Peer to Pier: Conversations with fellow travelers
Alvaro Restrepo, 55, is founder of El Colegio del Cuerpo or “The School of the Body” in Cartagena, Colombia, South America. The school merges his passions for modern dance and social justice, offering a pathway out of poverty for inner-city, low-income youth.
In recounting his journey with me, Alvaro chronicles a circuitous route from schoolboy at a Benedictine school to working with street kids in Bogota to dancing with renown companies such as Jennifer Muller and the Works and Martha Graham in New York, and returning to Colombia as a successful choreographer of his own work. After a stint as an executive with the Colombian Institute of Culture, Alvaro was inspired to establish a creative sanctuary where kids could have the opportunity to discover their inner spark and have it nurtured.
My conversation with Alvaro reinforced several beliefs that I have developed along my own circuitous path—among them, that as random as life’s route may seem to be, a logical progression does reveal itself. Alvaro’s story also reminded me of the wonders that can come to pass when we heed our own desires and apply energy to fulfilling them and how, in doing so, magical encounters occur or inspiring mentors appear–just when we need them. In fact, Alvaro and I connected through a fortuitous meeting I had with his sister Iliana in a Cartagena bookstore cafe!
I hope you enjoy “meeting” Alvaro—I think you’ll find his transformative experiences reflect the evolution his homeland of Colombia is undergoing.
Meg: What prompted your interest in education?
Alvaro: I always talk about what I’m doing right now as a way of healing my own wounds as a child. My own educational process was really very painful unfortunately. I was in the wrong place and maybe with the wrong people. I had nobody to help me detect my talents, my mission and my vision of the world.
I went to a school in Bogotá run by North American Benedictine priests and nuns. I attended this school from six years old until I was seventeen. It was a very harsh school with very hard discipline and very mathematics- and sports-oriented and a very competitive environment. Since I was very young I knew that I was born for something else.
I think that if education does not help you, to discover who you are and what you’re here for, what’s the whole point of education? Is it more about discipline or domestication than really opening your eyes or giving you wings?
It was thanks to my grandmother’s sister, who lived in Cartagena on the Caribbean coast in Columbia, who opened my eyes to the arts. I would spend my holidays with her in Cartagena and I always speak of her as my oasis. My holidays with her were moments where I could be myself and I was in contact with things that I enjoyed a lot. My great aunt was a pianist and an organist in the cathedrals in Cartagena so it’s thanks to her that I discovered that I had an artist inside of me. It was because of her that I learned I wanted to work with the arts and work with people. These were only very short periods of time I spent with her in comparison to my whole educational process but she was vital.
Meg: It is amazing how if you have an artistic spirit that it can endure with very little nourishment.
Alvaro: My upbringing was very contradictory because even though my father was a very macho kind of man, he was had an artist´s soul. He was very tough on me. My eldest brother is deaf and dumb and autistic and has lived always in hospitals and then I have my three sisters. So I was the only man, and my father had a lot of expectations for this boy. But at the same time that he was giving me this very macho education, I was also in contact always with very fine things. He collected art : pre-Columbian art, contemporary art, colonial art. He was a very strong reader and he loved music, so it was also nourishing. As I said, it was a contradiction.
I was able to leave the Benedictine school after eleven years. I finished in another school where I discovered a very good teacher who helped me get in contact with literature, philosophy, with other disciplines that opened my spirit. I discovered solitude and enjoying being by myself and I started writing. When I graduated from high school I attended the University of Bogotá studying literature and philosophy. After a while I decided I wanted to travel a little bit and I went to Europe for a year just to wander around and work and adventure. I was eighteen or nineteen years old and when I came back I was in a kind of a crisis, very disoriented but still looking for something desperately. I knew that I had to find my language and my way out.
I decided that I wanted to spend some time in nature and I got a job as a school teacher in a very small town in a remote area of Colombia near the border of Panama. While I was there, I met an Italian priest named Javier da Nicolo who was a very interesting man. He did incredible work in Colombia with street kids and he had just arrived in this area with 200 kids from Bogotá who had just left the streets. He had brought them to this jungle to kind of isolate them from the street reality and start the re-education process. He heard that there was a kind of disoriented philosophy student from Bogotá working as a school teacher in the town and he contacted me and asked me if I would like to work with him with these kids. So I worked with them on this farm for about eight months.
We had to colonize this place…open paths, bring wood from the forests to build the cabins and ‘domesticate’ this jungle. Isolating the kids in nature from the daily misfortune of their urban abandon, was a kind of therapy. Suddenly no one to steal from and no cops to run away from…for them it was also an oasis.
I decided to come back to Bogotá to see the origin of their tragedy. I wanted to see the context of where the street kids were coming from. I worked for this program called Bosconia in Bogota for about two years, which was very enlightening because I was able to understand how capable a young boy is of making very important decisions for his life when he’s obliged to do so. I knew kids had left their homes when they were four or five years old because they were beaten or they were tired of hunger and violence in their homes and they preferred to make a living in the streets, begging or robbing or whatever.
My job in Bogotá was in the streets. I had to detect the gangs, approach them in their hiding or sleeping places and begin to convince them about entering the project. I remember we would arrive in the middle of the night with hot chocolate and bread–the strategy was that we would wake them up in the middle of the cold night, offer them some friendship and kindness, to start ‘seducing’ them to try out the program. They could start attending a day-care-center where they could spend their day, take a shower, eat, see a dentist, doctor, psychologist. Later I started working in one of the many houses and dorms the project had for the kids who decided to be part of Bosconia. We would teach them how to live in community, wash their teeth, eat properly and begin to attend school.
So this contact with this very harsh reality was a very eye-opening situation and that’s how I came to think that I need to have some kind of pedagogical tool to work with them–not just my big heart and good intentions but some kind of real effective tool to help these kids heal from their suffering and be able to tell their stories. I decided maybe theater could be a good tool because I realized that these kids were very good actors. They had to be like young warrior children with many masks to survive. So I decided to go to drama school and while I was there I discovered for the first time that I had a body. Until then I was just a head. I had been living in my head completely and my body was only used to carry my head from one place to the other.