Geographical Imaginaries

Power, Knowledge & Imaginaries

I am Latin American. Oddly enough, I cannot say the same for my knowledge. A long colonial history in which the United States has imposed its dominion on Latin American countries has deeply affected the ways of knowing and knowledge itself across Latin American countries.

Recognizing ‘American’ power over Latin America, the upper classes saw the US as a model to strive for. They want their children to grow up with ‘culture,’ to be ‘educated’ and ultimately to dominate within their own countries. So what they did, and I speak for personal experience, was to enrol their children in international (usually American, but like with the World Bank the US likes to see itself as a representation of the world in general) schools. So my textbooks were published in the US and my teachers were American (many of them did not even speak Spanish at the time). Like the fish that doesn’t know it lives in the water, I did not know that what I was learning was not universal. To me, those were facts. History was absolute.

We, the children of the Latin American upper classes, then grew up with an untold expectation that, since we had the resources to do so, we should strive to leave our countries and study in a good university. We Googled the top University rankings that naturally, are dominated by Western universities. So up until then, my knowledge had been produced mainly by the colonizer’s idea of Latin America. We weren’t told that the CIA had been behind the assassination of many Latin American presidents during the 60s and 70s, instead we were told that our governments were corrupt and didn’t want to cooperate. I didn’t know Canada operated and exploited most of the land mines in Latin America; instead I knew guerrillas and rebel groups were violent. They were ruining our countries. They were people you could not reason with. As for customs, there was always a strange collision between holding on to our Latin roots while dancing salsa or becoming hip and nodding your head to techno music. My particular imaginaries have been shaped by both. My experience has told me Latin Americans are friendly and warm while my news channels, owned by the American-loving elites, have said they are dangerous.

What I mean to say is that what we believe counts as knowledge and ‘universal’ truths are really shaped by the context in which we find ourselves. More often than not, our perceptions are imaginaries which tint the glasses we’re looking through.

NOTE: my parents are AWESOME, I’m not criticizing them for their decisions. their perspectives too are products of their context.

Through a Lense

Through a lens. San Franciso, CA. 2015. Taken by Astrid Arlove.

Ways of Knowing.

Like Kant suggested, I believe I cannot know the world in itself, but only how it is for me. Thus, I am fully aware that all the constructs of my head are products of my environment, but I also know that sometimes these skewed perspectives can go unnoticed. When thinking about what ‘the situation’ was like in Canada, I always admired this country because it seemed to have it all figured out. No one seemed to live in poverty, it seemed to have achieved social equality, and all ethnic groups seemed to have equal opportunities. But this was only relative to what I had seen in Latin America, to the drastic gap between the highest and lowest classes, the open chauvinism seen so often regardless of social class, and the ever-so-present racism that painted the social pyramid. With this preconception in mind, I overlooked the possibility that Native Americans in Canada might experience unjust living conditions and was quick to propose that social efforts should be focused somewhere where it was ‘really’ needed. I called this preconception into question once with Kanahus Pelkey, the Native Youth Movement Mother and Warrior from the Secwpemc Nation of British Columbia, and a second time upon attending a talk by Dawn Evans, the representative for the Coast Salish peoples in relation to food insecurity in the Vancouver Board, who said that local peoples belonged to what she called “the 4th world,” which to her meant living in a developed country with the living conditions of the lower classes in developing or underdeveloped countries. And then it struck me that often the term ‘civilized’ became an antonym with ‘native,’ and that pigmentocracy was not an issue solely of developing nations, but that it also happened right here where, for better of for worse, this is not easily noticed.

But upon realizing that there is crucial change to be made all over, how does one proceed? I became overly aware of my position of power as a well-off woman seeking to ‘help’ communities I thought of as situated below me, not in terms of race and culture, but in terms of social inequality and economic injustice. What does this say about me? I can say that it says a lot about the way I was raised and the culture in which I was brought up. I could not stand in solidarity if I saw fellow Latin Americans as removed and special because of their conditions. I too am oppressed by the conditions I was born into wherein individualism, rather than cooperation, prevails. This made me dwell deeper on my values, my place in society, and on my responsibilities as a citizen of the world. Were my values and beliefs built on sound knowledge? And whose knowledge? Numerous deep-thinking sessions led me to one conclusion: no one knows for sure. Socrates beat me by a couple thousand years in knowing that he knew nothing, but coming to this realization on my own was humbling and enlightening as I recognized that there is truly not one way of knowing or of leading life ‘correctly.’ With that as a personal maxim, I could now say that my values included recognizing every source of knowledge as equally important, reminding myself that believing something did not make it true, and nevertheless, judging my actions by their intention. It is these vales what have shaped the way I see success—not by the amount of money I get to accumulate over the years, but by how happy I feel and how happy I make those around me. This could seem obvious, but it is by no means the only popular definition of success. I too, put this definition to test. Were my personal and professional goals the ‘right’ ones, or should I reassess them because they were too platonic and idealistic?

Having completed more laps around the sun, my choices seem to carry the weight of their consequences increasingly, and I have feared that my mentality could silently take the shape of a screw in the production machine. The constant pressures to engage in activities that would look good on paper and help me impress my future employers often made me consider doing so. If I am to be honest, at times, the duality between working for material goods and working towards protecting nature and humanity had occupied a large portion of my thoughts.

I have come to believe that life sends cues to dissipate these doubts and reaffirm our deepest beliefs. But then again, we might be better at perceiving that which aligns with our worldview. It doesn’t matter, as long as we strive to assess our actions and decisions so that they remain in alignment with our values and get us as close to our ideals as possible. How about protecting Mother Earth and the humans she nurtures?

Loyal to Von Humboldt's observation of Spanish America, the palm trees that used to represent an untamed natural landscape  now precede land heavily fragmented to meet global coffee demands.

Tropicality. Loyal to Von Humboldt’s observation of Spanish America, the palm trees that used to represent an untamed natural landscape now precede land heavily fragmented to meet global coffee demands.

The Latin American diaries.

It is interesting how sometimes you have to see things from a distance to be able to appreciate them. For me, South America is one of those things. I love Colombia and my latin background, but I did not really understand what my background implied historically, politically, and culturally for this inherited part of my identity. Only as an international student in a ‘developed’ nation did I begin to comprehend so many aspects of the cultures that surrounded me for so many years of my life. Growing up I experienced the Colombian metropolis which Bogotá has become, the virgin beaches and dense rainforests in Costa Rica, and the remnants of a culture shaped by more than thirty years of dictatorship in the Dominican Republic. But all f these were merely facts and touristic attractions until I was able to experience first hand an intrinsic cause of the cultural differences between the north and the south of the American continent: the first believes itself to be dominant and the latter, dominated.

When I asked why it was that we held North America and European teachings at higher standards than our own, the reply was that I had to learn as much as I could from the more influential nations to be able to apply it in our less advanced socio-political systems. This seemed like the right way to go, until I attempted to define the ideas of development, solidarity, and progress. The privileged minority, both internationally and nationally, imposes in Latin America its idea of progress, culture, and ‘better’ onto the vast majority of people whose reality does not fit the cookie-cutter that is being used to mould it.

If I’m being honest, for many years I was blinded by my socio-economic status. In Latin America, I am one of the privileged. I like to tell myself that I was always amongst the more compassionate ones on my side of the spectrum; I always felt that urge to leave the world a little better than what I found it like. However, it was only when I came to live in Canada, a country in which the majority of people live over the poverty line, that I began to comprehend how deeply many of these ideas had been embedded into me. I was one to grow up believing that I had to leave Latin America because my education would be more valuable coming from a country that already had the knowledge to exploit another. I too believed that my contribution to society would be greater if I applied what I learnt from the ‘haves’ in a country of the ‘have-nots.’ What I didn’t expect to happen was that when I came to Vancouver I ran across the thoughts and lessons of people that had learned to see the value in every kind of knowledge. I had to leave to realize the value of the history and culture of my region, and how much they could contribute to me. It is only now that I question the model of development with which I grew up. Is it wise to assume that what the wealthy nations offer is always better? But with the momentum this assumption has gathered over the years, how do we make developing nations want to strive for a more environmentally, socially, and even economically sustainable future even when it doesn’t mimic the profit-oriented, resource-extracting model of the already developed nations?

Funny how sometimes we have to miss things in order to fully acknowledge their value. In being part of the privileged minority who is able to study abroad, I have become more and more eager to go back to where I came from, but to see it for the first time with the new eyes I have acquired. I still don’t have all the details about what it is i’ll do to make things better, but one thing I can tell you is that those beautiful countries filled not only with resources, but also people rich in culture, knowledge and traditions will have a lot to teach me before I’m able to give back to them.

Fishermen’s Backyard. I took this picture in Leticia, the Colombian side of the Amazon rainforest in July 2014, just as the sun set over the floating homes of fishermen in the Amazon river.