Carnival is an ancient tradition, the time when the world is up-ended, the powerful serve the poor, the genders transpose, and animals dance with humans, a subversive and ecstatic ritual that is both hysterically comic (don’t miss the phallic pitcher photo below) and healing. But by inverting what are often highly stressed social polarities, carnival also exposes the wounds it’s meant to salve. Diane Lefer, who makes a habit of inserting herself and her art into the uncomfortable rifts in our cultural discourse, has just been to Bolivia where she participated in a deeply joyful yet disturbing version of carnival, the Día de las comadres, a holiday when men are supposed to celebrate their female co-workers. In this surprising and ribald essay, with typical honesty, Diane lays herself open to the ambiguities of her experience — an ebullient and apparently liberated female sexuality, hidden violence, and her own mysterious and troubled reactions to the event.
Diane Lefer is, yes, an old friend of mine. She was once a colleague at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I interviewed her when I hosted The Book Show, my weekly literary interview radio slot at WAMC in Albany, NY. And she has contributed multiples times — plays, stories, and essays — to NC. See her professional bio below essay, including the new book coming out soon.
What does the survivor of violence need in order to heal?
Because I know many survivors of so many kinds of violence, it’s a question I often ask myself. I’ve begun asking it as well in the arts-based workshops I’ve developed to boost reading and writing skills while promoting social justice. In Colombia, a word that came up over and over again was “justice.” In the US, people often say “a voice.” In Cochabamba, Bolivia, the word was “love.”
And though I arrived in Cochabamba with some trepidation, I felt immediately loved and embraced. I’d been invited by Edson Quezada, the founder and director of the nonprofit organization Educar es fiesta, to share my techniques. But the invitation had come because I was supposed to be collaborating with Argentinean theatre artist Silvana Gariboldi. A dispute over gas fields closed the border between Argentina and Bolivia. Silvana couldn’t cross. I ended up in Bolivia alone.
Edson Quezada, known to all as Queso (or Cheese, from his last name, not because he’s the Big Cheese) founded Educar es fiesta just over ten years ago based on the conviction that training in the arts is training for life, that happiness is a child’s birthright and that learning must go hand-in-hand with joy.
The teaching artists and facilitators in the program have taught circus and theatre arts to hundreds of young people living in difficult circumstances while offering support to families in crisis. The organization earns money through sales of tickets to their shows and receives some grant support from Caritas, an Australian organization and — this blew my mind — the foreign aid program of Liechtenstein.
Educar es fiesta works in three locations: a circus tent (where I offered writing workshops to kids sprawled out on the floor); a southern neighborhood, home to Quechua-speaking migrants from the rural areas, where a boy was proud to point out my home — Los Angeles — on a globe; Educar es fiesta had been invited to use the headquarters of the agricultural workers’ union, but we were displaced when a middle school was — oops — suddenly demolished to make way for a new highway. We scrambled to set up a new location. (It’s all about improvisation).
Edson had warned me to bring a sleeping bag; I would be living in the office. But by the time I arrived, a camp bed had turned up and the room that usually stores musical instruments, masks, and art supplies had been turned into my bedroom.
I liked life in the office. During the day, cows and sheep wandered the neighborhood grazing in the parks and the shrubs in front of the houses. It was quiet at night. In the morning, I could fix myself a cup of coca tea and wait for the team to arrive. Bolivians aren’t much for shaking hands. Instead every person who walked in the door greeted me (and each other) each day with a hug and a kiss.
The children in the program get hugs and kisses too, something that is, unfortunately, forbidden in the United States.
Doña Ceci told me her brother lives in Miami which is where her niece and nephew have been raised. “They are very strange children. Very cold,” she said. “They don’t let you hug or kiss them.” When she asked her brother about it, he said, “It’s what they teach them in school.” Ceci works full-time as does her husband but they have trouble making ends meet. In spite of this, she said, “I’m glad my children are growing up here instead of there.”
It’s not that members of the Educar es fiesta team are unaware of the sexual abuse of children, and they know that some of the kids who come to them are survivors. They are never alone in a room with a child but there is no prohibition against warmth and affection.
When the children are gone, life in the office can become more . . . well, adult.
February 16 was Día de las comadres in Bolivia which meant that all over town, male workers had to celebrate their female colleagues. In the Educar es fiesta office, the men (some in drag) offered us serenades and humor raunchy enough to be considered sexual harassment in the US. They danced with us. Then they cooked and served a great lunch — and cleaned up afterwards.
Día de las comadres is also Girls Night Out. Jimena and Alejandra — two of the teaching artists — belong to an all-female folkloric group. They invited me along on their gig at a family restaurant which that night should have lost its presumed PG rating.
More than a dozen large women of a certain age (hmmm, like my age?) drank pitcher after pitcher of chibcha, the local alcohol. We danced in a circle and then snaked out into the pouring rain and back while the waitress circulated from table to table, flipping up her apron to reveal a mighty long strap-on. My friends sang in Spanish and in Quechua and played traditional music on drums and sampoña pan-pipes. The restaurant owner sashayed through the crowd carrying a huge boy doll to which she had attached pubic hair, balls, a correspondingly huge dick complete with semen dribbling from the tip, and a sign reading 1 boliviano la tocadita. (14 cents for a little touch). She also put a male-organ-enhanced cap on my head. First time in my life I’ve danced the night away with a penis bobbing from my forehead.
Sorry, no one got photos. (At least none we are willing to share).
“Is Día de las comadres always observed this way?” I asked one of the musicians.
“It’s not my way,” she answered.
In the morning, back at the office, Hernán said it probably had more to do with the excesses and role reversals of Carnaval which was about to begin. “It’s an unfortunate part of our culture, of our machismo,” he said.
“But it makes fun of machismo,” I argued.
“Do you think a woman who’s been assaulted finds it funny?” he asked.
Much as I would like brutality to be rendered ridiculous — because looking ridiculous is surely something the ultra-macho will wish to avoid — and much as I had enjoyed laughing, I was confronted once again with my question: What does the survivor need?
“On our day — día de los compadres — I didn’t like what the women did to us either,” he added.
The whole city shut down tight for a two-day holiday so I holed up in the office with potatoes, hominy, cheese, bread, hot sauce, peaches, and about a pound of llama meat while I worked on the pedagogical guide the program requested — step-by-step instructions of everything I presented in the workshops and discussions, including Objectives, Methodology, and Outcomes for each exercise. Yikes! just the kind of structure I´d managed to avoid all my life. (Though maybe once I translate it into English, I’ll actually find it useful at home). Willmer will have to correct the Spanish and add the accent marks I couldn’t seem to find on the keyboard, which presented its own challenge since the arrangement varies from the English keyboard and the letters were missing from several of the keys. And I imagine we’ll have some conversations via email when he discovers I couldn’t always distinguish between Objectives and Outcomes. (Willmer also tried to teach me how to eat a salteña without dripping gravy all over myself and the immediate vicinity).
One of the women came to check up on me.
So I asked her, “Día de los compadres. What did you do to the men?”
“We made them drink from a pitcher.”
It took some prompting, but the pitcher came out of hiding.
“Can I take a picture?”
“OK. But I don’t want to be in it.”
“OK. But promise you’ll never show it to anyone.”
“Please. People will enjoy it.”
“OK. But you have to do something to block out my face.”
We laughed together.
But Hernán’s objection wouldn’t go away. Would this picture be amusing to someone who has lived through the horror of rape?
So I’m still asking what the survivor needs.
Maybe laughter isn’t the answer. But surely the day when she’s able to laugh again, she’ll know how far she’s traveled on the road to healing.
Diane Lefer is a playwright, author, and activist whose recent books include The Blessing Next to the Wound: A Story of Art, Activism, and Transformation, co-authored with Colombian exile Hector Aristizábal and recommended by Amnesty International as a book to read during Banned Books Week; and the short-story collection, California Transit, awarded the Mary McCarthy Prize. Her NYC-noir, Nobody Wakes Up Pretty, is forthcoming in May from Rainstorm Books and was described by Edgar Award winner Domenic Stansberry as “sifting the ashes of America’s endless class warfare.” Her works for the stage have been produced in LA, NYC, Chicago and points in-between and include Nightwind, also in collaboration with Aristizábal, which has been performed all over the US and the world, including human rights organizations based in Afghanistan and Colombia. Diane has led arts- and games-based writing workshops to boost reading and writing skills and promote social justice in the US and in South America. She is a frequent contributor to CounterPunch, LA Progressive, New Clear Vision, ¡Presente!, and Truthout. Diane’s previous contributions to NC include “What it’s like living here [Los Angeles],” “Writing Instruction as a Social Practice: or What I Did (and Learned) in Barrancabermeja,” a short story “The Tangerine Quandary,” and a play God’s Flea.