(Watch the corresponding documentary: "Comfortable With Chaos")
Pati Hernandez does not celebrate the work she does. She said in her interview, “I can’t feel proud about what I do. Because it’s very painful... what people have to go through.” The name she created, “Telling My Story,” may make her program sound like some kind of feel-good storytelling experience, but in reality Pati created an extremely uncomfortable, transformational platform on which she pushes outcast and privileged alike to share the most shameful aspects of his or her inner world with strangers.
Pati's passion for giving people an opportunity to fully express themselves stems from her own oppressed upbringing. She was raised under the dictatorship of Pinochet in Chile. She still remembers the day, as a young girl, she came to the realization that she had deep hate in her heart for Pinochet. She said she realized one day that he would never leave, so decided she had to.
On hearing she was making the bold move to Canada to liberate herself from the dictatorship, where she knew only one person, Pati's Chilean girlfriends threw her a goodbye tea party; she displayed the first evidence of her fearlessness as she reminisced to us: “One of them asked me, 'But Pati, aren’t you afraid?"
Pati said, '’Why?”
Her friend said, ‘'Well, do you speak English?'’
Pati said, '’No.'’
She asks, '’So aren’t you afraid you won’t be able to communicate with people?"
Pati laughed as she thought of it and said to her friend, "that’s okay, I have my hands!"
Her friend responded, "Oh no, I would never dare to do that-- I would hide under my bed. I’ll just stay here with my mom and my tea."
Pati said to us, "It was such a comment that it always stayed with me- and it was legitimate, that’s exactly what she wanted. And I thought, wow, no, I want something else."
After years participating in rousing political theater at the the “Bread and Puppet theater” in Vermont, she started her work in prisons, facilitating oppressed people in their own inner liberation, using theatre as the medium. Driven by the responsibility she felt to facilitate the healing of the inmates, she fearlessly walked into a prison alone one day purely to connect with the men there. As a student of the teachings of Brazilian educator, Paulo Friere, she sees the need for her program because of something he taught: “The oppressed, instead of striving for liberation, tend themselves to become oppressors.” She saw oppressed people, like inmates, using force rather than real power because they felt trapped in their own inner prison of shame and pain. She found this same inner oppression present in the privileged of our society (in the case of her work in particular, Dartmouth students). Liberation, Pati discovered, came through acknowledging that pain and shame and sharing it with others. She found that the two groups find connection through their vulnerability, and that connection can distill any need to judge or oppress another.
We all fear the same basic thing: that we are unworthy, inadequate, unlovable. We all try our best to pretend we don't feel that way by numbing the pain, busying ourselves, bringing others down so we can feel big, putting on a show. Pati doesn’t only push those she works with to dispel the separation, she creates a safe space to do so by being vulnerable herself by constantly expressing love, telling people about her insecurities, trusting people from the first moment she meets them.
I haven't since experienced the generosity and vulnerability I was treated to when we interviewed two participants of “Telling my Story,” Matt Andrasi and Kim MacDonald, both of whom were formerly incarcerated. Before the Pati magic they told us they were once intimidating, selfish, scared people who attempted to feel false power. Pati pushed them to be vulnerable, using theatre as the medium to express their story and true feelings, and now they no longer have to hide behind the mask of anger, manipulation, and disconnection in real life . She creates humans who love themselves as much as she does. When she’s working she’ll push and push them until they break, but she’s always there to heal them as they come up from the ashes.