Diego Leal, '15

May 13, 2015
Senior addresses three life lessons from research in the liberal arts

In February 2012 I had dinner at the dining hall with Dr. [David] Salisbury and his family. I was telling them about my plans for the summer after my freshman year. I wanted to go to Guatemala, my home country. Instead, Dr. Salisbury invited me to go to the Peruvian Amazon to do research on indigenous land rights. I knew nothing about the topic or the country, and I certainly didn’t know anything about research. So naturally I said yes. Now fast forward two and a half years to September 7, 2014. I was sitting in the library and I received an email from Dr. Salisbury. Edwin Chota, the indigenous leader I had worked with since May 2012, had been killed in the Peruvian Amazon. In total, four indigenous leaders had been killed that day.

Chota was the president of Saweto, an indigenous community located near the Amazonian border between Peru and Brazil. Saweto is about six days by boat from the closest city. Chota and the citizens of Saweto had spent the last 13 years fighting to get the government to formally recognize their rights over the lands they occupy. Chota also fought to protect the community’s forests against the widespread illegal logging in the region. But his ideas went far beyond land rights and conservation. He wanted a different future. He wanted to build a new reality so that new generations of indigenous communities could grow up in peace in these remote areas of the Amazon.

I titled this speech Three Life Lessons Research in the Liberal Arts Can Teach You, but in reality I should call this Three Life Lessons Edwin Chota Taught Me. And I truly hope that you can remember at least one by the time you walk out of this room.

Lesson 1: Life is about empathy and compassion.

When I first met Chota in 2012 I saw him in the way that I had been taught to see him: “indigenous,” “community president,” “oppressed,” and “poor.” By the time I saw him for the last time in 2014, I saw him as who he truly was: a father, a husband, a leader, and, more importantly, a friend. I cried several times after I found out about Chota’s death, especially every time I saw a picture I took of him holding his 5-year old son Kitóniro. Chota’s main source of motivation was not rational thought processes about injustice, oppression, and society, such as the ones we have learned here at UR. I’m not saying they don’t matter. They do. But Chota taught me that such processes have to go hand-in-hand with an emotional understanding and appreciation for life, fairness, and care for others. He cared about his son, and he taught me to see the importance of emotions and compassion.

Lesson 2: Integrity matters.

On at least one occasion (and I’m sure there were more,) illegal loggers offered Chota close to $3,000 to stop fighting illegal logging in Saweto. Try to imagine how far $3,000 could take you in the context of this community. It’s truly quite a sum of money, but Chota refused to take it. In the city of Pucallpa, where we worked together, Chota walked around every day delivering countless letters to any government official that would take them. It was difficult for me to conceptualize the degree of corruption I observed. On the one hand I had Chota, the skinny leader who always walked around with a folder packed with documents and maps Dr. Salisbury had made for him. On the other hand we had an entire system of corruption and lack of integrity. Chota had an easy route. He could have taken the money, moved to a small town somewhere in the Amazon and abandoned his work. He didn’t. He wasn’t stubborn—he was simply ethical and full of passion.

Lesson 3: Life is about relationships.

Chota built an international network of supporters who were ready to help him as much as we could. He once said that we were all like a pyramid. That they could take one person out but the entire pyramid would still stand. It breaks my heart that we ended up proving him right. Last summer I spent about a week and a half with Chota but it was quite different from the previous two years. We didn’t just work. We had dinner as he told me his life story. We shared a beer or two. We got together during the day just because — just to talk. Chota and I had lunch with the family of a lawyer who helps Saweto quite a lot. They talked about taking Saweto’s case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in Costa Rica. As you hopefully know, that’s pretty close to Guatemala. So Chota and I joked for an entire week that he and other people in Saweto would have to visit me in Guatemala. What began as a relationship between a student researcher and an indigenous leader had become a friendship. I was still a student researcher, and he was still an indigenous leader, but the type of relationship had changed. This new friendship gave meaning to my work.

I would say that the most important lesson I learned is that you don’t need to go to a remote region in the Amazon to find compassion, integrity, and an appreciation of relationships. In fact, the only reason why I was able to extract these lessons from my experience with Chota was because I had friends and mentors at this university who truly changed my way of thinking of life. Dr. Salisbury, I’ll take the opportunity to thank you for the opportunity to go through one of the most important journeys of my life. Working with you and Chota gave purpose and meaning to my liberal arts education. I hope you all join me in believing that learning matters a million times more than acquiring information. I’ll leave Richmond in less than a month, but I’m happy to know that learning doesn’t stop on the day of graduation.