Darting in and out of traffic, weaving through a city filled with businesses, tourists and workers, I watched as Cali, Colombia, unfolded before my eyes. As a 24-year-old masters student in anthropology, I was on my first trip outside of the United States, and it was long beyond time for me to get that first passport stamp.
I went to Colombia through Witness for Peace, a nonprofit that sends delegations of volunteers into countries across Latin America to witness the effects of U.S. policy in local communities. I had been studying Colombia for a year and half and had already written a draft of my masters thesis delving into the how United States and Colombian conceptions of statehood are illuminated through militarized security and economic policies related to, or justified by, the Colombian conflict.
I knew a little bit about the conflict. I knew that the United States had given over $8 billion in aid to Colombia. I knew that with this U.S. money, weapons and training, Colombian armed forces had committed massive human rights abuses working with right-winged paramilitary groups called terrorists by the U.S. government and murdering civilians and dressing them in left-wing guerilla fatigues to inflate their combat records. I knew that within the reality of the Colombian conflict, good guys and bad guys are more a mirage than an actuality.
What I didnt know was the shake of the hand of a man who had continually received death threats for advocating human rights or the hesitation of getting your photo taken for fear it could make you an easier target. I didnt know the beauty of the Colombian landscape or the indomitable will of the people.
When I left, I felt a small piece of all of this had become a part of me. This altered my perception of my homeland. How many Americans know anything about Colombia?
Consumed by our daily lives of consuming, many of us have forgotten the hunger of the unknown, the thirst for justice and the ache of human compassion. In Colombia we met with many communities thrust into the throes of poverty by U.S.-funded militarization and the U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement. They greeted us like a mother welcoming her firstborn home from college. They told us their stories tales of murder, displacement, torture, grief, hope and of their plans to shape change with open abandon. In return they asked for very little, just more political visibility, help in fostering awareness in our own nation and continued solidarity.
In Colombia I saw workers who endure slave-like conditions. I saw communities fighting to keep their land from being snatched up by multi-national corporations. I saw power, strength and greed. And then I would see children, their cherubic faces enthralled by the simple act of kicking a soccer ball around, of watching a group of clumsy foreigners arrive on a boat, of just living. And I thought of what they dont know, of the times theyre growing up in, of who they might yet be. And I realized that the beauty of childhood is not ignorance, it is the majesty, the tenor of excitement that vibrates from your toes to your smile when you learn something new.
In Colombia, I was a child again and all was fresh and new and beautiful. People were worth fighting for. People are worth fighting for.
Back in the United States, I find myself trying to wake up everyone else, to make them feel even an ounce of what I felt. Find a new passion. See what free trade really means. What development is when it is thrust on people without their consent. What labor is when it is not a work-out at the gym but your only way to make a living.
Wake up from sleep-walking through life. Wake up from boring jobs. Wake up from weekends drinking away boredom. Wake up from your petty problems, your broken phone, your frivolous squabble. Wake up from the half-truths the media scream in our ears every day. Wake up. Please.
There are so many things to see: the smile of a kind, elderly gentleman who frequents the local store just for company. The inconceivable way we all consume. The fervent intelligence that is growing in some youth. The harm U.S. foreign policies have abroad and at home. A new piece of yourself.
Chelsey Dyer of Raleigh is a graduate of N.C. State University and a graduate student at George Mason University.