Making the World

A Conversation with Sayra Pinto

Sayra Pinto is an advocate for social justice and the former director of the VIA Project, a unique “street school” of Roca, Inc., a community-building organization in Chelsea, Massachusetts. Sayra’s childhood in Honduras and youth as an immigrant teenager in America helped to prepare her for her career. She is a graduate of Middlebury College and attended graduate school in Spanish language and literature. Sayra was interviewed by the Center's Patti Marxsen in 2004.


PM: Tell me about your childhood.

SP: I was raised in Honduras and left by my mother when I was two. I was born out of a rape so there was a lot of drama and trauma around my birth.

PM: What are your first memories?

SP: When I was about three or four I was at the ocean in an inflatable inner tube. I looked down into the water and I fell into the ocean. It was deeper than I thought, so I ended up at the bottom and no one noticed.

PM: How did you get back to the top?

SP: I remember sitting on the bottom of the ocean and looking up at the sun. I remember the sand and water and emptiness. I looked up and I realized that I couldn’t breathe and I didn’t know what to do. Then I heard the voice that said, “Calm down.”

PM: Calm down?

SP: Yes, because I was starting to panic. I heard a woman’s voice say, “Calm down.” Then she told me to stand up and I stood up. She told me to move my arms and I moved my arms and finally she told me to just reach up.

PM: It wasn’t an actual person calling to you?

SP: No.

PM: Do you believe in angels?

SP: I believe in spirits. I believe that we are not alone.

PM: What was your home like?

SP: I have a brother who grew up with me and three cousins, who were also left by their parents. We lived in grandma’s house. My aunt was a nurse so she worked to sustain the household. We grew up in a lower middle-class neighborhood in a town that developed around the banana plantations. It’s a mile away from the airport where all the U.S. planes were landing, loaded with weapons that poured into Honduras to help control what was happening in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Honduras is a very strategic place for the United States so there has always been this militarized presence.

PM: How did the civil wars going on around Honduras affect daily life?

SP: There were refugees. There was also a clear investment in making sure that Honduras didn’t go towards the left. That meant a lot of social control; people lived in fear. For example, we didn’t have freedom of the press until 1992.

PM: How did you experience this atmosphere as a child?

SP: There was a fair amount of violence in the community and because I grew up in a household with no men, it was a vulnerable household. I am a survivor of sexual abuse and rape. The educational system was very controlling as well. I have always been a little bit of a rule breaker, so I experienced a lot of punishment around freedom of expression.

PM: Your grandmother, Herminia Pinto, was the center of your household. What did you learn from her that has helped you in your adult life?

SP: She was in a wheelchair, so we had to find a way to take care of grandma every day. But she created a sense of connection that we otherwise would not have had.

PM: It’s interesting that a person who might be considered helpless would provide the connection that kept you all together.

SP: She was indigenous, and we were growing up in an environment where things were changing. She was almost like the voice of the elders for us. She commanded respect.

PM: Did you go to church?

SP: My brother and I ended up in a Catholic school; there were many dynamics that were really painful about that because we were orphans and there was a perception of orphans as damned.

PM: When did you learn the story of how your mother rejected you and, ultimately, abandoned you because you were a child of rape?

SP: I was 24 when my mother told me.

PM: You were 12 years old when you came to the United States to be reunited with your mother. Then you migrated to the Boston area where you had other family members. What special problems have you faced as a Latin-American woman in American society?

Central-American people are deeply connected to their indigenous inheritance.SP: “Latin-American” refers to such a varied group of people. You have people who have legal status and people who don’t. You have people who become citizens and people who are born citizens. Then you have cultural differences, depending on where you come from. For example, Central-American people are deeply connected to their indigenous inheritance, and there are some fundamental differences in the way indigenous people move through their lives, as opposed to Western ways of moving through life. Values are different, families are different. It’s not necessarily about political practice, but about simple ways of being.

PM: Can you share an example?

SP: Central-American culture is very formal and relies on an honor system. In Latino-Caribbean culture, people are far more relational. People tend to feel more connected if they have fun together, as opposed to very formal ways of building relationships. There is a real clash because of that. You might be really nice and you might have a lot of fun, but that doesn’t mean you are gaining respect and prestige in a community where formality matters more than fun.

PM: How have your own indigenous origins helped or hindered your adaptation to American culture?

SP: I think my cultural background helped me be open and remain innocent for a very long time because of our appreciation of the sacredness of each being. I don’t believe my cultural background hindered any adaptation process, though American culture’s trend of intolerance, xenophobia, and rejection has damaged me . . . and continues to exert pressure on me as I keep choosing to remain open, versus materialistic, untrusting, and judgmental of people in this country. I think I feel this pressure most when I make decisions based on principles and values versus personal gain.

PM: And yet you feel committed to carving out a place for yourself, and for your people.

SP: Yes, because the world needs us. Us, from the heart out. This is risky because we have had to learn to hide to save ourselves from the savage actions of people who are part of American culture and subscribe to the idea of Western expansion. Yet, given the state of the world, it’s also risky not to unleash our voices, our hearts, and our hopes. So we are walking a tightrope, along with the rest of the world.

PM: Does being a woman make a difference when it comes to cultural adaptation?

SP: Within my immediate family and cultural milieu, I’ve had to justify being publicly engaged because the proper women’s role is private in my culture. The other complication is that I am openly lesbian. My family has reflected upon my experience and translated that into their lives. It has brought us closer and this has made them happier in their own personal lives. The women in the family, and even my brother, have become more free as a result of my coming out. It’s been liberating for them.

PM: In so many ways it sounds as if you are leading your family along the path. You are the trailblazer.

SP: It’s a more complex picture than that. I think each of the five of us who grew up in my grandmother’s house and then came to this country is trying to figure life out. As we do this, we are liberating the elders in our family.

PM: Who have been your mentors, and do you think it’s important for young people to have mentors?

Mentors are important because they can help young people to sustain a sense of newness about the world.SP: My fourth grade teacher was the first man who treated me kindly and who encouraged me to use my voice. The aunt who raised me was in love with her work and was passionate about helping others, so I learned from her to take the harder journey for peace of mind. Molly Baldwin, Roca’s executive director, helped me understand the price of leadership and dedication to those who are at the margins of our society. And Bud Tackett, Judy Brown, and Grandmother Georgina Larocque ushered me into a new understanding of the indigenous in all of us, and into the courage it takes to be value-driven and faith-based. I have been very blessed by all their contributions to my life. Mentors are important because they can help young people to sustain a sense of newness about the world and, so, to maximize their creativity.

PM: In addition to the wonderful mentors you just mentioned, there is something about your character or your spiritual outlook that allowed you to open yourself to all the positive changes that have come about for you. What do you think that something is?

SP: I had a very strong base with my aunt and with school. School was very important. Then there’s also this sense of having been meant to do great things. I don’t know where that came from but it has always been there.

PM: Let’s talk about your work with the VIA Project. First of all, what is it?

SP: The best way to explain it is to say it’s a street school that no one can get kicked out of, a learning space for gang members and street kids. VIA stands for vision, intention, action. It offers a continuum of learning capacity from the street to the classroom and to work.

PM: How did you get kids off the street and into a classroom?

SP: It’s a long process depending on trauma, substance abuse issues, learning styles, skills, street involvement. You have to build relationships first and then, little by little, we ask people to think about what they need to do for themselves.

PM: What have you learned about empowering young people?

SP: It’s about listening and being open and loving them. It’s about doing what you say you are going to do, so they can trust you and learn to trust themselves.

PM: Yes, but what are you empowering them for?

SP: I would not say I am “empowering youth.” I am sharing my journey with young people and they are sharing and enriching mine. Young people are making choices all the time and most of them want to live. They want to know what clean air is, and water, and earth. They want to see animals and be connected to the life of this planet. They need adults to walk with them and share knowledge, stories, love, and compassion, so they can learn how to sustain the world in the future.

PM: What will the next step on your journey be?

SP: I’m inviting various communities to launch a new organization that will focus at first on Latino youth development and the use of indigenous practices for community building. Ideally, it will become a learning ground for other communities. We’re calling it the Praxis Project. Praxis is a word coined by my biggest intellectual mentor, Paolo Freire, to depict the process where theory and practice merge.

PM: You have said that if you were not doing what you do now, you would be a professor of literature. What purpose does literature serve in the world?

SP: I think of it as a repository of memory. I’m really fascinated with the connection between time and space in literature. That comes from Mikhail Bakhtin, who spent the bulk of his life in prison in Siberia. His idea of a novel has to do with carnival. When you have a society where you have carnival, everything gets suspended for the purpose of the carnival. The sense of time and order and social customs get suspended for the activities of carnival. One of the things that happens in carnival is that under-the- surface expressions of culture come to the surface and are expressed in very dramatic, artistic, and theatrical ways. Think of Mardi Gras in New Orleans or of carnivals in the Caribbean islands and just in general. You have a suspension of the norm. Yet, the things that inhabit carnival are the most real of all things, and the true impulses of human nature come out in the mix. The novel is really one of the few spaces that reminds me of community space because, although measured in its intent, source, and form, the life of the novel extends beyond ordinary frameworks and interacts differently in the minds of both reader(s) and author(s).  This effect reminds me very much of the nature of ongoing life in community, where change occurs also in relationship to time/space dynamics. This creates a baseline instability that extends beyond whatever systems of monitoring, policing, or control the government and/or any other institutions place upon these very fluid networks.

PM: If you could put a message in the pocket of every kid on the planet, what would it say?

SP: You make the world.

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