Monday, May 2, 2005

Unedited Letter Home

Enrique Peczac at the grave of his assasinated brother, Pedro.

Queridos Viejitos,

Long day and it's still not over. Woke up at 6:45 to meditate before meeting Eugenio Peczack, president of MAM (Movimiento Agrario de Misiones). We chatted in MAM's headquarters then he took us on a quick tour.

Our first stop was the cemetery where the Peczack's brother, one founder of MAM is burried. He was assasinated by the dictatorship in the 70's. His gravestone was decorated with plaques, some commemorating his contribution to the agrarian movements of the province others naming disappeared colleagues. "To give you some idea of the context of our work," the president told us. We hopped back in the truck and drove down the red road - the soil in Misiones contains so much iron oxide they call it tierra colorado (colored earth). It stained everything- your shoes, the bottoms of your pant legs, your hands, anything it touches- and formed an intense and beautiful contrast against the lush, dense, green bush/jungle that covers the hills of the province.

As we drove Peczack painted a rough history of the land we passed through. The annihilation of the native people; the sugar, tobacco and tea plantations owned by Portuguese and worked by African slaves; the arrival of the Jesuits; the Jesuit Army’s (?!) victory over the Portuguese; the arrival of the German, Nordic, Ukranian, Italian, and other immigrants who formed small colonies on the land the army gave them…the arrival of powerful agribusiness in the 1930’s that set in motion the struggle between small farmers and wealthy proprietors that continues to this day. He also shared a bit of his family’s history: his father leaving Ukrania (which was a landless nation at the time, occupied by Austria-Hungary??) meeting his mother in Argentina and beginning a new life with nothing to his name but a machete and the clothes on his back. Peczack was the youngest of nine children, born when his dad was 73 (he died 5 years later). (I’m guessing the mother was many years younger; he didn’t say). His whole family was involved in the Agrarian Movement from the outset, work which as I mentioned before, cost his brother and many friends their lives and landed him in jail. “They hunted me for many years, during which I moved around constantly, living in the jungle, in basements…when they found me they jailed me. For 8 years they transferred me from jail to jail – I know the jails of every part of this country. It was a tactic for severing your relationship with your family and friends. If you were in one jail very long your people could find you. If they moved you around, it was impossible. For 8 years, I lived in the jails, being beat, d, everything. Then after my incarceration I spent one year disappeared.” At this point I interrupted him for clarification.
“Disappeared? Meaning you were released but had to go underground to avoid ending up back in jail? Or disappeared is part of jail?” Peczack stops the truck in the middle of the road.
“Disappeared means they take you out of the jail, to do things that they cannot do in jails. When you are in jail there are records of your existence. And you know more or less where you are- or at the very least, you know you are in a jail. To be disappeared meant that they took you someplace- you had no idea where- in the middle of nowhere, in the jungle, some building…you were usually blindfolded and chained. They left you alone, sometimes days without human contact and often without food. They only came back to beat you senseless or move you to another place. Prison, as horrific as it was, was preferable to being disappeared because at least it was a recognizable place with human contact.”
The truck was silent. I turned to the back seat to look at Ethan. He mouthed “wow” at me and turned to stare out the side window. Our tour guide re-started the truck, drove another 50 yards and pulled over. “This is one of our yerba plantations.” We hopped out of the truck and walked over to the row of mate trees closest to the road.
“No pesticides, no herbicides, no chemicals. There are two ways to keep the weeds down: whack them down by hand, using machetes or graze sheep between them. We use both methods but prefer the latter. The sheep are easier and, once they’ve done their job, we can eat them.” Peczack explained that MAM has practiced and promoted organic production since the organization's inception. “El veneno (‘poison’ literally) is expensive, it makes the farmer dependent upon the businesses that produce it, and more importantly, it kills the farmers, their families, and the land itself.” So much for the myth that the organic movement is a luxury campaign supported only by yuppies and other members of the burgouise, I thought to myself as we hopped back in the truck.
Our next stop was the Centro de Servicios , the warehouse where members of the cooperative mill, package, and store their yerba and process other farm-raised products including jams, pickles, sausages, cheese, milk, breads, and pastries. A small cluster of men gathered around the yerba mill. Light green powder dusted the floor around the mill and the ground outside. Peczack led us throught the facility, pointing out where different activities took place, appologizing that there wasn’t more going on that day. “It’s the dust. When the yerba is being milled, we have to suspend all the other activities because it gets into everything.” He showed us a room with a dentists chair and some medical equiptment. “One member of the cooperative- a young doctor- is in Cuba studying natural medicine. We plan to provide health services for all of our associates. Not the kind of health care an obra social provides [obra social is the medical plan employer are required to provide}- real health care. Prevention. Education. Access to the land and skills families need to produce every part of a balanced diet. The tobacco growers in Misiones all have obra sociales. They also work in incredibly toxic environments every day, applying illegal plagicides, drinking contaminated water, eating vegetables grown in polluted soil. We´ve opened a space upstairs where we'll dry medicinal plants; the earth here has so much to offer in the form of natural medicines." Listening to Peczack I thought of something Ernesto "Ché" Guevara once said: "We don't need more hospitals. We need fewer sick people."

From the Centro de Servicios we sped over, a few kilometers, to the Escuela Familiar Agricola (Family Agricultural School) a new insitution whose first 20 students gathered for their morning class in a brand new brick building. The young teacher invited us to the front of the classroom where we introduced ourselves, gave a brief summary of what we're doing in Argentina, and drew a map of the U.S. on the chalkboard to show what part of the states we're from. The kids were silent, either too shy or too bored to ask questions. Students live at the EFA for 15 days then return to their communities for 15 days to apply their education and help on their family farms. (To give an idea of how they apply their education: in San Pedro, at one farm we visited, a son enrolled at the local EFA had built a biodigestor that provided all the gas his mom needed for preserving foods for the family's consumption and for sale at the local farmer's market.) The teacher showed us the kitchen where the kids and parents took turns cooking, gave us a big jar of local honey, and thanked us for coming by.

Back in the truck, I asked Peczack if he was familiar with Paulo Freire and Pedagogy of the Oppressed. "Of course. Since the beginning. You're wondering why the EFA looked so traditional? We have to work slowly back to the level Freire worked at- they way we were working in the 70's. Intellectually speaking the movement was more advanced back then. Many in the commision were highly educated: doctors, psychologists, sociologists. Extremely critical thinkers. But you have to understand that the dictatorship pushed Argentina back about 50 years. It's frustrating...working with many of the local producers here today and seeing how uncapable, how un-conscious many of them- particularly the younger ones- are today. We have to be cautious with the parents of the EFA students. If we try to change to much too fast- by jumping full force into Freire style pedagogy for instance- we could scare all of them off."

A torrent of images blazed through my mind as Peczack continued talking about the dictatorship's anihilation of critical thought and action: rough, cigarette smoking women at Enero Autonomo (see earlier posts) complaining about their machista husbands; miles of Chè t-shirts for sale at the World Social Forum; the little kid who played war video games the whole time I checked my email then asked me for change as I boarded the bus; the restaurant full of Argentine men of every age, each sitting at his own table with a litre of coca-cola (or beer), with a coca-cola napkin dispenser, with their unblinking eyes frozen on the soccer game; the professor couple we met, sitting in their expensive living room, on thier designer furniture, sipping wine, saying "yes, we've have Ph.Ds in sociology...we study the Landless movements of Misiones."...

While I daydreamed about what it means to destroy a society's capacity to think critically, Peczack drove us to the park where the Festival Nacional del Inmigrante (National Inmigrant's Festival) takes place every September. We rolled slowly past the park's huge houses, each designed in the traditional architecture of one of the countries that contributed inmigrants to Misiones: Germany, Switzerland, Russia, Ukrania, Spain, Italy, France, Eygpt, Poland, and more. As we drove past the Ukrania house I told him that the Jewish side of my family inmigrated from Ukrania to the U.S. to escape the war. Eugenio pointed to a plaque. "That's where the House of Israel will be built. I almost traveled to Israel. To travel and get to know their system of kibutz. I even secured a visa. But then the Israeli embassy here was ed and it ruined everything. You know the Jewish people had it very bad here during the dictatorship. The whole regime was so t, racist. In one jail I was d because they thought that I was Jewish. Because of my last name. It's not Jewish, but it was strange to them and they didn't know the difference. They forced me to strip to see if I was circumcised. When they saw that I wasn't they beat me anyway, probably just because they d being wrong."

I was finding it harder and harder to imagine how this human being, seated two feet away from me, could have been so mistreated by other people and yet be the smiling, cheerful, friendly person that he had been all day. Or how he could continue doing the same work that "earned" him everything that happened to him during the dictatorship. So I asked him. "How did you regain your trust in people after the dicatorship? I mean, to do the work you do with MAM, with all the small farmers from the whole region, to work together with people all the seems like hard enough interpersonal work for someone who never experienced what you have..." Eugenio thought for a while. "I have the good fortune of having a very strong character, and a strong mind. Partly I learned from my mother. Like I said, my dad died when I was 5 and we all had to make it, on nothing, with nothing. Even before the dictatorship, I knew hunger. I knew cold. And because of that I suppose I've always known that what I was fighting for what right and that it was worth it. After all, what I've fought for all along is for the people who work and live on this land to have good food to eat, to have a place to live, to see the fruits of their not be enslaved by someone who works them like animals and treats them worse - for money. There was never one second, not in jail, not when I was disappeared, not during any or starvation, in which I doubted that what I was doing to help organize and conscienciar the people, to help them have a better quality of life, was what I had to do. Even so, it made me hard. I had to be hard. If you weren't you crumbled. Hundreds of people committed rather than try to see it through to the end of the dictatorship." I asked Peczack how he reintegrated after jail and being disappeared, how he reconnected with his family. To the former he responded, "I went right back to work. Doing exactly what I was doing when they took me away. Trying to regain the ground we lost in those years. With joy- because I like my work. I love working on the land, working with people who work the land. I don't have any complex: so many people who suffered during the dictatorship have spent the rest of their lives seeking revenge, trying to find justice by hurting the peope who hurt them. I just went back to work putting MAM back together, trying to regain the confidence of the campesinos with whom we started the movement."

Back at MAM's office, I looked over their beautifully packaged yerba mate and read some literature they'd printed about fair trade and organic, small scale production for local consumption. MAM and Organic Volunteers could not have more different histories and yet they were working for the exact same objectives. Interesting isn't it?

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