If This Is So, Then What?

April 14, 2012

The Arriaga Sisters show how to hold on to joy even as they fight on the front lines of the world’s cruelty.

Alexandra and Ximena Arriaga are sisters and activists in two of the bleakest areas of the cultural landscape—international human rights and domestic violence, respectively. Yet they are two of the most joyous women we’ve met.

Alexandra Arriaga and Ximena Arriaga

As they move around Alexandra’s warm and cozy kitchen, offering coffee, tea, and homemade cookies, they are quick to laugh, quick to share a sisterly joke with each other.

Given how crucial it is to do something about violence both at home and abroad for all of us who want to live in a better world, and how essential to do so without losing our own mental balance, we were absolutely intrigued by how the Arriaga sisters are able to take active roles in addressing some of the world’s most appalling acts while remaining resilient, loving and effective in their professional and private lives.

The seeds of that remarkable achievement were sown early, by parents who were fair-minded, consistent, and literally married to diversity. Their father, Spanish, Argentinian and Catholic, and their mother, Chilean and Jewish, led by example, choosing compassion over intolerance and responsible citizenship over inaction.

Their father’s work as a professor of demography and their mother’s involvement in legal aid for the poor exposed them to the particulars of social injustice and human rights abuses from an early age. Though both girls were born in the U.S., they moved to Chile a few years after the military coup of 1973, where they lived under rigid government curfews and saw other forms of repression, including bloodshed inflicted by the military. Their parents were careful to show them the joyous side of life too, and to always contextualize what they were seeing.

The sisters ultimately responded by choosing careers that enabled them to shine a light on injustice.

“Like most people,” Ximena says, “we definitely have strong values. Then the question becomes how willing are people to step out of their skin and actually act on what’s consistent with their values? For one reason or another, from early on, we had a sense that, when something’s wrong, you don’t just sit complacently. You do tackle it. There’s a sense of that that runs in our family.”

Alex points out that, when she was dealing with difficult, entrenched issues, it was very helpful to have her parents to talk things over with.

“They would say, ‘Let’s break this down and figure this out,’” Alex says. “’Let’s do an outline.’”

Both sisters became high achievers throughout high school and college, and quickly excelled in their professions.

Alex began her career as a dancer for the Joffrey Ballet, taking a year after high school to study as a dancer on a full scholarship. She decided at the end of it that she wanted to go to college—and to eat, “especially ice cream,” she says. She spent five years at the University of Virginia, exploring avenues that included both policy and the arts, until she finally settled on Latin American Studies.

Alexandra Arriaga and Ximena Arriaga

After graduating from the University of Virginia in 1987, Alex joined Democratic Congressman Tom Lantos’s staff. She served as director of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus for eight years, followed by an appointment as a senior advisor in the U.S. Department of State. From there, she became executive director of the Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom Abroad and a U.S. Delegate to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. She was a senior advisor to the U.S. Department of State, and, under President Bill Clinton, she was appointed a special assistant to the President and chief of staff to the Special Envoy for the Americas. She then went on to serve as the managing director of government relations for Amnesty International.

Ximena points out that during Alex’s time as director of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, she had to have very thick skin, letting negative influences bounce off, but, she says to her sister, “you had several moments in which your skin was challenged.”

Ximena Arriaga is currently an associate professor of psychology at Purdue University, with a specialty in social psychology. A 1988 U.Va. graduate, she earned her Ph.D. in social psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She has published extensively on the subject of domestic violence, with much of her work focusing on the complex and seemingly intractable issue of what keeps targets of domestic violence in the abusive relationship. Ximena has also won several teaching awards, including a prestigious 2008 Murphy Award from Purdue University for outstanding undergraduate teaching.

The sisters seem to share a threestage approach to the difficult subjects they tackle. The first step requires:

Taking a clear-eyed view of the situation.

Alex speaks of the immorality of the sexual violence routinely used against women in cultural conflicts. While she worked closely with leading human rights activists such as the Dalai Lama, Bishop Belo of East Timor, Wangari Maathaiof Kenya, and Betty Williams of Northern Ireland, she also met with ordinary women such as those in Ciudad de Mexico as they spoke of the horrific violations that had befallen their daughters as part of the ongoing violence there. The U.N. estimates that globally, three out of five women will face physical or sexual violence in their lifetime.

Ximena’s work focuses on the deeply entrenched problem of domestic violence, particularly the vexing question of why the targets of domestic violence stay with their partners, a strategy that is sometimes interpreted as complicity. Rather than looking at the situation in a simplistic way, Ximena looks at the complexity of the relationship between the aggressor and the target, recognizing the love and loyalty the target often feels. Those qualities, ordinarily very positive in a relationship, become twisted in a violent one. Her regard for the complexity of the dynamic leads her to view the target’s coping strategies as “at worst, normal and expected and, at best, heroic.” Her work also focuses on the extremely difficult topic of emotional abuse, which many find not only more pervasive than physical abuse but also more damaging at times, especially when it leads to the destruction of the target’s very sense of self.

The second order of business that both sisters adhere to involves:

Using the available, local resources to create change that is based in accountability. Alex is currently bringing the skills she learned in international human rights work to community organizing, bringing her Alexandria area together around the issue of autism spectrum disorder, a complex developmental disorder that has become more and more prevalent.

In Alexandra’s U.Va. Distinghished Alumna address last year, she quoted Eleanor Roosevelt, who said, “Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any map of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person.” From international human rights to community organizing, Alex has looked closely at the issues, assessed the situation and the resources available, and gone to work to make things better.

Ximena shares this approach. In fact, the two women have in common an absolute commitment to living their values.

“In any good situation there’s the potential to turn bad and in bad situations there are good things that can come out of it. People can grow strong from it. There’s always a way to come back and become positive again. I think the interest in the dark side is really to make people aware and more empathetic.”

When pressed to address the issue of why it is that she and her sister have chosen to take on such difficult subjects, Ximena answers, “I think that we as a family are sort of prone to empathy. What has interested me personally in the dark side is that it’s very much a yin and yang. In any good situation there’s the potential to turn bad and in bad situations there are good things that can come out of it. People can grow strong from it. There’s always a way to come back and become positive again. I think the interest in the dark side is really to make people aware and more empathetic.”

The two agree that in both international and domestic arenas, one must partner with the people involved, bring together the existing resources, recognize what has already been done, work at the policy level and at the individual level, research, hold people accountable for their actions, and thus translate the ideal into the real. It is by this coordinated, intentional approach that change can be achieved.

Both women, in short, practice pragmatic optimism, focusing on:

Maintaining civility at all times and, after doing what you can, going joyfully about life.

Alex and Ximena laugh spontaneously when talking about how polite their home always was. No one was ever allowed to use even the phrase “shut up.” It was a home where the older women were feminine and formal—yet they were also formidable in their presence. And civility was the way of the family.

Bringing communities together around civility is what their work is about, getting groups and policymakers to understand that the world benefits from treating one another with civility, and that the alternative is deadly.

And, when the day is done and the work has been accomplished for that day—the vision has been clear, the actions that could be taken have been taken—then it is time to be joyful.

The sisters enjoy their families—Ximena has two daughters and Alex a son—and going out for dinner and a movie with their husbands. They particularly enjoy getting together with each other and “going out for a bite to eat”—which often turns into a three hour chat.

Life is both terrible and wonderful. Rape is a weapon of war wherever there is conflict. Even in the U.S., clearly in the “wonderful” category for the most part, women are mistreated and domestic violence exists at all socioeconomic and educational levels, still widely and tragically misunderstood.

And, yet, there is joy. There are husbands and wives who enjoy their families, who see dinner and a movie with their spouse as a truly joyful and meaningful experience, who invest their time and attention in their children and the children of their neighborhood. Who love their parents and their sisters. Who ask, when it comes to the terrible, if this is so, then what? And then take action.

And they also ask, when it comes to joy, if this is so, then what? And act on that too.

By Virginia Moran

Published in Iris Magazine - Spring 2012

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