Saying the Names

It’s been eleven weeks since I returned to Minneapolis from Bolivia. I’ve seen the buds on the trees grow into full, lush greenery; I’ve seen the last of the ice melt on the lakes, and the rivers and creeks fill, then overflow, their banks. I’ve seen the tulips and crocuses bloom, then the crabapples and irises, and now my favorite – the brilliant, height-of-summer lilies.


The Mississippi RiverI’ve kayaked on Lake Superior, camped in thunderstorms, run a marathon, celebrated my brother’s college graduation, reconnected with old friends and met new ones. I’ve taught fourth grade as a long-call sub, interviewed for many jobs, accepted a position as a sixth-grade teacher for the fall, and found a new home and housemates who I’ll start moving in with next week. It’s been a busy, eventful couple of months, and the hectic pace of life and all that needs to be done has allowed me to put off writing this final blog entry until now.

I’ve been telling myself that I haven’t written it yet because I’ve been too busy. There have been people to see, places to go, jobs to get and apartments to find, after all. But now that I’m finally sitting down to write, I’m discovering the real reason – it just makes it feel too real that it’s over. I’m not home for a visit, or on a break; I won’t be going back to Carmen Pampa in a couple of weeks to meet new students or hike more mountain trails, at least not in the near future. As good and right as it is to be home, I’m deeply missing the experiences and relationships that I had in Bolivia, and writing about the end of this incredible year has been more emotionally difficult than I anticipated.

DSC02626In the two and a half months that I’ve been back in the U.S., the country and world have also been rocked by intense violence. There have been more than 60 mass shootings in the U.S. since I returned on April 27. Young children fleeing violence in Central America are arriving alone at the U.S. border. More than 180 Palestinians have been killed in the current escalated conflict with Israel.

There are many complex issues to think and talk about in relation to these pervasive acts of extreme violence, of course. Gun control, immigration policies, and U.S. funding for foreign militaries and paramilitary organizations come to mind immediately. What I find myself thinking about most, though, is the anonymity of most of these violent events. So much large-scale violence is justified by the otherness of victims and the ability of perpetrators to hide, nameless, behind any number of literal or figurative shields.

I read this article several months ago, in which families of victims of mass shootings make a plea to the media not to say or publish the names of shooters. “Their hope is that refusing to name the actors will mute the effects of their actions, and prevent other angry, troubled young men from being inspired by the infamy of those who opened fire at Columbine High School, Virginia Tech or Newtown, Conn.,” the article says. A writer quoted in the article says, “Disappear the person … If you take that away, it takes away the whole point for him.”

I can barely begin to imagine the pain and suffering experienced by families who have lost a loved one in such an inexplicable and horrific way, and the suggestion that taking away the lure of fame may make it less likely that someone will carry out an attack seems logical. Something troubles me, though, about the urgent command to “disappear the person” who commits an act of violence. I can comprehend and sympathize with the impulse, and there are certainly many reasons to criticize 24-hour news coverage that sensationalizes and profits from tragedy. Mass media aside, though, I can’t help feeling that there’s something crucially important about saying names.

What the article made me think of first was one of the most moving and powerful experiences I had throughout my eleven months in Bolivia. That experience was the celebration of the Día de Todos los Santos, All Saints’ Day, during the first weekend in November. Students and community members spend the days before the celebration baking bread, shaping loaves into rolls as well as the shapes of animals and human figures. Each household also prepares an altar for their family members who have died, with photographs, objects, and food and drink that the dead person enjoyed. Family members sit with the altar all night on the eve of All Saints’ Day, waiting for the souls of their family members to return to their home. The souls, people believe, stay there for the entire following day.


DSC01203During that day, neighbors go from house to house. At each house, the host says the names of the dead from that household. Each visitor prays silently or aloud for those who have passed away, offering a prayer for each name, and ending with the phrase, “Que se reciba esta oración” – “May this prayer be received.” Once the visitor has prayed for all the deceased members of the household (including the angelitos – little angels, those who died as infants or small children), the host offers the visitor loaves of bread, rice, and bananas to carry with them. Everyone returns to their homes with bags laden with gifts of food.

On the final day of the celebration, community members go together to the cemetery, where they spend the morning decorating their family members’ graves with colored paper, ribbon, and more gifts of food. More prayers are offered at each gravesite, more bread is shared, and a mass is said. The souls of those who have died return to their spirit world, accompanied by the presence of their neighbors, families, and friends.

DSC01216As I participated in the Todos Santos celebrations, I thought about how difficult it would be to commit an act of mass violence in a community like this, a community where both the living and the dead are known by name. Bolivia is certainly not a place that is free from violence. Abuse of women and children is widespread, and some “community justice” practices are harsh. Alcohol and drug abuse are significant problems. Oppression of indigenous people continues, and there have been many incidents of large-scale, politically-motivated violence, some quite recently. In my experience and in my conversations with Bolivian friends, though, I did not hear about the same kinds of public, anonymous violence – such as mass shootings or bombings – that are disturbingly common in the United States and many other places around the world.

During Todos Santos, I began to think about why that might be. As the priest read the names of those who had died in the last year during the closing mass at the cemetery, I felt tears come to my eyes as I realized that I, a stranger in the community, knew those names – I had said them myself, in the homes of their families and at their graves. How profound might that sense of knowledge and belonging be, I thought, for my neighbors who celebrate and remember this way every year. That knowledge and sense of belonging serves to protect the community and its members, I imagine, from the kind of destruction that can only be easily carried out if you don’t know what you’re destroying.

DSC01204No place is perfect. There are certainly people who feel isolated and angry in Carmen Pampa, as there are in Minneapolis, Tegucigalpa, Tel Aviv, and Kabul. Living kindly and justly, in community with others, is difficult work that requires much attention and time, no matter the place or particular historical moment. It can seem impossible, especially in the face of violence and oppression. I cannot deny the power, though, that I sensed during Todos Santos. It is a  power whose meaning lies, I think, in the tenderness and sincerity of the practice – the way in which each person, living and dead, is recognized, remembered, and named.

And so, as I think about how to respond, personally and collectively, to anonymous mass violence in the U.S. and around the world, in Israel, Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and Syria; as I think about how to respond to my own feelings of loss and sadness as I end my time living in Bolivia; and as I think about how I hope to relate to my friends, family, students, and colleagues, what I think about it is saying the names. I think about saying names and sharing bread and stories, as an act of remembrance, an act of accountability, an act of relationship building. And I think about the prayer that I murmured in every household I visited throughout the Todos Santos celebration: “May all beings everywhere know the joy of true peace, and may all that is precious be protected.” Que se reciba esta oración.


Hospitality and Essay Writing

We’re at the end of our first grading period this semester, and I want to share something I meant to post at the end of the last semester: my final writing project with my English 6 class. Day-to-day busy-ness has kept me from getting to it until now; it’s been a busy, busy semester in terms of teaching. I’m serving as the interim director of the language program, which means many new administrative responsibilities, and I’m also teaching two English 1 classes, in addition to working on with our organic garden project and our women’s leadership program. Working with beginning level students after teaching English 5 and 6 last semester is quite a difference, especially since one of the classes is all first-semester students who are still getting used to being in a university, living away from their families, etc. There’s a lot going on!

The final writing project that my English students completed in December, though, is one of my favorite teaching experiences from my time here in Carmen Pampa. Our essential question for the semester was, “How do we use language to show hospitality?” – my attempt to contextualize and lend a little depth and critical thinking to a textbook focused on communication within the service industry. As a final project to challenge students to think more about the essential question, and to put into practice the writing skills we’d developed throughout the semester, I decided to show the film Rent and ask the students to write a 5-paragraph essay about examples of hospitality in the movie.

The 5-paragraph essay is a common part of ESL and ELA instruction; in Minnesota, passing a writing exam in ninth grade is a requirement to graduate, and I’ve spent lots of time with colleagues brainstorming different strategies and techniques for teaching students how to write a 5-paragrah essay successfully. This time, with limited class hours and a format that was new to many of my students, I decided to try something I’ve thought about for a while, after seeing a presentation at a professional conference in Minnesota a couple of years ago: Presenting students with an essay template, and teaching them how to complete it.

I found the template to be very successful with this group of students. Although in some ways they were just “filling in the blanks,” giving them the template allowed them to focus more on expressing their own ideas than on the format, and it ensured that they were able to express their ideas more or less coherently. All of the students were very proud of their final products, and on an end-of-semester evaluation many listed this project as both the most challenging and the most enjoyable of the semester. I was amazed by the insights that students drew from the film – some examples of their essays are below, as well as the two handouts I gave to students to guide their work.

This is a format that I’d like to continue working with in the future. I think it might work well to start with a format like this at the beginning of the school year, and gradually remove elements of the scaffolding over the course of the year as students become more and more confident in their own ability to organize their ideas and focus their paragraphs. As a place to begin, I found that this worked very well: Students were able to really focus on understanding the film and developing their own thoughts and opinions, and their final essays were an authentic expression of their perspectives.

I’d love to hear from other teachers how you teach and scaffold extended writing projects for your students!

christian final essay dana reflection eddy final essay luis final essay mishuvi final essay    peer and teacher writing conference

rent essay packet

Rent Sample Essay

One Small Part

I came to Bolivia nearly nine months ago, and now I have less than nine weeks remaining here before I return to the United States. I write this in the room where I’ve nested for most of this year, a room painted a bright sky blue that reflects the sky outside, the sky that I can see through the windows that make up the better part of two walls. Through those windows I can see the green mountainsides, the cloud forest of the Yungas interspersed with plots of farmed land and the homes of neighboring communities – Chovacollo, San Juan de la Miel, Coroico Viejo. The hillsides, the forests, and the sky have been here for millennia, some of the communities nearly as long; their names reflect the layering and syncretism of history, the indigenous, colonial, and contemporary inhabitants of this landscape. My room has housed Spanish patrones, missionary monks, and international visitors and volunteers. I’m only one of many, as temporary as any of the others who have passed through.

I’ve been thinking about time, place and history a lot in the last few weeks. This weekend was the celebration of Carnaval, a multiple-day celebration before the beginning of Lent tomorrow. The celebration is a microcosm of Bolivia’s complex, rich, syncretic history. The roots of the festival lie in the Andean celebration of the Anata, a time to complete the ch’alla (blessing) and to express gratitude for the first harvest of potatoes or corn. The harvest is celebrated with dances, costumes, and musical instruments particular to the agricultural season. Those dances, music, and traditional blessings continue to be an integral part of Carnaval, onto which have been layered colonial Spanish and Catholic traditions associated with the season of Lent, along with all the trappings of any good party: beer, lots of food, and water balloon fights in the street.


A La Paz business after the ch’alla, a traditional blessing


Diablada dancers in Oruro

I observed all of this in practice when I traveled to Oruro, a central mining town in Bolivia, to partake in one of the largest Carnaval celebrations in Bolivia. The celebration features performances by music and dance groups from throughout Bolivia, most of whose members participate as part of a religious pilgrimage. The pilgrims are traveling to the sanctuary of La Virgen del Socavón (the Virgin of the Mineshaft) and the Tío Supay, the Inca god of the underworld, now also honored as the guardian of the mines. The pilgrims process through the main streets of the city all weekend, arriving at the church that houses the image of the Virgen and the sculpture of the Tío. At the church, they dance, play music, and pay homage to the religious figures. Most dancers and musicians commit to completing the pilgrimage for three years in a row as an offering of faith and devotion.


Pilgrims arriving at the church

All of the elements of the celebration are dense with history, from the music and dances to the location where the pilgrimage ends. Each dance is particular to a geographical location, whether an individual community or the vast sweep of the Amazon or Altiplano. Each dance tells stories, ranging from the mythical to the mundane. The Diablada tells of the struggle between good and evil, while the Morenada and Negritos tell the histories of colonization, slavery, indigeneity and mestizaje. The Waka Waka depicts the economy of cattle-raising communities, while the Llamerada celebrates llama herders. Some of the dances are very old; some are very new. All reflect the diverse influences of physical and cultural geography, from the music to the costumes to the dance steps. All are a proclamation of identity, in its varied and complex forms. Watching the procession was amazing and breathtaking. I felt as if I was standing at the edge of a precipice, peering into a canyon of history and geography, observing just the surface of a deep well of complex interrelationships between people and place.


Waka Waka dancers

This year’s celebration was marred by tragedy: midway through the procession, a pedestrian bridge over the parade route collapsed, killing three musicians and a spectator, and injuring more than seventy people. It was the second time that I’ve been present at a tragic event of that type; I was also at the Boston Marathon when the bomb attacks happened in April. Just as in that instance, I was close to where it happened, sitting a couple hundred feet from the bridge that fell. The aftermath was eerily familiar to me, strikingly similar to the immediate events after the bombs in Boston, and, I suppose, to any large-scale urban emergency: the mass confusion, the crowds running both to and from the site, the screaming of sirens, the shock and impotence as we realized what had happened, that we were okay but others weren’t, and that there was nothing we could do to help besides leave the scene. My friends and I did the same thing that my family and I did in Boston: we returned to our hotel room to turn on the news, trying to piece together some semblance of an explanation of an inexplicable experience.

After the bridge collapse, there was public debate about whether or not to continue with the Carnaval procession. In the end, it was decided that the procession would continue, although some groups chose simply to march, not dance. All of the groups walked without dancing when they passed the site of the accident, some silently and some playing traditional funeral music. When they arrived at the church, some groups also played funeral pieces instead of their traditional dance music.


Dancers climbing the church steps

It was extraordinary to witness the communal response to the tragedy, and the way that dance, music, and faith were for many a way to respond to grief and shock. Listening to interviews with musicians and dancers on the news, and watching as dancers fell to their knees to pray at the chapel of the Virgen, I was struck again by the feeling that I was just at the edge of something very deep, very complicated, and very rich.

Before I left the U.S. to come here last spring, I had a long conversation with a friend about some of my feelings of ambivalence and anxiety about leaving Minneapolis. It was difficult and painful to leave friends, family, colleagues, students; my home, my garden, my neighborhood; the Mississippi, Minnehaha Creek, the bluffs and forests along the St. Croix. This leaving didn’t feel like leaving had when I was in high school and college, when I wanted to be anywhere but where I was, to explore and discover and see something, anything new. This time was hard, and it hurt my heart. I don’t want to go, I told my friend.

Perhaps this time isn’t really about leaving to go somewhere new, she told me. Perhaps this time is actually about learning to come home. Her words have stayed with me throughout my time here. Part of the reason I wanted to travel but stay in one place for an extended period of time was to have the experience of truly living somewhere else – not just visiting, or briefly studying, but having the experience of living and working in a community other than my own. I imagined that spending a year in another place would give me time to really understand it, to know it deeply and to feel at home there.

I have certainly learned a great deal this year, and I’ve built relationships and friendships that I treasure. The deepest learning I’ve experienced, though, has been in a way the opposite of what I anticipated. Paradoxically, the longer I’ve spent here in Carmen Pampa and Bolivia, the more foreign I have come to feel, and in some ways the less I feel I understand. The longer I spend here, the more glimpses I catch of the depth and complexity that lie below the surface. Watching the Carnaval dances, seeing how much story and intricate meaning can be contained in just one set of musical notes and patterned footsteps, I thought of how it would take years just to learn the histories and systems of meaning in one small area. To know how to live there, how to relate to others, how to celebrate and grieve and raise children and solve problems, would take a lifetime.


Suri sicuri dancer

In “The Body and the Earth,” Wendell Berry writes, “No matter how much one may love the world as a whole, one can live fully in it only by living responsibly in one small part of it.” My friend was right. Spending a year as a visitor has taught me most about coming home. I have nine more weeks here; it will be too short, it will go too fast, and there will never be enough time to see or learn or understand everything that I want to about this place. I will be deeply sad to leave, and it will be a difficult transition. But it will be time to return to my own small part of the world, with its own histories of colonization and indigeneity, its own celebrations and tragedies, its own richness and complexity. It will be time to live responsibly and fully there.

Chau, Bolivia . . .

. . . for a little while. I’m writing this from the steamy, tropical city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, in eastern Bolivia, where I’m visiting for a couple of days before flying home to the snowy Midwest. I … Continue reading

Semilla y Cosecha :: Seed and Harvest

It’s springtime here in Carmen Pampa, and after a few hectic weeks in which I’ve been everything from a sous-chef to a choreographer to a mountain climber, it feels good to slow down a bit, settle back into a regular routine of classes and community activities, and have time to take a breath and notice the changing seasons. It’s started raining more and more frequently; I’ve heard that the real rainy season comes in December and January, but we’ve had two or three days of rain every week for the last month or so. There are more flowers blooming, farmers are clearing land and planting crops, and every day the sun peeks over the rim of Uchumachi a little earlier. (The longest day of the year here will be Dec. 21, the reverse of more northern latitudes.)

lilies blooming in the coca fields

lilies blooming in the coca fields

As I take the time to observe how the seasons are changing in ways that are more subtle than those I’m accustomed to, but just as noticeable, I’m also reflecting on how connected I feel to the surrounding environment in this rural setting, outside of the city. I feel fortunate to live here this year, and that sense of fortune comes home to me in individual moments every day: waking up in the middle of the night to see bats sillhouetted against the full moon through my windowpane, catching a glimpse of a blue morphos butterfly while hiking, watching the clouds shift and change over the lush green mountains.

Many of those moments come while I’m working in the huerta, the organic garden here at the UAC. One moment in particular that has stayed in my mind for the last several weeks happened while I was helping in the plant nursery. Rosemary, the woman who manages the garden, was teaching me how to harvest seeds, and she showed me something I had never seen before: a broccoli plant that had gone completely to seed.

broccoli gone to seed

broccoli gone to seed

She showed me how to gently open the seed pod, and how to peel back the outer layer of the seed to see if it had germinated. If it had, the seeds were good for planting, and the college would be able to harvest its own broccoli from its own seed in a few months. I was amazed; I had harvested seed before, from flowers and other plants, but somehow it had never been so clear to me – the astonishing, ordinary, absolutely essential miracle that we live with every day. I know about awful things like Monsanto’s terminator seeds, I’ve read and loved Vandana Shiva’s Manifestos on the Future of Food and Seed, and I’m lucky to know lots of wonderful people involved in agricultural and food justice movements. But it wasn’t until that moment, holding a tiny, germinated broccoli seed in my hand, that I really sensed how much richness and life is all around us, how much we depend on it, and how misguided so much of our large-scale industrial agricultural system is in the U.S., and by extension our larger sense of the world and our place in it.

I’ve been reading Wendell Berry’s The Art of the Commonplace, a beautiful collection of essays about agrarianism, economy, and relationships, and I keep returning to a quote from one of his essays, where he describes the difference between information and knowledge. We have an overabundance of information, he says, and not enough knowledge; the arrogance that accompanies this state of being leaves us unprepared

to live short lives in the face of long work and long time.

Earlier, he writes that “we cannot contain what contains us or comprehend what comprehends us.” I felt a sense of that, viscerally, in the humbling, loving act of harvesting seeds. It’s a moment that I don’t think I’ll forget, and I hope that it is the beginning of a deeper understanding of and relationship with the land in which we live.

P.S. I didn’t write this intending to ask for donations, but this post does coincide with a fundraiser I’ve organized to benefit the huerta. A group of students and other volunteers and I will be doing a two-day trek to raise money to build a new greenhouse, which will help even more tiny plants grow, leading to more production of local, organic produce for the community and a more sustainable business model for the huerta. Muchísimas gracias to everyone who has already donated! If you would like to contribute, please visit our donation site. Thanks!


It has been a busy few weeks here in Carmen Pampa! Last week we celebrated the Intercarreras, an annual week-long celebration of school spirit and community. We’re back to the regular class schedule this week, but everyone is still tired from all the different activities! It was incredible to see the creativity, dedication, and enjoyment of the students and staff. Every day was filled with sports competitions between the different departments, and every night featured different dance, music, and theatre performances. Here are some photos:

One of my students playing futsal.

One of my students playing futsal.

With the tourism women's team after their basketball game.

With the tourism women’s team after their basketball game.

Peeling a mountain of potatoes to feed more than a thousand people!

Peeling a mountain of potatoes to feed more than a thousand people!

Education students present their traditional dance on the final day, featuring a non-traditional T-Rex!

Education students present their traditional dance on the final day, featuring a non-traditional T-Rex!

Ready to dance the moseñada, a traditional dance, with a coworker's daughter

Ready to dance the moseñada, a traditional dance, with a coworker’s daughter

Busy kitchen!

Busy kitchen!!

I really enjoyed seeing the way the students celebrated together, and the incredible amount of energy and excitement they brought to the week. The founder of the college, Sister Damon Nolan, is also visiting from the U.S. at this time, and this year is the 20th anniversary of the college, so the festivities were even more elaborate than usual. It was fun and inspiring to get to know the students from different majors outside of the classroom, and to participate in so many different activities with them.

I’m taking an online writing class at the Loft right now, and I wrote a poem last week about one of the cultural nights. It’s an attempt to capture some of how I felt in the midst of such a unique community celebration, and I hope it conveys something of the spirit of the week:

I expected the cooking,
but not the dancing.
I expected pots, pans, scrubbing, aprons,
not a dance floor lit by cell phones and flashlights,
a skillful whirlwind: salsa, merengue, hip-hop, moseñada.
A boy climbed, nestled in a pine, claimed the best view.
I didn’t expect the catch in my throat at a thousand voices singing,
centuries-old folk songs rising out of these mountains.
Beet-peeling, pot-stirring, all for this.

In India, Arundhati Roy writes of a new world –
She is on her way, I think.
I think she is here, watching,
perched in a tree top,
hair brushing the stars.