Jul 29, 2015

The importance of telling one's story | La importancia de contar la historia de uno

The DukeEngage Colombia team at the documentary site, Manantiales de paz.

Juan Granados

‘When we are dead, seek not our tomb in the earth, but find it in the hearts of men’.
—Rumi’s epitaph

So, it goes without saying that as a person I really don’t have any secrets, or any withheld information that with asking I won’t reveal.

 Thinking about something personal is not easy. It makes me tremble, makes my heart pound at my chest – but I take that as honesty. So with that, I’ll say that finding me in a bad mood is really hard to do. Assuming that you understood what I just said, I’m a happy person -- period. There is not a day that I wake up and say “Wow, this day is horrible.” I’m always trying to make other people happy, to share with them a little bit of my personality. I do because I believe that there is not a reason to be sad, everything that happens to us has a “brighter side.” But with that said, sometimes it is hard to keep on trying to give happiness when there is none to give. What I mean by this is that sometimes carrying the burden of others, starts to become difficult, but there’s no reason to show that. In other words, what I think I’m trying to say is that I do not like looking emotionally weak. I don’t like to show more than one emotion. Reason being – I don’t know.

But to share, an experience, one that changed me as a person, was when my grandfather died. I understand, people leave this earth – and we believe that they’ll find somewhere better. The hardest part about his death was that I couldn’t go to his funeral, or his service, or anything that commended his life. I was stuck in the United States. I was stuck in a house of 3 families, living in 3 rooms. I was stuck thinking about what happened. I was stuck, hopeless, not being able to say goodbye to him at all. We couldn’t leave the United States and how much did I want to leave. How much did I want to return to Colombia to say goodbye, but our family just couldn’t.

We all have different stories to tell, we all have sadness in us that we don’t want to reveal, we all have happiness that we don’t want to share, but our experiences with these emotions, always allow us to understand, just a little bit.

This week we visited Manantiales de Paz, a slum, in which we will be documenting the live or lives of people in the community, so their stories don’t get lost in translation. I had the pleasure of interviewing two men, with two very different stories about their displacement.

I am going to focus on one of their stories – a story that I was not able to document by camera, but definitely by memory.

He started of talking about how he left his home because a criminal group assassinated his wife. Simple. There was no padding to it. It was forward. It was raw. His expression was expressionless -- he kind of just looked off to the distance.

I didn’t ask for him to give me his most personal memory. I wasn’t asking for that.

Anyways, he told me vividly about his story. He told me that his wife was assassinated because the group was looking for him. Since he wasn’t at home, they left him a message -- his wife as a message. The worst of the story is that his wife was three months pregnant. Even worse, he escaped his town in his wife’s coffin. To keep his life, he laid still in a coffin where his loved one rested.

So with that, I can not imagine what went on through his head – or what goes through his head now, since this event is so recent.

I don’t mean to cut his story short, nor do I mean to not pay my respects to his wife. I just think that these stories are meant to be told by a face to face conversation. They’re not meant to be told by writing. It’s hard to evoke feelings through writing, it’s hard to share the pain that they shared.

Over these weeks that we have been in Medellin, I have realized that stories are meant to be shared. People need to share their pain, their happiness, anything. They’re not looking for someone to solve their problems; they’re looking for someone to listen. They’re looking for an out of their lives, just for 10 minutes. They’re looking to remember and not forget.


Marah Jolibois

There are very few things that I find more anxiety provoking than being with a new group of people and having to introduce myself. I can’t stand icebreakers…they are painful and contrived. I hate it; I find it extremely fake. I hate the monotony of going around and having everyone give their name, Marah, where they’re from, Valley Stream, NY…. it’s on Long Island…. right outside of NYC, and interesting fact. I DETEST this question. What is the point of randomly spitting out meaningless, please don’t take offense, facts about yourself? In the end it doesn’t bring the group any closer together. We’re still the same group of people who probably don’t know any thing meaningful about each other. Here an example, friends from Duke, please think back to your first year experience and reflect on this: Were your most meaningful friendships between people in your FAC groups? Do you know something about them that most people wouldn’t know? I’m sure there’ll be a few outliers, but what I’m getting at is you do not gain anything through artificial relationships. Don’t get me wrong, I completely respect the effort in trying to create some sort of bond, but why not try and have it form a bit more naturally. So I’m not going to describe something about myself that most people don’t know, because by now if most people don’t know, it’s probably because its something that I want to keep to myself. It’s most likely one of the only things that I have the comfort of knowing that belongs strictly to me. SO rather than blatantly ask me to inconvenience myself and provide you with something about myself, why not get to know me. Why not build a relationship where we can learn all of the little intricacies about each other and from that maybe through observation we’ll learn the little things about each other that nobody else does. The things that everyone else wants us to share.   While many of you might find this as a copout answer, having shared personal experiences yourself, I’m going to be selfish and keep this one to myself because I myself am not ready.  I don’t know yet if it’s important for people to know my story.  I don’t even know what my story is. And while I roll my eyes at the cliché, it’s true. I, unlike the people in the communities we’re working with, have a voice…or an outlet where I can talk freely and somebody will listen.  But that doesn’t mean that I have anything worth saying that even compares to what the people living in Manantiales de Paz have to say. And with that I’m beginning to like the nature of this project. Our role isn’t just to ask the tough questions, make a video and leave. We’re here to build a relationship with the community and share with one another. 

I didn’t know Manantiales de Paz existed. Now being a first class gringa, many might not be so quick to question my ignorance, but I’m not even sure if many Colombian natives know of the little community that resides just outside of the borders of Medellin. When we first arrived in Manantiales, I have to be honest I was extremely happy.  These past few weeks I’ve been walking around Medellin with this white savior complex and disappointed when I would see things that didn’t need “saving.” I felt guilty. Walking around in that little square I finally felt useful. ”Now this is what Duke Engage is supposed to look like.” After enjoying the sancocho and leaving the site, I was excited, I felt like I was going to make an impact and do something. When Alice and I returned to Manantiales yesterday, I was eager to make something out of the day.  When the woman who I found to interview picked me up from the familiar town square, I walked confidently behind her to capture her story. As we entered her house, the familiar feeling of hopeless overcame my whole body. I walked in there ready to spend about an hour talking to this woman and do my best to capture a narrative for my video…but I couldn’t even think about the video at the time. This woman’s home was a wooden box, draped with cardboard and held up by the grace of god himself.  I wanted to ask who built this house, but I didn’t want to be rude. The remainder of my time there I remember hearing the words she was saying but I wasn’t even listening because my mind was preoccupied with maybe 1000 other things.  To be honest, I’m more than confused at this point about the community stories and whom they’re intended for. At the end of my interview, my woman and her husband told me they didn’t want their documentary published, for fear that other people in the world wouldn’t be able to relate to their message.  I don’t blame them at all; I don’t even want to share my own story.  At this point I’m a bit overwhelmed and don’t know how to gather my thoughts exactly, but to try and summarize how I’m feeling right now my emotions are very mixed and I’m very confused.  


Taylor Jones

My first impression of our field site was neutral. The hike up to Manantiales de Paz was a struggle of two metro rides, a metrocable trip and a 30 minute uphill walk but it was definitely worth the view. I saw quaint houses and kids playing in the dirt. Typical poverty. I didn’t actually feel bad for them though based on those principles.

When describing my experiences to my boyfriend he asked me “would you rather be poor in Colombia or poor in the US?” I didn’t know how to answer. The thing with being poor in the US is that no one wants to acknowledge you. They tell you “you have the same chances to get out of poverty just like everyone else” or they call you the black sheep of the country for accepting food stamps. You live in government housing and yet your whole life is a reflection of how the other half lives, a life that you don’t have access to and yet the whole world is screaming “you live in America! I did it, you can do it too!”

Colombia is different. Poverty is everywhere. It’s not just one side of the city or one community, many communities are stricken by it and many are the results of displaced people. I don’t know enough about Colombia and that’s my problem. I don’t know where this poverty lies, what are their specific challenges,  I don’t even know what these people need and that’s why I can’t direct my feelings towards them yet.

The people are so rich in personality. The houses are small, handmade and yet they have electricity, running water and small homes that yet contain the basics, even satellite television sometimes. Manantiales reminds me of what civilization will look like after the apocalypse. A community that is slow to start, but forever building and growing. These people have made communities out of nothing and that in itself is rich. I look at poverty as people who can barely eat and sustain life, but most importantly I look at poverty as those who go overlooked by the masses. I finally decided that I rather be poor in Colombia because at least the  government would acknowledge me. Visiting older communities that had escalators and murals, public spaces and libraries - at least somewhere down the line someone decided that their lives mattered. But again, I don’t know enough about Colombia and it’s making me mad. I have no idea about the sustainability of the projects or if it increased their standard of living. I don’t know, I just call it how I see it.

In Manantiales the poverty I saw was in their stories. The stories of why they were here. How many people were buried in the process? What was taken from them? Who is missing from their home that is supposed to be there? I don’t know what people think of Manantiales. My host mom tells me I should be afraid to go up there. but is that because of the violence or because I shouldn’t be associating with the people that live up there? I’m not keen enough on the dynamics yet.

I came to Colombia with no idea what this program was and in a sense I still have the same idea. I don’t know what this community needs, or rather what my actions can do in the grand scheme.  I see Manantiales as a spring of sorrow, that while women and families build their homes, they also build their lives and each other back up. Manantiales de Paz, literally translated into Springs of Peace.

I don't have a goal for this project. It’s not my project nor my story. These stories won’t change the world, these stories won’t elicit that much change. I’m just trying to add a drop of humanity into the lives of these people. See the problem with oppressed groups is that they lose their ability to use “I”. They are forever bonded by their poverty, a unit of “have nots” when in reality everyone has their own web of a past that weaves into the community and why it is the way that it is.

I’m not some deranged American who thinks she’s here to change the world. I’m a black women who has lost. But see the difference is, when I lost my brother to cancer I lost him to the hands of God, at one of the best hospitals in the world. Women in Manantiales lose their children due to war, violence, because they don’t have enough money to treat them when they are sick. They lose people because the hospital is down the mountain by metro-cable and they just might not make. Because someone with a weapon decided to play God and end a life, because their resources weren’t aligned enough to save them. I wish that on no one.

And what hurts the most probably? Lack of acknowledgement. Because see, at least people realize that cancer is a problem. Every day Colombians see their settlement on the top of that mountain and it’s a little too reminiscent of the Lion King “You see that.. that is Manantiales.. you must never go there.” And as a result they are casted into a shadow and remain there.

The only thing I can offer citizens of Manantiales is the confirmation that their stories matter. I’ve never been happier in my life to be a brown girl. The only shared experience that I have is that yes I’ve been cast away at points by my own country and yes I’ve had people say that my suffering doesn’t exist or isn’t legit and that’s the knife that hurts the deepest. A small intersection at the divergence of two lives who otherwise would have nothing in common.  I’ll give an ear, I’ll give a laugh, I’ll give them something that matters..  the confirmation that they themselves do.


Alice Marson

I was not raised in a typical family dynamic. I love my brother, and he has taught me so much, but growing up with him wasn’t always easy.

When visiting Mantinales de Paz, it’s hard to envision what my life would have been like if my family lived here. 92% of the families in this barrio are displaced, meaning they have all experienced some sort of violence/disruption forcing them to flee their homes and settle into this new life. What is the typical family dynamic in this town? These people’s problems include finding running water, providing an education for their children, providing a life for their families when the Medellin city government doesn’t even recognize them as citizens. And that makes me wonder, what do they think when they see me, a blonde gringa, toting around a camera that costs more than most of the possessions in their home? How do they perceive me, as someone who can help them? Someone who can’t? 

I’m not sure if I know myself. This week I spoke with Doña Ena, a woman in her mid forties who runs a juice store in the neighborhood. She has the whitest, most perfect teeth I’ve ever seen. She laughs a lot. Our short conversation covered the surface of her journey to Mantinales de Paz, including the violence she encountered in her home pueblo, the difficulty of the move, and the struggles she faces day to day. When I asked her about the community dynamic, I was expecting an answer about the strength of the people there, how they helped each other in any way they could. But this isn’t what she described. She said she was concerned with the people moving forward, with people being able to change the lifestyle they’ve normalized since moving to the barrio. And something that scares me, as a communicator recording these stories, is that I will do just that. Record these stories and not help this community move forward. I want the videos I make to show passion and drive for change, and prove to the people living in Medellín who can make these changes happen that the people in La Paz have not normalized this life. They are pushing for something bigger. 


Ashlyn Nuckols

Don Antonio
One of my favorites things about being a lifeguard is it gives you an excuse to stare at people. It’s actually in the job description. I’m not being creepy, I’m saving your life. Except on the rare occasion that there is some kind of incident, I can pass the hours inventing elaborate stories to explain the determined expression of the boy who comes alone to practice awkward yet oddly mesmerizing spins in the shallow end.  Or the bright, red lipstick of the woman who once played three straight hours of candy crush while her sons did their best to drown each other until at last she lured them out of the water with the promise of ice cream. Most of all, I love looking at their faces. Wondering what they would say if I asked them what they did before coming here, and where they hoped to be tomorrow. 

Not that I would ever have actually asked. That would have been disrespectful, inappropriate behavior. People have a right to privacy after all. This is what I’ve always been taught, but I’m starting to think maybe we worry so much about invading the privacy of others that we repress something valuable. Our capacity to engage with one another out of sheer curiosity. I’m not saying that any person should ever have to share information that they want to keep private, just that people may want to share more than we think. I’ve spent most of my life afraid to ask. In fact, social norms seem to dictate that I’m not even supposed to look. 

Most people find the gaze of another person unnerving, invasive even, particularly if that person is a stranger. To be honest, I’ve never really understood why. When I pass someone on the street we are existing together in that space whether or not we take notice of one another, and am I really supposed to pretend that the stone walkway is more interesting than your wild, graying eyebrows, or the freckles that fold into the wrinkles beneath your eyes? Of course I am well aware of how a stare can be demeaning or offensive, and yet I’ve always felt more comfortable catching the wandering eyes stranger than of most people I know well. I think its because I assume that people who know me are seeing what they expect to see, whereas a stranger sees only what stands before them. I like to imagine that they enjoy wondering about the origin of my imperfections as much as I enjoy wondering about theirs. They may very well find me ridiculous, unattractive or lacking in some other way. But then again they might not. And I’m perfectly willing to be judged if it means getting to share a moment with a person whose life is completely distinct from my own.

This has been one of my favorite things about coming to Medellin. I’m not sure if it is that the culture is more open in general, or if it’s the fact that I am so clearly a foreigner, but everywhere I go people are staring at me. Some of the stares are the uncomfortable kind that make you want to lower your head and walk a little faster, but most people seem merely curious. Before coming to Colombia I had hoped that I would be able to learn to blend in, but now I understand that sticking out is actually gift. Because when people stare openly at me, I feel like I can stare back without causing offense. And while it also helps that I’ve come equipped with a camera and the prestige of a university program, I think every story I’ve heard hear has begun with meeting someone’s eyes and recognizing our mutual curiosity. 

When we arrived at Manantiales de Paz, the place where we planned to conduct our interviews, I was worried that my presence there would be resented. More than that, I was worried that it should be resented. Who was I, the entitled American student, to come waltzing in with a camera and expect them to pour their hearts out to me?  I was a complete stranger after all, and at first it did seem as though I was being nosy and inappropriate- I wasn’t just staring I was asking these people share their life stories. Yet almost everyone I have spoken to has been eager to share. Far from being resented, I’ve never felt so welcome anywhere in my life.  In fact, one woman that I spoke to said she had always dreamed that someone come from another country to sit in her home.

I began to realize that talking to these people wasn’t just about getting a good interview. I had been concerned that the videos themselves were much more for me and my fellow students than for the people of the barrio. I still think that may be true. But there is something else that we are doing for them. Most of these people have made it clear that they feel voiceless, their way of life and very existence has been defined by sensationalized media that focuses on only the very worst of what they have endured. The stories I’d heard of the desplazados in Medellin in the US took on a tone of either condemnation or pity. And none of them had anything to do with the lives of individuals. That is what we came to listen to. We came with curiosity. And while that seemed an obvious thing, or even an invasive or indecent thing to bring, they were grateful for it. We aren’t going to save anyone, and we can’t change there lives in any measurable way. But the woman I spoke to called our presence there a dream come true. And she was crying.  

The true value of our work in our Manantiales de Paz became evident to me when I met Don Antonio. A community leader, and the man I was lucky enough to get to interview, Don Antonio represents the very best of humanity. After being displaced from his home he was one of the people who founded Manantiales. He built a home, a neighborhood and a community from the ground up. Lower than then  even, because it began with people who had lost not only their homes, but loved ones to violence that had come without provocation on their part. And now, even as the forge new lives from themselves, they are repeatedly reminded that they were unwanted in the city they now call home. With their previous identity in shambles, they are denied the right to assume a new one. The people of Medellin refer to their neighborhood as “an invasion”. Through all of this, Don Antonio is resilient. He is determined to continue salvaging and improving not only his own life, but the lives of everyone in the community. He is brave, and strong and above all, incredibly kind. He is almost always smiling. When we walk through the neighborhood together he is greeted by anyone and everyone. For once no one is staring at the Gringa, he is far more interesting attraction. To be honest, I can hardly believe that he was willing to make time for me. But he was genuinely thrilled to do it. He believes that my video could help him gain exposure for his community, and help him work towards gaining much need services from the city (clean water for example). If Don Antonio believes that telling his story to me will make a difference for his community, then I believe it too. 

It’s funny, but also kind of terrible, to think that I would never have asked to hear his story if I hadn’t been instructed to do so. Not because I didn’t want to hear and not because I didn’t consider his voice valuable, but because I was afraid of offending him. I wonder how many people remain feeling voiceless because those around them are trying to be polite.   


Katherine Reed


I: I grew up doing a lot of “service work.” I went to a Catholic high school. They instilled the “five goals” into our brains. I always hated how they made the preschoolers sing hymns when they weren’t old enough to understand them. Or how mass was obligatory. But anyways that’s beside the point. These goals…Goal III: commit themselves to educate to a social awareness which impels to action. i.e. service. And I did. Service has always been an integral part of my life. It wasn’t until I became older, started thinking on my own, that I started to question the work. 

I was that girl. Fleeing from one cause to another—bake sales for tsunami victims; beanie baby drives for orphans; farmer’s market stalls for no-kill dog shelters. I don’t regret the service trips I took or the money I raised. But, I do view them a little differently now. When I was younger I used to think the work I was doing was really meaningful. Giving gifts to children, passing out little booklets or whatever. But I don’t think anything I’ve ever done has been sustainable. It’s just been charity. People don’t want to receive charity; it doesn’t make them feel good. It’s condescending. But, I guess I don’t know that for certain, since I haven’t been on the other end of the exchange. But, it’s just a hunch.

That is why I applied to this program though. Because I didn’t think it was charity. We aren’t going into the community trying to save lives or donate goods. We are here to help circulate stories. Amazing, powerful, stories. 

***

II: Disclaimer: I am not a morning person. It was 8 o’clock. I had already been awake for an hour and a half, taken the metro across half the city. And now I was walking uphill in my gringa sandals, Birkenstocks to be exact. Pathetically panting, sweat starting to run down the side of my face. We were in a single file line—I was trying to navigate between the dog feces and losing my feet to the reckless drivers racing by. It was the trucks that put me over the edge…huge, diesel trucks storming by, emitting an exhaust of black smoke. I held my breath, coughed. And maybe a bit too dramatically I said under my breath…ugh I’m going to come back with lung cancer. A peer looked at me and said, “Think about the people who walk this everyday, they probably do have lung cancer.”

Well, shit. That shut me up. 

And then I got to the community. I was nervous for sure. I hated myself for it, but I kept checking my backpack to make sure my iPhone and video equipment were still there. And guess what…they were. I began to feel more at ease, watching Lucas and the other pups play with one another. We crowded into one room and I felt in the way, literally and figuratively. I kept brushing my backpack up against strangers, and attempting to apologize in broken, flustered Spanish. Then Jota started talking. 

If someone intruded into my community and asked to film me, record my stories, come into my home, and even more so, a foreigner, I would be slightly taken aback. I would question their intentions, their motive. But as Jota continued to explain the project the community members buzzed. I could see smiles sneak onto their faces, and in the end, they clapped. It could have been out of politeness, or respect. But it seemed genuine, you could tell the people in that room wanted to talk to us. They wanted someone to listen. 

I came to interview Claudia at 11 am on Thursday. I walked into her comedor and she greeted me with a kiss. She was all dolled-up. Hair pulled back, her eye shadow mirroring the green in her sweater. She was excited and nervous—so was I. 

I told her not to worry; not to let the cameras make her nervous. That this wasn’t an interview; it was a conversation. Between worrying about the next question and fussing over the audio, I strained to understand her. Translating ever other phrase or so in my head. I didn’t know how to respond. I could blame the language barrier, but honestly I don’t think I would have known how to respond in English either. I didn’t know what to say when she told me about her abusive husband. Or how he would come home drunk at night and hurt her. I didn’t know what to say when she told me how worried she was about her daughters. But Claudia opened up to me, I am not entirely sure why, but she trusted me. And so I didn’t say much of anything…I just listened.

I do not know exactly what tangible changes this video will cause. I don’t know if there will be any, to be honest. But I want them to be watched. I want them to be heard. So maybe, when someone talks about Colombia. They won’t make a sarcastic joke about the drug cartels. Instead, they can think of the woman who spends her time teaching abuelos how to read and write. A woman who overcame abuse and mistreatment. A woman who worries about the safety of her children, just like any other mother. And most importantly, they can put a face to it. They can put Claudia’s face to it. 



Samantha Siegel

What the hell am I doing here?  That was just about the only thought going through my head two summer ago when, on a pretty random impulse, I signed up for a trip to L’viv, Ukraine with my fencing club.  I thought it would be an exciting adventure to throw myself into a new part of the world, so what the hell!  With a backpack in one hand and a suitcase filled with swords in the other, I boarded a plane to Ukraine, a country I had never been to before with a culture I knew nothing about.

Honestly, landing in L’viv was a bit of a culture shock.  Other than a few atrociously translated Ukrainian phrases saved in my phone, I couldn’t speak or understand a word of the language.  This proved even more difficult when I started fencing other Ukrainian students, using French fencing commands to compromise between language barriers.  I was fascinated by Ukrainian food, by the seemingly endless amounts of fillings a pierogie could have.  I want to say that I was able to actually immerse myself after those ten days in Ukraine, but I really only scratched the surface.  I came back to New Jersey with a couple postcards, some bent fencing blades, a few new Ukrainian Facebook friends, and the classic tourist t-shirt.  And honestly, although it’s embarrassing, I didn’t know too much about the history of L’viv while I was there.

The first few weeks of my trip in Colombia really reminded me of my time in Ukraine.  Yes, Medellín was a bit of a culture shock, but I had a better grasp of the language this time around.  Kvas and borscht from the streets of Ukraine are replaced with arepas and mango vendors in the Medellín parks, and the views of the Colombian mountains stand in contrast to the cobblestone city of L’viv – but I still feel like an outsider looking in to a culture I don’t know too much about.  Our group spent some time being tourists, allowing ourselves to scratch the surface of the city through bus tours, rides on the metrocable, and trips to local museums.  And now, I can come back to New Jersey with some photos and a few new Colombian Facebook friends, but this is where the comparison really ends.  Here, I have tried to learn a lot about the history of Medellín – I’ve spent time talking to my host mom about feminism in Colombia, listening to stories of violence in La Casa de la Memoria, and actually trying to understand how places like Manantiales de Paz were created. 

That’s why interviewing Lamona, one of the community founders and leaders in Manantiales de Paz, felt so important to me.   When I first met Lamona, I thought she was a complete badass.  While everyone else was having lunch, she was hauling bags of vegetables off a pickup truck and handing them out to families in the neighborhood center.  She explained to me how she’s always been good with her hands, and decided to build base structures to build solar panels in the comuna practically on her own.  Lamona told stories of displacement, of losing her parents and living on her own, of riding down the metrocable while going into labor because there are no hospitals up the mountain. 

For me, it was hard not to be shocked by these stories.  Sure, I can research and read about the history of Medellín all I want.  But I still have a very surface-level understanding of the city, the culture, and the country.  I’m still an outsider looking in, only able to sympathize with Lamona’s stories and understand them as best I can.  Because once I shut my camera off, once I ride the metrocable down the mountain to my homestay, I’m still just another tourist.  I still don’t really know the meaning behind what I’m doing here, or how I’m going to use the next four weeks to find out.  But I know for sure that now, I can come back with much more than a t-shirt.  I’m trying to embrace the uncertainty, accept feeling foreign, and continue listening to all the badass things Lamona has to say.

Jul 21, 2015

First impressions of Medellín | Primeras impresiones de Medellín

The DukeEngage Colombia 2015 team in downtown Medellín.

Juan Granados

Miguel. How can I describe him? He reminds me of my best friend. It’s not his appearance, nor is it his demeanor. It’s his personality. Miguel is someone that has depth, I’ve only known him for a week exactly; 7 days. He isn’t your regular bartender/coffee seller. He is on the quiet side, but not introverted. His taste in music is flawless – at least to my ears. Once again, there is more to him than meets the eye. I met him the first day that I arrived in Medellin, and that day I knew that if I ever needed anything I would come to him. Yes, it is weird that I am writing about someone who I just met and it seems strange, but I swear that I’m writing about him because I think he was the one person that I expected to find in Medellin, for some weird reason. After all I will end up seeing him most of the time; my friend Joe and I are always at his café, chatting it up. Anyways, I felt that I needed to put that out there because I know he’s going to play a major role in how I see the city of Medellin, Colombia.

I’m originally from Bogota, Colombia, so most of the things here do not seem so out of this world. Of course, their “Paisa” accent is way different than my “Rolo” accent, but we all seem to be getting along – lol. I have finally been reunited with my spirit fruit – the Granadilla and things could not be any better.

I feel like there is not much to talk about, just because I think I’m overwhelmed with everything here. I’ve seen the city, I’ve seen the cities in the mountains, and well what can I say? I’m speechless. It isn’t like anything I’ve ever seen. Bogota and Medellin are polar opposites, Bogota is cold in weather, Medellin is warm in weather – people in Medellin are warm in personality, people in Bogota are cold in personality, are we getting the trend?

On another note, I do sometimes feel that I miss my place of origin.

Enough on how the city feels, let me elaborate on what two places that have opened my eyes. We went to Comuna 13, or by name San Javier. We also went to Comuna 1, or by name Santo Domingo. Before I get deeper into what opened my eyes, I want to describe how these neighborhoods are built. First of all, they’re both built on a mountain. Second of all, they seem to only have one main road. Imagine a bunch of stacked brick boxes, on top of mountains, with one main road, and pathways no bigger than three feet in length. Multiple houses are stacked upon each other, with a different family in a different section of this so called brick box. San Javier and Santo Domingo were previously known as two of the most dangerous and poor sectors of the city of Medellin, but with recent architectural developments this violence has decreased. These sectors are filled with poverty with what seemed to be an over population problem, but these people are far from poor – from what I saw. They embrace where they live, and furthermore, its their home. Not their “brick box” but the whole neighborhood.

There was one event in Comuna 1, that has stuck with me for this week. An eight-year-old came up to the group and gave us the history of his neighborhood. This child with a straight back, chest puffed out, and proudly told us about how it was founded, and how everything came to be. Just with that I was blown away. I was blown away because this child was “humilde,” with just the way he spoke I could tell that the love for his neighborhood and its people was there.

Anyways, concluding this blogpost, my host mother, Diana, is an angel that fell from heaven. Her “huevos pericos” are off the chain, her “frijoles” are the bomb, and her “pollo a la plancha” is incredible. I promise I won’t turn into a glutton, but I’m pretty sure I’ll get close to it. Her daily advice, and her daily morning notes are the best, and well – I don’t think I could’ve gotten any luckier.

Our group is also incredible, which makes this experience even better. Tam says we'll get on each others nerves, right now we are 0 for 1. I’ll keep you updated.


Marah Jolibois

Last week I thought I died. On Wednesday our group bravely, (or naively) did the Siclas, a bike tour around the city of Medellin. Initially I thought it was just another tourist attraction for people visiting Medellin, but it’s a weekly event that thousands of people participate in—ok. The routes change weekly, offering different levels and opportunities for people to experience the Siclas. Last Wednesday’s route was roughly 30km through a part of Medellin with VERY steep hills, el poblado. In theory it sounded like a good idea, exercising and touring the city at the same time, oh yeah…but honestly we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. 30km is about 19 miles and I don’t think before then I’d ever biked more than 8 miles outside.  As the Siclas started I was actually really excited to try something new, and leave Carlos E Restrepo for a bit…. but as the bike ride progressed I became very bitter. The hills were endless, my thighs burned, people were everywhere weaving in and out between people, the roads were blocked but not really because there were cars everywhere and it was very hot.  So imagine I was already in this distressed state. As we’re speeding down this hill (another hill), I fell. I don’t even know how it happened, but one second I was riding and then the next I was on the floor. In that moment, I thought “Jesus, please don’t let me be dead.” I got up immediately, and continued. I didn’t want to show my vulnerability. Something I find myself doing a lot, especially here in this new place. What amazed me though was how warm and quickly everyone came to my attention.  That’s when I realized the love and passion that fills the city.

Something peculiar I’ve noticed already about Medellin is that everything is extremely relaxed (except the siclas). Nobody is rushed or has any sense of urgency. Coming from New York and the Duke bubble where everybody and everything is stretched so thin, and we try to accomplish as much as we can in so little time, I’m finding it really difficult to “relax” and be ok with having nothing to do.

***

After being here in Medellin for almost two weeks, I’ve learned that you can’t always accept widely broadcasted narrative without receiving full context first. What I mean specifically is that before arriving in Medellin I personally had preconceived notions that I would be witnessing violence on a daily basis.   In the months leading up to this trip, I had only heard of the dangers associated with the city of Medellin. To be honest I was scared shitless and had no idea what to expect.

Now after two weeks I feel stupid for allowing myself to take those outdated retellings as truth without having my own personal experiences. Medellin I believe is no more dangerous than New York City and the paisas here are for the most part nicer than everyone in the United States. You can see that everyone here looks out for each other as has a genuine concern for each others well being, something which is sadly very foreign to me. I mean I was swarmed by maybe 25 people when I fell during the Siclas. And Margarita, my host mom, who has more than opened her home to me continues to say how paisa I’m getting with every passing day. Even walking down the street to ciudad café I know that I’ll be greeted with a “buenas” or a friendly “hola”.  I think It’s important to remember all of the awful things that have happened here, but it surely doesn’t define the city and I’m excited for my rest of the time here.

Taylor Jones

Medellin is a space that I wouldn’t necessarily say is hard to navigate, I would just say that you have to have an open mind because literally the entire country.. is open.

The bathrooms, when entering my new home, to my dismay the sink and shower were shrouded behind nothing. What was called a bathroom, I called “an indent in the wall that contained only a sink and  a shower.” It wasn’t a bathroom,  it was an open addition to the larger house.

The restaurants, there is no concept of inside and outside, they’re simply one. The tables span out on the floor unaware if they’re within the confines of the edificio or if they happen to be planted on the patio. The breeze, or rather the heat spares no one. Open dining.

The clothing.. Whether it be open backs or open expression they are not shy here. Size isn’t a dictator of what’s deemed appropriate, colors have no limits and the more skin the merrier. Looking good here is a birthright regardless of body type. What we shame, they commend. Open bodies.

The people, are open.. with distaste - “¿por qué están comiendo tan poco?” I try to explain that the meals are lovely but the sheer amount on my plate is a sharp jump from my portions at home. She tells me to finish my food, I guess by default I’m learning to have an open taste and with that, an even wider belly.

The people are open with love. Smiles are exchanged so easily here. Conversations tend to go unhindered by my faulty Spanish, and rather, the gaps are filled with encouragement and eagerness at my attempt. Couples decorate the city in public parks and gardens, sidewalks and street corners. I like it, there’s no shame and for a country that’s so hyper sexualized by the media it’s nice to see passion and fervor in a more genuine form.

The people are open with conversation, “I heard it through the grapevine” is what I’ve decided to name Estella and I’s dinner telenova.  I was quite amused when she knew which students lived with which mothers and all the ins and outs of their stay here. This all was thanks to the network of phone calls and home visits between our madres. They’re nosey, but open about it, I have to appreciate their honesty. I actually find it quite comical seeing their dramatic reactions to things that typically wouldn’t evoke an emotion out of me. The animated phone conversations. Love manifests itself in so many ways here and often transcends into zealousness as everything is centered around it. Someone in our group remarked “Don’t you love how “me gusta” is actually translated as being “it gives me pleasure”. Or when watching a futbol game how the love is not only for the sport, but for Colombia, and what the team means to the nation.

Colombia is such an open place, and part of its transparency is seen literally in its landscape. It’s cradled by a valley with the city meandering up the banks of the surrounding mountains making the view endless. Any peak or point above house level you can see the sprawl of the city thanks to its geography. At night the clay colored roofs and red brinks dissolve into a net of lights like the universe just laid the stars to rest in the Aburra Valley.

Along with openness comes the lack of shrouding around sensitive topics like poverty and lack of resources. The steep peeks of the mountains accentuate rather than disguise the hand built comunas, and with that the disparities are striking. I could incorporate my general views on Medellin's poverty and the system around it but this post wouldn’t do it justice. Rather than descriptions of poverty and descriptions of “how the other half lives” I have questions. I have concerns. I have more to navigate and thus out of respect, I’ll save my poverty analysis for  a later post once I’ve become active in these communities.

With that being said Medellin is a miraculous city, a literal phoenix that has risen from the ashes of acute violence and unabridged corruption. The spirit and vitality that the city has is unparalleled to anything I have experienced in the states. In the process I’m learning a lot about myself but far too often people ask me to draw conclusions about my experience. So whats my conclusion? I don’t have one, nor do I need one. This is surface level Medellin. These are my perceptions, and frankly.. I’m still a gringa.


Alice Marson

Coming from Alabama, I’m used to people expecting me to talk, think and act a certain way. They can be frustrating, but stereotypes are a natural cognitive tool used when you don’t know the entire story. However stereotypes lose their power once you recognize complexity. And it didn’t take very long to realize that Medellin is a pulsing, thriving metropolis with many stories to tell.  

One of our first day trips was to Independencia, a small barrio at the very top of the Aburrá Valley. Every house is a different color, a permanent rainbow painted onto the mountainside. It is located in comuna 13, which was once one of the most violent districts during the conflicts of the 80’s and 90’s. Today it is home to some of the city’s most innovative urban planning projects, all of which foster interaction and mobility between the city center and the distant barrio. There are large boulevards with benches and plazas designed for community discussion, a fútbol field with bleachers and playgrounds, a library with computers and resources for all ages, electric escalators that alleviate transportation on the steep mountainside—all within one of the poorest communities in Medellín. By no means has violence left this area, but it is not this community’s only story.

One expectation that did meet the stereotype is the warmth of the Paisa people. My homestay family, Mercedes and Enrique Bonilla, or, as I like to call them, mis abuelos, have completely opened their home and hearts to me. This past weekend, Mercedes invited me to her sister’s 50th wedding anniversary, a boda de oro, in La Ceja, a town an hour outside of Medellin. The ceremony took place in a small catholic church in the center of town. There must have been 70+ close family and friends in the sanctuary, and there I sat, second row, next to my sobbing tía as she watched her older sister wheel down the aisle. Everyone knew I was neither friend nor family, but that didn’t stop each and every one of them hug and kiss my cheek as if I were. A daughter of the bride grabbed me into a particularly warm hug and whispered in my ear, Estoy contenta que vino, I’m happy you came. As I walked into the reception hall full of strangers, I didn’t feel quite as strange myself. I was happy to be there. I laughed at the funny slideshow of the bride and groom, talked about music with cousins over dinner and took photos of the family as they surrounded the wedding cake.

Part of the evening entertainment included family members singing a traditional Colombian song to the bride and groom about the life of the Paisa farmer. The song emphasizes the strength of Colombian soil, the value of hard work and the gift of heavy rain.  Here’s a small clip from the performance.

I’m sure my time in Medellin will bring rainy days and present new challenges I could never have anticipated. But I can acknowledge this city’s complex history and try to understand a small piece of this intricate organism. If I can accomplish that, estaré contenta que vine.


Ashlyn Nuckols

I have a new favorite word.

I first heard it spoken by my host father, in a moment when I would’ve expected a word to be the last thing capable of improving the situation. It was words, after all, that were causing the problem in the first place. Or more precisely, it was my inability to respond to a rapid stream of words, which despite five years of Spanish were completely unintelligible to me.

“Hablas muy poco español” my host father informed me at last.

“Oh, si” I responded, feeling the temperature rising in my cheeks. “Lo siento.”

I hoped he understood that my apology was for more than just my linguistic incompetence. I had showed up on his doorstep at one in the morning, waking him his wife and his three-year-old son, and was now staring at him blankly while he tried to point me to my room. This could not be a good night for him. But when I mustered up the courage to look him in the eye I saw that he was smiling. It was a genuine smile, friendly and if anything a little amused by my obvious concern. He waved his hand as if to say that there was nothing to apologize for and cheerfully picked up the suitcase of a total stranger before leading her to her room. It was now 1:30 am.

Before leaving he smiled again and looked me in the eye.

“No te preocupes” he said calmly. “aquí, esta tranquilo.” Though I’d never heard it in high school Spanish, I understood this word immediately. And as I lay in bed listening to new and strange sounds, in a strange city, in a strange country, I discovered that I was smiling.

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve come to realize how integral the word “tranquilo” is to the collective, cultural mindset in Medellin. It moves in time with the city, like an infectious base line that turns the chaos of a crowded city square into a captivating dance routine. I’m not quite able to step in time with the beat; I’m used to moving faster, keeping my head lower, and always feeling like I’m two steps behind. Here people walk with a kind of lazy confidence, as if they know the road will take them where they need to go, and in plenty of time without any effort on their part. I’ve never felt that kind of confidence, but maybe I can learn. I guess when I stop picturing the city as some complex and exotic organism I’ll know that I’ve gotten out of my own head and into the rhythm of my surroundings. For now, I’m content in my role as a spectator. And while I know my vision of the city is colored by my host father’s exceptional ability to save me from an impending panic attack, I’m certain that the pervading philosophy of tranquilo is more than just my imagination.

I hear the word spoken several times a day in the midst of the frenzied streets, where the cab drivers swerve calmly back and forth among delivery trucks and motorcycles. If there are traffic laws in Medellin they remain a complete mystery to me, and yet something in my cab driver’s expression keeps me from panicking. I see, rather than hear, tranquilo in the face of an elderly man who is willing to trust us with the story of how he and his family were displaced from their village in the midst of civil warfare. His voice is sad but steady, and when he thanks us for our time his eyes are shining with a mixture of gratitude and mild amusement. As if we, the awkward, stuttering gringos, were the ones doing him a favor. Many of the people we have spoken to have painful and violent stories to tell, and many must have reason to fear violence in the future. For these people, life is full of a stress that makes worrying about paying college tuition seem laughably trivial. So of course the confidence I see in so many of them must sometimes be an act, or an invention of my imagination. A side effect of the feeling that as I walk down the street I am causing an annoying disturbance in an otherwise perfectly choreographed baile.

But what I feel is something stronger than the attitude of individuals. I struggled to find a way to understand, let alone describe, it until a local architect, Carlos Escobar, explained to us the story behind a piece of incredibly intricate graffiti. The communities that skirt the edges of Medellin are populated primarily with people displaced from rural areas as result of violent conflict. Given the state of poverty most of them are now living in, the area is surprisingly vibrant. The houses are bright and colorful and every once in a while we came across signs new looking signs with inspirational messages. As we walked, the juxtaposition of a sign proclaiming that we must celebrate the world we have, and a barefoot child walking on the street beside it gave the area a slightly gilded feel. So when I first saw the breathtaking imagery, I suspected it was a state project intended to improve the scenery for tourists like myself. But as the architect explained, it was actually the work of people living in the community. What I had first perceived as an attempt to mask poverty and boost moral on the part of the state, was actually an expression of dignity and source of pride for marginalized citizens.  I asked how the people kept the graffiti safe from the elements, and our guide replied that they didn’t. The images chipped and faded relatively quickly, but were always replaced by a new wok of art. For a moment, I could only think of what a terrible loss it would be when the piece I was looking at faded, but then I realized that I had suddenly found a way to understand the feeling that had been with me since that first night in Medellin. The people of comuna 13 had no illusions about the fact that their artwork would fade. They took pride in it despite, or maybe even because of, the fact that its existence would be fleeting. And then I thought perhaps the people I see on the street walk with confidence not because they were sure that they would get where they wanted to go, but because the history and atmosphere of the city fosters the ability to simply enjoy the walk. The concept of tranquilo isn’t really about having confidence in the future, it’s about trusting the universe just enough to enjoy the present.


Katherine Reed


I: What do you mean, innovative? 

“I am really excited… Medellín is one of the most innovative cities in South America.” This was my go-to line for every person who inquired about my summer plans. People would sound impressed and wish me luck on my adventures. It wasn’t until my offbeat, inquisitive physical therapist actually asked me how it was innovative that I realized I had no idea what I was talking about. Innovative is one of those over-used words—kinda new, kinda techy, super vague. But I truly had no idea how Medellín was innovative. All I did know was that practically every travel review used this filler word, and thus, I assumed there must be some truth to it.

It wasn’t until arriving in the city that I started to get a better sense of the vague descriptor “innovative.”

It’s the architecture.
It’s the urban mobility projects.
It’s los parques bibliotecas.
It’s the metrocables. 
It’s how a generation transformed their own city from one of the most violent places in the world to a booming tech and economic capital.

And behind all that, are la gente. The people driving the innovation.

I have a lot more learning ahead of myself. But if anything…I think my trite descriptor has a little more substance than I originally realized.

II: Soy una extranjera. 

In Spanish extranjer@ means “foreigner” and “alien.”  They use the same word. I’m not too familiar with being a minority. Now, coming to Colombia, I get to be all three—foreign, alien, and a minority. Assimilating into the Colombian culture has not been effortless. Before I arrived to Medellín I thought I would fit in…despite my European ancestry, I have darker skin and dark eyes. And after 7 years of learning Spanish, I was relatively confident with my language skills. Yet, I’ve been so unfortunately reminded of my “gringa-ness” with every new location we venture.

Al gymnasio, los parques, el museo, las calles, el disco, el café. Todos lo saben, y no se porque. It’s not that the people are rude, by no means. If anything quite the opposite, most everyone has been welcoming and kind. Yet, they stare.

I wish I fit in more. However, at the same time, I think it is my turn to be a minority. I am from a small, predominantly white neighborhood in California. An overwhelming majority of the students in my classroom were just like me. And not just at one school— from kindergarten to 12th grade I was the average student: socioeconomically, racially, religiously. No one stared at me in the grocery store; no one gawked at me in the gym. I was just like everyone around me.

Here in Medellín I get to experience something else. Perhaps the staring will wane over time, or perhaps it will not. I am not entirely sure what I will learn yet—but I do know that, if I want to gain anything, I need to make myself a little uncomfortable.


Samantha Siegel

There’s this incredible TED Talk, given by social advocate and storyteller Chimamanda Adichie, entitled “The Danger of the Single Story.”  Using personal analogies from her time in Nigeria and the United States, Adichie outlines the ways in which people can be negatively influenced by what they hear about different areas in the world, consequently creating stereotypes.  Whether it’s through literature, films, news outlets, or just about any form of social media, we as a society tend to construct labels for others based off a single story.  Sometimes, we focus on a singular negative aspect of a multifaceted culture, inappropriately summarizing an entire population instead of attempting to deeply understand them.  Throughout this past week, I found myself returning over and over again to this exact message.

Before coming to Medellín, I would talk to people in my hometown about my DukeEngage project.  Yet no matter how passionately I described what I would be doing in Colombia, I was consistently met with a less than enthusiastic reaction.  People would raise their eyebrows, questioning me further about the safety of a program going to areas like Colombia.  They bombarded me with old news headlines about violence and sarcastic comments about keeping away from drug cartels.  And I have to be honest — those responses scared me.

But reflecting on my first week in Medellín, I feel nothing but excitement and admiration for the city, the people, and the culture.  My host family welcomed me, a complete stranger, into their home with open arms, eager to teach me about Medellín and to learn about my experiences in the United States.  They invited me to their hometown of La Ceja, a pueblo in the mountains where they celebrated my host grandparents’ 50th anniversary.  They introduced me to Colombian music, and enjoyed my fascination of the unique local fruits and food.  Every part of the city we visit is even more beautiful than the next, and nothing can compare to the views of the mountains from the metrocable.  I find myself constantly amazed by the brilliant murals and sculptures that cover every part of the city, from the Parque Botero to the underpasses of highways.

Everything I have seen in Colombia, every person I have talked to, has shattered what I believed to be the story of Medellín.  The history I received before my trip was the same single story of violence and crime repeated for me time and time again.  But having personal experiences with the city, both physical and emotional, has showed me so many other perspectives to the story of Medellín.  I know there’s much more to learn, but I’m excited to continue exploring the city with my DukeEngage team, bonding with my host family and compañeros, and opening myself up to completely new experiences.  Adichie concludes her talk with the following, “I would like to end with this thought: That when we reject the single story, when we realize there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.”  Between the mountains and skyscrapers of Medellín, I’m trying to find that paradise.


Joseph Vosburgh

I hold pretty dearly that expectation is the heart of disappointment - and mastering that mindset only leaves room for surprise. And after a week in Colombia, that mindset makes me feel pretty damn American.

But hm maybe not.

Is that mindset American or just me?

Do you think that Colombians think that way as well?

Am I overthinking this one already?

Shit.

And I think that’s where I’ll begin with my first impression of Medellín.

My most common thoughts include (but aren’t limited to): Am I acting Colombian enough? Or just trying too hard? Or not hard enough? Why is it that people here seem to know more about my whiteness than I do? When I see other whiteys on the metro that can roll their “r’s” flawlessly, why was I praying that maybe they were speaking english like me?

And that seems to be the story of a Kansas boy walking around the streets of Medellín. I am stuck in a paradox: are these Colombians the kindest people I’ve ever met or the most stand-offish? When I walk around, I feel somewhere between a celebrity and a pariah -- either way, every person I pass doesn’t hesitate to give a stare. Do you hate me? My country? Do you even care, or are you just confused by the fact that my knees are showing?

I came to Colombia knowing nothing about this place and so little about our group of 8. I didn’t understand why we had compañeros or how we would be interviewing individuals in communes or even if I would be sent home after missing a flight that I didn’t ever have a ticket for. My expectations were less than zero. I left my home neither scared nor excited - I got on a plane not knowing what I didn’t know.

And perhaps that’s why I’ve been so surprised by this obvious culture shock.

***

But when I think about it, I really don’t know Colombian-American relations. Until this morning, I didn’t know that the only Colombians in shorts were living on the coast. Before I got here, I didn’t realize how terrible my Spanish was. Maybe what I was calling “low expectations” were actually “poor preparations”. How many of my own problems were also my own fault?

Oh, and the problems are numerous.

Medellín has been invigorating and beautiful and exciting, but there hasn’t been an easy moment yet. When I’m out grabbing a drink, I have to repeat myself because my accent is so poor. When I’m lying in my bed, I listed to my host-family debate about how my name is spelt. The sun is always burning my skin and the water ~might~ give me diarrhea (though it hasn’t!). And in each individual moment, I wish that I was home, where life doesn’t have so much friction and where I can breathe - even for a moment.

But when I aggregate these moments - sew them together to create my first week in Colombia, it starts to look pretty beautiful.

I’m learning Spanish.
I’m meeting incredible people.
My skin is KIND OF getting a tan

And it looks like these #firstworldproblems of mine aren’t so bad, and pretty easy to solve.

So with some higher expectations, and a little more knowledge, I’m jumping into week 2. God knows what will come, but I can feel something good.

Aug 13, 2014

Reflections inspired by our first translingual workshop | Reflexiones inspiradas en nuestro primer taller translingual

Andrea Gordillo
My family emigrated from Perú to the United States in 1998, when I was six years old. The United States was a land where our dreams could come true; where we could walk the streets without fear of being robbed, assaulted, or worse, where there was plentiful opportunity for economic security, and where my siblings and I could receive a superior college education and improve our standard of living. I grew up in the states; it has been my home for the majority of my life.

For eleven years, we lived in visa limbo. We kept renewing our visas year after year, pouring thousands of dollars, tears, and sacrifices into lawyers and documents that we hoped would allow us to live in peace. Worse than in our own home without fear of being found out, of being deported back to Perú. I had never truly entertained the thought that possibility; Perú was a land that was as foreign to me as the moon.

I rejected my Peruvian heritage, associating it and my immigrant identity with failure, inferiority, and uncleanliness. I thought that if I rejected my Latina-ness, acted “white,” and adopted the American culture, I could convince everyone that I was good, smart, and worthy of living in the states. I remember wishing I could wake up with the brown washed off my skin, that I had an American-sounding name, that my parents no longer spoke English with an accent, and that we could drive, work, and leave the house without fear. I was ashamed that my parents worked as maintenance and domestic  workers, and that we never had very much money because of all of the money we had to invest in our paperwork.

When my parents told me that despite their best efforts, we hadn’t been able to obtain our visas, I felt my blood freeze. We sat at our dining room table, and I cried. I refused to fully accept what they were telling me. It seemed impossible. I could not believe how this could be true, when I had always worked so hard; I was devoted to my passion for learning. Education was-is-so incredibly important to me. I felt alone, because none of my friends understood or shared my experience. I felt that I was not good enough, not “American” enough to be able to pursue my dreams.

Luckily, our visas were approved just in time to apply and be accepted to college. I attended Emerson College, where I recently graduated with a degree in Theatre Studies. I learned so much in my four years in Boston, and am so thankful to everyone who helped me get here.

One of the most formative experiences I had in college was a trip to El Paso, Texas through our Alternative Spring Break program, where I studied immigration at the border. I met many people and heard their incredibly moving immigration stories, and I suddenly realized that I was not alone. My trip to El Paso helped me put my story and my experience into perspective; I started to feel ashamed for feeling ashamed. By rejecting my Latina, immigrant identity, I had been diminishing the value of immigrants everywhere. I felt ashamed, for I could not think of anyone who deserves respect and love more than do those who display strength and courage in the face of danger, violence, and hatred on their immigrant journeys, who are determined enough to leave behind everything they know and love for the prospect of a better life. I decided then that I did not want to continue to be part of the problem; I wanted to stop perpetuating shame and stigma and prejudice. I wanted to celebrate and defend the immigrant, myself.

During my last year at Emerson, I joined Students for Rhetorical Mobility, an english class with undergraduates and maintenance workers where all are students and all are teachers. I have to admit, I learned much more than I taught. Our class wrapped a van with our stories and literally drove our narratives to a writing conference nearly 2,000 miles from Boston to Indianapolis (http://proyectocarritoblog.mobility17.com), where one of our student/teachers, Mario Ernesto, presented his writing to an audience of academics and professionals in the field of Writing Studies. Mario Ernesto, a maintenance worker at Emerson and a Boston hospital, worked hard on his composition, a narrative of his story of migration, hard work, and perseverance, and a call to action for the world to embrace the immigrant for the good of the whole. He reminds me very much of my own parents, who worked tirelessly for our family. I can imagine that it was not easy to raise a family as an immigrant in a foreign country. I am incredibly proud of my family, and of Mario Ernesto, who is taking his story one step further by using it to encourage change.

It was incredibly cathartic to hear Mario Ernesto’s speech in our first class with the Proyecto Boston-Medellín artists last week. His words sparked a wonderful discussion about migration, home, belonging, and acceptance. It was painful to hear, for it brought back feelings of shame and inferiority, but more than anything, it was beautiful. It was beautiful because Mario Ernesto, who I think is representing many of us who have ever felt inferior, achieved what I think is one of the most valuable things in the world: he connected people together. He spoke of “convivencia,” what he describes as “when different people learn how to live together, like for example, we have discovered that it is possible to have a real friendship between students and workers, regardless of nationalities and cultures.” I saw his words realized, transcending time and space to resonate in a translingual, transcultural classroom. They fit in perfectly with the work of the artists and our own as we try to identify, examine, and break down borders.

I felt inspired yet again by Mario Ernesto. I hope that my actions, like his, promote convivencia.


Chrislyn Choo
To my left is the wonderful artist that
Miurel, Elena, and I are working with in this taller!
Exactly two summers ago, I was on a missions trip in Taiwan. Although I was fresh out of high school, my role was to help local university students develop their proficiency in English through lessons on the principles of leadership. Given my youth and limited experience in leadership, teaching, and speaking Mandarin, I remember feeling very unqualified at the start. As the saying goes though, diamonds are formed in the rough. I emerged a more humble and confident woman through the ways I was able to both learn from and help the Taiwanese students.

Fast forward two years. I am now a full-fledged university student. Again, I find myself in a classroom with local university students. Yet this time, my role is much more organic. My service will be completely tailored to whatever the art students need as they prepare their projects for future exhibition in the United States, which translates into a curious mix of spontaneity and ambiguity. Perhaps I’ll draw on my English teaching to help an artist craft a clear project statement for a U.S. audience. Maybe I’ll be able to create a video that spotlights an artist's creative vision and work. I don’t quite know at this point. What is certain is that I want to be receptive to whatever I can do to help, and hopefully my skill set and personality will have something to offer!

During DukeEngage training, President Brodhead (Duke University) said that I might feel as if the community has had a greater impact on me than I have had on them. Like Taiwan, I can already tell that I will grow immensely from my interactions with the students, many of whom are older than me. Age is just a number, but wow! I am very impressed with the insightfulness, lucidity, poise, and passion of the students we are working with. Even at our first session last week, they spoke with so much wisdom, and they appeared to have absolutely no qualms about voicing their questions and thoughts. I tend to be very self-conscious about my participation in class discussions, so it is both inspiring (and slightly intimidating, but in a good way) for me to share that space with people who can comfortably articulate their ideas publicly. Tam describes our interface as a “conversation between youth", so I anticipate our interactions will continue to teach me to trust in my Big Beautiful Brain.

If there is a specific idea that has stuck out to me so far from our group discussions, it is the idea of stories crossing borders. They can traverse physical demarcations, such as the U.S. state lines that the narrative-covered van of Proyecto Carrito crossed. They can transcend walls in culture and language, as we help the Colombian artists prepare to share their deeply personal experiences with audiences that see the world through different eyes. Knowing my own insecurities about sharing my thoughts out loud, I can only imagine the nervous excitement the students may feel at the prospect of exhibiting their work to strangers in another country. Yet one of the most beautiful strengths of art is its accessibility. Your work can be displayed for others to taste through sight, touch, and sound. The amount of knowledge required for a work of art to be impactful is minimal since people can identify with the commonalities of human experience. The public will color your work with their perceptions, and it will be real to them too because they can use it to understand their own life or yours. Art is a powerful form of communication, and I’ve never been surrounded with this many people before who completely understand and appreciate its influence on the narratives that are told every day. Be it new friendships, worldviews, or self-discoveries, I am very excited to see the fruits of our conversation!


Elena Elliott
We have now been in Medellin for five weeks, and in that time, we have spoken to a lot of people and heard so many of their stories. I have found that, for the most part, people here are very eager to talk about their past and where they come from. For me, that hasn’t always been the case. In the United States it can sometimes be difficult to be a minority and also be of mixed races. You don’t know if you should be proud of being an American or if you should be more proud of your other heritage. I’ve struggled a lot with this identity crisis in the past, but, being here in a country where people are so proud of who they are and where they come from, I feel my self re-confronting this issue.

If I haven’t made it clear yet, I am a child of mixed origins. Because of my father (and my birth place) I am American (estadounidense), but because of my mother I am Mexican. Growing up, I wanted nothing more than to be white. Because of my pale skin and light eyes I was able to get away with it, and, for a while, I did because of my shame in my family and who I was. I eventually grew out of that and wanted to be seen only as a hispanic. For a while I even wished my skin wasn’t so pale so that I could identify with my Mexican side. However, I’ve come to learn a major lesson these last weeks from the people in Medellin. It doesn’t matter if I have colored eyes or if my skin is light. It doesn’t matter what I look like or what language I choose to speak because the blood of my ancestors, both American and Mexican, runs through my veins. It is who I am and I can’t ever change that. I am a Mexican-American. I am a child of two cultures, and I am proud of that.


Ishani Purohit
Talking about the racialized problems that have tainted American history in the first taller, or translingual classroom experience with Colombians and Americans, got me interested in international perceptions of race and nationality. Colombia’s diverse color spectrum has fascinated me since the moment I arrived. Whether I am walking down the quiet streets of Carlos E. Restrepo in the morning or climbing up the steps of the metro, I am constantly amongst beautiful shades of chocolate, peach, and caramel. And it’s truly beautiful. What I have begun to realize in my time here is that so many colors can not only just coexist, but also belong. To clarify: this is not to say that Colombia doesn’t have racism, just that one’s race doesn’t affect one’s national identity; one’s belonging to the nation.

Looking back on my life in America, I can comfortably say I am also constantly surrounded by a diverse group. But the “melting pot”, as we call it in America, is divided into categories defined by thick cultural and linguistic boundaries. We are a nation of immigrants, so in theory, we all belong. In practice, not all of us do.

Each minority group in America carries with it its own cultural traits, linguistic varieties, and history of oppression that is just different enough from the other minority groups to build walls between us all. And members of each minority group have the tendency to stand on one side of that wall; to self-segregate, because it’s easier that way. And if you don’t identify with one group or the other, you will be forced on one of those sides anyway.

My personal history navigating this wall has affected every decision I’ve made in life, every path I have chosen to take, the people I surround myself with, my own fears and anxieties. My entire identity, my entire existence, begins with this wall. It’s funny, sitting here, thinking about how I’ve spent the summer searching for untold stories in a foreign place, only to realize that the one of my people in my own country remains, to this day, very untold.

It’s the story of my religious symbols, which have been either reappropriated by the Nazis or reduced to cute tattoos on a skinny white girl’s back. It's the story of my name, which over the years I’ve learned to recognize as a long pause from the professor while taking attendance. It’s the story of my actions that are often chalked up to a product of my race. It’s learning that I either have to adopt the title of good little Indian girl or take action to distance myself from my culture. There is no comfortable in-between.

My color, my religion, and my family should not invalidate my belonging to the United States of America. But the reality is, they do. Indians are often referred to as the "model minority", meaning we have no visible, tangible history of oppression in this country. We tend to be middle to upper class. This means we must be complacent, because we haven’t suffered enough injustice to call the world out on it. So we silently shed the things that make us stand out as uniquely foreign. We leave “culture" for the home and adopt “Americanness” for everything else. We learn to soldier on. But we are still Other; we can’t scrub off the one thing that makes us stick out: brown.

I can’t help but feel jealous of Colombians and the amount of pride they have for their country. It’s such a beautiful thing, to love yourself and to love your land, but for some of us it’s hard to do. To be clear, I do not wish to criticize my life in America. I am extremely grateful for everything in my life and I would not ask for it to be any other way. I only wish that I didn’t carry the mountain of shame that I have accumulated over the years of my brown skin, my strange food, my strange Gods. But in the taller we are reminded something constantly that we don’t usually get in a classroom (or in life): aquí no hay vergüenza. Here there is no shame. I don’t want to be ashamed of my beautiful mocha color. I don’t want to be ashamed of the love that I feel from my religious community. I don’t want to be ashamed of my family. I’m not going to hold myself to this mythic standard of “Americanness” that I feel pressured to be because I am so visibly different from the stereotypical American. I am an Indian-American. I am equally one as I am the other, and I’m not letting anyone take that away from me.

Miurel Price
My first impression of our class at the university was that it was beyond my expectations. I thought I would struggle with academic words that I did not know. I expected us all to shy away from speaking up in the classroom because of our unfamiliarity with the classroom setting in Spanish. When I entered the classroom I made it a point not to sit by people from our original American group. Although I was a bit unsure about how relationships would form, I was excited to find out that the students wanted to meet me just as much as I wanted to get to know them. Not long after, we made plans to spend time together outside the classroom. As class began and we watched a video about “Proyecto Carrito,” I could not help but feel like the video represented me. This was an interesting thought for me because I have never before felt, or thought possible, a video was made by me for the world to see. Let me explain. The video talked about Latinos in the United States and the lifestyle and sentiments that come with it. The main character talked about power struggles and submissive conduct that comes with entering U.S. territory. All I could think about as the main character told his story was my mom because she has revealed similar feelings. My mom came to the U.S. from Panama during high school. She did not know English, nor did she understand the culture. She was often made fun of because of the clothes she wore. She was bullied for her accent, and oftentimes had to be strong and stand up for her younger siblings who were 4 years younger than her. Teachers did not think she was capable of taking rigorous courses, even though she maintained A’s and B’s in all of her classes. My mom worked as part of the custodial staff at Rose’s department store for her first job and she has told me how it feels to be underappreciated for your work. Whatever my mom does, she likes to do her best, no matter if it is considered socially unimportant or if she is the CEO of a company. She has always instilled in me to be proud of whatever I accomplish, no matter how people perceive its worth. Watching the video made me proud that the main character had a voice in telling the world his story. As a minority there is always a feeling of inferiority that is hard to shake with the deeply instilled perceptions of us in our nation. Sometimes I feel that it is so deep in our being that many Americans may not even recognize that they may perpetuate and communicate these perceptions, which are usually subtle. That is why this video touched me so deeply. It gave my mom and my family a voice. It gave me a voice and communicated what I do not so eloquently communicate. I hope that I am not giving a sense of a “us” versus “them” sentiment because I wholeheartedly feel that although many people have lived various lives, we are all connected by the simple fact that we are all humans who experience the same emotions, even though they may be brought on by various situations.


Nathaniel Sizemore
Writing. As a form of self-expression, writing is an action unique to the human race; it is the ability to project our internal thoughts onto a page and across physical or cultural boundaries. Despite the many forms, languages, and styles of writing that exist around the world, the act of writing itself is a universal truth inherently embedded into all of us. But writing is also something many people have loathed since they were first able to pick up a pen. But where does this loathing coming from? During our first translingual workshop with Colombian artists at the Nacional (a public university in Medellin), our program leader asked the U.S students to share in one word how they felt about the many mandatory writing classes they had taken in high school or college. Almost all of the responses were negative. First year writing classes can found at almost every U.S university, often focusing on “composition” and writing strategies. Despite the special attention writing has received in academia, and the many U.S corporations whose cite poor writing skills as one of the biggest reasons employees are under qualified, students continue to dislike or completely disregard the field. All of this frustration lies in the vocabulary surrounding writing and the way in which it is taught. Ironically, the writing classes many students encounter inhibit their creativity or style with strict literary restrictions, rather than encourage their growth as critical thinkers. They fail to stress the power words posses and the important role they play in unlocking our understanding of an increasingly interconnected world. The transligual workshop, however, is a process that places the quality of our ideas and depth of thought over conventional interpretations of writing. Additionally, the workshop emphasizes the significance of translation and languages ability to transcend political and social borders. Differences in language have long been viewed solely as a communicative barrier, when in fact it is in these lingual differences that we can learn the most about each other and the cultures they inhabit. By becoming effective writers, and more importantly effective interpreters of language itself, we can actively communicate in a translingual dialogue that every day forces us to reimagine how we view the world. The workshops we will be attending over the next few weeks seem to the first step in reshaping the role writing plays in many students lives.


Rehka Korlipara
This picture was taken when Nanamma (right)
was about five years old, and her mother (left) was
about 27. I believe it was taken either by the Indian
government or a newspaper as part of a series of
pictures of Freedom Fighters, to be kept in the
National Archives. 
My grandmother went to jail when she was two months old.

The British ruled in India for about 200 years, first through the East India Company, and then directly by the Crown. In 1857, there was a military revolt led by the Queen of Jhansi, which was a kingdom in North India. (My great grandparents named my Nanamma (grandmother) Jhansi Lakshmi after the Queen of Jhansi, because they believed in and were active in the independence movement.) The British eventually put down the revolt, and that was when they transferred their rule from a private company to the Crown (that is, the British government)—but in whole, they ruled for about 200 years.

In 1915, Mahatma Gandhi began to organize the masses to overcome this rule. Gandhi had many goals; he strove to achieve religious tolerance, increased rights for women, and the end of the caste system. Perhaps his greatest goal, however, was to achieve swaraj, or self-rule. By way of his own civil disobedience method, Gandhi led various groups of Indians in nonviolent protests. Among these were marches—perhaps the most famous one was the Salt Satyagraha (otherwise known as the Salt March, although satyagraha means “fighting for truth,” not march), which was a protest against the British government’s salt tax. At the time, no one was allowed to make or collect salt without paying a tax, which in whole funded about 8% of the British budget. Everyone needs salt, especially in hot climates such as that of India; the poorer population was hit particularly hard by this tax because they could not survive without salt, but also could not afford to pay the tax. Therefore, Gandhi used it to mobilize the masses as a part of his campaign for independence.

 My great grandfather was arrested for participating in the Salt Satyagraha. After he was sent to prison, some freedom fighters came to his (and my great grandmother and Nanamma’s) house to hide. My great grandmother gave them food and shelter. For this, she was arrested. Because she was still nursing, Nanamma was taken to jail with her mother. They remained there for a few months, after which the jail officials offered to release them if my great grandmother admitted to having had helped the freedom fighters (who, by the way, were Gandhi’s disciples, so they were non-violent). But she said that she had done nothing wrong, and refused to apologize. At this point, Nanamma was a little bit older—she was still an infant, but she was old enough that her relatives brought her out of the jail and took care of her. Meanwhile, her mother was sent to a prison for another couple of years. Her parents were in different prisons, her father in Bengal in the northeast, and mother near Madras in the south.

During the next two years, both her mother and father returned. In the meantime, however, the British vandalized their home and took various items such as furniture, as well as doors and windows made of valuable teak wood. They did this because they could not find valuables (grain, gold ornaments, etc.) because my great grandparents had hidden them away before arrest. In the words of my father, while my great grandparents were in prison, “farm animals wandered into their house because there were no doors, made it their own, and had a ball for a long time until the relatives came and took them out. I imagine it was a real Animal House.” When the doors, windows, and other belongings were being auctioned, Nanamma’s uncle found out and bought them back. Her mother and father reinstalled them after returning from prison.

Several years after gaining independence, the Indian government instituted a program of pension and other benefits (free rail passage, etc.) for people who had fought for freedom. Both of Nanamma’s parents were recognized as Freedom Fighters and were given those pensions and benefits. Nanamma, too, would have been recognized as a Freedom Fighter and given a pension and benefits, but to protect her from having a police record, the well-intentioned jail officials had not included her name on the jail roster.

Because of all of this, I have always been incredibly inspired by my great grandparents (even though I was not lucky enough to meet them). They stood up for themselves, their people, and their rights, but in a peaceful way. Although I admire them a great deal for what they did, their actions always just constituted a story for me. A few days ago, though, I told Luisa, a Proyecto Boston-Medellín (PBM) artist from last year, that my great grandparents were Freedom Fighters and about what they did. Her first response, as if she hadn’t even really needed to think to come up with the idea, was that I should share their story through art. The thought had never occurred to me before, especially because I have neither lived in India nor met my great grandparents. I find the PBM artists inspiring because they can absorb and feel the problems and situations that exist in their communities, even those that do not intimately affect them. They can turn other people’s experiences, which affect them peripherally, into a message to share with the world. In the same way that Tania can spread a message of unity through her videos of various racial and ethnic groups at the dinner table, and Cristina can spread a message about maintaining one’s identity despite gang presence, I can spread a message of strength, solidarity, and allegiance through the story of my great grandparents.


Sandy Ren
Universidad Nacional, hi-res
Despite the limited background the Colombian students had for the taller, they excelled in the seminar discussions. This is perhaps in part that our taller is composed of a diverse population of nationalities, ethnicities, and socioeconomic statuses. My experience in Medellín has made me recognize my misconceptions. Just in my first experience with the taller, I realized that: (1) writing classes were more or less universal across collegiate institutions, especially those located in cities. When this was uprooted by my introduction to the academic culture Tam presented, I had the misconception of (2) the Colombian students will have a hard time in the taller because writing about themselves will be a foreign concept. The discussions had proved me wrong.

Diversity in our Taller, hi-res
I had forgotten that these artists were chosen because they desire to do activist work through art. I had also forgotten a culture of family story-telling existed in Medellín. These undergraduates are passionate and fearless about what they have to share in the class. Our taller was rich with conversation about difficult topics: race, violence, political instability, displacement, and more. The diverse array of backgrounds of Colombians and Estadounidenses allowed a bubbling conversation with different perspectives. I am thankful to be part of this transnational, translingual experience. I am excited to help these artists and their work transcend languages, cultures, and borders.