Off the Cuff: Torture Survivor Hector Aristizabal

Interview by ALICE OLLSTEIN, The Oberlin Review

Actor and activist Hector Aristizabal had to leave his home country of Colombia in 1989 after enduring torture under the military regime. He has since worked in Los Angeles and around the world using a technique developed in Brazil in the 1960s called “Theater of the Oppressed,” in which workshop participants can express their views on different social issues by forming images and scenes with their bodies. This past weekend, Aristizabal came to Oberlin to hold workshops at both the high school and College that explored the tension between the College and town, educated about globalization and celebrated the power of youth.

How did you feel Oberlin reacted to your work?

It’s been a very beautiful experience. Everyone has been so enthusiastic and responsive. I was able to work at the local high school and the College, and I found there was a strong desire to work together, to build, to use the privilege and access to resources that the College has and integrate it into the community. The images that came out at the beginning [of the workshop] represented the challenges, the difficulties, the conflicts. Which is great, because that’s what we do this for. I could experience, and some other people verbalized this, that there is division and hostility and separation between the College and the community at large. People’s perceptions are based on stereotypes of who the “other” is. So the perception the high school has of the College is that they’re not wanted, that there’s no access to the College for them…not even to skateboard. They feel the College is full of privileged, white hippies and weird people, people who don’t want to see the surrounding community. They don’t perceive the College as very multicultural. But still, there is a desire, a curiosity.

The images that the College students created of the community were very similar. That they’re dangerous, that they don’t want them there, that the community is somehow jealous of the privileged kids, but also a desire to work together. So there are seeds of hope.

During Thursday night’s workshop, you mentioned that university students are inherently dangerous. Can you explain?

In South America, where I grew up, we were perceived as dangerous, because we had all the energy, all the passion, all the idealism and all the sense of invincibility that this age gives you. Your body is awake 24 hours and you want to change the world, discover who you are and discover why you are alive on this earth. That’s why you’re having sex all the time, using drugs all the time, reading every book ever written and experimenting with everything. The purpose of humans is to get into trouble, but you have to find the right kind of trouble, the kind that will show you who you are.

The danger is this: when people really find who they are, they become very powerful. They have the capacity to effect change. You feel like you can be everything and everywhere. I feel the passion here [at Oberlin], the fire for change. But what I also feel here is, like a lot of other colleges, when that energy doesn’t have an outlet, it becomes very destructive, especially self-destructive. You have the highest levels of drug consumption and promiscuity in colleges. If you don’t get high from what you’re studying, then you have to get high with substances. And you don’t get raided here by the police like in the inner city. It’s almost like you have permission, because you’re the rich kids.

In South America, I was tortured just for being a college student. That was enough for the army to see me as subversive.

Do you think college students here are aware of their power?

Mostly, no. I can sense the power here. I see the creativity that comes out in so many ways — in the way you guys dress, in the way you are confronting the status quo, the girls are growing hairs everywhere while the boys are painting their hairs and putting makeup on. That’s not just craziness, that’s something coming out that needs to be seen. I think that we’re failing you as adults in really seeing you. Everyone wants to be seen. That’s why teenagers get into gangs, to be recognized.

I see the power here, but I also see the apathy, the stress, the “what the hell are we doing here?” That’s an impression of what’s happening in the society at large. There is a sense of being lost. We are consuming the world, but we are starving. But in Oberlin, I see good things. People are clear about what they want to do, or at least they’re clear that they want to do something.