We collaborate with women and families in Medellín to document their stories of displacement, violence, resilience, and rebuilding. Duke University students in the program DukeEngage Colombia have come every summer since 2007; this blog documents our process and reflections.
·I would say that my DukeEngage experience has
changed the way I see the world. My view isn’t as limited as it used to be.
Nigerian author, Chimamanda Adichie once said, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the
problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are
incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” I can happily
state that I have gained another view of the story of Medellín. Participating
in this experience allowed me the opportunity to immerse myself in a new
culture and to engage with natives. I was able to listen to the personal
stories of displaced families and witness their transformation process
firsthand. I became part of the transforming city, as did my fellow DukeEngage
participants, because our work is now a part of history.
There is one instance that I will
never forget. It wasn’t until last night that I realized it had an impact on
Jota as much it had on me. We were visiting a Juvenile Addiction Facility in
Medellín. I believe the ages of the children spanned from as young as 7 to as
old as 18. Many of these children had left their homes and were living on the
streets and had been involved in the trafficking and consumption of illicit
drugs. As we entered one of the large rooms, the children were practicing
drills as their chaperon shouted commands. When the children were told that
they could greet us, they rushed to examine the faces of the Americans that had
occupied their space. One young girl with a complexion identical to my own came
up to me. She clapped her hands and jumped up and down. She was so amazed that
I, an American, looked like her. Her gestures and expressions said, “You look
just like me.” I think that moment opened her eyes. She no longer viewed
Americans as white, blonde hair and blue-eyed individuals. I had added to her
American story just by being present. For me, that was one of the greatest
experiences I could have ever been a part of.
My DE Colombia experience changed me the moment I left the
comforts of my home. Never had I spent that much time away from my house, my
friends, and especially my family. Seeing my mom cry as I went through security
in the airport made me realize how much I depend on my family being close by
whenever I need them. I was born and raised in Durham and at Duke I make an
effort to see my parents often and go home for the occasional dinner. Going to
Colombia gave me a chance to be challenged away from the security of home.
Instead of feeling scared, I felt empowered. I never felt endangered or even
homesick while in Colombia. Medellín felt like a city I was always meant to be
in. What impacted me the most were the people and their generosity. From the
compañeros to the families I interviewed, they all welcomed me into their lives
with the true intent of getting to know me. Before Medellín I kept myself
guarded and often felt tentative going into new situations. Medellín taught me
how to embrace new challenges and be my true self. All these people changed my
world, and in return I hope I left them with a little piece of the real me.
The work I did in Colombia, the
people I met along with the social and economic conditions I witnessed were
enough to make a lasting impression in so many facets of my life. I could
choose to cite any of eight week’s worth of experiences, but the one that is
most pertinent to me now is how my relationship with my companeros and with
their work exposed me to art in a way I had never been before. I connected with
some of my companeros better than I have connected with many students at Duke. They
were artists, passionate and brilliant. Listening to them describe their work
and the way they applied their art to social issues gave me a completely
different perspective on artists and the potential art has as an outlet for
social change. I remember skyping Lucho until dawn one morning, grilling him
about his final project with Leidy. They were designing public housing, but the
design emphasized privacy as well as efficiency, giving its residents the
dignity they deserved.
I never considered myself an
artist, calling myself one always felt pretentious. My parents see art as a
commodity, not a way of living, and it has taken me most of my undergraduate
career to embrace my identity as an artist. I never thought of myself this way
until I got to spend eight weeks with the companeros.
loved writing, but I saw my ability to write more as a parlor trick or a resume
skill to be listed and then passed over. But when I got back from Colombia, I
enrolled in two creative writing classes and began to slowly take myself more
seriously. This put me at odds with my parents. My friends, too, thought I was
playing. They saw my major as a cop-out to more hard-core areas of study and
this attitude carries over to the university itself. Duke does not have a very
rich arts community, nor does it encourage its students to pursue arts-related
careers. But I kept writing. I wrote a creative thesis that I hope to publish
this summer. I work-shopped with authors when they came to campus. I threw
myself into the community at the Center for Documentary Studies. I guess you
could say that Colombia was the catalyst for this change.
Although the work we did was extremely important, it is not
something to think about on a consistent basis. However, after leaving Medellin
and travelling to London to study abroad, I began to truly appreciate the
notion of hospitality. In fact, both countries share similar social etiquettes
when hosting a guest. It something that as a country, I think American society
truly lacks. Arriving in someone’s impoverished home in Moravia or a lavish one
in Chelsea, you are immediately greeted with either a cup of tea or a tinto. Its
requires very little of the host, but undoubtedly means a great deal for the
visitor. But this extends far beyond coffee. It reflects the sentiment inherent
in both of these societies. Hopefully its something we could try to bring to
the States by offering visitors some sort of caffeinated beverage as soon as
they walk in the door.
Additionally, Duke Engage taught me a lot about the notion
of mobility. As Americans, we have the ability to travel anywhere we want.
Never are we restricted access to a foreign country because of our nationality.
However, this is simply not the case with citizens of other countries. For
instance, Colombians have an extremely difficult time acquiring visas to visit
other countries. Mobility it something we take for granted, and is something
that not everyone in the world is able to enjoy.
Our trip to Medellín was much more
than an “experience.” It was a shift in my lifestyle. I had originally thought
that at some point in my Duke career that I’d do DukeEngage. Friends of friends
had told me that it was extremely competitive. But after applying for both
DukeEngage Colombia and Duke in NY, my life took a really, sharp turn. I was
about to travel the world on my own for the first time. It’s all that I could
have ever hoped for, but it also seemed overwhelmingly surreal. People traveled
the world all of the time. After the trip is over with, their lives move on.
Right? Of course, it’ll affect them. But it won’t determine how they act the
rest of their life. People, especially Duke students, knew how to take on these
kind of experiences. It was a part of a Duke students’ life, right? A part of
their skills set, right?
Well, after the trip was said and
done, and I’d spent two months immersed in the Colombian culture, a culture
that had been somewhat hazy to me for years, I felt both enlightened and
assured of some things, and even hazier about other things. I knew that I was
now interested in doing something with documentary studies further down the
line. I also knew that I wanted to return to Colombia some day, and hopefully
But I’d also come to Colombia not
only on a Duke program, but without my actual Colombian family. I’d met my
Colombian cousins while I was there, but it wasn’t the same. I’d connected so
much with my Colombian host family, but even so, this process of getting to
know my Colombian side and culture felt odd. It wasn’t the “traditional” way to
do it, and for that reason, it felt somehow unsatisfying. I didn’t know how to
interpret anything. I wanted to have my family there with me, because it was
hard to talk to anyone about it. I felt as though my host family didn’t
understand the frustration I’d experienced living such a split, bi-cultural life;
they only saw me as a estadounidense. My peers didn’t seem to understand how I
felt as a very confused individual in the middle of what was supposedly a
country that was a part of my identity, so I felt uncomfortable to reach out to
them. And when I finally came back home and told my family about my time in
Colombia, they were emotionally unable to understand what it was I did. Either
they’d cry and look to me, finally understanding what I’d been telling them I
was doing all along. But they also couldn’t fathom the experience I’d just had.
It was too personal, too raw, too hard to process even when I was there.
Of course, there was my Colombian
father, who hadn’t been in the picture for several years. That is, until I
landed in Medellín. I had a feeling he was thinking, “Wait, this is my country;
my home. I need to guide her.” So we began talking, and he would recommend
places I should go and see…but it was never a form of complete connection.
Between me and him. Between me and my mom’s family. My host family. My friends
in Colombia. I still feel like I’m caught in a dream-like haze, and wonder,
“Did that actually happen?” I yearn to go back so I can connect again with
those people, that food, those buildings, that smell, that feeling. Two months
was not long enough, and now I find myself even more confused about my
identity. As my host mom once said, “Eres colombamericana.” Now, I don’t feel
like I’m anything.