Cultures do not dialogue, people dialogue

Inter-cultural, between cultures. It is a conversation between two equals, who look at each other and recognize each other as complex human beings, who discover in each other the depth of their desires, their fears, their hopes.

Cultures do not dialogue, people dialogue.

Indians do not dialogue with mestizos, nor do blacks dialogue with whites. When we reduce interculturality to relations between races or nationalities, we are taking a path that necessarily leads to confrontation, to the reification of the other, to stereotyping.

It is human beings who dialogue, human beings who find in the other a worthy interlocutor.

I remember with emotion when I read for the first time back in 1983 Martin Buber, the German Jewish philosopher who tried to explain the dehumanizing process that led to the devastation of World War II.  Buber argues that we impoverish the world by seeing in the other a category: the plumber, the soldier, the poor man, the father, the employee, the boss, the immigrant, the enemy, the artist. We impoverish it because we fail to look beyond the function, the category, the human being, with his delicious complexity and his personal history. We turn him into a thing, into an it.

Buber maintains that the only healthy, truly human relationship always occurs between an ‘I’ and a ‘you’, that is, two human beings who recognize each other, who meet, who truly look at each other, who put themselves in each other’s place, who marvel at the possibility of the other.

Buber says: “Each person born into the world represents something new, something that never existed before, something original and unique… if there had been a person like that before, there would have been no need for this new person to be born.

This conviction that each person represents something new, unique, original, is what sustains the imperative, vital need for dialogue. It is evident that the “I” is not enough because it does not include the infinite varieties of the “you”. The “I” is not enough, it is not enough. Shipwrecked man on an island does not build a language, nor affections, nor culture. We desperately need the you.

It is in the relationship with others, in this central relationship of ‘the me’ and ‘you’, that culture is born. Culture is the magic that occurs when human beings share, form a community… They share daily life, with its pains and losses, with its unexpected changes… and in the midst of the fundamental joy of affections.

Interculturality, in its deepest sense, is the dialogue between a “I” and a “you” that are bearers of culture, of bonds. Let us always remember that cultures do not dialogue, people do.

When we see interculturality as the relationship between worthy and complex human beings, it is a very rich source of meaning.

Quito IS its diversity, it has a very rich palette of colours. The city is not divided between whites and Indians and blacks, that is a simplification that does not help the discussion. As we saw in the work of Brazilian artist Angelica Dass that was presented in the Quito Pavilion during Habitat III, we are white-green and black-green, we are black, we are brown and coffee with milk and pink, we are Amazonian and Andean Indians. We are not talking about insurmountable borders but about ranges.

I don’t want to be naive. Racism is the skeleton in the closet, the topic we don’t dare to talk about. I, like many of us here, grew up hearing racist comments and thinking that my lighter skin automatically gave me certain rights and privileges. My grandfather, from Cuenca, a man of impeccable character but with very conservative ideas, had a wide range of classifications according to social status: Chaso, Cholo, Longo, Indian, Zambo, Mulatto, Black. And the one who wanted to move up in the ranks was simply an upstart. Of course, society has become much more democratic, less elitist and more tolerant, but there is still structural racism. Skin colour is still a kind of condemnation, a fate from which there is no escape. And racism still marks social and economic relations, relations of power.

If we have a minimum degree of intellectual honesty, we can recognize that interculturality is a minefield, and that underneath its glossy veneer of political correctness, the same old defects are present: racism, classism, gender violence, intolerance.

Interculturality is the crossroads that defines the Ecuador of the 21st century. And I speak of a crossroads because there is no political or social issue that is not in some way crossed by the question of identity and relations between different people.

The parameters for understanding interculturality are changing rapidly. Of all the cultural rights expressed in the Fribourg Declaration, and adopted by us through resolution A015 of Mayor Mauricio Rodas, the most philosophically charged is the right to cultural identity: “People have the right to build and maintain their own cultural identity, to decide on their membership in one or more cultural communities and to express those choices. No one may be forced to identify with or be assimilated into a cultural community against his or her will.

The idea is simple and powerful. Deciding which cultural community we belong to is a fundamental right. In other words, we can declare ourselves indigenous or mestizo, or members of an urban culture or citizens of the world. We can choose freely and that decision has to be welcomed with active, determined inclusion from the state.

If culture is a choice, it is also a celebration. It is what we decide, in full use of our will, to consider our own. What we choose to value and celebrate.

Tonight, together with you, I would like to celebrate the multiple identity of Quito, the varied faces of our Quito, to celebrate the diversity that we are.

First of all, I want to celebrate the intellect and creativity of those who will receive the most important cultural prizes awarded by the city tonight.

I also want to celebrate the “ito” of Quito… the sweetness that is characteristic of Quiteños. “Ito” is the ending we use in Spanish to say something softly or to express our affection. We say “be so kind, please, bring me a cafecito”. We make the decision to treat each other gently despite our differences, it’s the way we express who we are.

I want to celebrate the dances that animate our capariches and diablumas, the hypnotic songs of our popular festivals. I want to celebrate the rural communes and municipalities with their ancient traditions. I want to celebrate the afros of Quito and the rumble of their drums, the humour of their coplas. I want to celebrate this living historic centre whose reappropriation is one of our main policies. I want to celebrate our poets and the musicians who interpret our nostalgia… and also the electronics and the rockers and the hiphoperos and the guitar players. I want to celebrate the magic of our artisans and the delightfulness of our flavors. I want to celebrate the filmmakers and photographers, and the chroniclers who narrate our daily lives. I want to celebrate the contemporary artists who break the canons and offer us new perspectives, and the theatre people and dancers who give us the world upside down, from the wonderful possibility of the other.

I want to celebrate the culture of this city, the ingredient that makes us what we are, that allows us to dialogue with each other from the human side.

I want to celebrate culture as dialogue, as inter-relationship, and as our mayor often says, I want to celebrate culture as the greatest expression of freedom. On this day of interculturality, may we look at each other from the perspective of gentleness and generosity, from the perspective of the “ito” of Quito. I want to celebrate, friends, the powerful transforming capacity of the “I” and the “you” of two people when they meet and look into each other’s eyes and discover in each other something new, unique, that they have never seen before.