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.
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.
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.