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Latin American Studies

Julia Seltzer '09

2008 Latin American Studies Research Grant
The Power of Poetry: Medellín, Colombia

 This summer I left for Medellín, Colombia expecting to take part in an event that served as an irrefutable testament to the power of poetry as a tool for activism towards peace. Leave it to say, I was not disappointed. On July 5th, as I sat in the Teatro Carlos Vieco at the Inauguration Ceremony of the XVIII annual International Festival of Poetry, I heard the voice of Fernando Rendón, one of the founders of the Festival, boom across the leafy outdoor stadium, “We call you to join in a patient and persistent poetic revolution”. Rows of poets from all over the world sat behind him on stage as he called the packed crowd to action. While poets from countries throughout Africa, Latin America, Asia, and Europe came to the podium to share their work, a steady rain began to fall. Umbrellas were opened and plastic sheets dispensed, but the audience did not disperse; their maintained presence and fervent applause reflected their devotion to the Festival.

Conversations with locals taught me how deeply the Festival, since its first year in 1991, has been a means of empowerment for the people of Medellín and offered a refuge from violence and isolation. Luis, a man I met in my travels, told me that in 1991 he felt imprisoned in his apartment. He could not spend time on the streets with his friends because of the random violence wrought by the drug trade and he did not think of leaving the city to go into the country for fear of guerilla groups; there was no sense of freedom. He remembered the first years of the Festival and the tremendous contrast between the Festival’s environment of expression, unity, and celebration of life, with Medellín’s overall atmosphere dominated by fear and a sense of paralysis. Rendón said in an interview, “Pain sensitizes us.  Poetry enables us to cope with the crisis and to identify with our city despite the hostilities of the war.  People welcome poetry because it is a way of living life again.” The founders of the Festival realized that poetry offers the people not only a means of living again, but also a way of achieving significant social and political changes.

In Medellín, at the packed readings I attended throughout the city I saw that poetry is indeed a means of empowerment, a tool for activism.  The power of expression by poetic means is great; people can find strength in words. People use words each day to communicate, but poetry can capture the magic of the words that connect us. Poems are vehicles for our thought, beliefs, emotions; they can express our internal and external journeys and demonstrate the often universal nature of human experiences. By revealing the connections that join us, poetry can offer people a sense of collective strength.

Through the years the Festival has harnessed this strength and retained its strong spirit of activism. The poetry readings and lectures held throughout the week are all forums for free expression and advocating peace in Colombia and across the globe. The global solidarity is impressive; experience with overcoming great adversity is a point of connection between the crowd and the foreign poets. The two poets I observed to be most enthusiastically embraced were Yolande Mukagasan from Rwanda and Marcos Ana from Spain. Both are talented poets, but what most distinguished them was their remarkable ability to survive tragedies of great proportions. Yolande Mukagasan lived through the Rwandan genocide of 1994, but lost her three children, her husband, and her siblings. She continued on to become a prolific author and found an orphanage in Rwanda. Marcos Ana fought in the Spanish civil war and spent 23 years imprisoned for his political affiliation in the war. He wrote poems from prison and through these poems gained global recognition and eventually, freedom. The popularity of these two poets further demonstrated to me that the crowds that gather at the events of the Festival attend in search of inspiration, of living proof of the strength of the human spirit and the potential to achieve significant changes in a lifetime. 

It is the political and historical context of the poetry, as much as the words that comprise it, that bring hope. In my independent study with Professor Yepes I aim to further explore the history of social poetry in Latin America. Through studying the key moments in Latin American history in which poetry was used as a tool for activism, I can gain a deeper understanding of the meaning of poetry in Colombia. It is from a significant legacy of social poetry in Latin America that the Festival sprung.