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May 9, 2002

 

I was a little late for the bus but it seems like just about everyone else was also late. We did all finally pile into the transport and headed to the beautiful Bayamon campus of Universidad Interamericana. The only problem was that the traffic was insanely bad, and it took us a full hour to go a distance that should take twenty minutes. It was hardly a lost trip, however, as I found myself sitting next to the fascinating Anabella Caldera from Universidad Americana in Managua, Nicaragua. She had been at the previous tournament in Chile and we had gotten to know each other. I really admire her work, so often shown in her students. The debaters I had seen in Santiago had been clever, excellent speakers, and charismatic. We talked about future areas of cooperation, possible changes to topics and formats, and the location of the third such tournament next year. We firmed up plans for a visit to Nicaragua by a potential around-the-world debate tour. I also learned some additional things about her program and university while I admired her beautiful color brochure for the debate team at Americana, something I wish I had. With such an interesting conversation, it seemed like no time until we were there at the Bayamon campus.

 

Wide spans of green, beautiful tropical trees and shrubs, and modern, stylish well-kept buildings were the themes of the Bayamon campus. Breakfast was served by the same person who had handled all of our meals, who was there before we were and probably left after we did, he was perhaps the hardest working person at the event. The breakfast was hearty without being heavy and everyone seemed to enjoy it as the conversations in the beautiful language of Cervantes floated about the room in all its variety.

 

I was consciously trying to pick up as many vocabulary words as possible and resurrect all of my knowledge about Spanish that was buried in my mind from long ago, as a young boy in Mexico and as a resistant student in Spanish class in junior high school, and briefly in college (oh, if I knew then what I know now about my need to use Spanish) . It is at about this time in the trip that I began to remember the verb forms a little better, so I think my conversations might have sounded slightly less moronic. Everyone had been so patient with me because of my inability to speak Spanish fluently. However, I had to be patient as well. Not everything was going to take place in both languages, and when push comes to shove it needs to be in just Spanish. I can often translate and decode subjects and issues as a listener, but only in a vague way. Often at meetings I would only offer a comment on a discussion in Spanish when I was triple certain that it would be useful and relevant. I began to take on more responsibility to express myself in Spanish and people seemed very patient with me and some even made corrections, something I appreciated.

 

The first order of business that day was a lecture by Benito Escobar of Universidad Diego Portales on persuasion and rhetorical elements. Benito is a delightful and brilliant debate scholar, besides being very humorous and clever. With an excellent background in the theater, Benito always stages himself and his events well. The talk took place in the main theater (a beautiful hall for debates, lectures, anything!). He had a huge screen at midstage, and that is where he projected his presentation images. He stood in front of images that were about 12 feet tall projected behind him from a projector behind the screen. I tried my best to capture his presentation on digital video. I must admit that the images he used in his presentation were stunning. His talk is available on Debate Central (http://debate.uvm.edu/ )

 

Next came Walter Murray, someone I had become quite fond of. I was interested in his topic, informal logical fallacies, especially since he was a philosophy scholar and I had been so impressed with him so far. He made an excellent choice, in my estimation, by presenting a more interactive format for the students. They were there to debate and had not debated so far, and had patiently sat through a number of one-way lectures. After a few minutes he got the crowd involved and there ensued what seemed to be a positive and vigorous discussion, especially about certain fallacies. I must admit, however, that due to the language barrier I understood Murray's presentation better than the rapid back and forth with the audience, but I certainly understand that this was the best thing to do for them. They seemed more energized than I had yet seen them at a formal event. The time zoomed by delightfully and soon it was time to break. His talk is available on Debate Central (http://debate.uvm.edu/ )

 

Now was the time for the tournament to begin. With everyone gathered in the auditorium, Maria and Walter brought in a rolling barrel that you would use to pick choices from. First, the barrel was filled with slips of paper listing the teams. One by one they were drawn, the first team being the government and the second team being the opposition. We were the next to the last team pulled, so Vermont would be the government, against our good friends and fabulous debaters from Universidad Diego Portales in Chile, Stephan Schubert and Pamela Vasquez. Next, the topics (or "temas") were put in the barrel and it was rolled. Then, each government team came forward and pulled a topic. Anthony Pagan pulled our topic, and we had to support the position that freedom of information was more important than privacy. We liked that topic and that side.

 

Now it was time for Jackie to swing into action. He had already analyzed the topics and constructed preliminary strategies for all 29 of them. The debates would take place that evening.

 

Next two events were held simultaneously, one for the students was a presentation by my friend Roberto Vega  Masso of Diego Portales. Roberto is the dean of students there, or some equivalent, and has been a great friend of debate. He has supported the work of Rodrigo, Benito, and Jose Julio, but has gone far beyond that. He delivered an excellent speech at the closing of the last tournament. Since then he had written an excellent tract (in Spanish) and had prepared a talk for this event. He and I sat next to each other on the bus that morning but I could see he was diligently preparing for his talk, so I did not disturb him. I was not able to attend or videotape Roberto's talk, because I had to be in the other session, something I regret.

 

The other event was the meeting for judges. The judges were the coaches (the English word my Hispanic friends like to use is "trainers") from the various teams, and they would judge in panels of three. Charles Zeno, my other new friend, led the meeting. We reviewed the procedures of the debate and the ballot. Judges would be in panels of three and would award points to each team based on presentation and content. Teams would qualify for the finals based on total quality points. People asked questions and seemed to get answers. I must confess that I missed some of the conversation but did get a few questions of my own answered.

  Our meeting had gone somewhat overtime and we adjourned after resolving some issues about scoring, questioning, and tabulating.

 

Lunch was next, and it was another excellent meal and I enjoyed it, especially with the excellent company. I had the opportunity to meet with the dean of the Bayamon campus and talk to her about debating and her impressions of the activity. The Bayamon campus is predominantly a science and technical campus, and she was very convinced that science and technical students needed critical communication skills every bit as much as liberal arts students did. I offered to help in any way I could and we made plans for future collaboration, including Bayamon students attending the upcoming international workshop at the World Debate Institute.

 

I did get a chance to talk to Anthony, Carlos, and Jackie about our topic and upcoming opponents. We had drawn Universidad Diego Portales as opponents, a very rough draw, as we knew. We had met both Stephan Schubert and Pamela Vasquez the year before in Santiago, and we had staged an English language debate against them. We knew they were excellent, and would be a whole year better and this time debating in THEIR native language, not ours. They had a good strategy worked up and were very excited for the debate.

 

The afternoon swept by and before I knew it the debates were upon us. I decided to make a videotape of the debate taking place in the main theater, featuring two of my favorite teams, Jesus and Antonio from Universidad Santiago de Compostela in Spain and Victoria and Mayling from Universidad Americana in Nicaragua. The topic was a fairly challenging one, with the affirmative/government team arguing that victims of rape should not be allowed the right to abortion. In the weeks previous to the tournament I had identified about five of the 29 topics that I thought were too one-sided, I had suggested they be removed (they were not), and this was one of them. Of course, my perception of the topic as one-sided was based on my American college debate perspective, so I tried to be open minded about them.


| ANTONIO REYES AND JESUS MARTINEZ, SPAIN | MAYLING MONTERO AND VICTORIA NOVOA, NICARAGUA |

 

Anthony and Carlos were all prepped and so they decided to watch this first debate, beginning at 6 PM, while their debate was to begin at 8 PM. All four speakers in this Compostela vs. Americana debate are polished, skilled, and powerful. The debate proceeded and I was able to understand most of it. In the last opposition speech Victoria distributed and displayed photos of aborted fetuses to illustrate that the fetus was, indeed, a human being. Compostela lodged an objection (during the last speech) stating that this was a new argument (not allowed in the rules). Victoria answered that it was new evidence for an earlier argument, and the judges sided with her. The debate had been a very close one between two excellent teams. The judges took a full 20 plus minutes to make their decision, and then turned in their ballots.

 

The ballots were collected and then taken up to tabulation where people from the Interamericana computer lab were doing the actual tabulation. The points awarded to each team were the ultimate measure, as the finalists would be selected based on these points.

 

During the second debate I stayed away from my team. I stopped by their debate to give them a few last minute words of encouragement and then walked off into the beautiful campus. The evening was lovely and the little frogs were singing beautifully. The frogs, Coquis, are in some ways the symbol of Puerto Rico. And I enjoyed a lovely stroll through the evening accompanied by their beautiful songs. After being so involved with so many people, struggling to understand Spanish and express myself in it, I enjoyed a carefree walk amidst the beauty of this lush island and this beautiful campus.

 

By the time I got back the debate was over and people were beginning to gather. When they were all together the drawing was held for the second debate. It took place exactly the same way and, of course, some teams were government or opposition twice in a row. Some coaches began to question this procedure. As those of us with debate experience know, it isn't really a debate tournament unless people complain about the judges, the tournament procedures, or both. The tournament organizers were very concerned that people seemed to be complaining, because they were anxious to be good hosts. I tried to explain to them that this was normal for any debate tournament and that, in fact, it isn't a real debate tournament unless these things are taking place. I also explained that since there were three preliminary rounds, we would make sure that sides were balanced (2 on one side, 1 on the other) after round three. This seemed to satisfy people.

 

Dinner was served in the student meal facility ("Mi Casa") during this break.

 

Everyone again gathered in the theater waiting for the tabulated results from the first debate, but they did not arrive. We were late for the buses so it was decided that we would go to the buses and get the results there before we left. People headed out for the buses, while our Vermont group went to Carlos' SUV to make our own way home.

 

Carlos had drawn for us for our debate against Bolivia, and he had pulled one of "those" topics, at least from our perspective. We had to argue that same sex marriages should not be given legal sanction. This is a very difficult topic for us, since we have gay members of our squad, we have friends who are united in civil unions (remember, Vermont was the first state to pass a civil unions law, as well as the first to abolish slavery), and it was challenging for us to argue against legal rights for our gay brothers and sisters without betraying our friends. Some would say that it is just a debate, but our students feel strongly about debating both sides of a topic but without betraying what we feel are our core beliefs. We talked about how we might make the arguments against gay marriage without this betrayal, and could not find a way. Finally, all four of us decided that avoiding homophobic public speech was more important than winning this debate, and so we decided on a strategy that had integrity but might not meet with the approval of the judges. We decided to argue that all marriage should be a personal, spiritual, and religious experience, and that it should not be governed by legal structures. If no marriage should be in this sense "legal," then deductively neither should gay marriage. We decided that even if it stopped us from making the final round, this would be our strategy.

 

I was very proud of Anthony and Carlos. They had worked so hard and really wanted to win, but they would not win at any price, and homophobic advocacy was too high a price. We got back to our hotel at about midnight. It was very easy to fall asleep at the end of a day like that.

CONTINUE TO THE NEXT DAY