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Colombia: Lessons in Language and Violence

April 10, 1988|Arthur Houser | Arthur Houser, a U.S. teacher, is working in Colombia as part of a Fulbright exchange program

BOGOTA, COLOMBIA — I left my apartment for dinner, less than a block from the U.S. Embassy in Bogota. There was an explosion. Bomb, I thought immediately. A sudden change in the flow of street traffic confirmed the suspicion. A missile, launched from a taxi parked on the corner where I buy the morning paper, had rocked the embassy.

Dressed to blend into the crowd--dark colors, a small cap and umbrella--I stood in the street surveying the damage. Slight.

Earlier the same March day, in Ciudad Kennedy, a burgeoning barrio of 1.5 million people southwest of Bogota's center, student protests canceled class at the school where I teach 7th- and 11th-grade English.

One of my classrooms at Instituto Nacional de Educacion Media, Barrio Kennedy (INEM Kennedy) has scarred, bent desks, glass missing from the windows, birds nesting in the holes in the ceiling and one knobless door that slams shut in the breeze. Someone painted a large orange hammer and sickle with the initials of the communist youth movement and wrote "Republica Popular de China" on it.

I've worked here for almost nine months now and, with less than three remaining, regardless of bombs and strikes, I wonder how I will ever leave. After establishing relationships with the children and other teachers, a second self has developed. Fed, washed, rinsed and surrounded by Colombian culture 24 hours a day, I begin to speak, laugh, sing, gesture--and think--differently.

Colombia's acute extremes are more easily felt than written--warmth and beauty alongside fear and hatred. This is a culture given to the senses, filled with sounds, scents, tastes and touches.

Riding in the teachers' bus one day traffic was heavy and Euclidio, the driver, pulled up and over the divider between the highway and the frontage road to avoid a jam. A very Colombian maneuver.

His driving gave my colleagues a chance rise to try their English vocabularies after the Adrenalin dropped. "Cheap thrill?" they asked.

"Yes," I said, pleased to realize they've mastered a key concept of Yankee culture.

These teachers, my colleagues--leftists included--treat me cordially. University graduates, working two or three shifts to get ahead, they are proud, competent, honest and indignant with the vagaries of U.S. policy in Latin America. Newspaper accounts of Panamanian Brig. Gen. Manuel A. Noriega's former usefulness to the United States, even while smuggling cocaine stateside, have fueled their fire.

"In the past, I always defend United States," said a quiet colleague, after reading an article outlining the alleged U.S. Central Intelligence Agency-Contra-cocaine link. "But I cannot defend these men," pointing to the names of three U.S. Administration officials.

"Indefensible if true," I say, still thinking about English vocabulary as well as politics.

About an hour into the conversation she asked, "Why did you choose to come to Colombia?"

"Colombia's in the midst of change. And I'd like to play a part."

Earlier in the year, returning to the workroom after class, I was informed that the April 19 Movement, an insurgent group, had telephoned the main office announcing a possible visit to the campus. When they come, they arrive armed, secure the grounds and assemble the students for a pep talk, encouraging them to join the revolution.

No one rolls out a red carpet but no one calls for help. The government knows better than to respond with force.

Bogota spreads horizontally, a patchwork of suburb, slum, industry and farming. Drug addiction, domestic violence and street crime--consequences of poverty and overcrowding--often affect the lives of 6 million residents. Troops patrol various parts of the city at all hours. Campesinos arrive daily, fleeing political or drug-related violence in rural areas faster than jobs or services can be provided. Seeking security, they find ignorance, malnutrition, fear and, of course, more crime and violence.

Urban factions of revolutionary groups operate throughout the city, especially in the poorer areas like Ciudad Kennedy, where anti-U.S. sentiment is rife.

Abused, abandoned children, gamines, sleep in twos or threes inside doorways on pieces of cardboard, wrapped in plastic bags, often in a glue-sniffing stupor.

"It used to be Americans couldn't come here (Ciudad Kennedy) at all. Now you're here, so things must be better," my colleague said. I couldn't disagree with the logic but "things" are hardly better.

Poverty is a compelling reason to be active in Colombian education. So is the joy of teaching students to love language, individuality and freedom of expression amid a climate of timidity, fear and pressure to conform. So is the possibility of changing their perception of Americans, simply by demonstrating an appreciation for Colombian culture. Education is the dream that flies overhead, like a magic carpet, promising a better future.

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