montevideo today, you will see the really beautiful statue. You will see, carved into the base of the statue, pictures of people following Artigas through the countryside. However, you will not find any words. Words, in this case, were too dangerous. 

Assignment 5: Write about one way you can thing of that words can be dangerous. You might give an example from your own life, or an example for the wider world. Be creative!

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Montevideo

A few days ago I travelled from Buenos Aires toMontevideo, the capital city of Uruguay, on a boat during the worst rainstorm I have ever seen. I was sitting in the front of the boat right by the windows. It was impossible to see anything but the drops of water that would violently land on the boat’s huge windshield and then be blown apart and smeared across the glass by the heavy. They looked like a crisscrossing series of watery roads. Luckily the boat was steady and strong, and it felt kind of cozy speeding through the foggy darkness to our destination.

Just like Argentina, Uruguay has experienced revolutions first for its independence in the early 19th century, and more recently in the 1970s from a military dictatorship. Those revolutions inspired writing that we are going to study together. Although the revolution for democracy in Uruguay happened at a similar time to the one in Argentina, I’m learning that in many ways it was a lot different.

Before I teach you about this country and what happened here, I want to introduce you to Montevideo through the words of one of the great Uruguayan writers, Mr. Eduardo Galeano. He is writer of fiction and non-fiction, and he writes about how important it is for people to remember who they are and where they come from. Most famously he has written about the history of Latin America, and how he feels it is critical for Latin Americans to remember and take ownership of their past. His truthful storytelling meant he was exiled from Uruguay during the dictatorship. He travelled first to Argentina, and he had to leave there, too, for the same reasons. He eventually came back to his city in 1985, and he has lived and worked here ever since.

The poem I want to share with you is about the city of Montevideo and, thankfully for me, it has been translated from Spanish by Mark Fried. It was written this year, and it doesn’t have a title. I illustrated it with a few photos that I have taken over the past few days. Consider this your introduction to the country of Uruguay and its stunning capital city. I can’t wait to tell you more!


Every day I walk the city that walks me.

I walk through her and she walks through me.

At the edge of the river-sea, river as broad as the sea, the clean air clears my mind and my legs stride on while stories walk inside me. 

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Walking, I write. At a stroll, words seek each other and find each other and weave stories that later on I write by hand on paper. Those pages are never the final ones. I cross out and crumple up, crumple and cross in search of the words that deserve to exist: fleeting words that yearn to outdo silence.

Born on the path of a cannonball, Montevideo is swept by breezes that cleanse the air. Before there was a church or a hospital, this point of rock, earth, and sand had a café. It was called a pulpería, the first house with a wooden door amid the huts of mud and straw. They sold everything there, from a needle and a frying pan to a pack of tobacco, while men sitting on the floor drank wine and told lies.

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Practically three centuries later Montevideo is still a city of cafés.

We don’t ask, Where do you live? rather, What café do you go to?

But in the world of our time there is barely time to waste time, and the oldest cafés, the most endearing, don’t deserve to exist because they can’t turn a profit.

I go to the Café Brasilero, which miraculously lives on.

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This is the last of the ancient meeting places where I learned the art of storytelling by listening to liars who, by lying, told the truth.

The café was my university.

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I never knew the names of those magicians who could make what had never happened happen when they told it. From those masters, from their unhurried speech, their easy stride, I learned while pretending not to, looking out the window at a “Ford with whiskers,” as we called the many Model T’s that cruised the streets of Montevideo at the pace of a tortoise. They still do, inexplicable survivors that can be seen in our city and nowhere else: impassive, haughty museum pieces, indifferent to the vehicles of today which devour at a dizzying pace the hours and the air.

There are those who say Montevideo is a boring city.

Maybe they are right.

Nothing happens here.

Nostalgia wins out over hope.

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In a yawn, you can lose two aunts.

But this is also the capital of a country governed by guerrillas released from prison and elected democratically, and it is the city that produces the most experts who philosophize on everything and nothing, the city with the most independent theaters and the most noncommercial moviehouses, including the first to show Bergman and Polanski, the city that celebrates the longest carnival in the world, and the one that produces the most soccer players, because here every baby is born screaming goal.

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Montevideo, the city where I was born.

The city where I would be born again.

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