Jul 10, 2011

Fieldwork: Impressions of Our New Barrio

Kendall: The First Day of Work
Technically, on the first day of work I was in the fetal position in bed with the flu. As the hours past, I let my imagination run wild about how all of my peers were up in the mountains getting award-winning, 60 Minutes-worthy stories that would reduce me to tears, while I was worthless in bed. I seethed with jealousy, for being sick is not something I allow to happen often. I am a firm believer in “mind-over-matter”ing ailments, and “sucking it up” so even when I feel as if I may die, I never stay home from school or take a time-out from life. Therefore, when I am actually taken down by an infliction, I am a sore loser.
My first day in the field began 24 hours later and seemed never to end. Walking up and down the steep, narrow streets of Moravia, my head spun as I tried to keep pace with my fast-speaking cogestora, Yamile. She is a seasoned three-year veteran with solid relationships and valued rapports with many families in the community. She is efficient and good at her job, and was initially not happy about having a tagalong (me) slowing her down. The first two families, who apparently were relatively new to the Medellín Solidaria program, refused interviews. And after seeing me get shot down twice on my first day, Yamile took pity on me and pulled some strings to help me out. She took me to two of the families with whom she is most intimate and asked if they would do her a favor and sit for my interview. They both kindly obliged but neither went according to plan.
The first interview was awkward and shaky. As I held the camera and read the questions in my horrendous gringa accent, the silent faces starring back at me were a mix of confusion, discomfort, and boredom. I looked at Yamile in panic and pleaded for a rescue. She knew the family had not understood me, so she grabbed my notepad, deciphered my handwriting, and rephrased all of my questions more fluently for the awaiting family on film. They answered the questions as best they could, still seeming to keep their distance from me and the situation I was putting them in, but once the camera was off and we all talked for a few minutes, the mood lightened. We discussed Medellín, my life in the US university system, and their relationship with Yamile, and afterwards, we decided to do the interview a second time. This one went significantly smoother, but I still don’t think I got an emotional breakthrough on my flipcam.
The next family was very warm and jovial, but they talked loudly and all at once, with a baby screaming in the hall, and people coming in and out- it was a miracle I completed the interview at all! When I concluded with the questions, the mother asked if I were married, and when I said, “No! I’m only 19!” she then screamed at her son with urgent hand gestures. My cogestora burst out laughing, so since I had no idea what was transpiring I decided to smile and nod…I may have even given a thumbs up. Yamile later explained that the mother had demanded that her son ask to marry me and with my enthusiastic response, I may or may not currently be engaged to a man in Moravia. The day was overwhelming, to say the least, and by the time I returned to Carlos E., the fetal position in bed never looked so good.

Lydia Rose:

Working in Granizal, a barrio near the Parque Biblioteca España, we spend our days hiking up and down steep hills cramped with small brick and cement houses while buses, motorcycles, and cars screech past within inches of us.
One morning we go off the beaten path, ducking between houses and sidestepping ravines and twisting staircases on our way to a tiny home my cogestora calls “el ranchito.” The trail seems made more for animals than humans—trick rockslides await the unwary foot, prickly bushes reach thorned arms around blind curves. At its widest, the path can’t be more than two feet across, all slick clayish mud and large ill-placed rocks. To my left is a steep cliff wall that we circle tightly, clinging to its edges for balance; to my right the path drops off sharply, ending far below in unidentified shrubbery, rocks, and rusting barbed wire. As we walk we hear roosters crowing at us, one sidles around a corner, beady eyed, and beats its wings at me, clawing forward to peck menacingly at my leg.
Our walk continues downwards, promising a treacherous climb on our return, and suddenly houses, composed entirely of gaunt strips of wood and metal, appear out of nowhere around another bend, hugging the wall at improbable angles. Plaques above their doors identify them, inexplicably, as recognized addresses, complete with cross streets. We head toward the dwelling at the very end of the path. It has no light inside, but thin streams of sun slide through cracks in the tin roof to reveal our surroundings. The floor is a collage of rough, ramshackle tiles that shift beneath our feet with every movement. A twin bed and a tiny crib fill almost the whole space. This entire house is smaller than even a single college dorm room back home. And yet, somehow, this miniscule ranchito is home to an entire family.


Last night, my host mother calmly informed me over dinner, “You’re going to be good at life” (loose translation) with a huge, caring smile on her face. I giggled in disbelief and confusion. Doña Gloria explained that she thinks I will be fine because I’ve adapted to all the food here so easily. It’s true: I think I ate mondongo (cow intestines…) a couple days ago. It’s a good thing that, at the time, I thought the little stringy bits made it look like some vegetable. The main reason I was initially so bewildered by Doña Gloria’s prediction is because I was so frustrated by myself during that first day of interviews in the field. I forgot important items to take with me to the field in the chaos of waking up early and rushing to work. I had a hard time understanding the people I’m working with, especially when talking over the phone to decide where to meet. I spilt water in the same bag that carries all my technical equipment. I wasn’t able to decipher what one of my interviewees said about her son, but still felt like crying when she started to cry about him. I was too worried about lighting and sound and camera position to give my full attention to translating the interviewees’ Spanish. I held my camera in my hand until I realized I was so nervous that the footage was shaky. On the second day, I kept thinking to myself, “I’m going to be fine”, just as Doña Gloria believes. Although a million things can go imperfectly in these interviews, I can adapt. I was scared because I didn’t want to a miss a single part of the stories I heard, but it’s so much easier to listen if I’m not agonizing over the substance. My second set of interviews already felt smoother after keeping this in mind. It’s so much easier to eat mondongo, if you don’t spend the whole meal worrying about what it’s made of.


This week we started working with Medellin Solidaria and going into the field to film. Initially I was nervous to “invade” someone’s home and expect them to completely open up to me. I was lucky though, and on my first day met two extremely friendly and outgoing families. Both interviewees were initially hesitant about being interviewed, not because they opposed it or were offended by it. But because not everyone is thrilled with the idea of having to answer questions on camera. After a couple of minutes though, both opened up. One of the women made leather products such as wallets and belts and was kind enough to give me one of her obras (a piece of work) in the shape of a shoe as a present. However, while both were extremely open while the camera was rolling, neither seemed to be as relaxed or authentic as when my cogestor and I were just talking to them. Just like any other culture, these women had a persona they wanted to portray to the rest of the world when being filmed. To be honest though, their “undocumented” side was much more engaging. But I guess that’s what makes a great documentary film making, getting people to come out of their shell.


With great risk comes great reward - Before, when I considered this overly used cliché, I thought it just applied to serial gamblers who were looking for some creed to live by and therefore, justify their addictive habit. Now as I lie in bed, unable to sleep because so many thoughts are running rampant through my mind, this phrase has taken on a whole new meaning for me. I came to Colombia not knowing if I could return to Duke in the fall for my senior year due to financial hardship. I came not knowing if I would see my older brother alive again due to a rare form of cancer. I came to Colombia...knowing that I was coming to Colombia. Needless to say, the risks were definitely in place.
Realizing my purpose for being here Colombia has definitely been one of the most significant parts of this amazing project thus far. I have now been a witness to families opening their homes, hearts, and lives to complete strangers and foreigners. They willingly share their experiences with us while we capture their every word via audio, video, and photography. The purpose of this interaction is not so that we take pity on the families. It's quite the opposite. The members of these families share their stories of displacement and violence because they are proud of where they have come from. Through adversity and hardship, they have persevered and overcome. Others are still making their journey but are confident that the future will be brighter. We, the DukeEngage students, are merely the ones who are lucky enough to make a record of that transformation.
I share a few of my personal hardships, not because I want pity or empathy, but because I want you to get a little bit closer to knowing who I am. The events that have occurred in my life make up my history and influence the individual that I am today. While I can only imagine some of the events that have taken place in the lives of the families we have interviewed, I now realize that everyone has a story. It's part of the human condition. This project is truly having a great impact on my life. I feel encouraged and inspired to return to the US and approach any obstacle head-on.
I'm not sure if this is what Tam and Jota had in mind when they created this opportunity for Duke students but I definitely feel like this is the greatest reward that one could receive.

Our first stop was Doña Carmelita's house. As Luisa, my cogestora, and I walked up we could smell the aroma of fresh arepas fill the air while smoke streamed out of the roof of the little shack. A small garden with tomatoes and cilantro was by the entrance and we walked into the front patio. We found about 6 national policemen eating their morning arepas, listening to music while Doña Carmelita flipped arepas on her wood-burning stove. Immediately we were offered a seat, an arepa with our choice of hogao or mantequilla on top and hot chocolate or panela. The arepa was warm and Doña Carmelita eagerly waited for my approval after the first bite. For the first 45 minutes of the visit neighbors came in with orders for arepas and greeted us with warm smiles. Finally, Doña Carmelita asked the policemen to leave, some of whom decided to take a short nap in their chairs, and she settled down with Luisa for the appointment. I played with a neighborhood boy, Jason, who adored Doña Carmelita and obeyed her every order. He was fascinated by my digital camera and determined to help me with my interview. Doña Carmelita told me of her love for the neighborhood. She has lived in Medellín since 1998 after being displaced by the violence in her old community. The people in La Divisa, an area of the neighborhood Juan 23, are what keep her alive; she would never leave this community. They support her arepa business, which she loves with all her heart. Every day she wakes up at 3 am and works until 11am or 12pm or even 1pm. She usually makes about 50 packets of about 10 arepas a day and each customer always stays to chat. She feels that she is getting old, she won't tell me her age but says that it's around 70, and all she really wants is for her daughter to have more, to study more, to get a good job. With her sister's help making the arepas and her daughter by her side, it is obvious that for Doña Carmelita family is the most important thing in life.

Natalie: Field Work: Getting to know your new barrios
My cogestora, Alba, was walking me through La Huerta, several apartment complexes in Pajarito for the more vulnerable families of Medellin. As she passed the very stern-looking locals, she’d greet them with a “Buenas.” She explained who we were visiting today while we walked through the barrio, watching little screaming children run past and exhausted-looking dogs lay in the shade. Earlier this morning, we had both been driven up in a truck and had passed through a small pueblo called Villa Campina. The roads were extremely steep, reminding me of memories of driving up to La Pola (insert link to first post). Just as I reminisced about that emotionally charged day, we passed it, with the same amount of girls donning hot pink and baby blue outfits outside the big, green gate. When we arrived, the truck driver began a heated discussion with Alba about social programs, like Medellin Solidaria, and how all these displaced families still need more help. He kept touching my shoulder, preaching at Alba, that people like me are helping make the people of Medellin more aware of these issues, but they’re still not solved. I was honored and nervous all at once to be talked about politically in Spanish, but I felt like there was a lot of weight on my shoulders. And I hadn’t even done one interview yet.

Stephanie: The First Glimpse of Affection and Purpose
As I sat in the Suramericana metro station awaiting my fellow “DukeEngager”, Gabby, I began to people watch—one of my favorite pastimes. Seeing people get on and off the metro was quite entertaining. One man with an olive backpack and a confused look on his face opened up a metro map and turned it, then sat up and looked at the bigger map down the station; one can clearly tell that he is an extranjero. A couple waiting for the metro 5 minutes later screamed North American or extranjeros with their hitchhiking bags, scrambling of items, and the English shrieks back and forth between each other. I soon began to feel more “Colombian,” not only being able to spot out extranjeros within the first couple of weeks, but also being decked out in my Medellín Solidaria uniform, a stunning blue vest that is to be worn on the field everyday; if one could not catch my sarcasm earlier about the uniform, it is being explicitly stated now.
After the various entertaining interactions, I began to doze off and ponder. I thought about my REAL “first day on the field” with my cogestor (an agent of Medellín Solidaria who checks up on families, especially displaced ones). I thought about the stories these families told the cogestor, a stranger as well. The visits we made today were preliminary ones, registering them into the Medellín Solidaria program. It would be difficult to record their stories when both visitors were complete strangers, but I got lucky in the second visit with a very humble and hospitable family of 5, a mother, 3 girls, and a son. They told their story about how they used to live in a big house with less precaution than they do in Medellín, but that they are grateful to be here and are grateful to be helped by all of the social programs Medellín has to offer. As I heard various stories throughout the day ranging from depressed children with anorexia and fleeting and leaving all belongings behind to move to a new city 14 hours away, all I could think about was how grateful I was to have all of the little things I always take for granted. At the station, I thought about my family, my friends, the opportunity that I have at Duke University, going to school for free, and the wonderful accommodations I had both in Medellín and at home. And to think I complained about no air conditioning freshman year….pfttt. It just put things into perspective. Even if some families are hesitant to tell their story to me, an extranjera, deep down many families want their stories to be told. Little by little, day by day, I believe I will come to feel like I am making a difference in these families’ lives. Whether these documentaries serve to advance Colombia’s image or not, the purpose of getting the individual’s stories heard is purpose enough for me. Bienvedios a la verdadera Colombia, where I hope to make a difference in the weeks to come!