Jul 25, 2010

Poverty in the U.S. versus Poverty in Medellín

What exactly is poverty? Technically, it depends where you are. In third world countries, poverty could mean lacking basic necessities in life such as water, food, clothing, etc. In advanced and industrialized countries, does it mean the same thing? Or is poverty more relative?

In the past four weeks, and all at different times, I had three Cogestores from the program Medellín Solidaria ask me, while we were on the field, if poverty in the U.S. was the same. I was very surprised. I said no immediately. After all, we were passing houses made of only wood, sometimes with a roof mad out of a plastic or held down with bricks. Many of these houses had no windows, sidewalks, or even a road for that matter. In quite a few of my visits, I noticed that there was no cement floor; the houses were built on bare rock and dirt. (See picture below: Newspaper clippings cover up the cracks through a wooden house)...

I told the Cogestores “no” even though I had rarely been to areas of extreme poverty in the U.S. (if ever). Since I come from a middle-class background and suburbia, I rarely had a reason to go into areas that were poor. Nonetheless, I assumed that in the U.S. the worst of poverty was not as bad as some of the areas I visited. I hoped I was right. I did a little bit of research and found this:

“The 2000 Census indicates that 73% of U.S. poor own automobiles, 76% have air conditioning, 97% own refrigerators, 62% have cable or satellite TV, and 73% have microwaves.”*

“On average a poor person in this country lives in a home with 1228 square feet which they often own, and as noted the home is likely air conditioned, with a refrigerator, cable or satellite TV, a microwave not to mention many other comforts.”*

I could not find one area in the U.S. as poor as I have seen many places in Medellín. After reading this post to Tamera, my advisor, she told me in fact there were places in the U.S. that lack clean water and other basic necessities. This is sometimes common with illegal immigrants (I will do some research and post an addendum). But let’s think about this. It is plausibly true that the poorest of the poor in our country is nowhere near as poor as in Medellín, or in most other countries as well.

I find that to be absolutely mind-blowing. Poverty in America is nowhere near the numbers or quality as it is in Medellín? This makes me very sad. If our country is so “lucky and privileged and wealthy” (cringing as I say this right now) as some say, I truly hope that we can assist the other areas in the world in becoming sustainable and financially independent. It’s hard to imagine this inequity exists so close to home.

* Wikipedia Information, 2010

Museo de Arte Moderno

Last week I decided to accompany a couple of our Colombian companeros to an event at the MAMM (Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellin). I did not really know what specific event we were attending. I merely jumped at the chance to visit the museum.

We arrived at the MAMM around 10:30pm and decided to view the exhibits. I was surprised to discover that the museum was open so late on a Saturday night. The main exhibit in the museum currently displays the work of architect, Carlos Garaico. Paper lantern structures are placed about the entrance. They look like evolved Da Vinci models. Thread looped through nails in the wall across from the entryway depicted elaborate shapes, designs and cityscapes. However, my favorite part of the exhibit was a series of pop-up books the artist created depicting fictional building designs loosely based off of both contemporary and historical structures. It reminded me of more dramatized visual representation of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. One city was supposed to be constructed entirely out of human hair, bones and blood.

After touring the exhibits, we exited the museum and turned the corner, following a walkway that leads to a skate park behind the MAMM. People were everywhere. At this point it was past 11pm on a Saturday night and still the museum’s grounds were full of life. Graffiti artists were decorating

the cement walls lining the walkway. Tarps and tiki torches were dispersed throughout the lawn each offering a series of writing workshops to aspiring artists. Craftsmen had erected booths in the parking lot and were selling items ranging from jewelry and lingerie to intricate paper cutouts of Medellin’s cityscape. We were in the middle of the 11th Parada Juvenil de Lectura.

A fighting ring was set up beneath a pavilion and there local intellectuals conducted theoretical battles while dressed in boxing gear. A make-shift theater played internationally acclaimed films from 2:30pm that afternoon until 2:30pm the following day. Had it not rained, books would have hung from the strings dangling from the trees behind the MAMM. Tents were set up in preparation for the dispersal of the books to allow voracious readers the ability to read through the night without the inconvenience of eventually having to find their way back home.

The enthusiasm of those present, despite poor weather conditions, was striking. The majority of the participants were university students and young adults who chose that Saturday to celebrate Medellin’s cultural life rather than its party scene. This was my favorite night in Medellin. I have been to the clubs. I have salsa-ed and I have sampled the range of exciting beverages Colombia offers. However, never in all of those nights did I encounter such passion for art and culture as I did last Saturday- something that I often feel starved from at home and at school. It added a sense of depth to my experience in Medellin, intensifying my sense of Colombian pride for its artistic heritage- especially amongst those in my generation.

A few things You'd Never Know about the FORMA Gym in Medellín

Going to the gym here has been an experience in itself. Just check out what Molly has to say about some interesting visits!

The Forma gimnasio was a smart investment - at around 109 thousand pesos for a student rate two month membership, which is around 55 U.S. dollars, we found a deal easy on the wallet & healthy for the mind and body. The two-story, modern building is about a 15 minute walk from Carlos E. and is packed tightly with machines on the first floor, and cardio equipment, classrooms, an outdoor patio, and the locker rooms on the second floor. We try to get to the gym four or 5 times a week and alternate between working out on our own, downstairs at the weight machines and upstairs on the treadmills, bikes, and stretching/abs mats and taking some of the many classes offered.

Before getting into details and funny stories about working out and classes, I'd like to take a second to point out some general observations about working out here. Correct me if I'm wrong, but most people use the gym as their own time - time to de-stress, not worry about how they look, and to sweat out any frustrations. Well, here, the gym is a social setting. The girls come in their real bras (read: not sports-bras), tight spandex, hair done, make-up fully on, low cut shirt? check. We even saw a lady in heels on the stair-stepper one day. The guys are funny, too. Sleeveless shirts, hair gelled, legs and arms shaved, always so conscious of who is checking them out, sure to return the stares; the only time they don't notice someone eyeing them is if they're too busy watching themselves lift those heavy weights in the mirrors surfacing every wall of the gimnasio. There is an ubiquitous sexual tension in the air at the gym - it's hilarious. Us girls are the only girls in t-shirts, sports bras, and running shorts in the gym, and we're usually the only people actually running on the treadmills; most people walk - heaven forbid you actually break a sweat, right?! We look gross at the end of the workout: bright red, sweaty, and feeling good about it. We stand out compared to these perfectly toned and beautiful people who look like they're about to film commercials for the gimnasio! Love you, Forma.

Cassidy and I are regulars at the cycling classes. These not only kick our butts, but are incredibly entertaining. Usually, we go to this one instructor's class who is a young, good looking, guy who, I kid you not, somehow manages to salsa dance while on the bike. He has us move our upper half up and down in a rhythmic, obviously-salsa-inspired movement. It's hilarious to watch the class in the mirror struggling to do this while keeping up with the pace, and then to watch this expert do it with such ease. The music is super loud - Madonna, Shaggy, and other artists' songs set against fast techno beats whose pace the instructor can quicken on a little machine at the front of the room. Andrei, Cassidy, and I attempted the Tae Bo class one day, which turned out to be the exact opposite of relaxing, which is what we had anticipated. We were not prepared to sweat and pant as much as we did. Then, there comes our favorite - the Rumba class. Carolina, Andrei, Cassidy, and I have braved the inevitable laughs at being gringos and attended this class several times now. The music ranges from Beyonce's Single Ladies to salsa music to African-dance-drum beats. The class is packed every Monday and Wednesday night with teenage girls, young professionals, and even older couples. We stick out pretty badly - our bodies are a little more robotic than our fellow classmates'. The classes are so much fun. In the end, I'm thrilled we found a gym here - it allows us to work hard, interact in Spanish in a new setting, and to release mental stress built up from long days of intense family stories and plenty of editing.

--Molly Superfine

As our last week of interviews ends...our experience is nowhere near ending...

This week, we finished interviews. All we have left is 2 1/2 more weeks of editing. This week, everyone wrote about whatever they wanted, so enjoy the variation!

This was our last week interviewing families. It is hard to believe that four weeks have come and gone so quickly. The sights I saw and the stories I heard were really moving, and I feel really honored that the families would share their stories with me. The working weeks were packed with smiles, laughs, and the more serious side of the stories. As I was going through my photos and videos yesterday, I smiled as I remembered the strawberry jello one family gave me and the various juices other families offered. My time in Medellin has really been special.

This last Tuesday was Colombia’s Independence Day and this year they are celebrating their bicentennial. The entire weekend the metro lines were a little longer and the traffic was a little thicker. Every year they shoot fireworks along the river and everyone goes outside to watch. This year for the fireworks show, we left at 3:30 to get a spot to see them from and waited until 7:45 for everything to start. It reminded me a lot of waiting in line for a Duke basketball game or concert tickets.

Cassidy: Despite the fact that Medellin is nestled in the Andes Mountains and is therefore infinitely closer to the heavens than Charlotte, NC, I have yet to see stars in Medellin. Perhaps it is because it rains on a daily basis. Every evening, beginning at about 5:30 pm, however, the hills begin to twinkle of a different accord. As darkness spreads over the mountains, thousands of tiny lights flicker on. Eventually, I am surrounded by walls of glowing spheres that extend into the cloudy sky. I call it the firefly effect. It is welcoming like a silent demonstration of solidarity, a united resistance against the shadows cast by the mountains.

There are different kinds of loneliness, and some cannot be remedied by this electric phenomenon. However, it is impossible to feel entirely alone when you are surrounded by lights in the dark.

Katrina: Over half way through our time here in Medellín, I can’t help but think about what I’ll miss about this place. On the twelfth floor of an apartment building, my room has a gorgeous view of the city. Though I won’t miss the sound of traffic outside, I’ll always remember the picturesque views of Medellín right outside my window. But I think what I’ll miss most, besides the people, are the pasteles de guayaba, warm guava pastries, or in my opinion, small pieces of heaven. For the past five weeks, the panadería in Carlos E has been a second home for us. When I told my parents that I had the best pasteles de guayaba here in Medellin, they laughed and expressed their doubts. A daily ritual, we go to the panadería and are greeted with familiar smiles and expressions that seem to say, “You’re here again?!” We don’t even have to order any more; they know exactly what we want. Needless to say, we will all be taking some pasteles home with us.

Jul 18, 2010

Host families, Panaderías, and Night Life

Andrei: As soon as you walk by, you stop. The smell coming from the ovens is purely irresistible. The amount of postres, or deserts, is mesmerizing. This place is best known for the pastels, or pastries filled with cheese, guava, arequipe (caramel), or all of the above.

Kaldi Kafe is the local panadería in our neighborhood. A panadería is a bakery where all kinds of sweets are cooked. The first time we students tried some pastels de guayaba, we fell in love. The only days we have not visited the panadería were the days we were out of the city for the finca trip. Kaldi Kafe’s deserts are extremely delicious, and we students will make the time for at least one trip per day for our normal orders of coffee, pastries, and cakes.

Kaldi Kafe, however, is also very social. I cannot begin to count the fantastic conversations I have had with my fellow students (and with the compañeros). It is my version of starbucks, except better and cheaper. The atmosphere is one that stimulates conversation and comfort among the people in the café, and you can’t withstand the bonding that occurs between people who are there. Moreover, it is also a place to relax and just read or do some individual work.

All of our social nights start at the panadería. It is simply the place to be. Sometimes Santana is playing through the speakers, sometimes Alisha Keys. The diversity for music, food, and people is what makes this bakery so inviting.



I sat down to dinner Tuesday night with my host dad. I wondered why I hadn't seen him for 4 days, so I asked, expecting an answer indicating that our schedules just missed each other. Turns out, he was in a pueblito about four hours from here with his volunteer group working with families. You see, my host dad is a botanist - he was a university professor of botany before he reached the legal retirement age. This volunteer group he worked with visits family in rural areas who live on their own farms - they all cultivate their own crops, but don't always have the right kitchen tools to prepare the meals correctly. This group goes into the houses, teaches the families about their crops and the myriad ways to cook them, helps set up and build stoves and kitchen areas to prepare these delicious and healthy vegetables more often for themselves, instead of just relying on selling them. As we chatted more and more, he became very intrigued by our project since ours is a documentary-studies based one. They are also creating a documentary of their work. He expressed frustration in having four days worth of footage and consolidating it into a seven to eight minute video. We laughed, because I told him I felt the same way - though our interviews don't last four days, it is still so tough to figure out what to cut out. We agreed we didn't exactly like the feeling that we have the power to decide what's "worthy" or "important" enough to make it into the video the public will see.

Anyway, this is just one interesting meal-conversation I've had with my host family. At breakfast yesterday morning, my host mom and I discussed Argentina's new stances towards gay marriage - how it's a type of controversial progress, especially in Latin America where advances towards full rights for homosexuals was for so long seen as something completely and totally unattainable.

On a pretty regular basis, we discuss Medellín and the changes and transformations the city is seeing, the fruit industry, politics, flowers, family dynamics, music; I practice english with my younger, 14-year old brother, Santiago, almost every night. He speaks in English, while I speak in Spanish. I love when he comes home and shows me his 50 out of 50 grades on an English quiz, or when he asks me to help him on homework. Santiago also likes to play the songs he's learning on the piano. I talk with Marta about her job in a bank that supplies loans to people who normally might not be able to afford them. Carlos, the older brother, is always so interested in my day - where I went, how I like my stay here, when I will finally go salsa-ing at El Tibiri, and more.

This family is really fantastic. They give me the space I need but the comfort of a home and a family that I love. I was worried that it would take some convincing to let me stay out late at night because we had heard all of the families are super protective, but every time I say I'll be home late and I try to estimate what time I'll get back home, Alcira, my host mom always says "tranquila, you have your own keys." As you can see, they allow me great independence by trusting I will take care of myself. Alcira is always so sweet about making food, and making sure that I like what she puts in front of me (and she gasps with complete astonishment when I tell her I wasn't hungry for lunch on those random days). I couldn't have asked for a better homestay!


Salsa. It's a sensual, fun, romantic dance full of rhythm, vibrancy, and intimacy. It's so different from Shooters dancing (translation for non-Duke students: dirty, sweaty, no-talent-or-love-for-actual-dancing-necessary, bad quality but shamefully loud and upbeat pop music, dancing with a stranger? whocareslet'smakeout, grinding). Salsa is sweaty, yes, but actually involves rhythmic movements, unlike Shooters dancing which for guys, consists of boringly moving the hips from side to side in the most robotic way possible, and for girls means attempting to ... well, I won't go there. These people, our compañeros who we salsa with, the locals in the Rumba classes at our Forma gimnasio, they were born dancing. I don't know how they do it, but their hips move more smoothly and sexily, in the most beautiful way, than I've ever seen before - and it's so darn effortless! Their arms move completely in sync with their hips. Just thinking about where to put my arms when walking makes me awkward.

When I finally think I have the basic four-step salsa move down, I realize these salsa-experts somehow add in extra steps and hip sways in half, quarter, and eighth beats that I didn't even know existed!

When salsa-ing with a partner, you can tell if there's chemistry. Your bodies mesh together in an intense way, but it's just dancing. If you want it to be more, then there always exists the possibility, but generally people dance here because they just love it. It's an expression of the richness of the culture - a culture fraught with warmth, colors, and passion.

Some of the guys I've had the honor of dancing with are fantastic teachers and really take the time to patiently guide you through the steps - beginning with the basics, and even attempting the more complicated three-turn-in-a-row combo. Others, you only dance with once you at least master the basics. They are willing to teach, but would much rather enjoy you dancing without looking at your feet, and just going for it. Cheeks touching, bodies pressed together, every curvature of your bodies aligned like tightly fitting puzzle pieces, letting the smooth sound of the salsa music pulse through your entire body. It's an amazing, close experience.

There is one place we have yet to go, called El Tibiri. It's one of the most famous salsa clubs in Colombia. It's an underground club, with low ceilings, a compact dance floor, loud music, sweaty, sexy couples, and strictly salsa. The kind of dancing we do here makes me never want to go back to Shooters and grind. I say let's bring salsa back to Duke. Maybe it'll bring a sense of actual romance and appreciation for the art of dance, instead of making something as sacred as dance into something so naughty, lacking any respect or admiration for the body. Salsa possesses this overwhelming power that makes you feel beautiful and ready to dance the night away - never wanting to let go of salsa's pure brilliance or sensuality.

By the time this is posted, we will have been to El Tibiri, finally. It's exactly what we heard it was - a subterranean dance club with the most inconspicuous entrance you could think of. There are no signs announcing the discoteca's name, just a small piece of paper once you finally find the salsa club with tiny font that says something along the lines of "you're at El Tibiri." I loved the range of ages there. We went with our group, our compañeros, Carolina's parents, Tam & Jota, and then there were couples of all ages there. It's like it doesn't matter at all - you dance with everyone. There would be breaks when the dance floor would clear and the salsa experts would take over and do a salsa special. The "salsa king" was there too, in all white from his shoes, to his pants, to his shirt, to his hat. The dance floor is tiny, so people take to the rows between the plastic white tables and chairs. The music is loud, the dancers are sweaty, the ceiling is low, the atmosphere is so alive. The couple of fans save you from being too drenched in your own sweat. It was a great time!

Stephen: On our first week here, we met our compaeñros, university students who had offered to spend time with us to show us around the city. On the first Thursday, we met nearly 20 compañeros and spent time in the Carlos E neighborhood. Carlos E is a place where teenagers, college students, and adults hang out. Sitting in a circle, we introduced each other and share stories about our recent arrival in Colombia, pop culture, and our university experiences. This was not an unusual social outing; Carlos E has become both our meeting spot and often where we spend the majority of the night.

Hanging out far, from being an undesirable slow night, has been a great way to exchange invaluable cultural information and build rapport.

Beyond Carlos E, this social interaction is not limited to Carlos E. In a small town called Santa Fe, we stopped to hang out in front of a church, where we waited for a traditional wedding to begin.

Katrina: Colombians have two priorities—food and family—and their order of importance isn’t entirely clear. After having been here a month, I can say with certainty that I will go back home with a few more pounds on my frame. My meals are usually large enough to feed three people, and when I refuse seconds and claim I’m full, I oftentimes get a suspicious look as if asking me, “Are you sure you’re not still hungry?” Ironically, my host mom’s plate rarely has half the food she serves on mine. I told her last night that I’m going to have to roll back to the United States, and she smiled as if I had just given her the greatest possible compliment.

Though my host mom doesn’t have any children of her own, her nieces are constantly visiting. Last week I met her oldest niece Catalina, who is a university student in Bogotá studying mathematics. She asked me the usual questions: Where are you from? What are you doing in Medellín? What do you think of Colombia so far? Were you scared of coming here? After briefly explaining our project, she exclaimed, “¡Ay, que chevre!” She recommended watching a documentary that was recently released about displaced people, admitting that while she hasn’t seen it herself it’s supposed to be powerful. After talking to her for about half an hour, she gave me her email address and told me that if I’m ever in Bogotá or if I have questions about anything, I shouldn’t hesitate to contact her. People’s genuine willingness to help here never ceases to amaze me.

Jul 10, 2010

Welcome to Sante Fe: Finca Trip!

This past weekend, we went to a finca in Santa Fe, Antioquia. What does that mean, you ask? Read what Molly has to say....

The drive to the finca was stunning. The most gorgeous views of the mountains yet. We couldn't just see the mountains, we could feel them - we were climbing them. The vast spans of undulating mountains with more shades of green than you could find in a stack of Sherwan-Williams paint chip samples. It was shocking, breath taking, and humbling. I felt tiny but somehow empowered and at peace next to and within these massive piles of earth. After a drive that I didn't want to end, came the arrival at the finca. None of us expected that finca to look like this.

We all imagined a farm in the middle of nowhere with a pool somehow worked into the ground. But, no... as the three of us who drove in a compañera's car entered the finca, we were surprised. We saw the pool, with a beautiful open house situated behind it, in the middle of the rustic and gorgeous Santa Fe. The finca consisted of three huge, open bedrooms, a beautiful patio housing collections of antique sewing machines and typewriters, a huge birdcage, a modest kitchen, washing room, eating area, pool, turtles awkwardly and slowly wadding around, and so many flowers - especially birds of paradise. We always ate three homemade meals a day ... always a breakfast, lunch, and dinner even if breakfast wasn't ready until one in the afternoon, lunch at five, and dinner at ten, it was always cooked in our own kitchen. My favorite meal included deliciously fresh guacamole (props to Cassidy), mango salad, roasted chicken, rice, and patacones. Between these laborious and delicious meals, walks through Santa Fe, hunts for helado and pastels de guayaba, watching a wedding in a local church, salsa dancing, swimming, card games, mosquito bites and sunburn, and so much music, the finca was a solid success.

We got to know our compañeros and we met their friends. I had a great, exhausting time at the finca and I hope we have the opportunity to wander the cobbled streets of Santa Fe again.

Unpredictable Week

This week, all six of us were switched to different neighborhoods for work this week. Sometimes we were up at six thirty A.M. and had to be at the metro station forty-five minutes later. Sometimes we were back by one o clock in the afternoon, or even four. Some had to take the bus back by themselves. The interviews, however, were just as powerful as last week...

Katrina: Week Two - Ladera

Yesterday I visited four families, all of whom have been displaced and came to Medellín in about the last ten years to escape the violence in the outskirts of the city. None of them sugarcoated the situation for me, each one telling me that they fled after one (or more) of their family members had been killed: husbands, brothers, sisters, even children. These families didn’t omit anything painful from their stories; they were real. Surprisingly, they all expressed a desire to return to el campo, where they wouldn’t have to worry about having enough money to feed their families. One of the women I interviewed told me that “aquí en Medellín se necesita plata para todo” and that life in the city is economically challenging without the option of growing your own food. They all long for the day when they can return to their birthplaces and teach their children to live off the land. When I tell the families that I come from the United States to preserve their stories in documentaries that will hopefully change the limited view we have of Medellín, I occasionally have doubts that they tell me an edited version of their histories in order to portray the city in the most positive light. Yesterday was not one of those days, and for their courage and sincerity, I am eternally grateful.

Stephen: Week Two - Ladera

This week, I worked with cogestores from the Ladera parque biblioteca, and we visited a number of neighborhoods in the eastern part of Medellin. Many of the families visited this week had been displaced years ago, and they talked about the difficulties in finding employment and adjusting to their new city life. In some cases nostalgia for their previous lifestyle were clear. One conflicted mother hoped she would be able to return to her family’s farm one day, but that she wanted to stay in Medellin so her children could to continue to live in the city. In the rural parts of Colombia, systems for education do not exist, but in the city her children had the chance to pursue their dreams.

When originally displaced, many of the families did not have the opportunity or ability to live in safe neighborhoods. Families told me stories of when they used to hide in their houses as gang fights occurred outside. However, many of these neighborhoods are safe now and the residents consider it a testament to both the city improvements in security and the community effort to become a better place to raise a family. The infrastructure projects, bustling tiendas, and smiling faces are proof of this.

On the steep slopes of the La Sierra Neighborhood, the Isaza family is working with their neighbors to build a staircase. Currently the families must walk down a grassy and often muddy slope to get to a street. These steps will connect their houses directly to the street above.

Cassidy: Week Two - Corregimientos

This week was wildly different from Moravia. Even though I was stationed at San Javier, I have yet to actually walk inside it. San Javier is like the Island for Misfit Toys. Every outlying neighborhood that is despairingly separated from a parque biblioteca is assigned to the San Javier office. Therefore this week I traveled to Itagui on Tuesday, Las Lomas on Wednesday and San Cristobal on Thursday. I traveled by metro, bus, car and even motocicleta. I feel like a children’s book that teaches the various modes of transportation. However, I loved the chaos of traveling to unknown and widely different locations each day. It gave me the opportunity to discover paradise within some of the most impoverished and isolated communities on the outskirts of Medellin.

Las Lomas is a rural region near San Cristobal. Tenant farmers cultivate limes, tomatoes, cilantro, celery, onions…you name it. Access to their homes is steep and hazardous. The stairs to each home scale mountains. When it rains, the rocks and mud that comprise the walkways become impassable. Such inaccessibility discourages travel to and from the farms, making visits to town and visits from strangers rare and necessity-based. The homes are simple, more spacious than their Moravian counterparts, yet equipped with the bare essentials and religious iconography. Life is wholly dependent on the mountain and its generosity to the crop. Yet despite the harshness of this environment, I played with more babies on Tuesday than I have met cumulatively in the last three weeks. A breeze breathes crisp, fresh mountain air. And the view is, well tremendous. I did not feel isolated when I looked at the land around me, full of mountainside fields and ripening crops. I felt comforted, like I had found something familiar outside of the smoggy haze of innercity Medellin.

I had to climb a mountain to reach one farmer I visited. He lives on a peak that overlooks the valley of Las Lomas. His home is simple with white walls and red door frames. Its simplicity suggests that it was constructed to complement the mountain rather than vice versa. You can look through one door and out the other of his home and see the surrounding peaks. This man is disabled, he lives with his son while his wife works in the Poblado. He is severely impoverished. Yet he insisted that I take a bag full of tomatoes, onions, and celery home with me. He hopped over a wall into his field to pick the onions while he sent his son with a bag to gather the tomatoes. When he handed me the produce, his face was full of pride at the produce he was able to provide. Each family I visited harbored a sense of pride and satisfaction for their livelihood. Their dreams for the future did not include relocation, but rather more means of maintaining their present lifestyle. The most popular response to a future goal was to eventually buy a car to make transporting produce and vacationing less dependent on horse-driven methodologies.

Andrei: Week Two - Manrique

Wednesday was an incredible day for interviews! My first interview was with Doña Clara, a woman who arrived in Medellín in 2004 due to violence in her city. She actually spoke for 45 minutes about her family, why she loves Medellín, and her sewing business. Passed down from her mother, she has sewing machines that are many years old. She runs a business from her house in order to support the family, and she makes all the uniforms for the nearby school.

My second interview was a (unexpectedly) double interview with two neighbors. Olmer Palacio and Gladys Moreno were the founders of their neighborhood and started the first school themselves. Both talked about how important education was for themselves, their kids, and for the future in general. I got a tour of the school and I saw pictures from before it was built, which was really cool.

My third interview was with William De Jesus. He is a dedicated singer and has already recorded albums. He talked about how much his family has helped him and supported his singing, and how he started singing from the age of three. During the interview, he surprised us all and took out his guitar and sung a song for us.

These residents from the “big-and-bad-scary place” called Medellín are just like many others all over the world: they are creative, optimistic, and have done some of the most fascinating things I have ever heard of!

Carolina: Week Two - Manrique

This week I worked in a neighborhood that seemed to be much poorer than the area I was working in last week. The houses are mostly made of wood and usually have dirt or wood floors. The streets are sometimes paved but the paths that lead to the houses are made of red looking clay that gets very slippery when it rains.

But I also noticed that every house had an amazing view of the city because they are built right into the sides of the mountain. Most houses had the upper part of the wall cut out on the side of the house that faces down the mountain. This gave them a perfect view of the city below and everything in the room seemed to be arranged to face this window they had made.

Jul 2, 2010

First Week on the Job

Each of us is to interview at least three families per day about their culture, their stories (happy and sad), how they feel about the perception of where they live, and their hopes and dreams for their lives and for their community. After our first week, our brains are exploding with thoughts and questions.

Andrei: Week One - Quintana

This week has been a week of pure learning. I know, the point of the project is to learn, understand, emphasize and admire with how people live their lives here, etc. On paper, all of that is easy. It requires three steps:

1. Introducing yourself to the family and introducing the project

2. Asking the questions and interviewing

3. Thanking them and saying your goodbyes.

From there on, you learn about these families. The thing is, though, it’s a whole new world when you are actually in the house. You can’t predict that the head of the family cannot read or write, making the consent form slightly difficult. You can’t predict the kids running around everywhere, despite the interview going on, while you can’t do anything but laugh. You can’t predict hearing a terrible story of violence that has affected the family, yet they overcame that struggle anyway. You can’t predict their orgullo. You also can’t predict the unconditional love that flows through the casita.

Thus, it isn’t simple. Although on paper it may seem easy to learn and understand these people (after all, you are in another country for eight weeks), you really can never understand what they have been through. Their stories are completely mesmerizing, and sometimes my heart melts when I’m interviewing a woman while she cries and tells her story.

These are not tears of pity or shame, however. These are tears of strength, tears of confidence, tears of perseverance. These families have overcome events that can consume a person’s life entirely. These are tears of pride.

Carolina: Week One - Quintana

We just finished our first week of working and I was assigned to a neighborhood called Quintana. The first day we went to work at 8am but soon learned that we didn’t need to get to work until 9 because the mothers in this neighborhood preferred to have their visits later in the day. This is because the mothers don’t want to eat too early so that they don’t need more than one or two meals per day. That way they can save more for their family.

In one house we visited, the front door was wide open but there was no one at home. My cogestor said they were probably all working at their carniceria, which was a few streets away. She said that many people in this neighborhood leave their doors unlocked or open because there is never any theft.

I also met a mother who was one of the first people to build a house in her community which is now called Truinfo. When they first settled the area, the city would come in and burn down their houses because it was illegal to live there. After this happened a few times, they went into the city and protested in front of the government offices. After hours of protesting, when they finally got the document signed, they returned to the community shouting, “triunfo, triunfo, triunfo,” and that’s how the community got its name.

Stephen: Week One - San Javier

This week we went into the city with our companeros to a visit families enrolled in the Medellin Solidarios program. They took us to a variety of neighborhoods, where all the families I met this week all had had stories tell. These visits were fulfilling, but felt strange at times. Here I was, an obvious foreigner, walking into the Colombians’ houses with expensive electronic equipment asking them to confide in me their fears and joys so that I could publish it to the world. Since my first interview, I have become more comfortable talking with the families, and I believe this in turn has helped them to be more comfortable sharing their histories and hopes for the future with me. Photos especially add a dynamic to their stories. With a photo in front of them, the families are more eager to tell the story behind the smiling faces. For the families, each photo captured a special memory of happiness or accomplishment; a memory they want to share with the outside world.

Katrina: Week One - San Javier

I woke up on Monday both nervous and excited for our first day in the field. My nerves were immediately put to rest when we went into the first home, where I was graciously greeted by a smiling older woman who pulled me in for a hug. Within two minutes, she brought the cogestor and I some tinto and asked us if we had had breakfast. In all twelve homes that I visited this week, I was offered tinto, Coke, torta, or, my personal favorite, jugo de mango. I was initially concerned that I would be treated as an outsider or that the families would be skeptical of the project, but most of them agree that their stories need to be heard. They are quick to emphasize that yes, violence is a large part of their history and it should not be forgotten, but they want to be associated with things besides drugs and guerrillas.

This week I visited united families and broken ones, people who have had those closest to them murdered and others who have managed to stay away from danger, but regardless of their differences, they all share a hope that their children’s future will be brighter and have more opportunities than theirs, recognizing that education is the only chance they have to permanently escape poverty.

Cassidy: Week One - Moravia

It is strange how when we say we want to change the image of Medellin, people immediately assume that we only want stories filled with positivity and perseverance. Yet this falsely represents a singular dimension of this complex city. Violence, loss, racism and extreme poverty are just as prevalent as the reggae ton drifting into the streets and the shouting children playing innumerable games of pick-up soccer. Medellin is multidimensional. It is real. It seems only natural that the goal of changing the Medellin’s violent image is not to create a flat perspective of sole optimism. Rather it is to convey as accurately as possible the patterns of life, culture and movement within Antiochia. The best example I can think of this property of give and take, the haves and have nots is the home of a woman I visited yesterday.

Her house is made of cinder blocks and concrete. The narrow alleyway that leads to her home is covered in waste. Her ceiling is low and the water that flows into the shallow stone basin in her kitchen is questionable at best. There is a hole in her home. When you descend from the cramped upper level, carefully noting the excessive distance between steps, you realize that the staircase is not lighted from either the upper or lower level. Instead, there is a small, unintentional break in the bricks facing the staircase.

While at first it is shocking to realize the woman’s shelter is compromised by a hole in her wall, the glimpse of Moravia you capture through the flaw is beautiful. The missing brick allows the light from the surrounding mountainscape to filter into this cement cave.

Even though the home is cold and damp, it is impeccably clean. New orange leather sofas dominate the sitting room and the two bedrooms upstairs are decorated with lively blue and orange curtains. Somehow cheerful paintings of women dancing and framed family photographs create a welcoming atmosphere that draws a visitor in rather than directing him away.

The home is owned by a single mother who lives with her two daughters. The mother is a nanny in a home uptown. Even though she insists that she will never reunite with the girls’ father, she keeps pictures of him dressed in his paramilitary gear hanging about the house, so the girls do not grow up without his influence. His camouflage hat hangs over her bed across from a framed grocery store Valentine.

Molly: Week One - Moravia

Wow. This is tougher, and so much more rewarding, than I could have anticipated. The days of work are long beginning with my annoying alarm sounding at 6:30 AM and ending with my exhausted return to Carlos E. by 5 PM. So many of the families we visit have been through more than I could ever imagine. A lady whose brother was killed on her front steps by his own friend. A mother whose child died by the time he was 2 years old by an unidentifiable disease which kept him from walking, and caused awful infections whenever doctors tried new medicines. Parents who can't read or write. Seven people, a mom, her five daughters, and her grandchild, who live in a 7 ft. by 7 ft. room sharing one bed. A 19 year old son sitting across from me at lunch casually discussing how was shot in the leg 15 days ago and his friend, sitting right next to him as I was eating my sopita de frijoles and pollo, who murdered the shooter. I didn't know how to react. I'd just chatted with a murderer. But these same friends who insist that in this part of Medellín (Santa Cruz), you have to stay inside after dark otherwise you're risking your life, have young daughters who they love so deeply. It's overwhelming. I'm not sure yet how to cope with these stories - how to process them, 3 or 4 stories like this every day. My greatest fear is that, by the end of this, I will have heard so many terrifyingly sad stories that I will force myself to become numb. It is not humanly possible to react to these stories the way these families deserve. But, then they tell me of their immense happiness. Everyone says "gracias a Dios" before telling me how well the family and business is going, but they need to know that it's their own strength, passion, and love that keeps them here today. A dad cried as he explained his love for his wife, son, and daughter and his dreams for them to finish school and be happy. This family in particular amazed me. Their old house burned down in an electrical fire - every family heirloom, photo, stuffed animal they owned burned. But now, in the hills of Moravia, they live in a beautiful three-room home and they run their own dulcería. The parents cook arequipe, toasted almonds, guayaba caramel, and everything else every day in their own kitchen. They restock the dad's tienda-on-wheels, a bike with a small platform upon which they pile their goodies. The children help to make the string bracelets and rosaries that they also sell. All of this within their own home. Throughout the interview, as we move from room to room, they took along with them the one lightbulb they own to ensure that I had enough light. They showed me the article about their dulcería in the local newspaper. They offered me a bag of their homemade sweets and treats, pineapple, and five handmade bracelets. That family is my inspiration. I promise to live life with optimism, love, and drive the way they do.