A performance for life

How Alejandra Borrero helps women overcome sexual violence through the arts.

Alejandra Borrero
Alejandra Borrero

Alejandra Borrero is a diva of the Colombian stage. In fact, during a recent trip to Cannes, she was introduced as the “Catherine Deneuve of Colombia” and ushered to the front row for a movie screening.

Unlike many who aspire to reach the upper echelons of an industry where “it is very difficult to make a living,” Borrero downplays her achievements, despite having founded her own theatre, Casa E, and studied under the legendary dramaturgist Enrique Buenaventura.

To say she “made it” is an understatement given the long line of theatregoers waiting to enter Casa E for a performance on a rainy Friday in the Parkway district of the capital.

Alejandra Borrero holds one of the white rag dolls she uses to help women sort through the traumas of sexual violence. (Photo by Richard Emblin)
Alejandra Borrero holds one of the white rag dolls she uses to help women sort through the traumas of sexual violence. (Photo by Richard Emblin)

Born and raised in southern Colombia, within the white-walled city of Popayan, Borrero got her start in acting after graduating from the drama faculty of the Universidad del Valle. This was the era of “Caliwood,” a term coined for a burgeoning film industry that delved into a social causes involving Colombia’s industrial heartland.

One of Caliwood’s pioneers, Carlos Mayolo, cast Borrero in his full-length feature “Carne de tu carne” and mini-series on sugarcane called “Azucar.” But the salsa- frenzied life of Cali and being surrounded by the most avant-guard of directors wasn’t her life calling.

The actress took time off and headed stateside. But the “idiosyncrasy” of the country she had left behind would mark her and result in a movement to draw attention to gender abuse in her native country.

Unspoken tragedies

Sexual harassment and abuse is a global scourge and, sadly, Colombia is no exception when it comes to silencing gender-related violence. Rape in war is a devastating weapon, and in this country, after enduring more than a half century of internal conflict, too many victims emerge, each story as horrific as the next.

But given the intimate nature of the crime, rape becomes corrosive, destroying the social fabric, alienating women from being productive, tearing away at the family structure.

Borrero had the stage and workshops within her own theatre to create a new platform for social healing and reconciliation. She called it “Casa E-Social.”

Having grown up in a conservative payane?s household where sexual abuse cases were known yet white-washed like the city’s walls, she recalled a very Colombian refrain and stern warning from parents “Ni con el pe?talo de una rosa” – girls cannot be touched “not even with the petals of a rose.”

The phrase was protection, and Borrero wanted to resuscitate it back into the popular vernacular.

The phrase became the umbrella slogan for Borrero’s first collective exhibition on sexual violence titled “Mimesis del cuerpo” in which women displaced from the armed conflict, alongside well-known artists, were asked to express their abuse using plain, white-cloth dolls.

The results were startling and terrifying. The first 300 dolls were returned burnt, torn, bound, and gagged. One even came back buried up to her neck in cement.

Just one year after inaugurating her theatre in 2008, the dolls were exhibited.

“Sexual child abuse is just one of many forms of violence women endure, and we wanted to talk about all forms of violence. So what better way to start than with all the arts,” said Borrero.

Trophies of war

The tragic reality that violence in Colombia is a common practice of war and matched by other countries with a grim history towards women, such as Rwanda, Congo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Even more recently, the selling of young Yezidi girls as sexual slaves for ISIS combatants or the abduction of hundreds of schoolgirls by Nigeria’s Boko Haram reveal that closing this chapter is far from over and can never go unpunished.

Closer to home, a spate of acid attacks against women in Bogota? shows this violence as latent and can strike across the social spectrum at any time.

“Nine out of every 10 victims of violence in Colombia are women,” states Borrero. “Women in Colombia are a trophy of war.”

Borrero hit the road, talking to the national media about sexual abuse and presenting the statistics.

“We put a large grain of sand to make sure gender violence became part of the public debate.”

Women perform as part of Casa E-Social. (Photo provided)
Women perform as part of Casa-E Social. (Photo provided)

Celebrities began receiving rag dolls and helped catapult the issue beyond much-needed headlines.

Even though Borrero is optimistic that peace can be achieved in Colombia, this won’t necessarily lead to a significant reduction in levels of violence across the nation, as 90% is domestic and gang related.

But art can make a difference in the lives of victims. This is the mission statement of Casa-E Social and the #Niconelpe?talodeunarosa campaign on social media.

“People come to see the dolls and break down crying,” said Borrero.

Expanding awareness

After four important exhibitions and the support of the country’s Victims Unit and Bogota?’s mayoralty, Casa-E Social’s rag-doll collection has grown to 1,500 with contributions from around the world. With each doll there’s a story, proof of victimization, and struggle for some sense of personal healing.

Then came the exhibition “Cuerpo y castigo” (Body and Punishment), documented by leading photographers, that looked at the emotional and physical scars of abuse. The dolls, the black-and-white images, and performance workshops with victims of violence, began to define a “transformative” theatre grounded in social awareness and gender rights.

Six years after launching her campaign for girls and women, Casa-E Social hosted the first edition of #Niconelpetalodeunarosa theatre festival in 2014, presenting plays and monologues by leading production companies across Colombia and Latin America.

This year, the company hosts its third edition, from November 20 to 27, with an impressive cast of actors and performances.

Theatre for social change became Borrero’s calling. She took it on the road, performing in regions of the country that have suffered the brunt of violence, from the slums of Buenaventura to the sugarcane expanse of El Arenillo in Valle del Cauca department.

In 2000, after taking the town of El Arenillo, paramilitaries committed mass rape over five years, forcing the local women to leave the doors of their homes open so they could prey on them and their daughters. In 2015, Borrero traveled to the town and, in a symbolic act with the local women, “healed the earth” by planting trees and presiding over an emotional ceremony that coincided with the United Nations’ International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

“This has given my life such meaning,” states Botero. “The fact that I am famous has opened door for me to help others.”

Borrero’s team-led movement has raised the conscience of the Colombian people to their past and shown that healing is possible thanks to a doll and, through another creative concept, thinking outside the box.

The healing kits

Borrero removes a lid on four thin, cardboard walls filled with family mementos, a faded photograph, and an elastic rubber foot. An unknown man is seen embracing loved ones, the foot a miniature of the real one he lost stepping on an anti-personnel mine.

In another box, from Choco?, there are miniature dolls, another family photo, and a polished stone. It was the very stone a young girl clutched while paramilitaries raped her and her grandmother pleaded for mercy.

“Sana que Sana” (healing that heals) workshops, in which victims create their own “healing kits,” became a campaign representative of all Colombia. Each is a trove of memories and personal suffering.

But there is a thread that unites each box: the search to end violence against women.

“We must believe that we can change and transform this country,” said Botero, her voice more emphatic with every syllable.

We arrive at VICTUS, an ongoing project created by the Borrero that involves combatants who fought for the military, the police, paramilitaries, FARC, ELN, and civilian victims of the armed conflict. She brings them together in a laboratory of healing exchanges, each protagonist with a story to tell and an embrace to fill.

None have ever had any formal training as actors, but they know their parts all too well and take the stage at Casa-E Social for heart-rending performances that include song, dance, and candle-lighting.

Shakespeare wrote that “all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” If that is true, then Colombians are watching VICTUS intently. We all must “play our part” for peace. This message is more urgent now than ever, as Colombia cannot relapse to the violence of its past.

With the art-performance initiatives of this high-profile actress, the stage for reconciliation is set. “We cannot live with fear forever, for in every corner of this country there is a place of suffer- ing,” said Borerro. “We must turn on the light.”


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