I just had the most incredible day and there are so many layers to it that it’s intimidating to even try and start to describe it. I was brought to tears half a dozen times listening to people’s stories and watching the tender way people interact with one another here I had to speak publicly twice today, once in a room full of people at a day treatment center who came to hear about The Icarus Project. Once on the radio, being interviewed by two people asking the most amazing question while I stumbled through my broken spanish looking for answers. It is exhausting and gratifying (and sometimes terribly frustrating!) to communicate in a language that I am far from having mastered.
I had lunch with a women today who told me a very personal story about her experiences during the dictatorship in 1976 and 1978 (that I’m taking off this blog because the stories are too sacred and personal and I have so much respect for her) but there were 30,000 who were murdered in those years, it was a brutal, brutal period of history.
Do you understand what I’m trying to say about how it is a gift she gave me? When I’m trying to explain the history of this country I can tell her story now, I can be a bridge between worlds. See, I’m doing it a little bit right now.
My brain is this mix of the two languages and I hear all these voices in my head speaking in spanish words and phrases, it’s like they are dyed in red so I can see them more clearly, the voices are always there but in spanish it’s more obvious and I keep hearing a voice in my head all day saying “Que fuerte. Que fuerte.” Which means: “How powerful. How powerful.” I hear this other word in my head a lot, taught to me by my new friend Alan Robinson: “Manicomio.” It means “Asylum” or “Mental Asylum.” I keep hearing that word like some part of me is just trying to make sense of the reality of it: “Manicomio. Manicomio…”
There are still mental asylums all over Argentina, somewhere around 25,000 people locked up in them, usually for stays averaging 9 years. There’s a new law that says they all need to be closed by 2020 and I am here at this amazing moment in history where there are all these people organizing to create alternatives to the manicomios, community mental health services, peer support groups, communal housing. I imagine that in the 1970s in the US there was a similar energy, before the big bait and switch of the 80s. But the social and political dynamic here are so different. The group that began the work of dismantling the asylum system were all survivors of the dictatorship. People like the woman I was just describing.
I had dinner tonight with a couple who told me with tears in their eyes about what the crisis was like here in 2001, when the economy collapsed and there were suddenly so many hungry and angry people in the streets. But the tears weren’t just about the hunger, it was about how people took care of each other, about how society didn’t collapse: the social conscience was awakened, the neighborhoods were full of assemblies, the hungry got fed, the people organized, a new government came in that developed social services, people survived. What blows me away here is how political everyday people are. It’s not like back home where everyone’s so cynical and detached. Everyone’s talking politics and history here. There are still a ton of bookstores in this city and people actually read! 90% of the popular movies are political – they actually talk about class in the popular movies!
At the Mad Maps workshop we facilitated yesterday, three out of the fifteen participants had been victims of torture and detention in the 1970s (I didn’t learn this all from the workshop, I learned it afterwards from Agustina.) The hosts of our workshop are a group called APUSSUM which is an acronym for Assembly of Users and Survivors of Mental Health Services (more or less) – APUSSUM, like many of the organizations that are working in the field of mental health in Argentina, was born from a law that passed in 2007(?) that completely changes the rights of mental health patients to abide by international human rights law.
The workshop was an incredible experience. Agustina did most of the facilitating and we used a different set of questions than we usually do. I don’t know if this would apply everywhere in Argentina, but there is a striking difference in the way the people I’ve met so far talk about their lives: there is way less of a separation between the personal and political. Which makes it an incredibly ripe climate for Icarus Project style discussions about mental health. It feels like the Mad Maps project was made to be developed here into something really useful and powerful. Imagine a room full of people answer questions like:
What are the most important things in your life?
What are the things that have happened to you in your life that have most affected your identity and health?
What language to you use to define you and your mental health?
The voice in my head says: “Que fuerte. Que fuerte.”
It was so deep what happened in that room at the workshop because people really opened up and shared stories with such a social consciousness. And they really took the idea of making maps seriously, everyone walked away with the beginnings of a map. I had a really interesting conversation with Agustina afterwards about the dynamics of the group. There was a person there was very loud had a hard time participating and he eventually left early. But everyone was very patient with him in a way that doesn’t always happen at our meetings in the US. Agustina’s theory is that people here have bigger families and are used to having a sibling or two who has issues. There’s more tolerance for “strange” behavior. It left me with a lot of questions about my own relationship to folks who have a hard time participating in group dynamics. I often find myself in the role of the facilitator having to make space for others by keeping loud people (always men) from taking up too much space. And there is a complex tension in The Icarus Project between being a peer support group and being a political project. It seems like way less of a tension here in Argentina. I’m left with the question of how to we bring this kind of group collective consciousness back home to our “land of the individuals”?
Tonight Agustina and I ended up in the middle of a rock show that was a memorial for a fire that killed 194 people ten years ago at a rock club. It was a terrible story, Agustina knew one of the people really close to it, and it was tragedy about a group of kids from poor families who made it big and then a bunch of their family members ended up dying in the fire. So it’s like 11pm and it’s a hot summer night in the center of the city and we end up in this crowd that’s waving big banners and singing along to these anthem songs and suddenly I find myself pushed up towards the front of the stage and slam dancing with a huge crowd of young Argentinians all singing along to this song and waving their arms in the air! “Que fuerte. Que fuerte.” It was amazing and totally unexpected. I’m still trying to understand the phenomenon of what is known here as “Rock Nacional” which means rock music from Argentina. It’s very popular, this Rock Nacional. There are lots of rockers, and I see Ramones shirts and lots of Rolling Stones and Beatles (I even saw someone with a Cro-Mags shirt today!) As we were walking away I asked Agustina to explain Argentinian nationalism to me and she just laughed. This place is so complicated. It’s full of Jews and Nazis. It’s full of heroic stories and brutal history. I’ll get back to you about the nationalism question.
Oh it’s late, and it’s hot, and I’m sweating in a little aqua colored dirty hostel room with a fan blowing on me full blast. It’s almost 3am and it’s the end of the year and I’m just all filled up with life, trembling with the joy of exhaustion and the inner peace of knowing I clearly must be doing something right to having these kinds of experiences, meeting such amazing people, participating in such powerful conversations, stumbling into street rock shows and slam dancing with teenagers. And I don’t think I’ve even been in South America a week. Que fuerte. Que fuerte.