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.