Jul 2, 2012

2012 Takes the Field! Day One


DISCLAIMER: I will not be riding any more motorcycles in Medellin. And I will not be working (and have not worked) in any areas associated with current gang violence - thanks to my directors and Medellin Solidaria. This post is meant to represent my frustrations, excitement, and confusion about my first day of interviews…

Last night, my greatest fear was that a house would collapse on me during an interview. This morning, that fear quickly subsided and was replaced with two new ones - gangs in the rural slums and motorcycles.

First, let me explain a little bit about how I’m actually interviewing families. I follow a “cogestora” from Medellin Solidaria (kind of like an NGO) on her normal route. Medellin Solidaria aims to better the lives of all citizens and inform displaced people of their legal rights. After the “cogestora” from Medellin Solidaria gives advice, I ask the family if they would like to be interviewed. If they say yes, they fill out a consent form. And voila! I start my interview!
Our Duke Engage group was assigned to interview families in four different areas of Medellin (so two of us in each general part). Cesar and I are partners, so we interview people in roughly the same area. When they told me my partner was the only person who had been to Medellin before, whose family is from Medellin, and who is completely fluent in Spanish, I knew I would be working in the middle of nowhere. Cesar and I were assigned to the “corregimientos” (rural townships).
This morning, Cesar and I arrived at the metro station in San Javier (where Medellin Solidaria has one of its offices). We were greeted by different “cogestores” than whom we had been assigned. The reason? Gang fighting in La Loma, a place near San Javier where I was supposed to conduct my interviews. In the past, these “corregimientos” were some of the most dangerous areas in the world. Over the past 20 years, the gang violence has died down significantly, as community members have begun inspiring work to improve their lives. However, this work has been so inspiring that I solely focused on the good and forgot about how bad it could really be. Living in Carlos E. has been so wonderful that I pushed aside the notion that Colombia is still extremely dangerous in certain parts. Carlos E., el Poblado, and other parts of Medellin make me feel fairly safe and at home. But, today, I realized that, although Medellin has made significant progress, the rural slums are still lurking with hostility and aggression. Due to the gang conflicts, I was immediately reassigned to work in San Cristobal instead (a much safer area).

Medellin Solidaria said that they plan on reevaluating La Loma for next week, but if it’s too dangerous to go into now, I don’t think that three days are going to change much. (AKA I have no desire to go into a place where gang wars were a problem only the week before).  So that started fear number one: gangs. The program directors are seriously discussing relocating Cesar and me to an entirely different region in Medellin. This is because violence exists in some of the rural slums near my work, not because I have been actually working in the gang-infested war zones themselves. Regardless, I am grateful that Medellin Solidaria and my program directors are looking out for my safety.
So, the “cogestora” I was assigned to for the day and I went to San Cristobal and Pajarito instead. How did we get there? On a motorcycle, of course! Terrified doesn’t even begin to describe how scared I was. After my mom and dad telling me horror stories of motorcycle accidents my entire life, I strapped on my helmet and hopped on the “bike”. I’ve driven scooters before and loved it, but it terrifies me to be a passenger. Not only are the people in Medellin terrible drivers, but there are also potholes EVERYWHERE. Did I mention yet that two of the three families I visited today also informed me that their husband/child/friend was recently in a bad motorcycle accident? Luckily, my “cogestora” drove well, and I survived to write this post. My “cogestora” for next week (maybe - depends if I change places or not) drives a scooter. She’s super nice and insists that we can take the bus instead so that I feel more comfortable (THANK GOD!) Anyway, Tam and Jota have forbid me from riding on a motorcycle/scooter again… so that wouldn’t have happened anyhow. Exploring Medellin on a “bike” was an experience, and it explains fear number two: motorcycles.

After a 40 minute motorcycle ride, we were in the “corregimientos”. These are the rural areas up in the mountains of Medellin. The view was unbelievably beautiful! People in the US would kill for the real estate in these areas. But the conditions people were living in were so bad. I interviewed two families, both of which tried to discuss former gang violence and hopes for their families. Although the first interview had terrible audio and the second bad lighting, I feel like the main problem was that families were holding back how they truly felt about Medellin. I think that the presence of the “cogestora” (and her constant urging for positive anecdotes) compelled the interviewees to avoid sensitive issues and negative stories about their community. Usually, the “cogestores” have relationships with the families, which developed over years of trust and communication. The families that we visited, however, had only met my “cogestora” once before and had gone through at least four different “cogestores” during their program. I feel like the families did not feel comfortable telling the truth, and I don’t really know how to change that. Or maybe I was part of the problem? This has made me incredibly frustrated. But, I guess I had not expected much for my first day in the field anyways. Today proved to be rewarding in helping me learn what I do wrong with technology and understand that any story a person is willing to tell is a story that should be captured. I’m excited to learn more in my future motorcycle-free, gang-free interviews and adventures in Medellin! 

My first day in the field went better than expected. I was initially nervous, but my cogestora’s young age and upbeat attitude put me at ease. My biggest fear was that the interviewees would want to tell me their story, but my incompetence as an interviewer would obscure their message. In the first house we visited, I interviewed a woman, Mary, who had left her home due to spousal abuse. She now lived in her parents’ half-built home with her two daughters. My cogestora recommended several government programs that would allow Mary to receive insurance for herself and her two daughters and that would allow Mary to finish building her parents’ home. Hearing Mary’s struggles saddened me and I was at a loss for words. I became painfully aware of my own privilege and I knew that there was nothing I could say to make her feel better. All I could do was listen. Next, my cogestora and I went to a local nature park to interview Jorge, a concession stand owner. This interview was about the positive values of hard work, honesty, and humility. Jorge told me about his business, his family, and his hopes for the future. Jorge claimed to have the best chorizos in el Parque Arvi, and he insisted that I should one day return with my DukeEngage companions. Oh, and he wasn’t lying about the chorizos, they were delicious.

Watching my cogestora conduct her check-ins with love and compassion was an amazing experience as was hearing those family’s stories. It must be extremely rewarding to see the families you work with improve, as were most of the families on the route, and frustrating when they don’t. One family in particular stands out. Out of curiosity, I asked one mom, who had been in the program for many months, how her experience had been with Medellin Solidaria. Much to my surprise, she told me that it had been horrible because she wasn’t receiving the help she needed.

What confused me about this was I had just watched my cogestora advise her to begin studying again among other things but the mother refused to work to improve her position. What further complicates the situation is the woman’s son is unable to walk and is forced to navigate in his wheel chair. The lack of paved surfaces beyond his front porch means he is restricted to the house. His neighborhood is not as wheelchair accessible as others- the steps leading to and from the plot of land on which his home sits on are carved out of the earth. He wants to get an education but lacks the access to do so. Both Carmen and the woman understand that the only way this woman’s son will get the education that they both want him to receive is by moving to a place where the son can move about. The method of doing so is where they diverge. The woman wants to hire a lawyer and sue those who she says are responsible for her son’s disability. Carmen, on the other hand, wants the woman to study so she can get a job which would enable them to move, so that the son could receive an education.

If her son were done wrong then yes, he deserves justice and economic compensation may be allotted with this justice. Even so, this course of action seems unsustainable as a means to improving their quality of life because they may be awarded a lump sum that would run out eventually. Once that money runs out, they very well may end up back where they started- living in a house that her son can’t leave. Carmen’s recommendations make sense. The woman would be self-sufficient and able to provide a better standard of living for her children and the chance to move up the socio-economic ladder, all regardless of the court decision.

It’s possible that I missed a critical part of the story, so I asked Carmen about it later. She said that this woman has made no effort to improve her life or her children’s lives. The woman is waiting for Medellin Solidaria to fix her life and for the courts to give her money that she doesn’t have to work for. Carmen’s evaluation seemed accurate and she would know, having been working with the family for an extended period of time.

Carmen’s evaluation may be accurate but it’s also possible that this woman wasn’t taking advantage of the opportunities because her hands were full caring for her disabled son and the other children in the home. If I’ve learned anything from my first day in the field it’s that there are many sides to a story and the time I have in these homes isn’t enough to figure it all out.

Despite the limitations, I like what I’ve seen of my cogestora’s and Medellin Solidaria’s work. They don’t go about social development the way many people do. It’s tempting to do everything for the target population but this course of action doesn’t actually solve the problems in these communities. I hope that my first impression of this social development effort is correct and that they are actually helping their target communities help themselves.

On my first day working in Medellín I interviewed four families. I traveled with a cogestora, the Colombian equivalent of a social worker, around España, which is the neighborhood Time magazine labeled the most dangerous in the world in 1989. The first house my cogestora and I visited exemplified abject poverty. It was filthy, the smell reaching me even before I entered the house and when my cogestora and I knocked, a little boy answered. He said his mom wasn’t home and he was with his two younger brothers. We waited a little while and Karina, the mother of the three boys, came to meet us. I asked her a few questions but she was reticent to answer so I sat while my cogestora talked with her. As I was waiting, her oldest son Wilfred, who is 10, asked to see how my camera worked. I showed him and then he took me around the house, showing me the bed he shared with his mom and two brothers, the scar on his arm, and a picture of his father. His little brother Harrison took my hand and led me outside to show me his kite, a retrofitted cardboard box of beer with string attached. He attempted to fly the kite, running up and down the steep hill on which they lived, throwing the kite into the air and then catching it when it fell, grinning at me each time it stayed aloft. Wilfred and I sat down on the steps to watch and he turned to me and asked if I would like a glass of juice. I marveled that a boy who had so little offered me something of such great value to him. I could not accept the juice simply because he needed it so much more than I did. Being offered food from a boy who has experienced starvation left me in awe of his innate generosity, and feeling completely inadequate, unable to help him the way that I want to.   

Truth: I’m pretty good with directions.
Dare: Figure out how to meet your cogestora at 8am, having only ever taken the metro one stop.
Truth: After 20 minutes on the metro and changing trains twice, somehow I led four of us to end up where we started.

Truth: I like hiking
Dare: Stand in the center of Medellin and look up. All the way up. Now walk there.
Truth: I should have brought an inhaler.

Truth: I love mango
Dare: Eat a mango fresh off of a tree, without peeling it or cutting it.
Truth: I walked around with bits of orange mango between each of my teeth the entire afternoon. (note to self: bring floss next time)

Truth: I practiced with each of my cameras and all of my technology.  
Dare: Do it in the field. Alone.
Truth: I forgot to turn on my iPod. Then my iPod died. The fluffy part of the microphone fell off. Every single time (I think it actually might still be in someone’s shirt).

Truth: I really feel like my Spanish is improving.
Dare: Try to explain this project to someone who has no idea who you are or why you are in her home. Then be comfortable and comforting enough to be able to capture their painful stories on camera, while simultaneously taking this difficult information in yourself.
Truth: My heart was wrenching while my head was spinning. I didn’t know how much I could take.

Another truth: I still don’t.  

Our first day in the field was nothing that I could have totally prepared for.

I walked out of each house unable to speak. Helena kept asking me what I thought, and I could not mutter anything coherent. I saw families without much food, without stoves, and without many of the basic necessities that I take for granted. These families still fed me, gave me gifts (see the picture below), and were excited to share their stories with me. They are not ashamed of where they stand economically because they are also motivated to change their situation. Many of the families had members that were studying to obtain new skills. They are happy people and exhibit a kindness that is indescribable.

When meeting as a group to go over the steps to meeting a family, everything seemed simple. I knew there would be awkward interactions since I’m not fluent in Spanish. My cogestora, Helena, really helped me out when I struggled with the language. She took me to houses that she knew very well. Every house is different and this made finding the best camera position very difficult, especially given the sizes of the houses. I faced trouble with one interview’s audio and one interview’s lighting, but I think that my last interview has the best footage. The last interview was emotionally charged, but my worst fear came true. This woman began to cry during our interview. I felt the emotion and I froze up, but I could not understand why she was crying. On camera, you can hear me stuttering without a response. Thankfully my cogestora whispered in my ear a follow up question to ask: “Porque lloras?” This was an amazing moment, therapeutic almost, because this impromptu question required her to think about the root of her emotions. I tried my best to show my sensitivity, but I left feeling that I could have done better.

On Tuesday morning I left my newfound home in Medellín with my camera and notes to document the story of a woman I had not yet met and whose story I didn’t know. Her name was Jobeida. Her story took me off guard, and as she cried, I began to sympathize with something none of my experiences had prepared me for. She told me the history of Colombia through her personal story, one in which her house was burned down in the middle of the night by drug leaders who labeled her as a traitor for having given water and food to a competing group. Her husband disappeared that night, and was presumably killed; she has not heard anything of him in over ten years. She ran away in the middle of the night with her children and her daughter of nine years was kidnapped. Four months later, she was returned, but it was an experience that her daughter has still not entirely recovered from. She continued and told me the hard transition of making a home for herself in Medellín, and smiled with pride in showing me the beautiful home she lives and feels secure in today. As I returned to my apartment, 40 minutes away on a metro and in a much safer neighborhood, I called my parents to tell them that the interview had gonegreat.

Later that afternoon, I questioned my motives for calling the dialogue we had had great. I had unexpectedly come across an incredible story of Colombia’s history and a personal account that moved me but what were my motives for telling her story? As filmmakers, we want to tell an exciting story, one that will catch people’s interest and tell a story. How was I benefiting her by making this film? And then I fell down on the sidewalk. It took falling down to realize the weight of insecurity that I have been carrying. Colombia is notoriously known as a dangerous country, the last news that the United States has received in headlines concerning Medellín was twenty years ago when the city was plagued with drug wars. In the weeks preceding my departure, my parents made sure I would always be on my guard…

It is exhausting.

We are not allowed to leave for anywhere without someone within our group, and most times we travel with the eight of us. The precaution leaves room for anxiety about venturing on my own; something I have never felt. I have traveled on my own and have developed a way of becoming familiar with new places, and that is by exploring. What I have become familiar with in Medellín has taken hold of my heart, my feelings, I love it. However, the way of life here is very different from what I am used to and it is taking time to become accustomed to it. I don’t feel comfortable, and I don’t know how to change that. I feel comfortable in my house, in my new GREAT circle of friends, with my wonderful and warm host mother, but alas, the threat of Medellín’s notorious history still makes me insecure. As I fell on the cement, I felt myself let go. My breath fell out and my knees slid across the concrete hard. My palms cracked with pain as they reached out and met the road. Walking away, my thoughts were not focused on the pain but on the constant guard that I always have up here. Independence is something I’ve always been grateful for but have taken for granted. Hearing these stories has forced me to think about my own privilege of independence but also question it here, and I am curious how I will convey this incredible development of Medellín over the past ten years in my documentary while also portraying the continual threat that I still feel is present.

When I walk around town, I have accepted that I am una extranjera, una gringa. I expect it. The stares are not new, the attention leaves no lasting impression, but I want the person behind my camera lens to experience more than a living, breathing, personification of a 'language barrier.' When I tape their story, I want the footage to respect and empower el entrevistado/a by sharing the pain and joy of their own personal narrative, instead of merely capturing it on minutes of film.

On my first day accompanying and conducting interviews with my cogestora, I didn't know quite what to expect. I remembered her from our meet and greet in Moravía. She was sweet, patient, and encouraging, but I was extremely nervous. How would the families be? Would they be receptive to me? Would they feel comfortable sharing intimate and personal details of their life? And WOULD my technology function? When I get nervous, I sort of lose all common sense and even forget to put the mini memory card disk into the actual adapter. Yes, I actually spent an hour trying to figure out why my memory card wouldn't "format." Suffice to say, doing interviews in a foreign language in a foreign country with no knowledge of the history of Picacho (the neighborhood) is daunting to say the least.

I finally started my first interview and it seemed like sadly, all my fears came true. The woman was very timid, shy, and reserved. Her voice was so soft it was nearly a whisper even with the microphone. The only sitting area placed me too far from her, she could not understand my Spanish and so she directed her gaze and conversed with the cogestora. After snapping their official portrait, I felt defeated, but instead thought-- challenge accepted.
We walked outside and ambled through Comuna Seis until we saw a familiar face. FARCONELY! The community leader from "El Triunfo" whose video we had analyzed and studied to prepare for the field. So basically, as our group previously determined, she's a Duke Engage Colombia celebrity, but actually. My cogestora's face lit up when she saw her and made me take a picture with her. Farconely wasn't really into the whole idea of snapping a picture with some random American girl she'd never seen before that creepily knew all about her life, but reluctantly fixed her hair and "posed" (she didn't smile, but I did..big steps). Seeing Farconely walking around the neighborhood reminded me that our videos are not just an archive of interviews, but rather a living history, a clash of the past, present, and future.

Watch the “El Triunfo” video with Farconely here: http://medellinmihogar.blogspot.com/2011/02/15-el-triunfo.html

After that awesome, yet entirely uncomfortable interaction, we went to a couple more houses where I couldn't interview before venturing on to the location of my second interview. We walked in and the young woman named Stefania welcomed us into her home with open arms. It was dark and there was a soft breeze inside, offering a refreshing relief from the strong Colombian sun. Her hair and appearance was impeccably styled and she appeared to be in her early twenties. Once we climbed up the stairs, she began to brush and braid her six year old daughter's hair and we just started to talk with no mention of an interview or even Medellín Solidaría's work. After thirty minutes of meet, greet, and light conversation about how "ugly" she thought she was before starting to use a "plancha," we started the interview. Unlike the first one, I explained our work and the types of questions I would be asking in great detail before I began recording. I told her that this was her story, her interview and not mine. Anything she wanted to tell me was what I would want to hear. The interview was animated and Stefania told me all about her family, her childhood, her hopes and dreams for the future, and her gratitude to Medellín Solidaría for providing her with an assortment of services and guided counsel. The second interview was on the opposite side of the spectrum compared to my disastrous first attempt, but I'm still torn over my inability to respond to her tears and sudden stream of emotions when she mentioned the role of her father in her life. It wasn't that I didn't understand-- I did. And it wasn't because I didn't know how to respond, but maybe I actually didn't know in retrospect. I felt the mix of sadness and deep admiration she expressed for her father, but I should have asked her more about their relationship and let her explore its impact on her life instead of abruptly moving on to another, but in my mind similar question. My cogestora was beyond helpful during this emotionally demanding first day and even gently suggested that next time I focus less on my pre-scripted questions and more on engaging with the interviewee, before offering to bring me back to Picacho to spend more time with Stefania and her children in a more natural and less structured environment. But I still left feeling nothing short of defeated…

Watching the interview later that day after I returned back to Carlos E., I realized it wasn't as horrible and rude as it felt in that moment. I'm my own worst critic. I'm a perfectionist and criticizing myself comes more naturally, than just being 'okay' with something that I have worked diligently to make or produce. Coming to grips with the fact that my first day doesn't necessarily affect or determine what will eventually become my final product at the end of this program is a really big step for me. But this documentary project is all about the process and embracing the uncomfortable and at times, discouraging situations. We didn't come to Duke Engage Colombia as video production professionals with fluent Spanish skills on our resumes, but instead, we come here as motivated and impressionable college students who can never say no to a challenge. Challenge accepted.