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Theater Came to Help: Creating a Spotlight on Human Rights

Professor Luis Ramos-Garcia builds creativity and connection, on campus and around the world.
November 15, 2017


Professor of Spanish and Portuguese studies Luis Ramos-Garcia has felt the echoing effects of his ancestors’ name throughout his life. 

“Five hundred years ago, the original last name of my family was ‘Kusi’ in Quechua. [It was the] name for ‘happy;’ people who make things to entertain. So my family was a family of entertainers,” he states. But rather than take the stage himself, Ramos-Garcia has studied, among other things, the use of theater and art in illuminating and preventing human rights abuses.

By using political theater as a form of education, he strives to increase public engagement in not only the local and national communities, but international communities as well.

International Human Rights and Theater

The lack of knowledge about Latin American human rights violations -- and how art can be used to address them -- has long motivated Professor Ramos-Garcia’s work. “Theater is doing something to bring attention to major problems within our societies,” he says.

A US citizen born in Peru, Ramos-Garcia has traveled throughout Latin America and Spain over the last two decades -- many times during great conflict -- and has seen firsthand the need for understanding through communication. 

He has worked with grassroots movements in Latin America that use theater to communicate to both sides of the political extremes, from far left to far right. 

Take Colombia. “Theater came to help,” Ramos-Garcia says. “Fifty-six years of killing each other. Two hundred thousand people killed. By working with people, presenting plays, creating discussions, and being in the middle of this whole thing in Colombia, we were part of the international and artistic movement to stop the war.” 

In 2016, as the only U.S. international delegate, he was present during the signing of the Colombian Peace agreement that he helped advocate for. 

On Campus

As well as his work abroad, Ramos-Garcia has been a force on campus. When teaching courses like Human Rights & Theater and US Latino Theater, Ramos-Garcia asks his students to do critical analyses of political plays to better understand their historical contexts. He says that rather than focusing on the romance or melodrama of the plays, he wants his students to focus on the historical circumstances and keep the memories of the past alive. 

In 1995, he founded "The State of Iberoamerican Studies Series: Human Rights Across the Disciplines", a forum for theoretical discussions and dialogue that supports symposia that bring together traditional scholarly disciplines with contemporary cultural discourses.

“Back then when we created this program, we had in mind to create these connections. That’s at the base of everything. And we didn’t have financial help or any kind of publicity. We brought outstanding Latin American scholars, artists, and theater groups to Minnesota,” he says. “We went for 18 years with a budget of about 800 bucks.” 

But last fall, Ramos-Garcia received not only a President’s Award for Outstanding Service and a CLA Joan Aldous Award, but also a Grand Challenges Research grant, one of the University’s most competitive grants. Through the grant, Ramos-Garcia aims to extend the work of "The State of Iberoamerican Studies Series: Human Rights Across the Disciplines" and dig deeper into his collaborative research both here and abroad.

Building on Success

For 22 years, Ramos-Garcia has organized “The State of Iberoamerican Studies Series: Human Rights Across the Disciplines,” an annual symposium to bring attention to Latin American issues. This year’s event took place in October and consisted of art exhibitions, musical interventions, roundtable discussions, a full-day academic symposium featuring well-published researchers and artists, as well as two performances by La Candelaria, a 52-year-old Colombian theater group with whom Ramos-Garcia has worked for many years. 

La Candelaria’s performance (SOMA MNEMOSINE) was written and staged by Patricia Ariza, one of the most acclaimed theater directors in Latin America. Ariza has spent her career advocating for human rights -- specifically women’s rights -- and has won multiple awards across the world for her work in political activism and social movements. 

She is also among the team members for the Grand Challenges grant. “We were the first ones who brought [Ariza] here ten years ago,” says Ramos-Garcia, “She has so much knowledge, and so much experience. I’ve followed her hands-on and on-site techniques as I developed a clear cut research approach of my own.” 

Since being chosen for the Grand Challenges grant, Ramos-Garcia has developed big plans for "The State of Iberoamerican Studies Series" as well as their partner program, Voice to Vision, which is directed by Associate Professor David Feinberg in the art department. Next year, these programs are heading to Colombia with a team of artists, scholars, painters, union leaders, government representatives, and undergraduate students to represent their work internationally and perform research on site.

“The name of Minnesota is appearing in places it’s never been before. As a research institution, we, as Minnesota scholars and artists, have something to show the world,” says Ramos-Garcia. “We wouldn’t be able to do that without support from the Grand Challenges. It was an honor to be selected.”