Apapachar. From Latin America, a key concept for the role of Design after the pandemic

Following the COVID19 pandemic, many design paradigms need to be rethought and re-invented. The Design Department of the Politecnico di Milano launched, on June 24, 2020, a continuous 24-hour live broadcast, through a schedule that followed the international time zones. In this way, a long discussion about Design virtually travelled around the world. The international network of the POLIMI Design System was involved, and through teachers, professionals and alumni started an ongoing dynamic discussion dedicated to the culture of the project, oriented towards reflection on Design changes after lockdown. Through a 30 minutes session, during the live streaming, each one of the 48 guests developed their talks around a term, a keyword they proposed, and consider it to be significant in defining the design and its changes.

I share some extracts of the transcription of the talk I had with Silvia Maria Gramegna (Politecnico di Milano) about my personal view about the role of Design in the post-pandemic future, through the powerful metaphor of the verb “apapachar”, a term that comes from Náhuatl, a native language of Central America that is over a thousand years old.

The full video of the talk is available at https://youtu.be/0YUC6Y52d1E

Somebody said that apapachar is one of the most beautiful words in Spanish and one of the words that Spanish was gifted from the indigenous languages of Latin America. Its origin comes from Náhuatl, a native language of Central America that is over a thousand years old. And seemingly there is no exact translation in English for that.

Apapachar is a verb, especially common in Mexico and Colombia, but it’s a term used also in many other countries in Latin America, as in Chile, where I heard it for the first time and where I learned its meaning. The meaning of apapachar, in the most usual sense, let’s say in a superficial sense, is “to embrace” or “to cuddle”, but in the deepest sense, and even a spiritual sense, it means “to caress with the soul”.

I find it a very beautiful and poetic word, a really powerful metaphor. It is essentially a show of affection from the most intimate part of our being, which goes beyond physical contact. Through a hug, a kiss, or a caress, our soul is “undressing” in front of another, to offer affection or very intimate support, in a psychological and spiritual sense, not from an erotic or material point of view. Apapachar means giving comfort when a loved one is in grief, giving affection to someone who is having a very bad time. It refers to something that can have a therapeutic and healing power for people.

For those who know the work of the Italian singer Franco Battiato, this concept of apapachar reminds me of his song “La Cura” — “The Care” in English — which is considered one of the best Italian love songs, but in a deepest, spiritual sense it refers to love in the highest form. In this song, the singer, the lyrical self, speaks to a person, not necessarily a lover, but someone he cares very much about and to whom he promises to dedicate his life. He promises to protect her or him from the obstacles of life, from injustices, from fears, from falls or obsessions. He talks of fears of hypochondrias, upsets that she or he could encounter on the way. So it’s not merely a love song, it’s more profound and spiritual, it’s literally a “care song”.

What I love about the verb “apapachar” is that it expresses not only an action, it’s an attitude towards life and towards the others, it’s a “caring” attitude. It refers to a vision of life, with a focus on human relationships, on affection and, more in general, on the well-being of people. And such a model of life is, indeed, the lifestyle promoted by many indigenous cultures of America. And I am sure that we may learn so much from them, and their vision of the world.

There’s another expression that I learned here in Latin America, that I love very much. The expression is “Buen Vivir”, which means “Good Living”. It is part of the culture of many indigenous peoples of Central and South America. It is even included in the constitutions of countries like Ecuador and Bolivia. This expression addresses several concepts, linked to the quality of life, from a social and environmental perspective, but also from a human one. However, this expression does not refer to an abstract concept or a utopia, it refers to a tradition, to a tradition that is lived, experienced, and daily shared through practices of equality, community coexistence, reciprocity and relationships in harmony with others and with the “Pachamama”, the Mother Earth.

I know that talking about Pachamama and all this “spiritual thing” may sound a little bit naive or nostalgic. In reality, I do not intend idealizing the pre-Columbian cultures, I just want to show you what we may learn from them, from the worldview and the values that these peoples can bring us today especially in times where materialism and individualism prevail above all, with little or no respect for the others and for the environment.

What we probably have to question is the concept of “humanity”. What does it mean to be “human”? In relation to that, I remember a phrase of Gabriela Mistral, a Chilean poetess, diplomat, educator and humanist. She was the first Latin American woman to receive a Nobel Prize in Literature. In Santiago de Chile, in the city centre, very close to where I live, there is a cultural centre dedicated to Gabriela Mistral. On the main wall of this cultural centre, you may read the phrase: “La humanidad es todavía algo que hay que humanizar”, which means “Humanity is still something that we need to humanize”.

I proposed apapachar as a keyword for “Post-Pandemic Design” because, after this large lockdown, people will need — more than ever — special care and emotional support. People will need to heal from all the pain and anxiety they have suffered, to heal from the physical and emotional isolation they had to face, the separation from their families, friends, partners… But also, they will have to recover from the consequences of the difficult situations they passed through, the loss of a loved one, without the possibility of saying goodbye, not making it financially for being fired from work, and, more in general, the uncertainty… in many cases, people have experienced even the loss of meaning and references in life.

So, in this scenario, I am convinced that Design, should play the important role of supporting people’s healing processes, both physically and emotionally, focusing on two crucial aspects: the “curing” and the “caring” of people. During the Pandemic, we have been witnessing the important contribution of Design to the development of solutions for the cure and healthcare.

I always mention the example of the “hacking” of the Decathlon snorkel masks to transform them into respirators or other instruments and services for the medical staffs in the hospitals. Besides, many of us have been able to stay safe and secure at home during quarantine; and that’s thanks to the digital technologies and the connecting devices which allowed us to work remotely, to buy and receive at home orders from the supermarket and other stores, to stay in contact with our loved ones, and even to virtually party together.

For instance, last Saturday it was my birthday, and I was alone, isolated for the Pandemic that is still tough here in Santiago, but I had the chance to be accompanied and emotionally “contained” by my family and friends, through messages, videos, and gifts that I received at home, including a “party-box” to celebrate. So, in this sense, Design can be a tool to support the physical cure of people, and their caring, their emotional containment.

And this role of Design as an almost “therapeutic” tool will be even more important in the Post-Pandemic, considering that we’ll need to heal and to “repair” our “broken” relationships, re-establish “meaningful connections” with others, and reconnect with society and with the environment.

The coronavirus pandemic has certainly caused a global health crisis, but at the same time, it has increased the social and environmental crises that we have been facing in recent decades, and especially last year. The social outbreaks that we have witnessed here in Chile, for example… but also in all Latin America and in other parts of the world… Hong Kong, Egypt, Lebanon, Catalonia, UK, etcetera. All these protests, together with the “Friday for Future” marches, are demanding action towards political freedom, economic equality, culture and social rights, and climate justice.

And this global phenomenon truly tells us that humanity has lost that “connection” we mentioned before, at any level: at the personal, social and environmental level. The protests and the marches have partly stopped for the Pandemic, but they will be back at the end of lockdown. So, we have to be prepared for another period of breakdown and uncertainty. We won’t have a return to “normality”. Actually, that “normality” was the problem… and we should work to build new scenarios for the future.

Contemporary crises challenge us, as designers, to stop overproducing “things” and, instead, favour meaningful relationships, reinforce our role as “caretakers” of people, along with the protection and survival of the planet. Design must strongly reaffirm its role in sustaining the quality of life and any living creature. And surely this metaphor of apapachar will take more and more sense and importance.

As a professor, besides the fundamentals of our Discipline and the project methodology, what I try to teach my students is not to fear failure, to practice self-compassion and improve their empathy. Empathy, above all, can be a powerful tool, and definitely, it is key when we create solutions to solve people’s problems if we want to design for a better world and improve the quality of life.

In his book “Change by Design”, Tim Brown describes empathy as “the mental habit that moves us beyond thinking of people as laboratory rats or standard deviations”. So, empathizing with the recipients of our project means to understand and meet their needs, take care of them, and even thinks in terms of what they may need to make their life much easier and significant. In this sense, Empathic Design is probably the approach that better exemplifies the metaphor of apapachar within the Design processes.

However, empathy is not only a tool for the project, a way to take care of our users. Empathy is also a “life tool”, which supports each of us in the establishing of a deep and meaningful connection with others, at work and in everyday living. After all, if we want to be better professionals, we have first to be better humans and vice versa.

In a certain way, empathy could help us improving that “good living” — el “Buen Vivir” — on the basis of the indigenous cultures, which encourage people’s wellness, social welfare and quality of life, in harmony with the planet.

To conclude, I strongly believe that the post-pandemic will demand us to adopt a profound change in our current production and consumption models, which have already proven to be unsustainable, not only for future generations but also for us. The planet can’t take it anymore. And the contemporary crises highlight the extreme fragility of the human being, so it is inevitable that we will have to choose a radical change in the way we live, a shift in our worldview, find a new harmony with the other and the environment.

So what we have to do is to return to the essential, to what really matters. Back to basics: simplicity, naturalness and honesty must be privileged over the artificial, the deceptive. From such a perspective, I think that authenticity and transparency must be promoted as the founding values of the project. And this, according to an ethical approach to Design, that finally means taking into account our impacts and our responsibilities, towards other humans and more in general, towards all the other living beings, towards the planet life.

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Erik Ciravegna

Erik Ciravegna

PhD in design. University professor and consultant. Interested in any artistic expression and creativity. Motivated by the well-being of people and the planet.