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Local Heroes Series: Valentina Campos, Bolivia

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Julianne Chandler

Valentina Campos, who has served as our Homestay Coordinator in Tiquipaya since 2011, is moving on from her role with Dragons to pursue artistic and cultural projects in La Paz. She has been an essential part of our programming in Bolivia, and her presence in Tiquipaya will be dearly missed. Undoubtedly, she will stay connected to Dragons in the years to come, and we look forward to coordinating with her during future visits to La Paz.

Homestay mamas Doña Leticia and Doña Carlota with my (Julianne) daughter, Inara, and Valentina (right)

Valentina is well known in Bolivia as a painter, traditional chicha maker, and for her work with Andean cultural affirmation. Her striking paintings depict imagery of Pachamama, or Mother Earth, and the rituals of planting and harvest that shape the Andean calendar. These ancestral rituals help forge an intimate bond of reciprocity and respect for the natural landscape, a defining component of Andean spirituality and worldview. Valentina is a powerful embodiment of that relationship, and the reproduction and celebration of Quechua rituals and traditions informs every aspect of her life.

The tapestry of that way of life is rich and varied, and is central to what captured my own heart when I first moved to the Andes. For Valentina, cultural affirmation includes the traditional elaboration of chicha, an ancient fermented corn drink; collective child-rearing and the construction of communal spaces of reciprocity and exchange; documentary work to preserve and share Andean wisdom and ritual; the practice of weaving and textile traditions; and participation in agricultural cycles and production. Like the mesmerizing layers of her paintings, these practices are interwoven seamlessly into her daily life and relationships.

I feel deeply honored to have had the chance to be a part of these cycles and practices over the past decade, as Valentina and I have worked together to build and nurture the Dragons community in Tiquipaya and Cochabamba. In the late northern summer of 2011, we walked the dusty roads of Apote, Totorkawa, Colpapampa together to set up our first homestay families. Sitting in shaded patios and adobe kitchens, we explained the concept of a “homestay” to confused families and scouted potential program houses tucked away in agricultural fields. It was not a likely site for a student travel program, and that is precisely what makes our community so unique and dear. All these years later, our homestay siblings have grown from young children to adolescents, having grown up with Dragons students at the family table.

Those exchanges, conversations, misunderstandings, and unexpected friendships shaped their formative years and their worldviews, just as we hope the experience of cultural exchange will shift the lives of our students. Together, Valentina and I have hosted countless homestay gatherings and celebrations, received hundreds of calls from worried homestay mamas when students are late to arrive home, and coordinated innumerable independent study projects. With Valentina’s eye and guidance and seemingly endless collection of contacts we’ve breathed life into 7 different program and staff houses, coaxing plants out of parched earth, building kitchens and composting toilets, and laughing over Q’oa rituals and community meals, and weaving workshops on the grass with Doña Carlota and Doña Leticia and their children.

A  ritual Q’oa  offering to give thanks to Mother Earth

None of this would have been possible without Valentina’s grace, her deep-rooted relationships in this place, without her joy and creativity. When we talk about the work done “behind the scenes” in the field of intercultural education, we are talking about a lifetime of bonds and rituals and community building carried out by Valentina — and so many other homestay coordinators and community contacts — that give meaning to our work and tenderness to the experience of a student walking into a home in a new community and language and way of life. When those students create connections with an independent study mentor, when their hearts are pierced by a simple moment of understanding with a homestay sibling, when they are moved by the afternoon light cascading across the Tunari mountainside as they make their way home, Valentina is there.

In no small part, Valentina is the reason I moved from the city to semi-rural Tiquipaya 8 years ago. She was in the room when my first daughter was born, and her wisdom and friendship have greatly enriched my life. I always believed that Valentina would never leave Tiquipaya, that her dark long braid and old fashioned bicycle would inhabit these streets forever. However, she is a creator and community-builder and it is time for her to plant seeds into the earth elsewhere. In a brief moment of pause between quarantines, she packed her easels and giant ceramic cantaritos for fermenting chicha into a truck and headed for La Paz. I am excited for this next chapter in her journey. And her presence on these country roads still lingers in the air.

The Wallunka festival, celebrated in November of each year after Todos Santos. Valentina has organized an annual Wallunka celebration in the community for many years.

Interview with Valentina Campos
(translated by the author, Julianne Chandler)

You have been coordinating homestays and independent study projects for Dragons participants for almost 10 years. Can you describe some highlights of that experience?

The homestay experience has been exciting for me, receiving each group was a completely new experience. The work has always been very integrated with our own lived experience with the community, in coexistence with the shared upbringing of our wawas (children). It has been very rich in various directions, especially for me and many of the families/friends and our children, now teenagers, who have learned and have opened up to relate to the difference and diversity that enriches us.

And some challenges?

It is true that it has not always been easy and fluid to relate with one another. All of us have had some degree of challenges with students who came with certain personal conditioning that sometimes when mixed with our social situations complicated the coexistence. But we have all learned a lot from those experiences!

Your two children never attended school, and you have raised them using methods from the Unschooling Movement. Can you briefly describe the upbringing of your children? Do you feel that it has any relation to the “experiential education” methods promoted by Dragons?

It has been very enriching for everyone in my family, even for the grandmothers who initially opposed the idea! Now we all realize that it has been the best decision and personally the best one I have made in my life after the decision to give birth at home. The most important thing about their upbringing through natural learning has been allowing them to grow up with their imagination as intact as possible so that they now know for themselves what they want to be, what they came to life for. It has been a true path of unlearning for us adults. What they value most in life now as young people is living in community and that makes me feel fulfilled, happy.

Yes, I think there is a strong relationship, such as the attitude of mutual learning, reciprocity, cooperation and community coexistence that Dragons has promoted in many experiences and shares a lot with our form of natural upbringing.

You recently moved to the outskirts of the city of La Paz to deepen your work in collective cultural affirmation. What does this work consist of?

Our project Uywana Wasi is a community of shared knowledge and learning experiences. It was created by compañeras-os (friends/comrades) from diverse Bolivian contexts 12 years ago in the town of Totorkawa, Cochabamba.

Our space is centered in community upbringing which is a principle of Andean worldview. The spirit and intention is focused on cultural affirmation, comprised of people from different contexts to reclaim autonomy and responsibility for our own knowledge and learning towards “Allin Kawsay” or Living Well.

From the beginning, we have focused on creating spaces for exchange and reciprocity of knowledge, wisdom and everything that is created through the experience of coexistence.
In recent years, through our documentary “Wallunk’as Program,” we have deepened relationships with several communities in La Paz to the point of becoming very attached to the families. So we decided to relocate, coinciding with various personal changes that some of us have gone through, to be able to continue solidifying projects. On our website we share a little of everything we do and live.

You are a renowned painter and artist, and your work represents feminine symbols and rituals of planting from Andean cosmology. How would you describe your latest collection that is currently on display in California?

The series of my paintings is called “Siembra de Mamalas,” it is an affectionate name to describe the spirits of the seeds. Most of them are feminine and are treated as human. I have always been inspired by seeds, plants and all the myths and archetypes of nature. That is why I feel that this is an open/unfinished series because it is impossible to paint our biodiversity in its totality. At the same time, painting each species is like trying to immortalize them (many already in danger of extinction) and I try to manifest all their power. My gallery is: https://www.uywanawasi.org/pages/pinturas.html

The Wallunka festival, celebrated in November of each year after Todos Santos. The Wallunka swing is believed to be a portal between the world of the living and the world of the dead. Valentina has organized an annual Wallunka celebration in the community for many years.

Now that you are leaving Dragons, do you have a message or any advice for the Dragons community?

First, I would like to thank you all enormously for the opportunity you have extended to me and my family all these years. My brother Tim was the one who extended his hand and made the connection between communities. He also connected me to Julianne as a fellow sister, collaborating in complicity for many years so that we’ve had unforgettable experiences together.
I feel like we have joined our communities mutually and I hope we don’t take this “leaving” thing seriously. Here I am —you have us, and we would like to continue sharing our experiences from where we are, whenever possible.

To all the students with whom I have had the opportunity to share, I send my gratitude. And to the instructors and wider community with whom I’ve built a friendship, we will continue to share and be in contact with each other. I wish everyone times of regeneration, healing and growth.

With all my love from the Andes,


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