Each summer, students from SGPIA spread out across the world as part of the International Field Program (IFP) and Studio Programs! Students conduct independent research, contribute to the vital work of local non-profits, NGOs, and government agencies, and gain invaluable international experience. This summer, our students are living, working, and learning in Argentina, the Balkans, Colombia, Cuba, Ethiopia, and South Africa. The IFP and Studio Correspondents will be the eyes and ears in the field to help us tell the stories of the summer. Check back to learn about each of the field sites.
Hey Dani, what are you studying at The New School?
I am currently pursuing a B.A in Global Studies with a minor in Creative Writing at The New School. I have focused on markets, states, and governance– primarily on the deconstruction and analysis of the prior through an anti-imperialist, anti-colonial lens. When it comes to Colombia, I have always wanted to pursue a line of work that would interrupt the manners in which our youth has been portrayed by popular culture and mainstream media. Millennials in Colombia are the children of the generation that witnessed tremendous violence and trauma, and there are a lot of revolutionary movements beginning to form through the medium of arts that I hope to participate in.
What made you choose the Colombia IFP?
I moved to Miami when I was a teen, and would still spend four months out of the year in Colombia. I feel like there has always been a force drawing me back home, something about the culture, the people, and my family that made it clear to me from a young age that I wanted to take whatever I learned and gained through my experiences abroad and make sure I used it to plant seeds in Colombia. I am immensely grateful to have gotten the privilege of growing up in two places, and I feel like the line of work I chose to pursue is one that allows me to continue the national duality I was raised with.
What does being Colombian mean to you?
To me being Colombian means not being satisfied with the way that we are being governed, it means acknowledging that our justice system is barely there, and that our country’s race and class war needs to be fought from a bottom up approach. Being Colombian is remembering that though I grew up in Bogotá, Colombia is mostly rural and that we have an obligation as a country to get in touch with that side of our identities as well in order to be respectful and aware of how we can help fight for everybody’s rights. If we only choose to understand people from our immediate circles, there is no chance at developing or claiming back the monopoly of violence that the state has.
I know you have been working on research for you thesis – in part focusing on agrarian youth – what were your motivations behind your project?
Over the past two years, I have been planning, drafting, and arranging to go back to Colombia in order to write a narrative around youth that is didactic, expressive, passionate, and hopeful. This year I got the opportunity to begin to create a collaborative body of art and writing as a response to the manners in which [years of] armed conflict has penetrated multiple layers of youth culture in the city of Garzon, Huila (Colombia).
The research I’m doing this summer will be the groundwork for the final project. It will be in the form of a multi-genre book made up of a compilation of interviews, poetry, photography, and prose. The book itself is divided into two parts, the first part being an introduction to the socio-political situation in Colombia, and the second part being a fifteen chapter unit where each chapter represents one of the people I have been working with.
This book will interrupt how agrarian youth has been characterized and portrayed. It aims to allow a range of people to tell their stories themselves and explore self-expression through the arts in a forum that will be transnationally distributed. Few articles and books have been written about the region, it is important to begin to give the new generation a platform as The South Zone (El Huila, Narino, and Cauca) is one of the main coffee producing regions in Colombia.
The unraveling of the central research questions, “How is this upcoming generation of coffee farming reshaping what we know of the coffee farming industry?” is meant to serve as a heuristic experience that will ideally transcend the researcher. The body of information including the photographs, data, interviews, and writings will serve as an opportunity for the marginalized youth of the region to share their personal experiences with armed conflict, and how the prior has reshaped their dreams. It is vital to tenure in the question of agriculture into the broader conversations surrounding youth. Garzon, Huila has a large coffee cooperative, CooCentral (our partner organization) that is employing and recruiting youth as an attempt to destigmatize agribusiness, and reintegrate youth into the coffee producing culture. Within my own research, I will be investigating how thoroughly agriculture (coffee based), and youth culture are actually interconnected with armed conflict and displacement.
We are an agrarian country yet farmers are discriminated against and misrepresented. I want to be able to analyze the power dynamics at play and the ways in which the prior not only externally affects them, but how they internalize these misrepresentations.
With this research, I will better understand the ways in which we can begin the Coocentral reform, as well as work collectively in fueling the agrarian revolution (in which we, as scholars, daughters, sons, friends, and comrades should be prioritizing as a sign of solidarity and respect to the native Colombian culture). I want to create something tangible, and something that comes from not only the academic perspective but also the soul. I want to focus a lot on Colombia’s lexicon. He who has the monopoly on language is he who ultimately governs, because it is he who writes laws. The importance of language will be highlighted in the work I do, particularly the ways in which it is being politicized and abstracted to the point of being a commodity. What is the language of the rural youth? The way pleas go unheard.
How did the project go? Did it go as you expected?
It’s hard to tell yet! I feel like I got some really incredible experiences, and I am really excited to transcribe all of the interviews and begin to write the stories. But with these projects it’s kind of nerve wrecking because you want to make sure you do the data you collected justice. I think that the easy part is somehow over, and now it’s a matter of keeping in touch with the people I met and making sure they are happy with the work I am creating. I definitely did not think that I would be so well received but people were so open and extroverted when it came to speaking about their dreams that I feel like my thesis will really be something evocative and full of not only my passion but the passion of everybody who played a role in it. I also ended up doing a lot more than just working with coffee! I ended up participating in a pig castration, and even some of that is being featured in one of the short stories. I think that the pieces are all full of inspiration from the land, the Magdalena River, the people, and just the love that exists in the región.
Below is an excerpt of one of Dani’s short stories inspired by her time in Garzon, Huila, Colombia.
An Excerpt From a Short Piece “A Maria”:
El pan dulce era santo remedio en tiempos como aquellos. Sweetbread was holy medicine in times like those. Times that were tiresome, bitter, aching. Maria stood in front of her bedroom window, which stood in front of a busy road, which stood in between the Zuluaga mountains in the town of Garzon, Huila, which bordered the Magdalena River on one end, and the coffee producing farms on the other. Maria was nineteen, turning twenty in September, getting married that same November to a slightly older woman, Lua. They remet a few months prior to the day in which Maria decided to stare outside her window for hours counting the motorcycles that passed, waiting for a familiar one. Lua was a mujer cafetera, she produced her own coffee, toasted it, and sold it to a large local cooperative which paid her very little money in comparison to the extensive labor she quotidianly underwent. Lua wanted to start producing specialty coffee, and her and Maria had taken the initiative on informing themselves on ways in which they could make the transition. Lua spoke Spanish, English, and Portuguese. A rare quality to possess in Garzon, and part of what caught Maria’s gaze when they met.
Lua knocked on the half shut door on Maria’s childhood bedroom, opening it sluggishly.
“The bikes were loud this morning, don’t you think?” Maria said to Lua.
“The bikes are always loud.”
“But I really felt it today.”
Maria was the daughter of a man named Federico, Fe for short, meaning faith in spanish. The name suited him as he took care of his pitaya de la flor crops until he died at 84. One kilo was sold for $2,000 pesos Colombianos. That was less than one U.S. dollar. But the pitaya market was steady, unlike coffee which frequently fluctuated, and knowing he could rely on that income plus his additional lechona sales made him feel at ease. Their finca was called A Maria, a dedication to his daughter, an ode and vow to agriculture and family. Maria grew up raising the pigs her father sold. She took classes at the SENA, the government owned and run agro-enterprise and livestock development center of Huila. She first castrated a pig when she was the tender age of fourteen and three hundred and sixty four days. Fe had told her:
“China, how do you expect to turn fifteen, a woman, and not know how to castrate the livestock you’re going to inherit?”
She looked at him with her one brown eye and one clear eye, put on a pair of latex gloves, and followed her father to the cage in which a squealing two month old pig lied. His legs were tied so that his testicles would sit on top of his thighs. His snout, one of the toughest parts of the pig, tied to the front of the cage.
“Bueno, mija. First, and foremost what do you do?” His skin looked like it was melting, full of sun spots, freckles, and stray hairs.
“You disinfect the testicles with soap and benzalkonium chloride.”
“Good.” He smiled.
Maria went on to wash the pig, then she injected his left ear with the tranquilizer, then injected him once again with local anesthesia. She pushed the boar’s testicles into the scrotum, and began to make the incision. Slowly, and with no hesitance she pushed the first testicle out, placed it inside a bucket, applied pressure and iodine, and moved on to do the right one. The pig screamed like a human.
“Muy bien, hija. Now, you’re ready.” Her father placed his palm, heavy and worn on her shoulder as she cleaned up the tools she had used. Maria saw no issue in the procedure, she had grown up seeing her father and older brother, Simon do them much faster than she had, with much less sympathy. Her and her father took a walk around the farm that afternoon before her fifteenth birthday that she would remember forever. In that walk her father told her she was to inherit the fifty three pigs they owned right away. Her brother inherited the pitaya, but not until their father died. That afternoon Maria told her father she didn’t want to get married. To which he replied:
“I don’t care. I’m not married.”
This was atypical. Where she was from girls had to marry men with cattle, or coffee, or dreams that could guarantee them an “easier life”. Her father thought differently. He always told her:
“As long as you stay in the mountains working with agriculture to support your community, your country, and your old man, you will make me proud. The worst thing we tell our children is to get an education and leave the countryside. Why do people want their children to leave the countryside? What’s a town full of old people, no youth, no yearning?”
“I don’t know, papi. But I’m staying. There’s nothing more I could want.”
Her father passed away three years later, when she was eighteen. Her and Simon continued to care for the farm. Simon eventually got married to a woman from a nearby vereda named Angela. They had one child, a girl, her name was Lucia. They built a cottage towards the opposite side of the farm where their childhood home had been built, and the three of them lived there. Maria lived by herself on the other side, eventually Lua moved in.
Maria and Lua had grown up just a few farms away from each other. They had seen one another become women, and exchanged few words in almost twenty years. When Maria’s father died, Lua went over with a basket of sweet bread her and her mother baked.
Pan dulce. Pan de arequipe. Pan de guayaba y amor.
Sweet bread. Caramelized milk bread. Guava and love bread. English slaughters dessert diction.
Pan dulce came in many forms, Lua’s favorite being the roscon. It was bread in the shape of a doughnut, only denser and larger, with fresh guava and caramel slathered on the inside, and a brown sugar bath on the outside that crackled with every bite. The pastries were still warm when they arrived to Maria on that evening. The stars looked like they were cut out from paper mache, and the color of the sky was a consuming and milky indigo. Lua lit her path with a dim flashlight, and she walked over, machete and all, to Maria’s home. The dogs barked upon arrival, the geese shrieked, and the chickens fluttered around their coup, but Maria walked outside with mellowness. She wore eternal braids adorned with orange yarn that tickled the back of her knees.
“Buenas noches.” Lua smiled. That was the first time they had ever spoken directly to one another.
“Do you want to come in?”
“I brought you these.” It wasn’t a yes, but when Maria turned around to head back inside without grabbing the basket, Lua stumbled after her.
They drank tinto, and dipped the treats in it. Maria stuck the very tip of her index finger dirty with soil into the drink, and played with the excess sugar from the roscones that sat on top of her coffee. She had never before been interested in romance, even in that moment in which her heart seemed to be skipping, she didn’t think it to be love. They didn’t care that they were women, the town was far and they never kissed on the road. There were no public same sex affairs in their community, and because of the political climate, it was not a safe thing to flaunt and proclaim. They were satisfied with their lives as they were. Eventually, Maria sold all of her pigs, killed her geese, and only kept the chickens for eggs, two cows, and a horse. She was more preoccupied on developing the coffee culture business and fueling the narrative of specialty coffee.
“What the foreigner doesn’t understand, is how difficult it is to produce specialty coffee. People don’t even know what it means within the region, so what hope is there for foreigners to become interested in learning our backstories?” Maria huffed into her morning coffee and bread.
“I hear you baby, but that’s why I’m saying we need to get our story out there.”
“Okay, but even then, doesn’t it frustrate you? Say that we sit and we tell them that this is special, that there are one hundred and thirteen steps that come after the moment in which the coffee is picked from the tree that can ruin the entire batch. That one bean that was not quite ripe enough slid into the mixture and immediately made the coffee bitter. Que a uno le toca catar y catar y catar café hasta que uno aprende a respirarlo, until you learn to recognize each tone in the flavor. Would they even understand?”
“You have to hope so.”
“My father used to tell me the worst thing you can do is tell your children to get an education and leave the countryside, and I always agreed, but I’m tired of being a ghost in the history of this country when we’re the ones running it.”