This interview deals with the issue of Participatory Action Research (PAR) in the life of Orlando Fals Borda from its beginnings in the sociological investigation of the land problem in Colombia, through social organizations and political participation, to the relationship of the academia to society. The alternative paradigm of social research is based on a new relation, as a unique process, between theory and practice. This is the "seed" that today develops multiple and diversified enriching dynamics.
Orlando, we would like to talk to you about participatory research in your life history, and a first concern of ours is about your personal experience before the formalization of PAR. What were the first insights or roots of it?
Fals Borda: I think there were some family roots. In my home my mother was a very intelligent person, a bluestocking really, author of dramas and cantatas and things like that. She had a lot of social sensitivity, as a leader of the Presbyterian Church she was involved in the work with women, for instance. She was the president of the Women Society of the Presbyterian Church and organized a national campaign against cancer in a radio station. She was one of the first women in Barranquilla who had one hour of radio time at the Atlántico station in the thirties.
My father, who was also an intellectual, was a very esteemed school teacher in Barranquilla. He had already written some pamphlets, articles, and was a journalist of the La Prensa newspaper in Barranquilla. He was always very attentive to my intellectual development, because I remember that he brought me reading-books, beginning with the Sopena series, short stories by Perrault ... and then he began to raise the level, and among the books he brought to me I remember very much Los Bedas. Then he talked to the school principal and asked him to give me the handbook for Greek. Of course I liked these languages. I enjoyed Latin, so much that I wrote an essay in Latin when I was in the sixth grade of high school. I wrote it in Latin!
Then you moved from high school to college in the United States...
Fals Borda: Yes, but first I went to the Cadet Military School. I was saved by my mother, because I had already decided to stay in the military. After a year and a half I received a letter saying that there were possibilities, I could stay at that school or go to the United States with everything paid for. Then I left service.
Did you go there to study sociology?
Fals Borda: No, I didn't know anything about sociology, I didn't know that there was something like that, it happened by chance in the United States. My majors were English Literature and Music. Nothing social. There I was initiated, I turned to music and literature, and period. But in the penultimate semester I saw that an old professor, who was a sociologist, was offering a course on sociology based on a text he himself had written. So I took this sociology course, but that was it. When I returned to Barranquilla I became the conductor of the choirs of the Colegio Americana and the church. I arrived by the middle of 1948 or before, in 1947, and after 1948 was the death of Gaitán. I was in Barranquilla and there was a rather strong rebellion. I became inspired and wrote a short cantata. It had the title "Message to Colombia" and a patriotic tone, asking for the peace that would unite the Colombians, for the country's reconstruction. I had this concern for the situation, but it was expressed in the form of music, in a cantata.
So your studies in Iowa focused initially on Literature and Music, then you went back to the choir in Barranquilla...
Fals Borda: But I was involved not only with music, I was also the director of a Presbyterian Youth Center (PYC). That was interesting, the pastor of that church was Richard Shaull, who would later become one of the founders of liberation theology... He had a very different view of the pastor's role and gave that youth center a social dimension that many people still remember in Barranquilla, because it was a kind of driving force to change the way of thinking and acting in the churches. …