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Realities of exile: a possible Latin America in the center of São Paulo

Updated: Mar 13, 2022

I spent 2021 rehearsing to do the body and drawing workshop with the women of the Centro Cultural Ouvidor, a building in downtown São Paulo, occupied by artists from different countries and from varied areas of the arts. I hadn't gotten there yet because with the pandemic, the workshops this year were all online. Not all people, especially in Brazil and even more especially in downtown São Paulo, have access to smartphones, laptops or the internet, which excludes them from many activities. But I didn't want to end the year with pending issues, so, counting on the widespread vaccination in São Paulo, I decided to do the last workshop of the year in person. To my surprise, I discovered a new world inside the city where I was born and raised: a possible Latin America, which I always thought was a fantastic dream.

I never felt Latin American, maybe because the language is different and Brazil is the size of a continent, which geographically distances us from other countries and cultures. My first Latin experience was in Berlin, in 2002, when I studied at the LAI – Instituto da América Latina (Latein Amerika Institut) of the Free University of Berlin. There, I had the feeling that I came from a country belonging to a history of colonization, which despite its specificities, was shared with others. Still in Berlin, I had other experiences of Latin American solidarity. In 2011, I participated in the Plataforma Berlin Festival , which brings performance and dance artists from different countries in Latin America. However, this Latin identity was always something that was built in an exile from this very reality.

But this last workshop at the Ouvidor Cultural Center showed me that exile realities can be strong weapons for the design of alternative ways of existing. Women and girls from Colombia, Peru, Venezuela...; a language that transits between Spanish and Portuguese; people who have no fixed address, sometimes no identity documents, but who are strong, stable within their own bodies, their cocoons, and who live this passage we call life in an intense and sincere way; but most valuable, I saw there a form of support, care and solidarity among the participants, which at the end of the workshop was defined by themselves as an “experience of love”. Still a reality of exile, but a possibility of existence that actively places itself outside an economic-social system that chooses the people it will include, generating hordes of people on the fringes, lives that are not worth it or that it is not possible to protect .

The Ouvidor is a 13-story building with several people and families living and working in each one of them. The construction conditions are precarious due to the lack of resources, but thanks to the common efforts of the residents, life there organizes itself and flows. PLANTS. During the workshop, several of the women said that for them, “the plants” are very important. The drawings that appeared showed this concern. On each floor of the building, a green spot, a vegetable garden, medicinal plants, a flower pot. In a situation where not even individual survival is guaranteed, the environment, other forms of life besides the human one are still protected.

In the essay “Violence, mourning and politics” (from the book Precarious life, 2004), Judith Butler speaks of a “common vulnerability to the human” that arises from “life” itself; a “primary vulnerability” that “precedes the formation of the self” and that derives from the “condition of having been given birth naked from the beginning and against which one cannot argue”. The body is a place exposed to a potential violence, which, if not consummated, haunts as a “possibility”. The “complicity” in this potential aggression results in a shared sphere of vulnerability, despite historical and geographic differences. For Butler, it is in this “vulnerability” that the “human” is formed. It is in the context of this openness to the unpredictable that Butler poses his question formulated right at the beginning of the essay: “What counts as a human? Which lives count as lives?”. Vulnerability to loss, violence or the mere possibility of it politically shapes beings as a collective and acquires a creative bias as a trigger for transformation.

In the center of the city of São Paulo, the fourth richest city in the Americas, people from various other locations build a reality of exile: outside their countries and cultures of origin (and some still as foreigners in their own countries of origin), outside a capitalist system that is in ruins and that also provokes. A seedling of Latin America sprouts on the margins of a global system of exploration and domination, in which countries outside the Europe/US axis and, more recently, China, are excluded from enjoying the profits of their own work. Having closed 2021 with the first in-person workshop of Women and Metamorphoses, I move to 2022 repeating Butler's reflection: “What counts as a human? Which lives count as lives?”. And I hope that this questioning, considering anti-human ideologies and ways of thinking that have taken hold lately, will repeat itself like a mantra throughout this new cycle.

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