Cocalero and the Qualities of a Leader (reflections on Bolivia Part III)

So turns out Cocalero is available to watch in segments on youtube. Yay!!! Also just so happens that there’s a really interesting little segment at the end of part 2 of 10 about leadership, and what it takes to be a leader. The context is a meeting of FECAMTROP (Federación Campesina de Mujeres del Trópico), a women’s cocalera (coca farmer) union in Chapare, outside of Cochabamba. It’s election time, and the women have gathered to select a new head of the organization. As the women prepare to cast their votes, a man stands up and gives a brief speech about what does, and what does not, constitute a leader.

Compañeras y compañeros, para ser líder no se necesita estatura. No se necesita ser alto, ni rubio. Para ser líder, ¿hay que ser ingéniero, doctor o abogado? No. Entonces, para ser líder, la cualidad personal no tiene que ver con su formación. Puede haber compañeras y compañeros que por no haber podido ir a la escuela, no escriban bien. Entonces, no necesariamente él que escribe mejor va a ser un buen líder. Cuando vamos a elegir un líder del sindicato, no buscamos nada de esto. Pero si nos fijamos en su honestidad.

Comrades, to be a leader you don’t need height. You don’t have to be tall, or blond. To be a leader, do you have to be an engineer, a doctor, or a lawyer? No. So, the personal qualities needed to be a leader have nothing to do with external characteristics (physical or social). There may be comrades who, for want of access to education, do not write well. So the best writer is not necessarily the best leader. When we elect a leader of the union, we don’t look for any of this. But we do focus on honesty.

In Latin America–like in many parts of the world–the more European one appears, the more favorable discrimination one will encounter. The blonds in my exchange program often get stopped or chased down by random Chileans on the street, eager to practice their English or make a gringo friend. Just yesterday, a tall blue-eyed classmate commented that an old woman had seen him the other day, stared for a good several minutes, and then said “Ay…que guapo!!!” although they didn’t know one another. It’s a fairly normal occurrence. The guy is handsome, don’t get me wrong, but one of our Chilean professors commented that these instances have way more to do with the Chilean psyche, and it’s relation to extranjeros than to the actual physical appearance of any of the students. Personally, I’ve noticed that when my (almond-shaped) eyes are covered by sunglasses or the like, I can move through the city without a single stare or comment. As soon as the glasses come off though, I have to steel myself for comments about the appeal of the razas asiáticas. All because with the removal of my “disguise”  I am no longer another short dark-haired/fair-skinned woman on the metro but an exoticized “Other.” To be fair, it’s not all that different from in the U.S.  But to make a long story short, the first several characteristics negated by this fellow in the movie speak specifically to the exaltation of the European (as more civilized, as more intelligent, as more capable), while the following ones speak more to the more subtle sides of imposed Occidental authority, particularly formal education.

Now, this isn’t to say I don’t believe in education and the power/importance of education. However, there are many different types of education and the valorization of one type over another (particularly when there are powerful and unequal determining factors that control access to the most highly-valued form, such as poverty or any of the -isms) converts education from a tool of empowerment to a weapon of oppression.

In the U.S., this is represented by the divide between public and private schools,  often reinforced by racial and socioeconomic disparities. Our society’s over-valorization of book-learning and the ability to regurgitate information onto a standardized multiple-choice test creates an artificial divide that allows us to over-value the successful progeny and producers of this system (private schools) while negating the value of those who don’t (public schools). It permits us to write-off students who don’t do well in this environment as inherent failures–lazy or just plain stupid–and focus on those who do flourish, even though those “smart” individuals may not necessarily be the most “useful” to our society. Case in point: Thomas Edison who was kicked out of school in first grade.

On a global scale, this same ideology allows us to write off entire nations and peoples as lazy or just plain stupid when poverty or other social factors prevent or hinder the uptake  of formal Occidental schooling. We justify political-economic-cultural imperialism on “intelligence” arguments that have little to do with actual intelligence, but a lot to do with the valorization of one cosmovision over another (“intellectual imperialism”). In the case of FECAMTROP, Occidental metrics of intelligence are irrelevant. The ability to read, write, or perform well on a test don’t necessarily equate with the ability to lead a coca-growers union. Here, a more organic metric is needed–honesty–or what in modern business/leadership jargon, one might call “integrity.” So…question of the day…how do we construct a metric for integrity?

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