Hector Aristizabal came of age in Medellin, Colombia when it was the most dangerous city in the world. His memoir tells how he turned away from revenge and channeled his passion instead into nonviolent work for justice in his adopted home in California and abroad.
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Hector Aristizábal grew up in the barrios of Medellin, Colombia, where he and his siblings had to use all their wit, wiles, and wherewithal to survive poverty, the ever-present allure of cheap drugs and very dangerous money, and the endemic violence from leftwing guerrillas, rightwing death squads, cocaine cartels, and the armed power of the State. As a young actor and psychology student, Hector was seized by the military, held in secret, and tortured. He survived and went on to find meaning in his ordeal as he channeled his desire for revenge into nonviolent activism both in his homeland and during decades of exile in the United States.
While challenging the State-sponsored causes of much suffering in the world, Hector reached out to some of society’s most marginalized—at-risk and incarcerated youth, immigrants, and many others—using his theatrical skills and psychotherapeutic training to help people shape their own stories and identities. He sought to understand his own identity as well as that of one brother who was a revolutionary and another who was gay—and how his belief in personal integrity and political freedom might square with the realities of a country under the yoke of toxic ideologies. Hector was forced finally to examine his own motivations and commitments, and begin to heal his own gaping wounds.
Shockingly honest, heartbreaking, and vibrantly told, The Blessing Next to the Wound is a passionate and evocative memoir that, amid enormous suffering and loss, is a full-throated affirmation of life.
Four AM. A low-income housing project on the outskirts of Medellín, Colombia. The whole neighborhood shook as military trucks rumbled into the barrio on the hunt for subversives. It was 1982; I was twenty-two years old. We were living under the Estatuto de Seguridad, a repressive law that looked on almost any opposition to the government as Communist-inspired. It was dangerous to talk politics. Sometimes even more dangerous to create art. Friends of mine from the university had been seized and disappeared only to reappear as cadavers found in a ditch, bodies covered with cuts and burns, toes and fingers broken, tongues missing, eyes gouged out.
It could happen to me. With my theater company, I performed plays that encouraged dissent by poking merciless fun at the military and the rich, at presidents and priests. I’d participated in protests and human rights demonstrations and had organized cultural events where we sang the protest songs of Victor Jara and Mercedes Sosa and showed our revolutionary sympathies by watching Cuban films.
It could happen to my younger brother. It might have already happened. Juan Fernando had left the house two days before to go camping with three other kids. Then my family got word he’d been arrested. My father and I went searching for him and were told he’d been turned over to the army, but we hadn’t been able to learn his whereabouts or anything about his case. I’d spent a restless night, my sleep troubled by fear for my brother.
Now I was instantly alert. I pulled on a T-shirt and warm-up pants and ran to look out through the blinds. One of the trucks stopped in front of our house directly beneath my window. Should I try to escape? A cold mist made everything indistinct but by the light of the streetlamp, I could see Juan Fernando surrounded by soldiers in the open back of the truck. So, at least he was alive. But there was no running for it now. I couldn’t try to save myself if the army had my brother.
“Open the door! This is a raid!” A platoon of ten soldiers and a sergeant burst in, pointing their weapons at my terrified parents. My father grabbed our little dog, his beloved Chihuahua, trying to keep her still. “All of you! Sit there!” There was my teenage sister Estela, scared and embarrassed to be seen in the old nightclothes she slept in. There were my brothers—Hernán Darío who was fighting demons of his own that had nothing to do with politics, and Ignacio, the steady, reliable one who worked as a delivery boy to help support the family.
“You!” One of the soldiers pointed his rifle at me. “What’s up there?”
“It’s where the boys sleep. Me and my brothers.”
I led them up the stairs. They overturned furniture, threw clothes and papers everywhere, tossed my mattress as they ransacked my room. I started to calm down as I watched them search. This meant they weren’t after me for anything I’d done. They expected to find something and I knew they wouldn’t. I always cleaned the house when a government crackdown was expected. Pamphlets that criticized the president, leaflets demanding social justice, anything that mentioned trade unions or socialism—including books assigned at school—I’d gotten rid of everything. That’s what I thought, and I was wrong.
When I was fourteen years old, I’d written a letter to Radio Havana Cuba asking for books and magazines about the Revolution. I was so proud of that letter, I’d kept a copy for myself. I’d forgotten all about it. Now it was in the hands of the soldiers. And worse. Among my school papers, they found a booklet from the ELN, the Ejército de Liberación Nacional, the second largest guerrilla group in the country. This little pamphlet could mean a death sentence. It had to be Juan Fernando’s. No one else in the family had any interest in the ELN. Was he hiding it? Or had he left it for me to find, a follow-up to our recent disagreement? Then they picked up the photos. As a psychology student, I’d been documenting the degrading treatment of mental patients at the charity hospital. According to the sergeant, these wretched looking human beings were hostages held by the guerrillas.
My mother cried and begged the soldiers to let me go, but I was handcuffed and pushed out to the street where a cold gray dawn was breaking. All the world’s colors seemed washed out, gone. And it was quiet, abnormally quiet. No shouts, no street vendors, no radios. But hundreds of neighbors had come out of their houses to see what was happening. They watched in silence and I remember thinking, Witnesses, hoping that would make a difference, that the army would not be able to just disappear us when so many people had seen us detained.
I was put in the back of the truck with my brother.
Journeying into the Jungle
SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 28
The Blessing Next to the Wound
JOURNEYING INTO THE JUNGLE
by tatiana de la tierra
Inside the psyche of a young man being tortured in that cell at the top of a hill there is a book that will one day tell his story: The Blessing Next to the Wound. A political memoir rife with intimate and harrowing details of fractured life, this book takes deeply personal wounds on a journey to global healing. This is the story of Hector Aristizábal, a Colombian theater artist, activist and psychologist. It is about some difficult issues—abortion, homophobia, drug addiction, racism, exile, prison, immigration, murder, torture, and the U.S. juvenile justice system. It is about the intersection of creativity, ruptured reality, ritual, and therapy. And it is about Colombia, where the story begins and returns to at critical junctures.
Co-written with Diane Lefer, The Blessing takes place in Medellín, Colombia and Los Angeles, California, with many stops throughout the world. Aristizábal hails from the low-income barrios on the outskirts of Medellín. Rounded up at four in the morning in 1982 by the army in search of guerrilleros, the twenty-two year old university student was taken to a compound where he underwent questioning along with beatings, waterboarding, electric shocks, mock executions, and psychological terror. Ten days later, thanks to pressure from human rights activists, he was released (and went into hiding). His brother Juan Fernando, who had also been arrested, was imprisoned for several months for carrying a machete. In 1999, when his brother was murdered by paramilitaries for his past ties to the Ejército de Liberación Nacional guerrilla group, the enraged Aristizábal demanded an autopsy of his brother’s corpse and photographed the event.
Out of this experience came “Nightwind,” a solo play that re-enacts Aristizábal’s torture and his brother’s autopsy. Co-created with author Diane Lefer and musician Enzo Fina, Aristizábal performs “Nightwind” in the U.S. and around the world.
“The play opened doors for me,” he says. Diane Lefer, Hector and I meet for coffee and conversation one morning in Pasadena. He’s recently returned from an ayahuasca retreat in the Amazon jungle, where he experienced the plant’s healing, illuminating, and maddening psychedelic “pintas” for the first time. Later tonight, he’s heading to Nepal to perform “Nightwind” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman” at the Kathmandu International Theatre Festival. “‘Nightwind’ opened the chamber of torture for people to see inside, opening the chamber for me to come out of it and not continue to live in it.”
The play also led to further collaboration between Lefer and Aristizábal, including writing and publishing magazine articles. The two joined political and artistic forces after people responded with suggestions that they write a book. Armed with Hector’s journal and his Masters thesis, Diane immersed herself in his voice and interviewed him, his family and others for further details. “Writing the book was harder on me than on him,” she says. “Telling your own story can be cathartic. Putting yourself in someone else’s head, that’s something else. Also I kind of lost track of myself for the years we worked on this, being so identified with his experience.”
Disgusted with U.S. politics and this country’s role in the world, Diane dropped out of college and ran away to Mexico years ago. She refers to herself as a “young idiot” for the time she took a bus through Guatemala and “got a guy with a motorcycle to take me into the United Fruit Company plantation,” where she marched to the manager’s house and demanded to see “the books.” Today, she is hooded and wears an orange Guantanamo outfit on her profile picture on Facebook. This was taken by Robin Lynne Gibson, a photographer who witnessed Lefer in street protest attire the day she was mistaken for a terrorist by the Los Angeles Police Department. The Facebook caption reads, “I thought I’d be able to change the photo by now.”
Lefer writes fiction, advocacy journalism, drama, and nonfiction. She avidly supports Duc Ta, a young man who’s been unjustly locked up in California prisons since 1999. Her activist affiliations include Witness for Peace, the Program for Torture Victims, and the Colombia Peace Project. As her “young idiot” spirit lives on, Diane Lefer is just about the perfect person to bring The Blessing Next to the Wound: A Story of Art, Activism and Transformation to light.
How did Hector like having his voice channeled by Diane? “It was fantastic. I didn’t have to sit,” he says. “The book exists thanks to Diane, her artistry. She forced me to go deeper… She provided the structure and made final decisions.” One decision she made was to cast the protagonist as truthfully as possible without glossing over his flaws. “When he does workshops, people come to him like he’s this great hero… I want people reading the book to feel like they can overcome anything that’s happened in their past. He’s not perfect. He has issues.”
A structural decision she made was to carry the story back and forth, from Colombia to the U.S. and beyond, out of chronological order, letting the themes drive the narrative. In twelve chapters, we are exposed to a man’s private life—a marriage that blooms and crumbles before our eyes, the lingering psychological effects of torture, a fetus pumping with life that falls into the palms of the hands, a group of men shedding tears for the grieving brother who is unable to cry for himself. Just as important are sociopolitical discussions about complex issues brought out from the personal, and abundant anecdotes and psychological perspectives about people healing through crisis.
With this approach, The Blessing transcends any one person’s experience. For example, “Life from Barren Rock” is a chapter about Hernán Dario, Hector’s thirty-one year old brother who is dying of AIDS after a lifetime of unacknowledged and unaccepted homosexuality. While the chapter centers on his dying brother’s life, it is also about homophobia, the sexilio of gay Latin Americans who leave their countries of birth to live freely as homosexuals, transgender mujeres in Los Angeles, and the power of ritual.
A lot happens in The Blessing, and it took me a bit to get accustomed to narrative jumping around—from personal voice to political discourse, from Medellín to Palestine to Passover dinner, from Hector being in one country, then another, on and on. The book is packed with so many references and information, I wish it had an index. And I appreciate how Colombia is represented here; I can see it vividly. This book is great for anyone who wants to understand the country’s complex history, with concise explanations of La Violencia, guerrilla groups, cocaine mafias, paramilitaries, and phenomena such as los gamines, los deshechables (the disposible ones), young hired killers known as sicarios, and much more.
With training in the performance arts in Colombia, Masters degrees in psychology and marriage and family counseling, twenty years of psychotherapy under his belt, serious personal drama and a penchant for mixing it all up, Aristizábal has developed, over time, a comprehensive and creative approach to healing. He travels the world now, teaching techniques inspired by Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed. “I also bring psychodrama and the use of ritual, using theatre as a laboratory to explore alternatives to conflict, and theatre with community groups to reconnect with roots of where we come from.” He has offered his workshops all over, including Palestine, Afghanistan, Nepal, India, Northern Ireland, Israel, Canada, Spain, Colombia, Cuba, and the U.S. In Southern California, he has worked with marginalized communities—immigrants, gang members, torture survivors, pregnant teenagers, AIDS patients, “at risk” students and youth in juvenile detention centers.
His subject matter is heavy, I say. How can you focus so much energy on everything that’s painful and wrong in the world? “I hear you, I hear that from my family,” he says. “My sister says ‘you’re morboso’.”
But I won’t tag him as morbid. It’s just that he “goes there” to places that are ugly and uncomfortable. And he stays there long enough to recount, explore, bear witness, find the blessing, and transform.
“My wounds have informed my work,” he says. His brother’s homosexuality and struggle against homophobia inspired him to become a therapist. The time spent with his dying brother led to his work in hospice. He framed his experience with torture as an initiation that marked the beginning of a new life. The death of his murdered brother brought shamanism into his personal healing. When confronted with teenage peace activists from Colombia’s Red Juvenil, his internal terrorist shifted out of retaliation.
“The wound is a tomb for the things that need to die and for the things that are born out of the wound… Most traditional societies believe that when something happens to a person it is important to pay attention to it and find meaning in it, not pretend it didn’t happen.” He uses medical analogy to make his case: a physical wound requires cleaning and disinfecting before it can be sewn up. “In psychic wounds, the idea is not to wound ourselves but to look inside to see what happened to us. What are the internal resources that are awakened in us? … The idea is sufrimiento. To suffer is to bear it, to be able to understand what is in pain… to learn from the pain.”
I get it. A part of me wishes I had not read this book because there are things I’ve tucked away that I don’t want to feel or remember. Yet I am grateful that a book exists to take me there. “We have to do the soul’s work, which is going to the darkness to find the light,” says Hector. “That’s ayahuasca. You go to a dark place and see things; that’s where the light is. You go to the jungle to go into your own jungle. It is a paradox, but it is a beautiful one.”
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