Isla Amantaní sits in the middle of Lake Titicaca, a rock of fields and homes rising up out of the water. It is said to be the spiritual center of the world, and staring out at the Andes and the expanse of Titicaca’s deep blue, it’s easy to see — and feel — why.
This year, I ended my time in Peru on Amantaní, a guest in the house of Mamá Fernanda and her sons, José Luis and Luis Alberto. Their simple home sits on the northern slope of Amantaní, and for 48 hours, I got to sip coca tea, stare at the lake, and marvel at the life they get to lead. There are no cars on Amantaní, so rather than the sounds of the city, the island echoes with bleating sheep, a very loud and angry burro, and — when the colectivos arrive onshore with their tour groups — a symphony of Andean flutes. I was drawn to Amantaní because, after a month of teaching and shuffling eleven undergrads around Peru, I knew I needed a few days to decompress, recharge, and breathe. When I land in Milwaukee after this annual month abroad, I must hit the ground running, the busy life of upper-middle-class America not waiting for me to catch my breath.
What a stark contrast that is to the life of Fernanda and her sons. They live in two humble but loved houses, just up the hill from one another. During high season, they welcome guests into the family home that sits below; the rest of the year, they tend to their sheep and crops. Fernanda spends her days washing potatoes, cooking meals, laundering linens — and shouting up and down the hill to her sons and neighbors about whatever matters in that moment.
At my first lunch on her verandah, Fernanda hugged me tightly and let me know just how happy she was to have me as a guest. And over our remaining meals together, she told me how much she loved being able to work in tourism now, how much she loved learning Spanish as an adult so she could communicate with more people, and how much she loved running this business with her boys. She smiled at me as she assured me, even when your children are grown, you miss them and want them near you; how grateful she is that her boys didn’t move to Puno and instead live right here, with her, where she can make sure they eat right and are always loved. With my own hectic American life waiting to charge forward, I couldn’t help but think, this is the life. Tranquility, beauty, family, rhythm. How much easier to live without the constant need to be more and do more. How much easier to live in a community where every single person knows and helps one another. How much easier to have what you need and no more. At Casa Muñay, Fernanda’s home, there is solar powered lighting and hot water, hand-woven blankets, freshly cultivated meals. There is no wifi, no TV, no malls, no danger. There are no city lights to block out the Southern Cross at night, no interference to block out the moments of each day. In my 48 hours at Casa Muñay, I couldn’t help but think how wrong we’ve got it in the modern, industrialized world.
Of course, this is not the whole story of Amantaní. Amantaní is also considered a community of extreme poverty in Peru, and that fact is evident in the missing teeth of elders, in the worn out shoes just barely covering feet, in the partially constructed homes. Amantaní is isolated, a two- to four-hour boat ride from Puno, depending on the age of the boat, and options for life on the island are limited. In my first conversation with Luis Alberto, Fernanda’s younger son, I learned that he, like so many of the students I have come to know at UARM, was a Beca 18 recipient — a government scholarship for the top students from Peru’s poorest areas to attend university in Lima. But he didn’t accept it. Lima is far and hard to get to. He knew he would need support living there, and who would provide that? Plus, Fernanda needed support here in Amantaní; at that point, his father was still working in the Amazon jungle in agriculture, one of the only options for work to support his family. So Luis didn’t take the scholarship. When he can, he takes classes at the university in Puno in tourism, but otherwise, he is making do with the life that he’s always had on Amantaní — taking care of his mother, watching fútbol in the plaza with his cousins, and bringing tourists to their home via Airbnb.
And Fernanda — Fernanda, who is so grateful to be working in tourism now with her boys, knows that tourism is her survival. Her husband spent most of her boys’ lives working in Lima or in the Amazon, while she was here on Amantaní, trying to survive with little food and little help. Over breakfast, she told me how her mother and her grandmother had suffered living on Amantaní, and how her own boys suffered growing up here, where there are no jobs, no food, no adequate medical care or education. A few years ago, her husband died in the jungle where he was working. The family has yet to go there. It is expensive and far and he’s already gone. She told me how every day, even before her husband was lost to the jungle, she would cry, and when her boys were big enough, they said, “Stop crying, Mamá; we are going to take care of you. We are going to bring tourists to our home and make a business.”
However, high season is only three months. The rest of the year, the family tends to their fields and flocks. Tourism provides enough money so that they won’t go hungry in the off-season — but not enough money to help Fernanda with her teeth, about which Luis Alberto told me, “Se sufre mucho por su dientes.” My second day at Casa Muñay, Fernanda woke up with a terrible toothache. Her jaw was swollen and hot, clear signs of infection. But the medical post on the island doesn’t have antibiotics, and Puno is hours away by boat. Before she could go anywhere, she needed to bring water to her sheep, finish her potato harvest, and hang the wash in the sun (and she refused my help because I am a guest in her home). Instead, she made an herbal poultice to put on her jawline, gladly accepted my bottle of ibuprofen, and went about her daily life. She will get to a medical clinic when she can — if she can — and odds are, this is just one more tooth she will lose.
My students and I ended the academic portion of our time in Peru considering self-determination, a concept we don’t typically talk about in teacher education coursework. What is it? Why is it necessary for justice? As we considered these questions from an academic perspective, we also considered them experientially in the small town of Andahuaylillas. In town, the local Fé y Alegría school is bilingual and bicultural, Quechua and Spanish, and local pedagogical specialists spend their workweeks in isolated high-altitude communities, accompanying the educators and families there in their own journeys of educational self-determination. We also visited Cuyuní, one of those high-altitude communities, where families are transforming the material conditions of their lives through sustainable practices, economic cooperatives, and partnerships with the Fé y Alegría teachers. At our final seminar, predictably, my students marveled at how both of these communities defied expectations of rural poverty, how people seemed so happy and proud with what they had, and how neither seemed to be a community in need. These communities were making their own way in the world, partnering with those who have additional resources when they can, but proudly holding onto their identities, cultures, and communities.
The reality, however, is complex, and I’m reminded of that as a guest at Casa Muñay. In this month, I have wanted my students to see each community they meet through an asset-based lens. I have wanted them to see strengths and innovation and community; I have wanted them to see beyond the surface of needs and deficits to instead meet communities through what Eve Tuck calls a “desire-based” lens. Tuck tells us that desire
“[Y]es, accounts for the loss and despair, but also the hope, the visions, the wisdom of lived lives and communities. Desire is involved with the not yet and, at times, the not anymore.”
But it’s not enough to simply see desires rather than damages. Seeing those desires doesn’t undo the fact that injustice persists. The question is, what will we do once we see those desires? How will we accompany communities as they move towards making their desires a reality?
In so many ways, the life that Fernanda, Luis, and José have constructed for themselves is beautiful, but it is also fundamentally unjust that Fernanda suffers from crippling toothaches, that they never got to say goodbye to their husband and father, and that their community’s livelihood is threatened by a changing climate not of their making. I don’t believe that acknowledging these things is giving in to deficit or damage-centered thinking. Rather, to acknowledge these things is to acknowledge the complicated reality that Fernanda and her boys live in, or as Eve Tuck says, to acknowledge the “complexity, contradiction, and the self-determination of lived lives.” Reality: Jesuit teaching tells us we need to humbly submit to the multitude of realities that exist in the world in order to accompany one another on our struggles to transform those realities toward justice. So maybe justice requires an acknowledgement of reality, but also a dream for what’s next. Justice is the desire for the “not yet,” and the “not anymore.”
When it comes to education, we keep trying to define justice as a specific, concrete thing: Equal funding. Desegregated schools. Parental choice. Equalized achievement. Standardized curriculum. Individualized teaching. Project-based learning. We want an answer, a solution, a ten-point plan.
Instead, maybe we need to consider Nancy Fraser’s assertion that justice is achieved through negation, through a state of always fighting back against the injustices we see:
“[J]ustice is never actually experienced directly. By contrast, we do experience injustice, and it is only through this that we form an idea of justice. Only by pondering the character of what we consider unjust do we begin to get a sense of what would count as an alternative. Only when we contemplate what it would take to overcome injustice does our otherwise abstract concept of justice acquire any content. Thus, the answer to Socrates’s question, ‘What is justice?’ can only be this: justice is the overcoming of injustice.”
In this understanding of justice, it becomes easier to sit with the complicated reality of places like Amantaní or Cuyuní, to understand that self-determination requires that we dismantle systems of injustice, but that we do so while also honoring and submitting to the beautiful, complicated, rich lives that persist in spite of those injustices. Because, to again quote Eve Tuck, “This is to say that even when communities are broken and conquered, they are so much more than that — so much more that this incomplete story is an act of aggression.”
Instead, justice demands that we see colonial histories at the same time that we imagine decolonized futures. Justice demands that we celebrate what Mamá Fernanda and her sons have built at the same time that we fight for fundamental human rights, such as adequate health care. Justice demands that we learn to listen, to witness, and to accompany. Justice demands, as Tuck calls it, desire:
“Desire is about longing, about a present that is enriched by both the past and the future. It is integral to our humanness…Desire is the song about walking through the storm, a song that recognizes rather than denies that pain doubtlessly lies ahead.”
Or maybe not. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m still entrenched in damage-centered thinking. What I do know for sure is that, after a month in Peru, there is so much I don’t know other than the power of human connection. And I am also sure that this human connection—along with uncertainty, outrage, creativity, and joy—is essential for moving social transformation. In her book, We Want to Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching & the Pursuit of Educational Freedom, Bettina Love quotes writer and activist adrienne marie brown, who says, “All social justice work is science fiction. We are imagining a world free of injustice, a world that doesn’t yet exist.” Love goes on to connect this to freedom dreaming, or the ability to envision and struggle towards a future of freedom where you can “create your reality, where uplifting humanity is at the center of all decisions.” This is not easy work. No, this is struggle. And freedom dreaming — or what Love also calls abolitionist teaching — is
“[W]elcoming struggles, setbacks, and disagreements, because one understands the complexity of uprooting injustice but finds beauty in the struggle. Abolitionist teachers fight for children they will never meet or see, because they are visionaries. They fight for a world that has yet to be created and for children’s dreams that have yet to be crushed by anti-Blackness.”
Abolitionist teachers are driven by desire, by sovereignty, by joy, by love, by rage, by relationships, by principle, by imagination, by struggle. And I feel all of these things as I sit with Mamá Fernanda, who is smiling and talking to me despite her pain. My time with her, like all of my time in Peru, is a “yes, and” experience, an experience that re-roots me in desire and freedom dreaming and an urgency to do more in my daily life to transform our world toward justice. And if nothing else, I hope that after a month in Peru, my students are also freedom dreaming about a world that is not yet, but will one day be.