By Jeannine Pitas
DUBUQUE — Dubuque celebrated its 10th annual celebration of the United Nations International Day of Peace with a series of events organized around the theme of “Women Making Peace.” The main event of this two-week festival, held at Loras College on Sept. 22, was a lecture by Puerto Rican poet, playwright and activist Magdalena Gómez, who has also worked as director of religious education in a parish and an assistant chaplain at a correctional facility.
A sexual assault survivor whose mother was trafficked as a child at the Haiti-Dominican border, Gómez is familiar with hardship; however, she is also familiar with hope. Her lecture, “The Art of Everyday Living as Resistance: Finding Joy in Times of Horror,” was more like a poem than a traditional speech.
Gómez opened the event by dancing on stage and inviting audience members to come and join her. The first image of her PowerPoint presentation, however, was a skeletal figure from Mexican Day of the Dead. “In our culture death is a taboo topic. But if we don’t embrace our mortality, how can we truly live?” she asked. “I believe that in addition to money, our fear of death lies at the root of all evil. That is why I try to let death be my adviser. That is why I dress vibrantly and dance whenever and wherever I want to – because this very moment could be my last.”
The next slide in her PowerPoint showed a button. “A button teaches us that we can’t do anything alone,” she said. “For a button to stay tightly fastened, it needs two or more holes – buttons with just one hole quickly become loose. We need to move from ‘me’ to ‘we’ in our thinking. Self-care is important to avoid burnout, but our society is much too self-focused.”
She then spoke about the importance of presence, intuition, time and storytelling. “Telling stories is empowering because it connects people together and builds mutual trust. Also, we need to take time for one another. Don’t write eulogies for the dead – give them to the living!”
She then showed images of her parents. “Staying positive involves knowing the truth about yourself. My father did the best he could, but he was not the best father. He always worked and defended me, though he never said he loved me until six days before he died. My mother’s mental capacity was that of an 8-year-old, but she made all our clothes – she’d stare at department store windows and then go home and make a pattern based on Coco Chanel.”
The talk then turned to the problem of erasure. Speaking of many Puerto Rican artists who have influenced her – like author Judith Ortiz Cofer and actress Miriam Colón – she talked about the need to make space for people of color rather than trying to speak on their behalf. “Erasure begins in the home, the school, the neighborhood; it extends to the state and the country. So many women, so many people of color get forgotten.”
Gómez urged us to resist this erasure by connecting with others and allowing them to surprise us. “I once gave a sex worker a balloon animal. She said that was the first time in her life anyone had given her anything without wanting something back. Allow people to surprise you. Eject gossip and hearsay from your life. Don’t have preconceived ideas about who people will be. We lack peace because of our judgments and fear of difference.”
“Do you say ‘Black Lives Matter’ but don’t have a single black person at your dinner table?” she asked. “If all the faces on your Facebook page are white, you are missing out. We need to branch out. Being suspicious of others makes us lose our power.”
She concluded with a discussion of the need to reach across ideological divisions. “If we see certain people as being on the other side, they will be. But they’re not. We all laugh, cry and die. For me, Jesus was a revolutionary who loved the least loved. Like him, we can recognize and meet the divine in all people.”
Pitas served on the organizing committee for this event.
Magdalena Gómez speaks at Loras College on Sept. 22. (Photo by Jeannine Pitas)