October 19 2011
Bethany de Gant, BSILR '12
On August 13th, 2011, I traveled to Nicaragua as a delegate for the New Haven/Leon Sister Cities Project. Although I had previously interned in the New Haven office of the NHLSCP, this was my first trip to Nicaragua. My delegation was particularly fascinating because we both explored the local labor and political climate, while focusing on ways to motivate change within the community through a theatrical workshop. Both the participants of the workshop and the audience they presented to were given the opportunity to explore ways to transform issues seen within the community.
To gain a better sense for the realities of work in Nicaragua, we met with a variety of labor groups, including an agricultural cooperative, a society dedicated to supporting workers, and a labor union representative.
The agricultural cooperative we visited was comprised of ten women and sixteen men. Two of the men in the cooperative, Pedro and Santiago, explained how the cooperative came about. In order to maintain a living without selling their land to the local sugar cane plantation, these farmers banded together to form the cooperative. The cooperative has a council that decides the rules, such as whether or not to charge a fee to be a part of the cooperative. This council began in 2005 when the farmers wanted to see how they could commercialize the farm. Pedro and Santiago told us that they are humble, yet proud of the work they have accomplished through the organization of the cooperative.
Asochiavida is an organization established to support people who had been affected by the chemicals used at sugar cane plantations. In 1998, Chronic Renal Deficiency, a kidney disease, began affecting the first workers. Workers began to organize in order to force the sugar cane company to take responsibility for the workers and their families. This was complicated however, because anytime the workers tried to organize, the company would thwart the attempts by “buying off” the leaders. The struggle still continues as workers try to gain proper compensation and rights. The members of Asochiavida told us that they try to expose wrongs done to workers, and offer support to sick members. They plan to die fighting for this cause, and continuously hope that the sugar cane plantation will begin supporting workers because it is the “human thing to do”.
Maria Jose Herbina is the secretary of women for the Association of Rural Workers. Maria works with four private sector unions, two of which have negotiated Collective Bargaining Agreements with their employers. Under these agreements, worker bonuses are dependent on the profitability of the company. The unions also negotiated for a higher food allowance, protection from chemicals for workers, and health insurance for both the workers and their families (which is very rare in Leon). If worker rights are violated, the union can make a complaint to the Nicaraguan Minister of Labor. In Leon, labor attorneys are very rare, because there is little money in that form of law. However, people with a lot of experience organizing labor, such as Maria, are able to train workers on how to gain rights and better labor conditions.
Theater of the Oppressed
Katy Rubin, founder of “Theater of the Oppressed NYC”, led the theater workshop in the rural community of Goyena with teenagers, teachers and community leaders. Katy Rubin works specifically with Augusto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed, a type of theater created in 1971 in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Augusto Boal’s concept of “Theater of the Oppressed” stemmed from his relationship with Paolo Freire. Paulo Freire helped revolutionize the concept of education, trying to enable people to think critically rather than just recite facts from a textbook. The theater of Boal does more than just entertain participants and spectators; it works to encourage people to take action in their own lives.
Augosto Boal first began his work in theater in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil as the artistic director of the Arena Theater. He worked with peasants, workers, and soldiers under the military dictatorships of Brazil during the 1960s. His work aimed to inspire people to take action in their lives and stand up against oppressive forces. He emphasized the term “spec-actor” to define traditional audience members. He wanted not only for people to witness political theater, but to become part of political theater. We brought Boal’s practice of “Forum Theater” to Goyena, Nicaragua. To begin the process of Forum Theater, Katy Rubin led “demechanizing” games. The games aim to break participants free from habits they develop in their everyday lives.
After the games, the workshop proceeds with a story-telling process. All members of the workshop tell stories of instances in their lives in which they felt oppression. After, the group chooses the stories that resonate with the most people. The group then divides to create plays based on the stories. The play depicts the instance of the oppression, with clear presentations of the oppressor and the victim. After watching the scene, the actors invite audience members to take the place of the victim and try to change the situation. The interaction between audience members and the actors exists as the cornerstone of Boal’s work. By collaborating with each other, people find solutions and strategies to change their current situation.
The interactions between the actors and the audience achieved the intention of Augusto Boal: empowerment of the individual and the community. Workshop participants and audience members had little background in theater, yet they were able to create influential and meaningful pieces. After the plays ended, the community and workshop participants shared a sentiment of comradery and hope.
I feel particularly honored to have been involved in such an extraordinary delegation. Through the conversations and activities I participated in, I feel as though I have witnessed first hand many of the things I have read about as a student of Industrial and Labor Relations. I saw the effect poor labor conditions have on a community, and through persistence and organization, the ways workers can stand up for themselves. In addition, through the theater workshop, I saw the effects of positive encouragement and community voice. When I return to Cornell, I will have a deeper understanding of topics that in the past I have only been able to read about.