Playing through the pain

by Joe Piasecki, Pasadena Weekly

For Hector Aristizábal, the stage is a place of terror and rebirth.

In 1982, soldiers took him and his brother, Juan Fernando, from their home in a war-torn Colombian village on suspicion of involvement with anti-government Marxist rebels. For a week they suffered physical and psychological pain — electric shock to the genitals, beatings, near-drowning in a bucket of dirty water, even a mock execution with bullets whizzing past their heads — difficult enough for anyone to describe, let alone experience, though it’s been the fate of thousands.

But re-living his torture has been the only way Aristizábal, now a psychotherapist and part-time actor living in Pasadena, has been able to deal with it. And acting out the trauma in front of an audience, he says, is as much a tool for healing as it is an opportunity for activism.

He will perform “Nightwind,” a one-man play about his experience, on Sunday at The Theatre@Boston Court and on Wednesday at the Pasadena Public Library before taking it to South America this summer.

“It takes me back to the torture chamber and ignites my desire to do what I can to stop it and educate people to the existence of this atrocious human act,” said Aristizábal, 45, and father of two boys ages 8 and 11.

“Art is a wonderful way to open the heart,” he said. “When the heart is open we are able to have the difficult conversations on issues that most people prefer to deny or not to look at.”

Art, hopes Aristizábal, will also spark change: namely the closure of the infamous School of the Americas, an American-run military training camp for South American soldiers where he believes his captors learned how to torture.

Renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation in 2001, the Georgia-based facility is often targeted by activists who see it as a symbol of America’s bloody hand in decades-long conflicts throughout South America.

“The issue is not complicated. It’s about men with guns,” said the Rev. Roy Bourgeois, a former Maryknoll missionary to Bolivia who 20 years ago founded School of the Americas Watch, an organization committed to shutting down the facility. According to the group, the School of the Americas has trained thousands of soldiers who are responsible for torture and other heinous acts throughout the continent.

Though several nations no longer train troops there, Colombia, where things are much the same as when Aristizábal left it, still receives US military training and aid. Four violent groups — government soldiers, pro-government paramilitary groups, socialist rebels and the personal armies of drug lords — continue a bloody struggle for control of that nation.

Blase Bonpane, a former Maryknoll missionary expelled from Guatemala in the 1960s for organizing workers as civil war raged there, said stories like Aristizábal’s are all too common in Colombia, which he last visited with a peace delegation in 1997.

“It’s almost the rule rather than the exception — just so very sad — in much of Colombia. It’s an extremely ugly situation,” said Bonpane, director of the LA-based Office of the Americas peace organization.

For decades, American aid to Colombia has served only to “pour gasoline on the problem,” said Bonpane, by training those who commit atrocities and holding peacekeeping efforts at a standstill.

Bourgeois, who joined Aristizábal in Washington last week in lobbying Congress to shutter the School of the Americas and will help bring “Nightwind to Colombia, described him as having “a gentle spirit” uncommon for those who have suffered such abuse.

But this wasn’t always the case.

After Aristizábal escaped to America in 1989 and became a citizen through marriage, he returned briefly to Colombia the next year after hearing his own brother had again been captured. This time Juan Fernando did not survive, and his body was found in a ditch.

“I ordered an autopsy and took pictures of his body. I witnessed his entrails had been taken out of him, his ribs broken … burns and internal wounds he had because of the way he was tortured. I wanted the world to know what these people did to my brother and to know this is done to many people in Colombia and in many places in the world, and that we are financing it — allowing it,” said Aristizábal.

“Many times I have felt like a terrorist, like I could be vengeful, and I can find all the rationalizations in the world to justify becoming a killer. But that would make me one more person who has become so dehumanized as to have to dehumanize others, which I feel we, as a society, are becoming now under the cloud of fear and fundamentalism that allows us to go across the ocean to kill civilians in other countries,” he said.

Thus “Nightwind,” said Aristizábal, is about much more than South America. It’s also about the war in Iraq, a conflict that has also been linked to alleged incidents of torture through the Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay and CIA secret prison scandals. He is at once, it seems, both condemning and sympathetic of the troops who fight our government’s war on terror.

“We allow our kids to become serial killers, to drop bombs on kids in other cities in our name. And when they come back, they come back with those scars, their spirits shattered by the same bombs that they used to kill others. And what we do as a society, we don’t welcome them; we don’t treat them. So they walk among us like zombies with shattered psyches, carrying alone the atrocities they committed in our name,” he said.

But at its core, “Nightwind” is also a very personal tale. Aside from music by Altadena artist Enzo Fina, Aristizábal is alone on stage, with only a few black cloths he uses as a blindfold, a gun and other props to help him tell his story.

“People can see this and think about their own experiences, like domestic violence or being raped. I don’t want them to think ‘that poor guy, what happened to him.’ I want them to connect to their own wounds. Most people don’t have the tools to face such atrocious acts,” he said, now tapping his career as a psychotherapist who works with victims of violence and torture.

“If you don’t face it, you miss the opportunity to learn for that experience, create meaning. After the death of my brother and the horrible fantasies I had on a daily basis of taking revenge, one of the things that saved me was when I met [members of] the Colombian Children’s Peace Movement, kids 13 to 15 that had witnessed massacres … and yet they had decided they would not take up weapons.”

It’s something like that experience in Colombia that Aristizábal is trying to recreate for his audience.

“I invite them to look at this reality and do something to stop this,” he said.

See a free performance of “Nightwind” at noon Sunday at The Theatre@Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena. Call (626) 683-6883.

The second free performance is 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Pasadena Public Library, 285 E. Walnut St., Pasadena. Call (626) 744-4066.

Photos of “Nightwind” by artist Nick Sparks will be on display after May 15 at the Armory Northwest, 965 N. Fair Oaks Ave., Pasadena. Call (626) 792-5101.