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Ron Duncan Hart, A life in applied humanitarianism in Colombia and Santa Fe

Ron Duncan Hart, publisher of Gaon Books in Santa Fe, scholar, humanitarian, in his Santa Fe home with Toto.
Ron Duncan Hart, publisher of Gaon Books in Santa Fe, scholar, humanitarian, in his Santa Fe home with Toto.Photo © 2014 Diane J. Schmidt

Looking the part of a CIA agent might be an asset in the social circles of Santa Fe, but it is a distinct liability in Colombia if you really are in fact a dedicated, kind, hard-working cultural anthropologist and professor. So it happened, after almost two decades working there, that life became uncertain, and Ron Duncan Hart and his talented wife, Colombian artist and professor Gloria Abella Ballen, suddenly had to abandon their life there and return to the United States.

[*As part of the North African Sephardic Festival, with films, talks, a concert and a Morocco dinner taking place in Santa Fe July 29 to August 3, Ron Duncan Hart will give a talk on Sunday, August 3rd at 2 p.m. on Travel in Morocco and Muslim/Jewish communities at the Travel Bug, 839 Paseo de Peralta, Santa Fe, and Vanessa Paloma will give a concert Friday August 1: "Sephardic Sounds, Music from Morocco & Beyond." Ms. Paloma will give a pre-concert talk at 5 pm. followed by her performance at 6 p.m. in the auditorium of the New Mexico History Museum in Santa Fe. Tickets cost $20 per person and must be reserved ahead of time, either online at www.santafejff.org or by phoning 505-216-0672. The concert is co-sponsored by the Santa Fe Jewish Film Festival and the New Mexico Jewish Historical Society. Also be sure to visit the Gaon Books website and view their exciting upcoming Writers Workshop to be held at the world-famous Mabel Dodge Luhan House in Taos this fall October 27-30.]

Hart and Ballen were both teaching in anthropology and art at Georgia State University when they first took a leave of absence to go to Colombia. Hart was only planning to be away for a year.

“And then we decided to stay. Gloria’s brother and sister, both in their own way, took me in and showed me the social fabric: Alfonso, a doctor, with the urban poor, and Nina, an anthropologist, with the African-Colombian population. With the two of them I had this incredible introduction – while I was still learning Spanish – to teach me what the reality of the social situation in Colombia was.

“With Nina, we began doing some work together. I started working with international organizations, with the Ford Foundation, with a Canadian organization that was similar, with UNICEF, working for social change, looking at what the local communities need to improve conditions.” With his PhD from Indiana University in cultural anthropology, Hart developed communication methods for delivering information for rural community development programs.

He got involved at one point in working with “invasion barrios,” squatter settlements. “Poor people were coming in from the countryside to Bogotá, and one hundred families had occupied one piece of land. When the owner said they couldn’t stay there, the police went in with trucks, gathered them all up, and put them on another piece of land further out. We drove by the next morning outside Bogotá. In the early morning sunlight hitting the mountainside there was a sea of plastics glistening in the sun. Overnight they had stretched plastic coverings over beds and were claiming house sites. Then they got stakes and stretched plastic and later tar-paper shacks. They literally invaded a vacant space.”

“Those invasion barrios are so poor. The city does not recognize them. By the time it grew there were three thousand people there. Cali had one with one hundred thousand. There was no electricity, no running water, no sewer system. They illegally hooked into electricity and chipped in together and got hundreds of yards of hose to run water from some neighbor. Since they were illegal and had no legal address the children couldn’t go to school. We helped raise money in Canada to build a building with a health center and a school. Gloria’s brother is a medical doctor and was a professor at the National University Medical School. He arranged to have student interns come out and provide medical services.

“We were in Colombia and Latin America from the early 1970s to the 1990s – for twenty years. We were in Puerto Rico for one period,” where Hart was Dean of Academic Affairs at the InterAmerican University. “After the disruption in Colombia with the narco-trafficking and guerilla war there was such a disruption that the Colombia we knew was gone.”

As is his quiet manner, Hart didn’t volunteer the story, but when asked if he had become a target for kidnapping he said, “That’s the reason we had to leave, when I got a threat. We already had known other anthropologists who literally had been kidnapped, held for months. I packed my suitcase and got on a plane.

“Our plan was to stay – but when it gets that close, when you know people have actually identified you and you’re a target – two students warned me in the National University, which had guerilla cells. Two weeks before this, one of my students had been killed in a big shootout with the government, trying to rob a bank to finance their activity. Within a matter of two weeks I got this warning, ‘you have been identified, you should be careful.’

“I was teaching in the anthropology and art programs; they were both politicized with social consciousness, so at that point we decided it was not worth running this risk. They had also started targeting the Jewish community, it was usually a matter of ransom, but there was a young Jewish man who was killed. The kidnappings and that killing triggered an exodus in the late nineties. The Jewish community went from sixteen thousand to four thousand.

“It was both the para-military right-wing army groups, in that chaos, and with the student guerilla groups, there were too many things happening from too many directions. The thing is, being out in the countryside, being in campesino (farming) communities, but being a North American, the leftist guerillas thought I was CIA, and the right wing thought I was aligned with the leftists. Being a foreigner, neither side trusted who I was where I was, trying to be a neutral observer. There is no neutral ground – you’re assigned a status whether you want it or not.”

Raised in a secular Jewish American household in the Bay area as Ron Duncan, he later added his mother’s name Hart as is the custom in Colombia. His keen appreciation of Sephardic history brought him to Oxford University to do postdoctoral work, and his growing in bettering Westerners’ understandings led him to travel further into the Muslim world, from Morocco to Central Asia.

He gave the 2008 Neustadt Lecture at Oklahoma City University, titled “Cain’s Question and the Arab-Israeli Conflict.” The preface, by Dean Mark Davies of the OKCU theological center, reads “I am thankful that Ron heeded the wisdom of his grandmother who taught him when he was just five years old that it is wrong to objectify and demonize persons who we might see as the “other.” She had stopped him from playing cowboys and Indians saying, “You don’t shoot Indians.”

Hart wrote a book "Islam and Muslims" [Gaon Press, 2011], dedicated “To Jews and Muslims / Who have lived together / With respect and mutual acceptance / for more than a thousand years.” The book includes incisive critiques of Western views and demographic analyses.

Hart explained that “In Egypt, the Palestinian territories, and some other Arab countries, there is a big population growth, fifty percent of the people are under eighteen, the economy is not growing fast enough to absorb them. Young men are unemployed and unemployable, so they cannot get married, can’t move into the adult mature next stage in life, there is the potential for people to engage in violence.”

Hart does believe that, over the next thirty to forty years, changes that will improve the situation will come, largely through greater education of and leadership by women. Simply put, with literacy, birthrates drop.

“A lot of people who are professionals in the field, scholars, people in peace studies and international conflict resolution, say it’s going take time. Their view is basically, they do not expect (the conflict with Israel) to be resolved now, but in the next forty years. Until these generations are gone it will not be resolved.

“What is interesting to me is the rise of women, a new generation of educated women. As these women emerge, their voices are different from the men’s voices. If women came into power with elected positions they might approach the whole thing with Israel in a different way. And in the process, the more women in [leadership in] Israel, maybe the women can find a way to resolve this that men can’t – that we men can’t see.“

Since first coming to Santa Fe in 2005 and finally moving there in 2008, Hart has become deeply involved in many aspects of the Jewish community. He has established a growing publishing house, Gaon Books, which in the last six years has published thirty-six titles. Hart’s interests continue to lean towards Jewish non-fiction women’s voices.

With this year’s successful launch of Gloria Abella Ballen’s art monograph "The Power of the Hebrew Alphabet" that was recently featured in Hadassah Magazine, the press is becoming a recognized force in the publishing landscape. Gloria’s beautiful and insightful publication features her paintings of the Hebrew letters taking flight – inspired by her studies of medieval Sephardic illuminated manuscripts and the Kabbalah.

As program director the past four years on the board of the New Mexico Jewish Historical Society, Hart’s tireless work culminated in their highly successful 26th Fall Conference in 2013 held in Taos, “Sephardic History from Spain to New Mexico: Did your ancestors walk here?” And, from its inception at HaMakom in 2010, Hart also has worked on the advisory committee of the Santa Fe Jewish Film Festival with Festival Director Marcia Torobin. The festival has quickly become a stellar annual event with sold-out tickets at all shows.

Hart is now involved in work on a major exhibit and book, “Sephardic Legacy,” that will open in May 2016 at the New Mexico History Museum in Santa Fe. Hart explains, “This is the first time really that an exhibit of this kind has been done, showing when Jews had to go into hiding, to give insight into how people who were hiding their Jewish identity lived. The exhibit and book will trace the Jewish story in Spain, then – after the expulsion – bringing it into Mexico and New Mexico, and the crypto-Jewish story here where it was illegal to be Jewish up to contemporary times.”

The project began as the brainchild of Frances Levine, former director of the museum, in discussions with donor Helene Singer Merrin. Then another gift from Stephen and Jane Hochberg made the book possible. Hart is co-editor of the "Sephardic Legacy" book for the exhibition with Roger Martinez, of the University of Colorado and President of the Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies, and they have a fascinating international line-up of scholars tracing Jewish history in Spain, Mexico, and New Mexico. The entire production promises to be a groundbreaking exhibition that will spark international interest in New Mexico’s unique history and greater appreciation of the intertwined histories of Jews, Muslims, and Christians. ###

To honor Ron Duncan Hart’s service to The New Mexico Jewish Historical Society and his contributions to New Mexico Jewish history, NMJHS awarded him the prestigious Hurst Award at its Annual Meeting in May 2014.

Related articles: The Power of the Hebrew Alphabet by Gloria Abella Ballen and Ron Duncan Hart, Publisher and Editor of Gaon Books in Santa Fe bucks trend

This article is reprinted courtesy of The Legacy, the quarterly journal of the NMJHS, where it was first published in their summer issue, Vol. 28, No. 2, with the generous assistance of their long-time editor Dorothy Amsden. This issue of The Legacy also features "Sephardic Romances from the Mediterranean Basin to the Americas," by Vanessa Paloma Elbaz. For further information about the NMJHS, contact the NMJHS office, located in the Jewish Community Center in Albuquerque, by phone at 505-348-4471, by email to admin@nmjhs.org, and on their website at www.nmjhs.org.

Diane J. Schmidt is a writer, photographer, and public speaker, and a member of the board of the NMJHS. She recently received 1st Place for enterprise reporting from the National Federation of Press Women in June, 2014 for her series on a con man who posed as a Native and Jewish healer, which are reprinted in the Albuquerquer Judaism Examiner in the articles here (Con Man Red Feather took merchants for more than $50,000 and here (Who You Gonna Call, Ghostbusters?).