Women’s Rights Movement in Colombia Takes the Stage

Colombian actress and social rights activist Patricia Ariza came to campus to speak to a full house of USF students and faculty, and other visitors about her unique movement for women’s rights in Colombia.

Ariza is the president of the Colombian Theater Corporation, and the co-founder and director of Teatro La Candelaria, which is a Colombian theater group. The group serves as an outlet for Colombian women to express their socio-political struggles through performance art. As Colombia’s first alternative theater, Teatro La Candelaria is a mechanism for Ariza and the women of Colombia to send a message to the Colombian government, people, and the world, about the corruption and violence of Colombia’s past and present, in hopes of creating a better future.

Ariza spoke in her native Spanish, with the help of a translator.

There are currently four million internally displaced Colombian peoples, most of whom are women. Ariza said the Colombian military uses women as “booty” or bait, and the majority of social rights movements in Colombia are lead by women who are survivors of war. These high-risk cultural resistance movements exist to promote social change in Colombia.

“I form part of this resistance,” said Ariza, by running a mixed gender theater group. “Like Virginia Woolf would say, 22 years ago I resolved to have my own room,” and as an actress, Colombia’s Virginia Woolf has found her greatest role of all as an activist for women’s rights.

In response to the socio-political issues that have long plagued Colombia, like drug trafficking, guerilla warfare and human rights crimes, Ariza channeled her talent and passion for theater into a tool for social change.

“Many of the things women show in these plays are what they are experiencing now and their ideas for solutions,” said Ariza, who uses publics spaces like plazas to put on performances. The idea of the plaza is to occupy spaces that are traditionally male-dominated by establishing a female presence, Ariza said. She played videos of recent performances during her discussion. Although the videos were in Spanish, and Ariza provided a brief translation: “These women are asking, ‘Where are the disappeared? Where are the dead?” The image of women filling a public plaza came to life as the room darkened, and the audience looked into the lives of these women a world away.

Other performances by Ariza’s Teatro La Candelaria include artistic demonstrations through city streets, like women singing and holding framed pictures of their loved ones who have disappeared as well as Ariza’s version of a fashion runway show, which she has taken international. On the runway, women sing and tell stories, sometimes painted and dressed up in traditional costumes. “This is not the typical [runway] which silences women and only accepts one type of beauty. Our women are subjects – elderly, obese. They speak and showcase the ability women have to turn pain into strength,” Ariza said. She is even planning a runway show in which female prisoners can participate. The runway has been performed in many different countries where Colombian women wish to mobilize and bring attention to the issues in their home country.

“Due to these movements, the Colombian government sees the need to reach a peace agreement,” Ariza said of her theater groups raw and emotional performances. Although she noted that the Colombian government has yet to be successful in responding to the equality and peace needs of its country’s women, Ariza strongly believes in the importance of pressing the movement so that women do not lose their voices.

Ariza is currently planning for a large immobilization in Colombia of a million people, and is also planning her next runway show in Denmark to further her goal of international mobilization for Colombian social rights. “We don’t work with these women as charity. It is an exchange of knowledge that transforms both groups,” Ariza explained about her goal to create a language of femininity to express the need for social change in Colombia. Ariza said her goal is to “produce a new type of language that corresponds to women,” and her career as an actress set the stage for Ariza to bring this creative vision to life.

Senior Sarah Pearson, a comparative literature and culture studies major admired Ariza’s alternative approach to social rights activism, “Performance art can be a powerful way of exploring themes of social justice.”

“The big picture is resistance. This was a great perspective from a different country to see how these movements are applied in real time, like the runway shows,” said senior politics major Marvin Pascua.

Ariza’s example of taking a personal passion and creating something bigger was inspiring to Media and Latin American studies professor Susana Kaiser. “In an environment permeated by violence it’s uplifting to see such a display of creative political action,” she said. “For me, some of the most compelling performances were those where the women manage to physically bring into public spaces the presence of the absent, their faces and their names, such as their covering of the city with framed photos of killed and disappeared people.”

Patricia Ariza’s presentation was part of the 12th Annual Global Women’s Rights Forum and co-sponsored by the Performing Arts for Social Justice (PASJ) and Center for Latino Studies in the Americas (CELASA) departments. Roberto Gutierrez Varea, associate PASJ professor and co-director of CELASA, moderated the discussion.

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