Thirty years ago exactly, in 2016, I was sitting where you are now. In those days, I was only twenty years of age. Next to me, there were three young foreigners somewhat older than me. After a short casual conversation, I learned they were two Argentines and a Korean. Due to our geographic proximity, I had met other Koreans, but this was the first time I saw an Argentine. The relationship among them seemed very good, although I got the impression that the Korean did not fully enjoy the company of the Argentinians at times like the ones I will describe as follows.
In this place, from where I speak to you now, was the President. He was about to offer us an opening speech of an event addressed to young university students of this institution, like you. The motto of the event was “Make your voice be heard”.
The President had been in office for more than thirty years, in a system that didn’t have too much of a democratic nature. And maybe that was why he was treated with such reverence (behind which, almost always, hides fear) and the monotony of his speeches was tolerated. Lacking the faintest empathy with the audience, those speeches could last up to three hours, no matter how insignificant the event.
That was the context in which the President started his speech and all of us got ready to listen to him for a long time.
After fifteen minutes, it was evident that no one was listening to him any longer. And besides, that this fact didn’t matter to him at all.
However, the Argentines sitting next to me began to show signs of impatience. First, shifting in their seats, then talking to each other, and finally laughing openly. I remember they kept repeating the phrase Vamos redondeando, querido (something along the lines of “Round it off, pal”, an Argentine expression used for requesting to finish an oral exposition) and that made them laugh a lot.
Twenty minutes into the speech, the Argentine next to me began to fill in the form of the satisfaction survey. He didn’t seem to care too much about the fact that the event was just starting. On the question about the rating of the event, he scored a four. In the area for justifying that number, he completed the text-box with this message: “The President’s opening has been too long and lacking of interest”. Since he did not speak the language, the justification struck me as something of a considerable boldness. It is true, though, that a mere glimpse to the public — everyone was at their cellphones — justified it. Some minutes later, he decided to reinforce the argument: “The President’s message has headed in a direction contrary to the motto of the event”. He distanced himself from the paper, looked at it with satisfaction, and put it away inside his folder with extreme care, as if he was dealing with the most important document he had.
Forty-five minutes into the President’s speech, the other Argentine (who wore a blue and red T-shirt) began to explain to his fellow countryman what, judging by its abundant body-language, seemed a plan. And one which involved all the students surrounding them, since after finishing with his fellow countryman, he began to provide discreet instructions to the Korean, and to everyone around him. The first Argentine did his own part too, in this case, including me.
“Next time the President pauses again, we will start clapping. And we won’t stop until he leaves the podium,” he told me, with his thumb up, and a facial expression of optimism (raising his eyebrows and nodding with his head) that opened no space for rejections.
Indeed, the President did pause every ten minutes or so, he took a sip of water, and kept going.
When the first of the expected pauses came, the Argentines began to clap with determination. Driven more by the discomfort of leaving them alone than the wish to join this almost adolescent idea, the neighboring students like me followed them. And the rest, being so absent minded, followed us out of pure inertia. The applause surprised the President, as he hadn’t said anything of relevance. First, he opened his eyes looking at the audience and then he searched for an explanation among his advisors, but they also looked among one another in puzzlement.
The applause, besides, extended more than the normal. As it began to decline, the Argentines clapped with greater strength and muttered encouragement by means of Vamoooo (something along the lines of “Let’s go”, a very informal Argentine expression of encouragement), which increased the courage of the students around. When the discomfort of the students was greater than the cheering of the Argentines, the applause ceased, and the President continued his speech.
The Argentines congratulated us in a low voice and signaled to us (by moving their index finger in a round motion and nodding their heads) in a way that we all interpreted as “when he pauses, we do it again”. Meanwhile, the Korean sunk his head between his hands and shook it in frank disapproval.
So we did, some ten minutes later, when the President made his expected pause and drank some water. A huge applause, its epicenter in the Argentines, burst out and became uncomfortable a lot earlier, as it was actually an extension from the previous one. In spite of this, the applause managed to expand for a while even longer. The discomfort of the President and his advisors became evident. Also the fear in some of the students. The applause, finally, gave way.
The President resumed his speech, but one could tell his voice was tense and exhibited a tendency to make mistakes. The murmuring grew as the minutes passed and he would not do the pause we all expected. After twenty minutes non-stop, the President could hold it no longer and had to produce the expected rest. Then, the applause exploded again and this time extended twice the time it had before.
The applause only stopped when about five of the security people went towards the end of the hall and ordered the Argentines to follow them outside the premises. The Argentines refused to stand up and, with crossed arms, asked for explanations on the reasons for the requirement. It was a risky move: they said they would only take orders that came from police officers. The act remained interrupted, with hundreds of students, some officers and the very same President staring perplexedly at the tense argument and at an incipient tussle. Some minutes later, the police came. After the requests for explanations repeated themselves — which never came — the Argentines agreed to leave the room. In a most noble gesture, the Korean left with them voluntarily.
Escorted by the police, the three foreigners went towards the exit in the midst of the most puzzled looks from everyone present. Then, an inner strength that I had never known until then took over me. It was my fate. Without the faintest option of a choice, I started to clap. My classmates looked at me in surprise, but grasped the idea quickly and joined in. The applause no longer sounded like fun but more of a demand to end that all. It was firm, harsh, and monochord like the President’s speeches.
After a few minutes, the President understood the message fully. Filled with rage, he struck his fist on the podium and left, swearing, followed by his advisors.
When all the officers had disappeared, the applause became jolly and festive. The students added some singing and chanting. As the celebration extended, we looked at each other incredulously and each look embodied a form of gratitude.
Like a waterfall, lessons fell all over me, one after the other. These are the lessons I want to share with you today.
Do not accept any preaching or unilateral speeches. Do not present reverence, let alone fear. Resist with intelligence, with originality and even with joy. An applause can also be an act of rebellion. Ask for explanations and do not yield until you obtain them. Ask, ask always. Do not leave the fair ones alone. Do not speak too much and, instead, listen to others attentively.
As President of this great Nation, I propound to you that, today and forever, more with facts than with words, you make your voice be heard.
Translated by Natalia Barry.
Original version (in spanish)