Aug 4, 2015

Circulating stories: (mis)representation and audience selection | Circular historias: la (mala) representación y la selección de la audiencia

Juan Granados

What is the present? Two days ago, I attended a talk by Carlos Molina an astrophysicist, that spoke about the idea of the present in scientific terms. He spoke eloquently, and radiated knowledge that most of the time I was lost in. The next day, I went to go see an art historian, Jaime Xibille, speak about the same question, although there were very different talks, all I kept thinking during the talks were about the artist J.M.W turner, and two of his paintings -- The Lake of Zug and Fishermen at Sea. I was always obsessed with this artist, I read books on him, watched movies, documentaries, honestly, anything that had to with him I was reading. These two paintings resonated with me, at least for this week. One takes place at night, the other one during the day. Let me speak about one, then move onto the other.

Fishermen at Sea
The painting – Fishermen at sea, was the one that I saw myself in. I saw myself in the boat, going through turbulent waves, trying to get to my destination, but at that instant, I didn’t see myself looking at the distance. I saw myself looking at the moon. Looking at the translucent, but canary yellow that shined on the boat. It just reminded me that everything that we go through, whether its rough, or easy, always has something beautiful about it. We always take something away, whether we want it or not.

The Lake of Zug
I couldn’t connect with the Lake of Zug, in this painting there is a frivolous feeling to it, as if bathing in the lake would solve the problems of the town that was in the distance. As if, the divide of these two areas, was the solution to all problems. If you look at the painting, the town in the back has all type of blue hues, with a glimpses of red, as if this town that was off in the distance was hopeless. I didn’t like seeing that. Towards the landscape, the sun seems to be rising or setting. Which one did I choose? I chose the sunset. Usually the sunrise, stands for hope. To me, in this painting, it doesn’t. it seems to me that it’s a sunset due to the town darkening, and the glimpse of hope that they had, fading. Once again, this painting just had a melancholy aura to it. Painted by the same artist, but with different meanings?


It’s hard to tell. I don’t know whether my story teller is telling me his story for me just to hear or for the whole word to hear. Although, he did sign the consent form, there was still hesitation to his signature, and his whole acceptance to this project. It wasn’t until I somewhat built a bridge between me and him, that’s when he started trusting me. I’m going to share his story, but in other words, I’m hoping that the story I built, is the story he wants to tell. So with that, I think the audience that he wants to tell his story to, is the audience that is in the same position that he is. I think he wants them to feel that they are not alone, and that people suffer, but we always overcome.

I feel that it’s important to share his story not only of the idea that others will hear his story and realize that they’re not alone, but because these stories need to be told to the public that is unaware of what is going on, in other countries, or even in their own country. It’s important because we have a duty to.

To share this video, I would share it with my high school. I would share it with them because I believe that my high school was the reason why I am the person today, and without it I wouldn’t be the same. It taught me to be aware, and conscious. If I could give back, and teach someone else to be aware of these problems, so they can carry this project forward, I’d be happy.

Marah Jolibois

In a country where about one third of the population is Black, Asian, Latina, Hispanic or Pacific Islander, the underrepresentation of women of color in the media is extremely unsettling. And when thinking of women of color depicted in positive roles, the number is almost non-existent.  So what’s the deal? We can’t pretend that race isn’t a major factor in the most harmful of beauty ideals. Images of white women dominate the media – especially roles designed for  “beautiful” or desirable women….not the hired help or the “sassy” best friend. I’m expected to have light skin, straight hair, a flat stomach and wide hips. White women are archetypes for attraction, while today black women remain to be exoticised and held at a stature of brutality.

“You know I’ve got a black girl fetish.”…What does that even mean????.

It’s with that word fetish that I am reduced to an object, a commodity.  I see people who look like me misrepresented all the time.  I mean yeah, you have beautiful women of color like Rihanna, Beyonce and JLo achieving reputable representation in U.S pop culture, but I can’t help but notice that they have all been Anglicized with lighter skin and straighter hair.  How am I supposed to see myself in these stories presented to me, if the people in the stories don’t look like me? Today, in following up with news from the U.S, I read the latest installment on Sandra Bland, an African American woman, who was pulled over for a traffic violation, brutally beaten and then arrested for reasons that remain unclear. She was found dead in her jail cell on July 13. This is just one of the many stories I hear of people who look like me, who have been killed, or beaten, not for crimes that they’ve committed…. but solely for the color of their skin. My skin. My brown skin. My rich brown skin that everyone seems to want until they recognize the intense amount of stigma and baggage associated with it. And as we continue to do our work in Manatiales, it’s knowing that feeling of misrepresentation that I feel allows me to connect and appreciate la gente on a more personal level.  It sucks that after establishing yourself, you still have to wait and fight for rights or amenities that may seem basic to another person.

I’m still struggling a bit with defining what this program means to me and how I’m going to take what I’ve done here back to the Unites States. Part of me wants to leave my work here, not because it’s not worthy of bringing back to Duke, but because I feel like in short term the only people that can help a community like Manantiales de Paz is the people of Medellin. The people who reside within the cities limits and could at one time place themselves in the shoes of Manantiales--- they need to tighten up and help their people. The other part of me, wants to go back home and show the videos I make to as many people I can…but I struggle trying to find a specific outlet where it will actually matter, because you want to show your work to people who will care…. but I’m afraid that the people who will actually care about what I’m doing here aren’t the people who need to be informed. These storytellers speak to us, because we provide a safe space where their voice can be heard, and I refuse to go back and deliver the message to someone who is going to dismiss it.

Taylor Jones

This would be a great question if it was something that I didn’t have to think about. Something that was solely a prompt, something I could dismiss right after this meeting or this blog post. Quite frankly I’m a Black female, at the intersection of “Black Rights” and “Feminism” yet are both even fully including me? You know, the idea that Black woman right now are at the forefront of fighting for Black Lives Matter yet our own Black men can’t even give us the adequate respect and recognition that we deserve. Yet, us.. Black woman.. are their biggest advocates. And feminism, where white feminists scream “we want to be equal to men” yet fail to realize that the feminist movement is steeped in a rich history of racism and that not even all women suffer the same oppression. Yes, women make 78 cents to every dollar that a man makes but by not acknowledging the plight of colored women, your “feminism” is not inclusive. While White women make 78 cents to the man’s dollar, Pacific Islander/Native Hawaiian only 65 cents, Black women only 64 cents, Native American women only 59% and Latinas? Only 54 cents to the dollar, almost 25 cents less than the White woman. So what does that mean? It means that my gender and ethnicity put me in a weird, half inhabited intersection and thus my life is always a “misrepresentation.”

Where do you want me to begin? I can start by saying that there’s a weird comfort for me here in Colombia. The comfort of being able to walk down the streets alone in Medellín and not having anyone question where I’m from. There is some sanity in not being a spectacle. My brown curly hair flies loose in Medellín, the sun is warmed my brown skin to a nice gold complexion and as long as my mouth doesn’t form to speak in a broken accent… I am safe on the outside. I blend in with the rest of the Afro-Colombians and those of mixed descent. I’m not American until my mouth decides that I am.

Contrary to that, being a woman here is a spectacle in itself. The peace I get by being able to glide by unnoticed as a foreigner gets stripped away by my sexuality. Cat calls by old men driving taxis. Security guards following my ass with their eyes as I walk away. My security is slightly heightened by my color and yet simultaneously stripped away by me being a woman.

In terms of the mass media Black women are rarely represented here. Colombia has more than 10% Afro-Colombians yet when I see models and billboards all I see are white women like Sophia Vergara with fat asses and plump lips. Funny how both are natural features of colored women yet Colombians glorify the lighter, more Euro-Centric beauty. But hey, I’m not Colombian I’m just calling it how I see it.

If I bring this back to America I could say how the news does nothing but paint Black Americans in a horrible light. How before I open my mouth, before people here my “white name” and before the “I attend Duke University” speech there’s a dark cloud of stigma and stereotype that hovers above me. Or I could talk about how Black men and women are dying everyday in this country because police have decided that it’s open season on Black people. I could tell you that with all of these cases White America still finds some reason to justify their deaths? “She shouldn’t have been rude to the cop”, “he was a threat to the police” and the greatest.. “well, it doesn’t matter that he’s dead, we found Marijuana in his system and he was a thug so his death was warranted” as if Blacks need to pass a series of qualifications in order for their lives to matter. Or I could talk about being a woman, and how being both Black and a women is a source of hyper-sexuality. I could tell you that while my white female friends wore shorts in the 5th grade I was reprimanded for wearing them because my black prepubescent body was too threatening. Or I could talk about how my identity is exoticized? “Oh you’re Black, I thought you were mixed or half puerto-rican or something, you got some good hair girl.” Society deemed my Black to be the “better Black” because it somehow was diluted. Yet, when it comes down to police interactions and the way I’m treated it doesn’t even matter, because remember “once you go black you never go back”. Lightskin, Darkskin, it doesn’t matter - you’re still Black to the world.

So what does my rant mean? It means that rather than me looking hard and deep for how people judge me and finding the cute  “many people think of me as stuck up because I go to Duke and I’m in a sorority” or the “I’m blonde and people always portray me as dumb.” story I’m not going to play along. You see, regardless if people think you’re “dumb” because you’re blonde or that you’re “spoiled and stuck up” because you’re in a sorority that doesn’t alter your life. You aren’t going to be one of the 550 people killed by police in 2015 alone because you’re blonde or in a sorority. My identity and the way I’m represented isn’t something I can just forget. Hair dye can’t fix it. Taking off a t-shirt with greek letters won’t fix it. It’s not a prompt where I have to think long and hard, it’s my life. And in doing this, I’m already perpetuating a stereotype that continuously gets disseminated, “The Angry Black Woman.” Because when I, a Black Woman talk about the reality of my own being, it makes people uncomfortable. It makes people think I’m attacking them because for one second of their lives, I’m making them check their privilege. And you see when this Angry Black Woman narrative is circulated it detracts from the point, it derails from the plight. It curves the real issues and says “well she’s just angry so therefore her feelings and her reality is not credible.” And once again, we lose. We lose because if we remain silent no one hears us and if we speak they ask? “Why are you so angry all the time?” as if my feelings aren’t legitimate and shouldn’t be legitimized. And thus, I lose my humanity while trying to expess it.

So that’s how misrepresentation works… the White American Patriarcal Cis-Gendered system decides to paint their picture for you. Thanks to the many powerful Black women in my life I myself have decided to repaint my own picture. At the age of 8, besides the women in my family I knew no other successful Black women because they don’t teach you about them in school. So as a result, the black people and the women and my life had to paint me my own picture because society wasn’t going to do it for me. I learned MY history lessons on my dad’s lap. I learned Black feminism through the women in MY life who had left everything because they knew their life was worth more than the man abusing them at home. I learned Black girls were pretty because I had black authors and black illustrators who wrote black childrens books that told me so, because on television they weren’t going to tell me that. I learned to love my natural curly hair when Black women told me it was beautiful. I learned to love having hips and having melanin because black women taught me that. My reality has been so misrepresented that Black women, we have to paint our own picture. And starting with Black feminism is the idea of loving yourself whole heartedly and unapologetically because this world will do everything but that.

So what do I want? In Colombia I can’t tell you, their race relations are a world far away from mine and that system I need more time to grasp. In the United States however, I want nothing from White America except the validation that Black women matter. That we are not welfare queens. That we are not always single mothers. That we aren’t always angry. That we didn’t get accepted to college just because of our minority status but rather because we earned it. I want the world to stop stealing our hairstyles, our fat asses and thick hips, our full lips then calling us ugly yet praising people like Kylie Jenner for stealing them. We are not a commodity to be adored and fetishized then thrown to the wayside once our features have been colonized and harvested. Black women get hit from every angle from our gender to our ethnicity.

“To be Black, and a woman and alive is to be resilient - my very existence is defiance.”
- Crystal Valentine & Aaliyah Jihad - "To Be Black and Woman and Alive"


In regards to Eunice, I believe she simply wants her story shared with anyone who is listening. She’s a 59 year old woman who loves life, her charisma is tangible and with that she knows it won’t transcend on its own. She’s very aware of the fact that because she is displaced, because she is a resident of Manantiales, her life is just grouped into the masses. She knows people subconsciously dehumanize her story and her plight and with that I believe she just wants validation of her own humanity.

I believe the first people that should see her story are the residents, politicians and other leaders in Medellin. While it would be great for me to take this work home, I’m sorry to say the best response I’ll probably get is “great job this summer!” which in fact praises me and not Eunice. It commends my work, slightly acknowledges Eunice but once again it detracts from the cause - It’s not about me. My work is her. And to be honest is there a go fund me? A resource drive? No, so what are Americans going to do? People of Medellin are a priority because they have the greatest capacity to help, to advocate, and to eventually help Manantiales get the resources they need by acknowledging their humanistic existence and thus hopefully giving them recognition.

For me, I promise to share her story with my friend Jennifer. Jenn is Colombian American the people that live in the outskirts of Medellín are foreign to her. By her having a split identity the words of Eunice might carry farther and resound louder with her than anyone else. She’s at slightly closer intersection between Eunice and I. I’ll share on facebook with a heavy disclaimer and prologue to maintain the focus, I’ll carry it with me as I continue to study human rights. I’ll share it with my family.. I’ll share it with my compañeros. I’ll let the world see it in honor of Eunice. I have no promises to give or solutions, I can only give her exposure and pray it gets in the right hands.

Alice Marson

When I was in 10th grade, I went to Costa Rica for a month long service/language program.  We volunteered at a myriad of non-profits, never truly making an impact any one place, setting up a playground or painting a few benches and drifting onto the next project. However, one our last sites was an orphanage on the edge of San José. You could tell these kids were starved for individual attention, that their only interactions occurred in this small play yard where we congregated every afternoon.

In the center of the yard was an old mango tree. A lot of the fruit was overripe and had fallen to the base of the trunk, split open from impact. The kids would use them as weapons in tag or eat them as snacks.

And that’s when I saw her. A girl, maybe 13 or 14, scavenging around the tree. It was clear she was intellectually disabled; she had a dazed, overmedicated expression, aggressively overweight and had abrupt, guttural outbursts as she searched for a snack. She was on her knees looking for fruit that hadn’t already been claimed by insects. Her hands were tied together behind her back with a dirty red rag. I watched her dip her face into the dirt, licking the overripe mango, scraping her teeth against the peel.


Last week, Marah and I entered the home of Doña Olga, where she and her husband were hosting a flash church service in their home. Next to us sat a friend of Olga, Camilla, and her daughter. Olga’s husband promptly informed us that the daughter was crazy, twirling his hands around his head, making that familiar, universal hand signal. Her eyes were slightly crossed, shoulders hunched, and overall had a very quiet, well-behaved demeanor.

Both Camilla and her daughter looked rather bored by their friend’s zealous service, clapping their hands half-heartedly to the beat, not bothering to follow along in the bible Olga had placed in my lap. When the service ended, I introduced myself to the daughter as Marah began to set up for her interview. I couldn’t quite catch her name as she mumbled it quickly, and her mother did not speak up to clarify. When I asked her age, she told me she was 16 years old, then walked across the room to stare out the window. She wasn’t interested in having small talk with me, which was fine, but did watch us curiously as Marah and I conducted the interview.  Her mother sat with Olga on camera, occasionally checking on her daughter who sat sipping tinto calmly in the corner of the room.

A few days later I returned to Manantiales. As I stepped out of the cab at Santo Domingo station, I looked up and saw them walking from a market. Camilla held groceries in one hand, her daughter’s hand in the other. I waved and smiled brightly, excited to see familiar faces. The daughter looked at me right in the eye, and I know she recognized me. The mother avoided my gaze for a moment, but when I didn’t look away she met my eyes quickly, smiled briefly, and crossed the street with her daughter.


My oldest brother has autism and mental retardation; a fact that I strangely have always included when describing myself, as if his condition was as much a defining part of me as it is of him. My brother may not have won the genetic lottery, but whenever I travel, I thank god he won the geographical one. The representation of the mentally challenged in the United States definitely has room for improvement in all sectors of our society. But how would my brother have fared in that Costa Rican orphanage, or Manantiales? What would my mother’s life be like? Sewn to my brother’s side, not having a moment of her own, inaccessible to her other children as she was always at the aid of one? There are no resources available to families like this, no Medicaid waiver to provide support and, in turn, save my brother’s as well as my own life as I know it.

I would love to interview Camilla and her entire family, to represent the perspective of a family supporting a special needs child, but I understand their hesitance. Living in a neighborhood that doesn’t even receive help from Medellin for running water and electricity, how could she even dare to hope for assistance for her daughter? And how would someone like me be able to help her? I truly don’t know what I could do besides circulate their story. I feel as helpless as the little girl with her hands tied behind her back, licking the mango peel.


Doña Ena has serious ideas, about her own future, and her community. She wants to run her own restaurant. She firmly believes in the benefit of legal recognition from the Medellín government as well as in the benefit a local government in Manantiales de Paz. So from this, I think she wants to share her story with two main groups of people: government officials, people who can bring long-term legal change to her town, but also to citizens of Manantiales de Paz, people who can make short-term changes. I would love to see this video in a show of some sort of collective show at Duke. I think our videos, when presented together, would create a more powerful, lasting effect on an audience.

Ashlyn Nuckols

Photo intentionally left blank.
This week, there is one particular image that is haunting me. Or perhaps that’s not quite the right word, but I don’t know how else to describe it. It’s not an image in a TV add sexualizing or belittling my identity. I cannot say that I have been misrepresented in the image, at least not intentionally. Because it’s not an image in ad TV add, or newspaper or magazine. It’s a picture on my phone, taken at my request.

 I’ve gone through the motions a hundred times before. My hand around her waist, hers around shoulders. The smile that comes easily because I’m having fun. Because it’s a beautiful day. Because I’m with a friend. My phone is handed back to me and we gather around the device for the post photo ritual; cupping our hands to block the sun, telling each other how great we look, wrinkling our noses at our own imperfections.

“Ah, que lindas!” Veronica exclaims. And we both giggle. Looking at our picture then I was glad that Veronica had wanted to take a photo with me. Proud that she called me “amiga”. But later, as I was scrolling through the pictures from the field that day, this one made me pause. I realized, I don’t know who I am in that picture. Because while to me Veronica is a friend, and admittedly, also a curiosity, I have no idea who I am to Veronica.

She’s fifteen years old, but when she speaks she seems much older.  She has dark hair and an open, friendly face. She’s small for her age, but I don’t think she knows it.  When we arrived at Manantiales de Paz, a neighborhood built on the fringes of Medellin by people who have been displaced from their homes, usually as a result of violence, she was one of the first to greet me. She laughed good-naturedly at my broken Spanish and, without a moment of hesitation, welcomed me into her home, and into her life.

She told me about having to move to Manantiales; about missing her old home, about being proud of her knew one. She told me how her father used abuse her mother. And how proud she was of her mother now; for leaving him, for the important roll she has running a community center in Manantials. She showed me scars on her wrist from cuts she made herself. From the stress she said. She told me loves to read, and she wants to be a singer.

I told her about my life too. And in spite of my difficulties with the language, we began to speak like friends. We are friends. That I’m sure of. I’m just a little unsure as to exactly what that means. Each time I visit Manantiales, listening to Veronica speak is a kind of adventure on its own. It’s hard to keep up. She’s a natural storyteller, weaving together lighthearted jokes and sobering reflections on what she and her family have endured. She is almost always smiling. One day, somewhere in the midst of this colorful tapestry, she informed me that she was going to come visit my house someday. Her tone was joking, but after I replied that of course she is welcome, she was suddenly silent, her expression serious. Not sad exactly, but somehow empty.  And what she didn’t say out loud was the most abrupt and painful reality check of my life. I felt paralyzed.

The feeling comes back as I look at our picture together.  The picture is of friends, yes, but it’s also of two people who inhabit completely different worlds. And I’m not talking about geography, that doesn’t matter so much. Here I am, waltzing into her life with a camera and a gift of Vermont maple candy. But soon, in less than a month now in fact, I will waltz back out. It will be easy for me to do what is impossible for her. With almost no effort on my part, I will fly back across the ocean and return to a world that, if I am honest, she has no hope of ever seeing.

I didn’t come here expecting to be anyone’s savior. I know the image of the privileged traveler with a plan to save the world to be not only false, but an insult to the challenges that people like Veronica face. It represents a product of ego and, albeit well-intentioned, bigotry. It does not represent me, nor would I want it to. I came to Colombia to learn. I hoped to get something from the experience, and to give a little back in return. I was content with what I imagined to be my roll in this program. I just didn’t expect the reality to be so hard.

Because in the picture with Veronica I may not be trying to be her savior, but still there is an incredible imbalance of power between the two of us. I look forward to worrying about making A’s and finding a career that is meaningful to me, rather than to worrying about having enough to eat.  I have so much power, and yet none that I can share with her.  She wants to be able to attend a school where she can take singing lessons. Can I really call myself her friend when such a dream could easily come true for me, if I had her voice? And even as I ask these questions I am forced to admit how little I understand about her reality. Who am I to presume that her situation is something to be pitied; that her life is somehow less full than mine? And yet, try as I might, I can’t ignore the feeling that she deserves more than what she has, and that I don’t deserve to have what seems like so much more than she does. And I wonder if the picture of us, though it was her idea to take it, is in fact just as unethical as a picture of me surrounded by children I am supposedly saving. It doesn’t depict our separate realities, and it certainly doesn’t depict my own ignorance and uncertainty. This is what I mean when I say the photo is haunting me.

My challenge now, as I look at the picture and contemplate deleting it, is how to move forward. How to not be paralyzed. There is a part of me that wonders if my friendship with Veronica is an entirely selfish one. If it will hurt her more than help when I leave in a month. I don’t think there’s any way for me to know. But what I can know is that Veronica wants to share her story. And I can avoid paralysis by giving her the gift that costs me nothing. The littler power that I can lend her. I can listen to her story, and then do my best to share what she has to say.


I have already conducted an interview with the incredible Don Antonio, a community leader in Manantiales. It is clear that he wants his story shared with citizens of Medellin, and with the local government in particular. He is on a mission to strengthen and build his community and I am honored that he believes the videos we are making can help him achieve his goal. I also want to share his story with people in the US. His resolve, his kindness and his pride in his work completely contradicts the warnings I received about the dangerous people living in slums in Colombia. Despite being marginalized by his own country, and having his home classified as an “invasion” he has worked tirelessly and peacefully to pull himself, and his entire community, up by his bootstraps. He is everything that we Americans claim to admire.

Veronica’s story is different. For one thing, I haven’t conducted the actual interview yet and I’m not sure what she will want to share with the camera. But more than anything else, I want to share her story with some of my friends at home. I think she would like that. I think she would like it if they chatted with her on Facebook. I want to set up a reading group with her, and some friends back home. Again I don’t know if these things would help her, but maybe I just can’t think about it like that. It would be fun for me. It would be fun for her. Maybe that’s enough.

A group that I know I will share these videos with is Ubuntu, the SLG I’m going to be living with next year. First, because they are my friends and I know they will be interested. Second, because most members of the group are constantly involved in some form of civic engagement. If an opportunity came up to share the videos in a wider sphere or do something else to help out the people of Manantiales, I know I would be able to find people excited to help out.

Katherine Reed

I am not sure who Claudia wants to share her story with. I think for starters, she just wants to share it with me. As brutal as it is, I am someone who has opportunity. I’m American; I’m young. I can take her stories places she cannot take them. And, to be honest, I am probably one of the first people to come into her home, all the way into Manantiales and listen to her. But that’s the easy part. After that it gets more complicated. 

Foremost, I am going to ask Claudia whom she wants to share her story with. That will be my first priority. From there I am not sure where I will take it. Part of that depends on the central narrative the film will have. But I think I want to show it to the people of Carlos E. Or at least our host moms and the people who were afraid to let us go into Manantiales. 

Back in the States I want to show my video to everyone who made sarcastic remarks about my summer in Colombia. Or to my friends who assumed I was going to Columbia University, but never dreamt I meant the country. But those are selfish reasons; moments that will create smirks on my face, not Claudia’s. I would really love to engage the rest of the Duke community with this project—maybe have a showing at the Nasher Museum. But I haven’t decided yet; my first priority is figuring out where Claudia wants it to go.  

After writing this blog post, I had the opportunity to meet with Claudia again. Without hesitation I asked her who she wanted to see the film and why she was opening up to me.

To be honest, I was worried about her answer. When I first met Claudia I could tell her situation was dire. Financially she was suffering and she wasn’t afraid to let me know. She told how last night she and her daughters didn’t eat dinner. And pointing to the empty shelves in the Comedor she stressed the need for school supplies and notebooks. After our first interview she requested that I add her email and the directions to Manantiales in order for the audience to send help. So yes, you can imagine my concern when I asked her about her desired audience and why she was sharing her story. I was worried she was under the misconception that this project was intended to bring her charity. 

But when Claudia answered me. With the unnaturally blue sky and the backdrop of the entire city behind her, I realized two things: how strong of a woman she is and how wrong I was. As trite as that sounds…for some reason, the answer to this question enabled me to see the type of person she is; the type of mother; the type of community leader.  Through all her suffering, Claudia told me she wants to share this video:

“con todos. Para mi, bienvenidos a todos quien quieren aprender de nosotros. Y nosotros pueden aprender algo de ellos”

“with everyone. For me, I welcome everyone who wants to learn from us. And we can learn something from them as well.”

With that, I want to show this video to anyone and everyone who will watch it. Because I think there are a lot of people who can learn from Claudia’s strength. 

Samantha Siegel

A few days ago, during my ritualistic late-morning visit to Exlibris Café, I thought I saw a man wearing a kippah.  I was so excited, I nearly spit my cappuccino right out of my mouth.  To most people, this traditional Jewish head covering wouldn’t mean anything; it just looks like a colorful piece of fabric clipped to someone’s hair, nothing special or even noticeable.  But to me, this was everything.  I had finally found it: a Jew in Colombia, someone almost as rare as a paisa man in shorts, or a meal without an arepa!

Even though, to my disappointment, this “kippah” only turned out to be an unusual dark clump of hair on the man’s uncovered head, his appearance reminded me of how few Jews I had seen or met since coming to Colombia.  In fact, I can’t even think of one.  Coming from New Jersey, I’ve always grown up in a community with many Jewish families.  We could choose which of the ten different local synagogues we wanted to join, and my teachers were always kind enough to excuse the Jewish kids from doing their homework on Rosh Hashana.  My extended family represents every sect of the Jewish religion, from Reconstructionism to Hasidim, and even my vocabulary has a bissell of Yiddish phrases.  I’ve always identified strongly as a Jew — but being outside of the United States, my religious beliefs become an overwhelmingly different identifier.  

I know I’ve been privileged as a white Jewish-American woman, but the deep connection between Catholic practices and the Colombian culture has serves as a constant, sharp reminder that I’m an outsider here.  The unknown Catholic holidays, pictures of Saints on the dashboards of public taxis, and the giant poster of Jesus in my homestay bathroom; no matter where I go in Medellín, I can’t escape my own identity.  Even in Manantiales de Paz this morning, I was beyond shocked to see a young boy with a swastika tattoo etched onto his hand.  This trend isn’t exclusive to areas in Latin America; cities like L’viv, Ukraine have similar religious tendencies engraved into the architecture of the city.  While traveling through L’viv a few years ago, one of my guides pulled me aside and pointed towards an old building.  With a smirk, he explained, “This used to be a synagogue, but it was burned down a while ago by some other religious leaders.  So now, it’s a restaurant run by Jews who overcharge you for gross food!  Typical, huh?”

Honestly, I should know more about other religions and cultures.  And honestly, these comments and feelings shouldn’t surprise me.  My family history is plagued with anti-semitism, with stories of my great-grandparents being denied work because of their Jewish beliefs.  And the stereotypes against Jews are historically brutal, suggesting that we all have hooked noses, curly “Jew-fros,” and a greedy, money-mad psychology.  That must be why we overcharge for gross food, right?

But now, I don’t necessarily feel misrepresented, and I don’t feel like the media has really shared my side of the Jewish story incorrectly.  Sure, it’s not hard for me to find some form of anti-semitic website or article, but almost all forms of identity-targeted prejudice can be found with the click of a button.  Instead, in Medellín, I feel underrepresented, searching for something familiar like a kippah on a stranger’s head.  Yet the fact here is that churches become landmarks, while the synagogues and other places of worship are tucked into the wrinkles of the Colombian landscape, covered up in the creases of the mountains for only people who are really searching to find.  It’s hard to see myself in others, to find people with similar beliefs, when even the colloquial Spanish language includes Catholic-influenced phrases.  It isn’t that I’ve noticed an incorrect representation of Jewish people in Colombia; it’s that I haven't seen representation at all. 

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?


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.