Clara Sotelo’s Biography in Narrative:
I began to teach very early, at 17, by chance more than by choice. I just completed 45 years of teaching; at UF 23, as TA and lecturer, 7 at Bethune-Cookman University as Head of the Modern Language Program, and 15 in Colombia, at all levels. I have done many other things besides that. You asked me about my poetry; it has been there since the very beginning with my grandmother, a sage illiterate person who used to say: What are the graces that in us abound, if besides being sinners the devil is around? (“¿Cuáles son las gracias que nos adornan, si además de pecadores el diablo ronda?”) The whole poem, which I composed of a series of verses like that one, which she would recite according to the circumstances, was published in the newsletter before. It’s better to read the whole thing for a better notion of her doubt about the existence of a God and the corruption and deception of the ruling classes. She questions everyone there.
In the early 70’s, I learned on my own about the Liberation Theology movement by the dissident branch of the Catholic Church. I also studied the Pedagogy of the Oppressed Theory by Paulo Freire, both of which began in Brasil. Inspired by that, I got involved in organizing and carrying out a small literacy and health campaigns for displaced people from rural areas—adults and children whose families were affected by social and political upheaval and harassment. We tried, as best we could, to give them a basic education that besides literacy skills also helped them appreciate their knowledge (their epistemological contribution) and the many ways in which the state had denied them their rights and has exploited them … as such the possibility of an active role in society. In a good “Freirian” way, it was for liberation and not indoctrination that we were teaching them—so they had to have center stage, a voice and a vote—as well as a space for teaching us what they knew. One of those things: Music and poetry. By the end of that decade, I had learned all about the “Misa Campesina” of Solentiname, in Nicaragua. I was playing the guitar and knew most of the “Nueva Trova” songs and other popular folklore: Baladas, boleros, cumbias, tangos… you name it. Prof. C. Perrone used to say that he had never met anyone who knew more popular Latin American music than I. That was quite an honor, coming from him a professional musician and a professor. You can ask him if is true.
My life in Gainesville/UF and Daytona/Bethune Cookman
I have always worked actively in community service within feminist and leftist organizations, as well as just general solidarity and support for “Los pobres de la tierra,” as Martí used to call them, not in a romantic way only or appealing to pity. It is, rather, the same group that Franz Fannon called the “Wretched of the earth.” Both demonstrated that most of what we called the poor today, are the same groups whose land was stolen (Native Americans—the blind spot of this country’s history), whose lives as slaves made the economy bloom (African-Americans), and those who were opportunistically brought by force to substitute the US workers at the World Wars (Mexican-Americans and Puerto Ricans). That is without mentioning other moments such as the construction of the Panama Canal that moved thousands of people from the islands, later abandoned like unnecessary material. The tendency is to “blame the victims,” (left them out of the “equitable distribution” and labeled “losers”), while making them dysfunctional sector and the delusional group, who by no means have the right to “a free ride” (subsidies/reparation/bail outs). Socialism is for the rich when the system bails out the banks and not the students’ loans.
During my 32 years here in the US, I’ve done volunteering with Elementary Schools during Diversity Week, with high school via ESOL programs, and culture activities such as teaching cumbia, poetry and storytelling, and at County Run Retirement Communities I’ve performed some Latin American folklore. I did some work with the Civic Media, CISPLA (Comte. Solidarity with the People of Latin America), CISPES (Cmte. Solidarity People Central America) the National Women’s Liberation Front– a feminist organization, the Latina Women’s League, where I was in charge of bilingual storytelling and on the film festival committee at different levels; with the Caribbean-American Children Foundation, Caminos Reales (Daytona Beach). On campus, I worked with SALAS, MALAS, and as faculty adviser for COLSA (Colombian Students Association), Gamma Eta Alpha Sorority, Inc., and other minority and diversity groups
Teaching within the academic milieu has its political constraints structured by the state and its ideological apparatus. You can show other peoples and other cultures to your students and expose them to the silenced history of many, however, to have them see, explore, connect the historical facts with the external influences and geopolitical moves by the powerful, that shaped other cultures and see other forms of human nature in other wor(l)ds, is somewhat difficult. You can guide your students to see structural power asymmetries and basic historical injustices, the lies and distortions within the official history, the contractions within the claims of the system, and more. I have been called “the communist” for presenting a more egalitarian idea of society. They say I am bitter, all I know is to criticize, and I make it all about me (because I’ve brought up my suffering). However, what I tried to do was to bring up the power asymmetries, the injustices, and the lack of compassion—because there are many like me.
You ask me what I see different today, and would say, I see more technology but less critical thinking in the true sense of the wor(l)d. Students rely too much on the former and they know very little about the latter. Besides, they think that by using computers they are taking care of the critical thinking part. The presence of Trump on the scene is the logical consequence of our tendency to individualism, to base much of what we do on false premises and personal opinion more than facts and objective observation, to care more about money and “materiality” than about life itself. I hope I made a difference in the lives of some students, even if in a small way. I have kept in touch with several of them, some of whom are my friends today. I’ll never forget the ones who let me know the influence I have had in them and those who have offered to visit me in Colombia, where I’ll retire to work for the environment.
Working for the recovery of earth and the possibility that its life stays so that we don’t go is the only thing that makes sense for me these days. We are a cosmic race, which means we are part of the cosmos and, as such, we are not beyond failure. Especially, if we think that our “superiority” gives us the right to destroy the elements that sustain us. Quite the contrary, if we insist in transforming everything into “commodities,” we will direct and orchestrate the failing process via our greed and stupidity, all elements will give in and collapse and we with them.