Apology Letter from an Embarrassed Gringo
Dear professor, group, and classmates of Extractive Industries and Rural Societies,
My bad. I’m sorry I put you through that. Not only did you not learn anything, but also it must have been painful to watch me make a fool of myself as I attempted to explain to you the formation of labor unions in Bolivia between 1950 and 1970.
Oh, right. In case you missed it, that was what I was trying to talk about: union formation, Bolivia, 1950 – 1970. There were coups (several), massacres (more than the number of coups), and repression on a grand scale. Workers were exploited and America unfortunately had a hand in said exploitation but, unfortunately, I did not teach you any of this. No, all I taught you is that I’m a bumbling fool.
It is for this reason that I write you all: to let you know that I’m really not as dim-witted as I seemed today. I realized going into the presentation that my vocabulary isn’t the strongest. I tend to stumble over words like “sindicalización” and “espontáneamente.” But I thought I would be okay. I read the article three times, frontwards and backwards, and I understood the argument. It’s fascinating, in fact; the case study of Bolivian tin mines throws into questions a lot of Marxist/Leninist theory regarding formation of the proletariat, labor union organization, etc.
But all of this information left me when I opened my mouth, as though I barely read the article once. I said to you, “The author concludes that the benefits of spontaneous union labor organization…” and with each word I stepped closer and close to the cliff, the end of my thoughts, beyond which was nothing, a great void. The worst part was that I actually watched myself doing it – I pronounced each word slower than the last to delay my inevitable arrival at the great emptiness that was my mind in that moment. Why the hell are spontaneous labor unions advantageous? I asked myself. And then: nothing. Ay su madre.
In the end, I told you that in Bolivia’s case, spontaneous labor unions had absorbed parts of the “talented tenth:” young Bolivians who had to drop out of college for economic reasons and join the mines their fathers had worked in. What I didn’t tell you is that this is significant because, according to Leninist theory, the “rank-and-file” will only organize in order to fight for economic rights. Lenin says that an external force is required to put the fight not in economic terms but in ideological and political terms. But these workers, the “talented tenth,” mine workers and clerical workers alike, led the main labor union in demands both economic and political.
I wish I had a better explanation for my empty headedness, but the simple fact is that I approached this presentation in exactly the same way I approach presentations in the United States. I did the reading, highlighted a few points, stood in front of the class, and did my best to wing it – no 3x5s, no notes on my hand, nothing. It’s just that there’s a small difference in that, well, we’re not in the U.S., and I’m not presenting in English. And in my anxiety to conjugate all my verbs correctly, I kind of sort of forgot everything that I read. That is, until the presentation ended and I sat down. Then, all the facts came rushing back to me (as did the realization that I should’ve spoken about the miners in the imperfect tense and not the preterit. Maldito sea!).
Where does this leave us? Well, should you happen to study abroad in the U.S. and give a presentation for a class which I attend, I promise to be kind to you. And for those of you who offered me smiles of sympathy during my presentation, I appreciate it, and I promise to repay you if I can. Otherwise, I ask that you not lose your confidence in me yet. I think this is the way that foreign experiences go – in one way or ten you’re bound to make mistakes – and all you can do is say, “Well…let’s not do that again, shall we?”
In short, next time I promise to prepare myself the way my teachers in high school taught me. Hell, I’ll write up a script if need be just to be sure that I don’t cheat you out of an informative presentation. Or a coherent presentation. Or simply so you don’t have to cringe while I stumble over the verb antagonizar, which only now while I’m at home do I realize does not exist.
Lesson learned. Take it easy on me?
Un abrazo. Cuídense (y take care of me, por fa),