Updated — Building different futures overcoming intellectual apartheid

Building different futures overcoming intellectual apartheid

René Mendoza Vidaurre[1]


                                                                                                Article dedicated to Fr. Jack Moynihan and Sr. Maria Alicia McCabe[2]


-Why are you coming to visit us? María Jesús asked, the grandmother of the community. Not even the priests visit us now–she took charge of the conversation.

-The world is getting more difficult. Without us, it will be difficult for you to improve; and without you, we don´t even know where we are going- I responded.

-Is that right? Whispered the grandmother, inviting me to coffee.

Thirty years ago in most of Central America corn and beans were planted without using glyphosate nor gramoxone; now gramoxone is used even for harvesting beans, in part to keep the rain from making the beans “sprout”. Not to mention vegetables, coffee and cacao. Much less sugar cane, peanuts or sesame. Probably beef and pork meat is more organic than carrots or beans. Where did this come from? The costs of production of a peasant family have increased drastically, but not the prices they are paid for their products; this makes desperation spread, tension and violence intensify, biodiversity erode, and climate variability proliferate.

There are many explanations for these realities. In this article I focus on intellectuals, who dedicate an important part of their time to studying the realities, preparing projects and/or policies, teaching or preaching; they are writers, scientists, artists, scholars; they are “people of culture” who move in different circles from most people, a separation which at times is concealed but abysmal. We use the word “apartheid” to denote this intolerable separation. By way of hypothesis we say that the separation between intellectuals and the communities where most of people live has impaired humanity for at least five centuries, when friars (intellectuals), soldiers, tax collectors and traders burst upon these lands. How can they work together and write a new history? I reflect on this question from the heterogeneity of the rural world.

That wall of intellectual apartheid

We read articles in newspapers and magazines about political issues where generally the rural reality does not appear, and if it does, it is reduced to topics of violence where its structural causes are ignored. There are NGOs with rural agendas whose intellectuals respond to donors, sporadically they show up in rural communities to do surveys or interviews, they show up once and never return. In fact, in the last 20-30 years, there are practically no intellectuals who write about the rural realities of Central America in a systematic way.

At the same time there are young rural women and men who have studied different majors. Finishing their studies, their dream is not to work with rural populations. They work for companies, the government, or they migrate to other countries to work in what they can. If they stay, they go back to agriculture or to be housewives, leaving aside their intellectual role that could give them the possibility of writing peasant and indigenous history from their perspectives, and writing about new futures.

What happened to us? The Fordist and Taylorist colonial mentality that separates experts from workers has nested in our minds, regardless of the political ideology that we might exude. This mental model makes one believe that there is nothing to be learned from rural communities, like some two thousand years ago: “Nazareth! –exclaimed Nathanael. Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (Jn 1:46). This mental model makes intellectuals believe that they are superior: “I am an accountant”, “I am an engineer”, “I am a professor”, “I am a pastor, anointed by God”, “I am a doctor” or “I am an economist”. This intellectual arrogance means that we do not mix with peasant or indigenous people, that that hidden or submerged population live in the “middle ages” – a Eurocentric reading, as if Latin America had an “ancient age”, “middle age” and “modern age”.

This mentality adds cement to the millennial wall of intellectual apartheid of a “Latin America” where indigenous and peasant people are absent. Peasant and indigenous people walk on their own and intellectuals do so as well, each one on different rails.

I have learned a lesson working for decades with rural populations. Alone, peasants and indigenous, it will be difficult for them to innovate with their economies and societies; alone, we intellectuals will continue exuding Eurocentrism and allowing the spirit of Nathanael to control us.

Experiences that seem to knock this wall down

Fortunately, there are experiences in which that wall is knocked down, even though just a part of it, and just for some period of time. The most well-known came in the 1960s and 1970s when several lines of thinking coincided. The opening of the Catholic Church with the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), Medellin (1968) and Puebla (1979), a church open to the poor; the momentum of the Cuban revolution (1959); popular education under the influence of Pablo Freire; and the dependency theory of Singer and Prebisch. It was a period in which public universities were spaces of debate, where majors in sociology, philosophy and political science prevailed.

Under this framework, university students and professors, priests, sisters and politicians, went into communities and neighborhoods accompanying indigenous, peasant and impoverished people from urban neighborhoods. Churches, classrooms, auditoriums and offices let their intellectuals leave. In Central America the experience of the community of Solentiname (Nicaragua) stands out with Ernesto Cardenal, where they produced the Gospel of Solentiname; the experience of the community of Aguilares (El Salvador), the experience of hundreds of Base Christian Communities. One outstanding regional experience is that of the Radiophonic Schools, where intellectuals (religious and lay) promoted literacy, health care and agriculture, a framework in which many people organized into cooperatives and peasant stores, which still exist today, though very much in a diminished way.

It is a period in which part of that wall was felled; the mentality was that God and freedom were in the impoverished people who seek justice, that people can organize with their own resources, that honesty and solidarity are values that are found in humble people. To a large extent, with this process all the military dictatorships were brought down and democracy was installed throughout Latin America.

But this harmful wall resurged after the years of the 1980s. The institutional church closed itself back up in church buildings and persecuted those religious who refused to leave the communities which were building the Reign of God on earth. Banking style education returned to the classrooms. Political revolutions and democracies took over the military bases and offices, feeling at home under hierarchical and authoritarian structures. Studies in business administration, accounting and law led public and private universities with the dream of making money. The teachings and trainings put learning aside. The spirit of Nathanael returned to the minds of intellectuals, separating them from people with calloused hands who paid for the studies of these intellectuals. This is the reality that made María Jesús ask, “Why are you coming to visit us?”

Breaking the wall and combining ideas and efforts

Visiting people like María Jesús, we jump over that wall of apartheid – we just “jump”. Here we list four ways of knocking the wall down, which, like a constellation of stars could show us one of the paths: get involved in the real lives of the majorities, experience the changes, co-invest in initiatives and recognize several languages.

Intellectuals need to get involved in the real lives of the majorities, combine being in our churches, classrooms, auditoriums, offices and conference rooms, with living in rural communities, organized however they may be, experiencing what it means to generate collective actions beyond one´s own family, and outside of the “synagogue” itself (church, office…. ). If it is a matter of the fact that agriculture and the lives of human and natural communities might improve, food not be poisoned, it is unacceptable that the rural population walk along the rail that the market pulls them on, and that intellectuals walk along another rail, also pulled by the market.

The issue of beans is technology, soils, climate, property, institutions like sharecropping, sharing labor, and land rental, it is intermediation and crop lien lending, it is weighing and quality, it is official data and real data, it is new bean soup and refried beans; all of this varies from year to year. The same with coffee, cacao, corn, squash or lemongrass, gardens, cornfields and farms. It is ethically and scientifically questionable to make proposals without being involved in that world, without studying them and studying oneself. We need to re-understand commercial relationships, not as commodities subjected to the totalitarianism of the market, but as the means for “good living”, as they say in the Andean countries, or the “I am because you are”, as one of the profound perspectives from Africa expresses it.

The topic of violence, specifically violence against women, is an issue of millennial social and religious rules, laws, power relationships, family and structures embedded in religious, political and economic institutions, it is the law of the jungle and human dispositions. It is not possible to reduce and terminate that violence if we do not identify its causes and do not accompany women in their non-violent paths in their own communities.

On the topic of rural organizations, it is cooperation in the midst of conflict, democracy in authoritarian societies, distribution of profits within a context of “trickle-down economics”, it is transparency in the midst of secretive mafias, it is accounting for peasant stores and cooperatives when universities are teaching accounting for companies and corporations…One can advise organizations only if we learn from them how to advise them.

Intellectuals need to experience the changes along with rural people. An idea that is tested, adapted, adjusted, redone, finds legitimacy, motivates, is corrected and polished, is an idea that takes on life, that changes even the details or precisely because of the details. Experimenting in the organization of cooperatives, associations, associative enterprises, community stores or rural banks, helps to establish different processes. Experimenting is digging into decolonializing ourselves, and getting ourselves out of the orbit of Eurocentrism, which is presented as the measure of all things. The same thing happens on the side of rural populations, there are peasant and indigenous people who become pastors, delegates of the word, healers and agricultural and community advisors, many of them also dig into and realize that what is happening and what has happened to them is not natural nor determined by some supernatural being, in this way putting a crack in the wall of apartheid.

As we dig further, we run into more powerful beliefs that support e wall, but we also find people who find their source of motivation in those depths in unimaginable ways. After administering a community store for one year, Yesenia Hernández expressed in an assembly: “I used to sell and I did not understand the numbers, because they say “women are for the kitchen and men for documents”; I prepared myself to understand the numbers, now they don´t make my head hurt, I am also a “woman of documents”. It is not just accounting, it is beliefs and ways of getting into the numbers, it is working together to adjust those audits of cash and inventory each month. When these improvements happen, other colonial “demons” emerge from political, economic and religious intermediations, and from within ourselves, intellectuals and peasant and indigenous people. It is not just focusing on the community store, it is also studying those surroundings and adjusting and polishing the changes.

In many cases it is co-investing in initiatives like community stores. If intellectuals and people from the communities invest in these initiatives, they will be concerned about their resources and will study the stores, because “where your treasure is, there your heart will be.” In this way, in the midst of tensions and disagreements that collective actions imply, they will produce new ideas, far from just kneeling down before the market of products and knowledge. This interaction or alliance are part of the basic conditions for freedom of thought, in order to be decolonialized.

Finally, breaking down the wall is recognizing several “languages”. The language of accounting talks about “liabilities”, “assets”, “equity”, “expenses”, “cash out” and “inventory”; likewise economics or law have their own language…Peasant language talks about “payment adjustment”, “piglet” (savings), “scraping by” (look for earnings and savings, like a chicken that scrapes the ground looking for food), “tight” (balance without debt), “cornsilk” (small earnings)…These words underly different rationalities, they are communication vehicles for walking together over long distances and times, be it co-investing, experiencing changes or getting ourselves involved in the real lives of peasant and indigenous people.


Good changes walk with two feet, intellectuals and peasants/indigenous who organize. With two feet one can re-perceive commercial relationships governed by societies, and rethink ideas from a perspective of decolonialization from the south. No foot can believe itself to be superior and take leaps without the other foot. As the Italian writer, Luciano de Crescenzo says, “we are all angels with only one wing, and we can only fly if we embrace someone else”; in our case, peasant individuals can fly through associative organizations, but only in an embrace with intellectuals, and intellectuals can only fly in an embrace with peasants who organize.

In this we need to have a long-term perspective of the histories, the changes that might last and deepen over centuries. Seen in this way, the innovative experience of the 1960s and 1970s that I mentioned lasted barely 20-30 years, after which neoliberalism and religious and political conservatism absorbed them, or as Franz Hinkelammert would say, the totalitarianism of the market controlled the state and societies; even though some flashes of that time persist. In contrast, European enlightenment broke down that wall and lasted 74 years (1715-1789), and its impact lasted for centuries in Europe. The same with the Protestant Reformation that broke the Catholic wall into pieces, which had abducted the Bible, lasted 144 years (1454-1598) and its which is remade and has lasted for thousands of years.

How can this wall of intellectual colonialist apartheid, subjected to the totalitarianism of the market, be breached? Our response is that intellectuals and indigenous and peasant peoples organize, and together rewrite the histories of our peoples, on paper, in our minds and in our futures. Rewriting implies conceptualizing, synthesizing processes, self-studying, analyzing actions in the light of different approaches, creating parables like Jesus to communicate and provoke reflection; doing it in an ongoing way, together, not once a year or as project systematizations/intermediate evaluations. These different futures can be written or designed to the extent that “the other” is rescued; rescuing indigenous and peasant people who emerge from the way down below where they were condemned for centuries; they emerge fighting with so many demons (beliefs and rules of the elites) which have been imposed on them; that the peasantry also rescue intellectuals, who also fight against so many other demons (beliefs and rules of the elites) which have led them to walk only on their side of the street; mutually rescuing one another, reflecting with images and parables, synthesizing their paths for sharing and keeping their organizations from falling into neoliberalism, reduced to maximizing their earnings, or the colonialism of “we always need a patron”. Doing it year by year, decade by decade, and century after century, decolonializing rural organizations, churches, classrooms, auditoriums, offices, conferences and farms.

Taking this step will make María de Jesús, the grandmother with the long view, whisper to us, “is that right?” And we will share coffee with rosquillas, even though at that time, like the stardust that we are, we will then be within the energies of the universe.

[1] René has a PhD in development studies and accompanies rural organizations in Central America. He is a member of Coserpross (http://coserpross.org/es/home/), associate researcher of IOB-Antwerp University and a collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation (http://peacewinds.org/research/).

[2] Jack learned how to accompany grassroots communities from an African American evangelical pastor in a neighborhood in New York– according to what our friend Mark Lester tells us. With this knowledge, Jack accompanied rural communities in Bolivia and Central America, and now accompanies marginalized people in the United States. Maria Alicia accompanied communities in Brazil and communities in Nicaragua, now accompanies migrants from Latin America who struggle to enter the United States. Both are living examples of how to break this wall of apartheid.

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