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From the Appalachians to Potosi 

An unofficial ambassador for the insurgent cultures of the Americas speaks

La Paz, Bolivia -- April, 2000. The government declares a state of emergency. Bolivians' disgust over rising water rates, unemployment, coca crop eradication, unemployment, and other economic difficulties plaguing the Andean country of 8 million people results in protests and police mutinies. A series of national strikes and highway blockades is met with 20,000 government troops using both rubber bullets and live rounds. At least 10 are dead, hundreds injured and many jailed.

"Outside our bedroom we could see students and paramilitaries clashing for days and days," recalls Rick Herranen. "A half dozen times we had to leave our apartment to escape the clouds of tear gas." But Herranen, a poet and folk singer from East Tennessee, couldn't escape the sociopolitical realities that unfolded outside his window. "We couldn't help but get caught up in it," he says. "It was the culmination of a series of events that led me to hunker down at the typewriter and hash out ideas that I later framed under the heading of 'Puentes'."

Puentes, or Bridges, is a cross-cultural exchange program designed to open up new spheres of participation, communication and encounters among Las Americas. Herranen believes that artistic reciprocity and intercultural dialogue are the most vital avenues toward a more profound understanding of the social, economic and humanitarian issues that bind us all together.

"Our goal is to encourage a deeper level of artistic encounters and respectful cultural dissemination," says Herranen. "We want to actively address the lack of vital information of any given nation -- be it Bolivia or the United States -- and their live traditions, artistic wealth and cultural heritage."

Puentes operates under the auspices of UNESCO. In between networking trips to Washington, D.C. as a voluntary liaison with UNESCO, Herranen is spending the winter in Colorado Springs.

Herranen and the artists and activists working with Puentes have been described as "the unofficial ambassadors of the insurgent cultures of the Americas." This is an apt description, given that Herranen's definition of insurgency is not confined to a military context, but resides on a cultural and artistic level. It is about knowledge and understanding. "It means expanding one's cultural context," says Herranen. "I see insurgent moments and individuals in the Harlem Renaissance, in Pablo Neruda's poetry, in the lives of Emiliano Zapata and Sojourner Truth."

Of his own life and the complicated path that took him to the land-locked Andean nation of Bolivia, Herranen says, "It all began in the Southern Appalachians."

The poet spent his formative years in an area stretching from Atlanta up through East Tennessee. In what he describes as a series of "lunges and stumbles back and forth across the United States," Herranen traveled, made music and worked a series of odd jobs. One of those jobs was selling Christmas trees every winter in Arizona. "Each year for six years I would come into contact with a wide array of marginalized people from that surrounding community," he says. "One year I met a homeless fellow, a Vietnam veteran. He was a musician as well, and he blessed me, gave me back some of my power just by what he expressed in his simple, poetic way."

His friend died of heat stroke. "He's just one of those people, one of the many that slip through the cracks," says Herranen. "And that had a profound impact on me. He was the person who told me to go to Mexico."

But there were other indicators in Herranen's life, especially his musical and poetic life, that pointed south. In his own examination of his art, he uncovered a genealogy of singers and poets, a distinct trail of artistic cause and effect. The trail began in junior high school with Bruce Springsteen, who led to Woody Guthrie, who opened the door to Walt Whitman, who then provided an introduction to Pablo Neruda. Neruda then offered Herranen all of Latin America.

In 1997, Herranen followed all the signs and found himself in Guanajuato, in the central highlands of Mexico. It was there that he fell in love. "She and I literally crossed paths on the street," he recalls of the day he met his future wife, Valentina Campos. "And it came at a very pivotal moment in my life. I was trying to reckon with my own poetry and music and the years of stumbling across the United States.

"My wife Valentina is a survivor of the dirty war of the 1970s in Bolivia," says Herranen. "And that became an important piece of the puzzle of my life, to fall in love with a woman whose story is so complex, whose story is born out of that whole reality of dictatorships, oppression and exile." When they met, Herranen and Campos had no common language. "That proved to be one of the most liberating experiences," he says of that time without the linguistic tools we take for granted in our daily lives. "Language seemed to topple down around us and reduce things to their essence."

The next year, Herranen and Campos made their way back to Bolivia. "I took my guitar with me and was writing the whole time," he says. "And I was asked to open for a local folk group in La Paz. We were all very open to other influences, vital influences we hadn't been exposed to before. At its core, folk music is a seed bin for political and historical views. A peoples' collective memory lives inside folk music, be it the musical traditions of the Andes or the Appalachians.

"Working with art is a way to open up channels of communication," says Herranen. "You can't talk about art and culture without talking about everything else, like human rights, politics, and women's issues."

Campos, a painter and papermaker, is heading a papermaking project, Tierra Viva, at Lake Titicaca. "It is a vital opportunity to assist at a basic level and bring about socioeconomic empowerment," says Herranen. "The paper is made from a reed used since pre-Incan times and covered in coca leaves -- two facts that carry a cultural punch. There's information and knowledge locked up in these plants.

"In 1999 I had the opportunity to perform at an assembly of indigenous farmers and miners," recalls Herranen. "There was dust in the air; they had rucksacks on their shoulders. Some of the campesinos -- farmers and country folk -- had marched for a week to get there." In addition to singing some of his own songs, he translated two Woody Guthrie tunes into Spanish and subsequently into the Indian language of Aymara. "It was an extremely pivotal moment for me to proclaim my solidarity," says Herranen of the performance. He feels the songs of Woody Guthrie offer Bolivians a North America they could never imagine amidst the onslaught of consumerist pop culture -- a place with vital populist and radical traditions.

One of Herranen's projects under the heading of Puentes is Musica y Poesia desde Los Appalachians hasta Potosi -- Music and Poetry from the Appalachians to Potosi. The silver mines of Potosi, worked by indigenous miners under the colonial control of the Spanish since 1545, helped to fuel capitalism as we know it today. It is currently one of the poorest regions in Bolivia. The similarities in the mining and musical history of the Appalachians and Potosi jumped out at Herranen. In the name of artistic reciprocity and intercultural dialogue, Herranen is planning an exchange of artists from both regions.

"We believe that the construction of bridges of understanding and solidarity will lead to a greater level of peace and prosperity in all Las Americas," says Herranen. "All the way from the Appalachians to Potosi." p

For more information, or to offer support for Herranen's Puentes project, send e-mail to: bridges_puentes@yahoo.com

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