DukeEngage Medellín
La Violencia is Not the Whole Story

Las mujeres de Itagui VIDEO

Monday, June 28, 2010
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La Abuela Cuenta VIDEO

Monday, June 28, 2010
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Bibliometro VIDEO

Monday, June 28, 2010
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Wednesday, May 05, 2010
Que es el programa compañera/o
Su objetivo es ser huésped de la ciudad y compañero de aventuras de los estudiantes universitarios que participan en el programa Duke Engage en la
ciudad de Medellín

Dedicar a parte de tu tiempo ayudando a los estudiantes de la universidad de Duke en:
•Acompañar a los estudiantes en sus investigaciones y proyectos en Medellín y en los Parques Bibliotecas.
•Asistir a algunos de los eventos programados como visitas y viajes
•Facilitar en la traducción de situaciones culturales.
•Tener ganas de hacer amigos.

Requisitos para ser parte del programa compañero
• Ser estudiante matriculado en una universidad en Medellín
• Estar en Medellín entre 15 junio -14 agosto 2010
• Estar disponibles por teléfono y correo electrónico
• En lo posible que vivan cerca de Carlos E. Restrepo.

Fecha límite para aplicar Mayo 30/2010
• Envía un correo electrónico a la siguiente dirección
. demostrando tu interés en participar:

Jota Samper: jota@mit.edu
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Nos vemos, Medellin.

Thursday, August 20, 2009
I will miss you, Medellin. Here is the last bitacora:

I can see Medellin from afar.
A thousand little lights in the mountains
Where we bathed in a valley of stars,
each one housing a universe of its own
And sailed in a reverse sky
The clear blue ocean up above,
And heaven on earth below.

Medellin, I can hear you.
Your exhaust pipes, your salsa, your fruit man on the street
are telling stories
So many stories.
One for every star in the sky.
But you must listen carefully to the paisa tongue.
It carries with it the weight of the past.
But Medellin does not let it pull it down.

Medellin surrounds you.
It hugs you, kisses you.
It draws you into its home and feeds you, nourishes you.
You are not a stranger here.
Tonight, I leave Medellin
But Medellin will never really let me go.

Medellin, goodbye to you.
Your every waking moment is inhaling and exhaling
While the rest of the world is still asleep
Dreaming of what it would be like
To spend a night in your arms.

"When I went to get my manicure this morning, I was pleased to see the same lady who had cut my bangs two weeks ago. After 45 minutes and dark purple nails, I told her I was leaving Medellín tomorrow at 5 am. She told me that I have to return, and that when I do it won’t cost me anything because I can stay with her. I think this is one of the best examples of the hospitality and warmth of the people here – and one of the things I am going to miss the most. I can’t believe we’ve been here almost 2 months; I still remember being on the plane to Medellín, wondering what everything was going to be like. The friends and family I have made here – compañeros, Doña Clara, and Doña Luz Elena – are going to be in my heart forever. I hope one day I will be able to return to Medellín, and fall in love with the city and its people all over again."


Two months just isn’t enough. I want to window shop at El Tesoro. I want to carefully make my way around El Hueco. I want to go to all of the ‘Parques’ over and over again (Berrio, Bolivar, Explora, and Pies Descalzos). I want to eat at the restaurant at Jardin Botanico. I want to club-hop in Parque Lleras. But most of all I want to sit at FruttiJhons for hours on end. At the Tienda del MAMM, Tiendecita, Brasillera, ‘Cake Place’, and the ‘New Place’. When I was first accepted to the ‘DukeEngage Medellin’ program, I e-mailed Garrett to see how he had felt about his experience here the year before. He e-mailed me back saying that it was one of the greatest times of his life, and that he desperately wanted to come back. I now know exactly how he feels. I can’t wait to come back, to relax by the pipes in Carlos E., to eat at the one decent Chinese place at Pies Descalzos. To take the MetroCable up to Pajarito and see how things have changed. I could stay another two months or six without question. My Colombia experience has been one of the most refreshing and exhilarating times of my life. We had an entire city to explore and embrace. All of the compañeros and homestay families just made our time here that much more authentic. I won’t forget them, or Jake, or Mateo, or Hernando, or any of the ordinary people we were fortunate enough to meet during our work. I know that if I have the opportunity to come back, it won’t be the same, it won’t be like it was. But damn, it was a good time. I guess that’s all you can ask for."

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A dry run

Monday, August 17, 2009
Today was the last day before we show our films. I spent the entire day in our professors' apartment working. We exported the videos in the highest quality possible, worked on formatting the DVDs, wrote our speeches (to go on before we introduce the films), and printed the programs for the exposition. At the end of the day, we watched the final cuts of some of the films to make sure there were no errors made on the DVDs.

In the morning, I arrived to our meeting feeling very tired (I had stayed out late dancing the night before :) ) but ready for work. It did not seem like there was much to do: burning DVDs, etc. However, it turned out that we spent the entire day with our team working to complete all of the finishing touches. The movies took a very long time to export because of the size of the file, and the high resolution of the film, and burning the DVDs took forever, and then printing took much longer than expected as well.

And now for the printing fiasco! Printing the programs turned out to be a hassle; yet more evidence of how complicated things can be in Colombia. First, we tried printing with the printer my professor owned- but it ran out of ink. They tried to buy ink and three stores, and all of them were out. They then decided to buy another printer (This may seem like kind of an extreme measure, but printing is complicated here. Not many people have a personal computer, and if they do, they usually don't have a printer). However, this printer only worked for about 20 copies of the program before it also broke! Then, we had to go to an internet cafe and print 100 copies, double sided. This took some explaining (about fifteen minutes, lots of waving and hand motions), and eventually the man at the store ended up letting me use the printer (I think once he saw how many copies we wanted to make, he trusted us). He then ended up telling everyone to stop printing so they wouldn't mess up our double-sided printing job. He even said we didn't have to pay for the pages that didn't come out well, and that the important thing is that "our work came out well."

We ended up printing better quality than in the house, with the help of someone very kind. I am excited about our show tomorrow- and our videos will soon be up on youtube!
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Sancocho & The First Community Blog @ Pajarito

Wednesday, August 12, 2009
Building upon 3 years of careful relationship-building between community members, COMFAMA, and DukeEngage Colombia Directors & their DukeEngage students in Medellín, we were invited to visit Pajarito Vivienda, a new community that has just begun to move in to (COMFAMA-built) apartments overlooking Medellin. After an initial 2-hour visit with us over cafecito, they invited us to return: this time for a feast of traditional Paisa soup called sancocho with chicken, beef, pork, yucca, platano, corn, carrots, potatoes, and more. We had to wait for a Sunday when the community leaders, many of them with jobs that require them to be up all night & then care for their families during the day, to all be free at the same time. Last Sunday was our opportunity. After a wonderful morning of shopping with our new friends, preparing the food, and attempting to finish the two giant pots of soup, they invited us in to their homes and to ask them a few questions. This meal was our collective promise to a new collaboration: we are now intentionally interconnected with each other's lives. When they invited us to the sanchoco, they had also asked us to return next summer. When we returned to share a meal that began at 8:00 a.m. on a Sunday morning & lasted into late afternoon, we surprised them with 2 laptop computers so the Pajarito families can record how their new community, over the next year, is growing, can communicate in picture, video & written word, their challenges and triumphs, their needs and their dreams. Pictures coming soon.


Food should always be cooked like this, with giant, rustic metal pots bubbling over an open fire, and with wooden spoons the size of large soup bowls. Vegetables should be bought fresh from the market, from a man who will chop your yucca with a machete, and thrown into the pot in heavy chunks and more often than not, whole. Every chef should learn how to cut vegetables and meat the real way and not rely on unnecessary equipment like cutting boards, bowls, and graters. The real cooks can part half a chicken with their bare hands, peel a carrot by flicking a knife back and forth, and dice a tomato in their lap.

You can smell lunchtime at the Pajarito from a mile away, whether it is coming from the glorious sancocho steaming outside or from the cocinas of individual families and neighbors with their doors open wide, ready to invite others in.

In Colombia, food symbolizes community, friendship, and love and like the humungous feast that we were invited to this weekend, I’ve never felt more welcomed by total strangers into their homes in my life. In the United States, entering a new person’s home requires weeks of establishing a relationship and developing trust. Few would be willing to let others see their bedrooms, much less their children’s. Asking them to film their personal space would be unthinkable. But in Pajarito, despite my own inhibitions to intrude in other’s homes, I was ushered into homes of various families who willingly offered their personal spaces to us.

I was most touched by the man who gave me a necklace as a gift, a piece of jewelry that looked like it had been part of the pile that he usually sold to others to make a little pocket money for him and his family. This man, who had so little, was giving something to me, who was fortunate enough to already have so much. I lamented that I had not brought a gift to give him in return and so sweetly, he said that the greatest gift was me coming today.

We take for granted the concept of home. I had a friend who lived in Culver City his entire life before he was forced to move to Chino Hills, about an hour away in the middle of nowhere. Because he’s in school for most of the year in San Diego, when his parents moved into the new house, they neglected to leave a room for him. He once told me that while every year I and the group of high school friends that we had grown up with come back “home” every summer, he didn’t have a “home” to go back to. He asked me if I could understand what that feels like, and I cannot imagine. When we asked some of the members of Pajarito was their happiest memory was they replied that it was moving into their new apartments. It was finally have a place to call home.

The buildings and the rooms themselves, however, do not make Pajarito a home. It is the people who put in the tiles in their floors, invite their neighbors over for lunch, and put the only TV they own in their children’s rooms that make Pajarito what it is. It is the shopkeepers who turn their apartments into tiendas and the men who will hunt down anyone who attempts to pickpocket their neighbors. What the members of Pajarito may lack in material resources, they more than make up for it with their spirits, their cariño for one another, and how much they value their homes. In terms of wealth, they are richer and fuller with joy than any king in his empty castle."


The day we spent at el Pajarito made me realize that I could easily have spent all summer working there. This is a feeling I have gotten used to here in Medellín. I need more time. Everywhere I go I feel like I am scratching the surface and that the time that I do have is not sufficient. How can I begin to do justice to the people in the Pajarito when I am only able to spend one day there? Even though it was a nearly perfect day. From seeing yucca cut with a machete and being fed tiny bananas in the morning, to assembling the sancocho and meeting the families that live there, I was overwhelmed by how limited I felt. I wanted more than anything to be able to tell the two 8 year old girls, Daniella and Tatiana, that I would be back the next to teach them more English. I wanted to have been able to know the women I was interviewing in order to know how to approach the interview with that particular person. I know we only have 7 weeks here, and honestly, I think that is a problem. This program needs to be longer. At Pajarito, the people are so open and friendly, eager to listen and share their stories that I almost feel like we have missed out on making something truly great. With more time and more detailed preparation I feel like we would have been able to hit the ground running, instead of jogging. This is not to say that the work we did there was not valuable. We were able to leave them computers and create a relationship so that perhaps future Duke students can immediately begin work. I hope very much that we will be included in the future of these programs and the project as a whole.

The same goes with the women we have met in Itagui. On our final day in class, one of the women, Yorladys, invited us to come to her home to meet her children and eat lunch. The experience was incredible. Her house was like the ones you see from the top of the metrocable in San Javier or in Santo Domingo. She and her family built the home themselves and had one of the tin roofs that need breaks to keep in on in a storm. But her home was beautiful. She was proud of what she had and genuinely happy to be that fortunate. She made us an incredible lunch of beans, rice and chicken and we sat with her four children and talked for hours. I wonder why those who have so little are often those who give the most.

Today we met with Yorladys briefly before she had to go the sewing class and over a tinto gave her the photo album we made the night before. She invited us to spend the night at her home and said that her children were so excited about our visit and that her husband wanted very much to meet us. Before we left we gave her a note with a letter and 100 mil pesos. I am not sure if this was the right thing to do or how it will make her feel, but I was so overwhelmed with her kindness. This is a feeling that I am not sure how to deal with. How do you justify how much you have? After we left her home Allison and I talked about how we wished that Duke Engage orientation had prepared us for experiences like this."


It will be a long time before I forget the day I spent shopping, cooking, and eating with the residents of the Pajarito. It was such an extraordinary experience to feel like a welcome part of their community despite the boundaries that exist on the surface. Our time there reminded me of what one of the women in Itagüi told me: now we can all see that we actually are quite alike. I found this was true when I talked with some families there and heard how they treasured their homes and relatives. I was delighted that we were able to participate in the simple activity of cooking together and share stories.

I first noticed this when we returned to the Pajarito after the shopping. I stood side by side with men and women while we peeled potatoes and chatted about everything from how best to peel a yucca to my experiences in Medellín. I talked with one young-looking man about his two-year-old son, and I told him about Samuel and the noises he makes for birds, dogs, and trucks. The man laughed and said his son was also very busy, always playing or looking at something. I was surprised because the man looked very young to have a son, but from the way he quietly told his son to be careful when playing with his truck around the fire, the sense of family between them was obvious.

I also noticed this whenever we entered any of the apartments. We interviewed Ramon and his wife, who were both enthusiastic about our work. During her interview, his wife described how happy she was to finally have a house of her own. This was a frequent comment we heard when interviewing the women. They were all thrilled to finally have their own place, their own home, their own things, in which to settle their family.

Before going to Pajarito, I underestimated the value a home holds for people. However, after visiting Pajarito and Yorladys and hearing how they treasure their homes, I realize that the importance of a home is more mental than anything. It does not matter how “humilde” (Yorladys’ choice of words) it is, but it matters that the family works to keep it clean, and add their touches to the space.

After Danya and I did our interviews, I thought about how fun it would have been if we could have made the Sancocho a weekly visit. I think our interviews and stories would have been much stronger if we could have met the families more than once, or if we could have spent more time with fewer people to go more in depth on our only day there. However, we did the best we could with the time given, and our plan had advantages too: we have a broader survey of people’s opinions. We also were there to do more than just do interviews. We were dropping off the laptops, which were symbolic of our continuing relationship with the community. I cannot wait to see how their blog and the community develop, and what kind of a relationship DukeEngage will have with Pajarito next year."


I returned Sunday after our trip to Pajarito sunburned, exhausted, and full of sancocho and mazamorra. Yet what I felt the most was a sadness that we won’t be returning before we leave to go back home. If there is any community that best exemplifies the perseverance of the people and the transformation of the city of Medellín, it is Pajarito. These residents work minimum wage jobs, and yet have managed to buy their own apartments and make a tight-knit community out of total strangers. They welcomed us into their homes and their hearts on Sunday, starting with our trip to a market to buy ingredients for sancocho, the national dish of Colombia. Carlos, one of the community leaders, took us to a small store where they sold every kind of fruit and vegetable. He gave made us try everything, and laughing along with him, I already felt like I’d known him for years. Arriving at Pajarito, we were greeted with smiling faces who were all too eager to let us help with preparing the food – in my case, one lady saw me peeling potatoes and rushed over quickly to show me how to do it properly. Apparently I was close to cutting off my finger. It was this kind of instant affection and attention that attracted me to the community; from my conversations with Carlos about carving wood to those with Juan Sebastian, a 12 year-old who shared my interest in European soccer teams. Everyone welcomed us into their home happily, and our first interview with Carlos and his wife wound up taking almost an hour. They gave us homemade candy and drinks, even while cleaning up the dishes from the sancocho, and allowed us to film and tour their apartment. Even an area as personal as the bathroom was captured on film; in an apartment under construction the bathroom was the main source of pride due to the gorgeous tiling.

The community that they have created is something both precious and beautiful. Carlos explained how everyone in Pajarito has moved from various regions both in and outside Medellín – yet they have come together to protect and nurture their newfound neighborhood. While we finished our meeting with the community leaders, several left and ran up into the hills to corner a pickpocket and then call the police, proving that their version of Neighborhood Watch is very proactive and very much alive. When asked what they wanted most in the future, the frequent answer was transportation services to the area and better education. These wishes aren’t just wistful, but wishes that the community is already working to implement. In my little corner of suburbia, the Homeowner’s Association is a vague organization that meets occasionally to discuss hiring a garbage removal service. In Pajarito, everyone is a member, everyone brings their concerns to the table, and they do everything they can to work out problems and find solutions. Once again, the people of Medellín continue to impress me with their determination, and consistent belief in improving the future."

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Everyone Loves a Feria

Saturday, August 08, 2009
Above: Un desfile de los caballos / the horse parade.

The long anticipated Feria de las Flores, one of Medellin's most anticipated events of the year, filled the city with flowers, music, horses, and good cheer. Together, we visited Santa Elena, a town infamous for its flowers, where the floats or silleteros are made by hand and then transported down the mountain and the next day, saw the fruits of the labor as the flowers were proudly displayed in the Desfile de los silleteros downtown.

A very nice family gave us an unofficial tour of some of the flower displays in progress. A father carries his daughter in the rain.

Brightly colored costumes and dancers during the parade.

The beautiful but cumbersome silleteros are carried on the backs of the viejos.

Photo credits: Sue Li

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Second Week of Interviews

Wednesday, August 05, 2009
...which have led to some life changing experiences. Here are our testimonies below:

"The best way to describe the difference between the two stories we are working on is what my compañero said when I told him about my work over the past week: “Que Vuelta”. Both stories are incredibly interesting and our subjects are incredibly engaging and fascinating to listen to. They do, however, come from different worlds. While the students who have received the EPM grants need the money to study, the women who work in the sewing room at Itagui have different backgrounds. To put it plainly, they have much less. They come from nothing. For them studying was never an option because they have always had to work some job or another. This is not to say the students we are interviewing are not hard working. On the contrary, all the students we have spoken to seem to work 10 times harder than most American students and sleep ten times less.

This Monday after a morning editing our footage we headed to the nacional to film more interviews with Jorge and Viviana, our main subjects for the “students” documentary. After we filmed they invited us to go have a drink at the Iguana, the notorious hole in the wall bar in front of the Nacional that caters to thirsty architects and engineers. When we walked up we were introduced to big group of their friends who were making good progress through a bottle of Aguardiente. They invited us to join in and we spent the next four hours drinking Aguardiente and dancing salsa, merengue, vallenato and reggaeton. One of the best things about being a gringa is that everyone wants to teach you to dance, and Allison and I barely spent a moment seated It was like going to the Tibiri. On a Monday afternoon. On the first day of classes. It was an experience that I could have never had at Duke. It was one of the best days I’ve had here in Medellín.

On Tuesday we made our back to the rooftop of Itagui, to the sewing class. After spending a week getting to know the women, eating pan de queso and exchanging jewelry, we began our interviews. We interviewed both teachers, Jorge and Jaime, and their answers were incredibly beautiful. Both men talked about the class as a tool the women were being given to help give them a new opportunity, a new life. It is clear that these men are special, that their job is clearly not solely to make ends meet. These men are invested in the women they teach and it shows, during class and in the answers they gave us.

We began to interview the women. They were all incredibly eager to participate in the documentary and we began going down the line of sewing machine, asking each woman the same set of questions. My heart nearly broke during our interview of one woman, Erica. She began the interview but stating that she was a very humble woman, of a very low class. We learned that she has 3 children and is attending the class to hopefully find work to help her children someday be able to study and attain a better life than she has had. Her happiest memories are the births of all her children. I faltered, I was nervous to ask her what her saddest memory was. I didn’t know if she would feel comfortable sharing it with us. She paused and then gazed up to answer. Her saddest memory was when one of her children fell ill. She had no insurance and no resources to be able to help her sick child. Her saddest memory was when she had no other options but to go out on the street and beg. This wonderful, proud, hardworking woman found herself in such straits she had to beg. Hours later I still cannot fully wrap my mind around this. How do I justify the 200-dollar camera I am using to film a woman who cannot afford healthcare? I was stricken by the memory she had just confided in us and all I could do was give her a hug and a kiss.

The work we are doing is varied and one day differs drastically from the next. The people we are meeting her are making an impact on me that I will surely remember for the rest of my life. I wish we had more time to spend with these people."


The women in the sewing class in Itagüi are impressive. They are open, honest, and bold. When Danya and I interviewed the class on Tuesday, they replied sincerely, without appearing to want anything in return.

I could not believe that the women were willing to share such intimate details of their lives with us. For the questions we asked, we got very truthful, real answers. If I am honest with myself, I expected for them to hold back a little bit. If someone asked me what my saddest memory was I do not think I would respond with something that would bring tears to my eyes. But they blew me away. One woman told us about how she had to beg for food when someone in her family was sick, another said her saddest memory was when her husband was very ill. Yet another told us that her quince was her happiest memory, while another woman cited that she was most happy after her children were born.

All of the women who participated in our questions were open; that much was clear. Some were frank about information on their lives, while others were clear that they did not want to participate. For this reason, I think our documentary will be stunning.

In addition to being amazed with their ability to share private experiences with us, I was also so excited to see how daring these women were. As Jaime (one of the sewing teachers) said, this class helps the women improve as people, women, mothers, caretakers, sisters, daughters, and wives. These women had the opportunity to do something for themselves, and they took it. I think that is bold. They wanted something, and they had the audacity to go after it.

My parents have always taught me that education is one of the most powerful tools to have and use. I understood this when I went to Nicaragua and I saw people learning how to save money for the first time. Now I understand that these women will change their lives and their families’ lives by acquiring the skill to sew. I hope that they continue to share this lesson with the other women they know, because it is powerful (and empowering) to be able to provide for your family from skill you were taught."

"Almost everywhere I go in Comuna 13, from Parque Biblioteca San Javier, to the cancha in El Salado, to El 20 de Julio, I see kites soaring in the air, big and small, colorful or plain. They are plastic, and they are homemade. Sometimes they are no more than a piece of curled paper tied to a string catching short breezes of wind.

What has struck me the most about everyone that I’ve talked to in Comuna 13 is that despite everything that they may have gone through, from seeing children running around with guns in their hands to being accused of being a FARC commander and jailed, these people still have high hopes and dreams. Instead of being weighed down by sadness and fear and becoming angry, mistrustful people, their spirits, like the kites, soar.

One of these ambitious individuals was Jake Thomas Randall, or as he’s more popularly known, “Randall Super Jake,” a Reggaeton artist who runs his own television show, Zona VIP, in a small studio tucked away in the corners of Comuna 13. During Operation Orion in 2002, Jake was caught in the wrong place at the wrong time and due to false accusations, was thrown into a jail with hundreds of others victims. He had never been in a jail before in his life and was scared and confused. Tears started pouring down his face as he remembered what it was like. However, he did not let this experience ruin him. One day, he decided to revamp an old television studio which played cartoons and reruns and introduced a new TV show-his. Today, he returns to his community, providing entertainment for children and working towards his dream. An avid fan of the Disney Channel, what he wants more than anything is to go to the United States.

It frustrates me that while it is a noble act to try and fund University students to come visit the United States, there are probably dozens of just as deserving Colombians in the barrios who will never have the opportunity. Jake, for example, will most likely be denied a US Visa, even if he had the financial means to apply and travel, because of a criminal record that was greatly undeserved.

Working with the community has taught me that I have a responsibility to tell the stories that they have entrusted in me. Before, I thought we were just making these videos to show audiences in the United States, but I realize now, it’s not just for us, or for Duke University, or anyone overseas. It’s for them. It’s for Jake, for Mateo, for Stalin, and for Rocio. It’s for the mothers, the children, the teachers, the store clerks, the maids… It’s for the people in the barrios who have lived through their struggles and come out the other end triumphant as much as it is for the people still living with their struggles every day.

In the editing process, I want to focus on telling these untold stories in the best way possible and will constantly ask myself: “Is this the authentic story that this Comuna 13 member would want others to know?”"

"On Monday Sue and I were able to see firsthand the dedication and passion that drives alternative media. We went high into the hills of Comuna 13 to be interviewed by one of our acquaintances, Jake, for his daily regional television program, ‘Zona VIP’. I wasn’t expecting NBC studios, but I was still taken aback by the tiny room in which they filmed and the remarkably outdated equipment they used. Regardless, Jake and his friends produce live, fresh content for one hour each and every day. On Monday, we were preceded by a reggaeton artist, JQ, from Puerto Rico who was briefly interviewed on the show and then passed out copies of his mixtape to everyone. Though his shirt proudly proclaimed, ‘I am not a stereotype’, JQ’s massive diamonds earrings and wristband, and jewel-encrusted watch were almost blinding. Still, I was pleased to hear him give a strong anti-drug message towards the end of the interview. Zona VIP then moved on to our interview: after a hilariously racist introduction for Sue, and an awkward introduction for me (as Jake simply could not remember my name), we discussed our purpose in Medellin, the origins of our names, our favorite Disney movies, and a full spectrum of other topics. In the United States, alternative media like this daily variety show is largely confined to the internet; thus the concept of a private citizen simply hosting a TV show for his community with minimal support from the government is extremely surprising. Jake’s show is important not only for the entertainment value for children in the area, but for the implicit message that drive and desire can achieve a tangible result, no matter how desolate the circumstances. Despite a total lack of resources, Jake and his colleagues ensure that Zona VIP is on air day after day at 4PM. That sort of consistency and passion is something that should be admired and recognized."

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Work Work

Saturday, August 01, 2009

This week, we started filming and interviewing in the Parques Bibliotecas, Comfama sedes, Universidad Nacional, and for a lucky few, in the communities. We've faced some challenges, learned a lot, and got some great footage.

"Today, I realized how fortunate I am to have seen and been in one of the most turbulent and dangerous neighborhoods in Medellin, much less have the opportunity to talk to, interview, and film mothers, children, the director of the youth social program, and an old woman still brimming with life who had lived in Medellin for other 30 years. All of these people had not only witnessed but lived with the violence of Medellin. They recounted the terrible memories of Operation Orion, seeing guns in the hands of children, the bolas flying, and for some, like the 68 year old woman, stories that they did not want to remember anymore.

What’s more remarkable is how this public youth space, less than 3 months old, changed the lives of dozens of children in the community. Many of the children lived less than 5 minutes away, as I discovered as one ran home quickly to his mother to get permission to be filmed while others, such as the two boys who could not have been older than five of six, little not only close to, below the soccer field. I watched in them hop the cement barrier which separated paved ground from the steep, mountainous incline. While I was absolutely bewildered at how these children confidently dropped at least 10 feet onto the dirt, the other children around me did not give a second thought. The two boys were just going home as they normally did. They slid down the side of the mountain until I could not see them anymore, obscured by bushy shrubs, until they must have reached the shabby metal rooftops of their homes and climbed down. Never have I ever met in my life children who had so much to fear and who feared so little.

For some children, the brand new soccer field was the first time they had ever seen an artificial playground, and when we arrived, speaking in English and in broken, heavily accented Spanish, and me, with my straight, black hair and dark, oriental eyes that gave me away in a second, it was probably the first time that they had ever seen anyone from the United States. But instead of treating us like foreigners, they swarmed to us and clamored to be on camera. While I feared that we might be intruding and give off the impression that we were haughty, imperialistic Americans, they, instead, welcomed us with open arms. They screamed out my name; I’ve never felt so much like a celebrity my entire life.

I will never forget those overeager children, always trying to get my attention, never judging us because our Spanish was not perfect. I laughed when Mateo spoke very slowly to me: “Yo…vivo…aca,” because he knew that I needed a little bit more time to process their rapid castelleno, which I had learned from Stalin, the friendly program director, had its own distinct El Salado accent.

I was amazed how we went from the lull of waiting for Claudia, the community liaison member at the Sala Mi Barrio in San Javier, for two hours, and then almost instantaneously threw ourselves in a van and whizzing up the mountain, where some of the houses were still in the process of construction. We were thrown into a whirlwind. There were so many people to talk to and so much footage to get in so little time. I struggled to keep track of everything I needed at any moment in time: a permission slip, a camera, an iPod recorder, a pen, a notebook. At the same time, we had to keep in mind how much time we had left, the lighting, how much battery life was left on the camera, how much space was left, where did I leave my stuff, where was the tripod, the sound quality, where did so and so go. It was so exhilarating that I did not realize my feet were aching, I was starving, dehydrated, and had to pee all the same time, until 3 hours later when we had to leave.

I don’t know how else to describe how I felt the entire time I was there but so grateful and so, so happy. If I had been in Medellin for a year and done nothing else but spend the time in this youth center, I would have been content and felt that I had some purpose to being here and that I had accomplished something. I was so moved by the stories I was listening to while I was filming I felt tears forming my eyes because all the newspapers that I had skimmed, the images I had seen, and the grueling Spanish books and articles that I had read were all real. They were true, they were alive, and they were right in front of me, pouring their hearts out to me, and actually thanking me, when it was I who was so indebted to them."

"At the very end of our time at El Salado, a young man who had been watching our bumbling efforts mentioned that he had been jailed for four months after ‘Operación Orion’. It was a stark reminder that these laughing, playing kids have lived and persevered through worse things than the average American could imagine. Listening to some of their horror stories highlighted the importance of our work here this summer, the importance of forging some sort of connection between the international audience and the everyday citizens of Medellín."

"When you work on a project like this, you never know what you’re going to get. You don’t know if your ideas will work, if you’ll get to every place you need to be, if things will work out or if you’ll return home that day dejected. Every day is different. Some days you come back with even just the smallest victory that inspires you to go back tomorrow. It could be the simplest thing. Just one good conversation, one good ten-second shot. Like today, for instance, we traveled for about an hour and a half just to make a ten minute phone call, but that phone call guaranteed us what will probably be our most interesting interview yet. It makes you think: hey, you might be able to pull this off.

Other days, you wonder if the long Metro ride was worth the footage you got. You walk out of your meeting wondering how much more awkward that could have been, or how much less you could have understood. You get one of your most important ideas turned down and have to start from scratch. Yesterday, for example, we had the most excruciatingly awkward hour-and-a-half meeting with the librarian at Itagui who we could not for the life of us understand, and who for some reason, would not repeat things in a way we could understand. We walked out just wanting to make it back to Carlos E, our kind of safe haven where everything is familiar and communication is rarely a problem. But all you can do is just regroup, maybe take an hour to descansar, and then you’ve got to get up again to figure out the game plan for tomorrow. And how you might do things better next time.

What we’re doing is really a training exercise in so many things. It’s learning how to get over what you might find uncomfortable: speaking on the phone in Spanish, getting stared at all over the city, even just messing up and having to start all over again. It’s also a test of motivation: can you find enough inspiration to keep at it even when things start falling apart?

I don’t know if we’ll be as successful as we hope to be. But I do know that I’m already doing things I never thought I’d get to do, or would be able to do. Not only filming a documentary to change the entire image of a city, but doing so in a foreign country, in a language that I’m not fluent in, with people I just met. I think that this, along with all that we’re doing, makes everything about this summer worth it, a thousand times over."

"On Wednesday and Thursday, Doris and I set out to complete our first two days of interviews, and I think it’s safe to say as prepared as we thought we were, we had no idea what we were getting into for the most part. Overall we managed to gather good footage, and learn from our mistakes – but memories from the past two days will probably forever be imprinted in my collective impression of Medellín. Wednesday at 9:30 AM we had an appointment with a COMFAMA director, so we left Carlos E. with an hour to spare. Two quick stops down the Metro, and we made it to Parque Biblioteca San Javier with 40 minutes to go before our interview. Although it did take us about 15 minutes to figure out how on earth to get to the bridge to cross the street to the Parque, we made it to the Sala Mi Barrio Room at 9:15 – hot and nervous, and sitting awkwardly in the midst of workers and people reading the daily newspapers. We then proceeded to wait another 35 minutes or more for the director to show up; apparently there was some hubbub with a taxi driver and walking to the Parque. She was friendly and really open, but when we introduced our project and our wish to interview her she suddenly became quite reluctant. I’m still not sure if it was because she was camera shy, or maybe COMFAMA instructs its employees not to do anything but authorized interviews. After we convinced her we had permission though, she was eager to start the interview. We found a quiet place to film, and gave her a microphone attached to an iPod recorder. She immediately put the iPod down her shirt, and then, to hide the rest of the mic cord, she sat on the iPod. Doris and I, too baffled and too hesitant to speak, just went ahead with the interview. Reviewing the footage and audio later in the afternoon we realized that we had no audio from the mic. Lesson #1: Don’t let the interviewee sit on the iPod.

That afternoon brought us to the Aranjuez COMFAMA site, where we had been told a presentation was taking place at 3 PM pertinent to one of our projects. Sure enough, Doris and I arrive about 20 minutes early, and wait till 2:50 in the library. We head over to the auditorium, where we are told that there is something going on at 3, so we would have to wait. Approximately 30 minutes later, the presentation actually begins. Lesson #2: It’s polite to arrive early, but be prepared to wait an hour or more than the 15 minutes you were expecting. We got a great interview after the presentation, but some unwelcome intruders in parts of the footage. The camera was set up in the children’s section of the library, where it was quiet and there were no clients initially. Small children would occasionally grab a book and go, not realizing they were on camera. However, several teenage boys noticed the interview, and thought it would be cool to look at books behind our interviewee and get in some good screen time. Laughing at their cleverness they proceeded to make a slow exit in front of camera, despite the open door at the other end where no interview was taking place. Lesson #3: Avoid teenage boys – probably good advice everywhere.

Thursday rolled around, and Doris and I felt like we knew what we were up against: the possibility of clients walking through footage at the library we were planning to film at, and maybe some technology issues. Turns out our biggest issue was language – all of a sudden the lines of communication between us and the librarian seemed to disappear, and we could understand almost nothing he said except when he spoke on camera. He also went for the mic down the shirt, but being prepared, we had equipped the iPod with a wireless receiver, so it remained safe in our hands and not under anyone’s pants. Two and a half hours later, with about 30 minutes of footage, we exited the library – severely doubting our Spanish skills and completely exhausted. Lesson #4: Ask as many questions as it takes to understand. Also, asking a person to speak slower could be the best decision of the day.

While I’d like to say that Doris and I are now hardened and experienced documentarians – I know that’s simply not the truth. No matter how much you learn from your mistakes, or how hard you try to practice beforehand, there’s nothing that will fully prepare you when you step out into the field."

"Over the last four days, our project has improved dramatically. We were able to make contact with all of the people we needed to, and almost everyone we spoke with was enthusiastic and interested in our work. I was impressed by the openness and excitement that I saw in the people we met with; they showed this kind of emotional response to us even though we had only just met them.

When we met with the two students from the Nacional who had received the grant from EPM, we were set up to have coffee with Carlos. This meeting turned into a two-hour conversation about almost everything! We talked about our project and EPM for about half an hour, but then the students wanted to talk about other things- music, movies, food, our favorite actors, our families, our school, etc. It was so interesting to me that they just met us, and yet they already wanted to share so much. Whenever they talked about something at their house, they invited us to come and see, eat, drink, or do whatever they were referring to with them- as soon as this weekend!

Openness of this is lacking in the United States. For example, I would never expect that kind of response from someone I had just met through a professor, but here relationships are so different. I would not usually invite someone into my home (even when I was in high school) unless I knew them very well; especially at Duke, only the people I spend a lot of time with come to my house (because it is very far away from school, so an invite implies a long trek). However, in contrast these students are thrilled to share something with people, even though they may not be a close friend or relative.

I saw similar behavior with the women I met in the sewing room in Itagüi. This especially touched me because we were different from these women in many ways, while we share lots of traits with the university students (age, interests, etc). I thought that these differences would necessitate a longer break-the-ice period, but after only two or three days in the class, I began to see connections forming between us and the women in the class. Some of the women brought us food (guayaba jelly, crackers, maduro with cheese), while another woman gave us some jewelry she made and refused to let us pay her for it! They also became more curious about us, and asked what we had seen in Medellín, how long we were staying, and what else we wanted to see in Colombia. They also began to say hello to us when we came into the class- and we could remember some of their names as well. I was so surprised by how quickly these connections were established, and I couldn’t help thinking how much longer it would have taken had the situation been reversed, and we had been working in a class in the United States.

I’m not sure what this indicates culturally, but I think the willingness to invite someone new into your home, make them food, or give them a bracelet off your own wrist is related to the closeness of families here. People are most accustomed to being around their own families, so they know what true closeness should look like. Or perhaps they can easily tell when someone is ill-at ease (as we must have looked our first day in the sewing room) and they want to do what they can to help us feel more at home by reaching out. For whatever reason, I would love to do some research and find out what makes people warmer and more open to new faces here. This is another Colombian custom that I hope to bring back with me to the United States- to my family, my friends, and my work."

Photo credit: Jota Samper

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Another weekly update

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

During the past few weeks, we have been doing background historical research on the barrios we will be working in and the communities we will be interviewing. Research at the Biblioteca Pública Piloto turned up old newspaper articles about Comuna 13 and Aranjuez. Dating from the mid 1990's and the early 2000s, they offered a glimpse into the past and told a story not only of violence, but of recovery, progress, and development.

In one of the stories about Aranjuez and the opening of Comfama's first sede in the early 1990s, we hope to reenact a soccer game with some of the original soccer players.

Beautiful train tracks and sky outside of the Metro station at San Javier.

Quote from Biblioteca Itagüi. "If the universe collapses and the rain of death towards us comes, I will hug you strongly while our bodies become one with the universe; if in the longest and darkest hour of my life comes my very same black angel to reclaim my soul, I will ask to disguise his form with your delicate appearance, because only yours is my life. If in dreams comes the desire to not exist, only I will alone long for some power in my mind to consider death."

Photo credit (in order of appearance): Sue Li (1-3), Anne Rolfing (4)
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Access to Information

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

"In the United States, information is accessible with the click of the mouse. College libraries offers a wealth of information, including subscriptions to thousands of academic journals, rows of books neatly organized by author and subject, and an array of multimedia materials. When in doubt, knowledgeable librarians are at your service, and if you can’t find what you need in one library, you are referred to another one. No subject of inquiry is too obscure. When I needed to find data on voting patterns of Parliament in the 1800s, I was able, within a few days, to find both primary and secondary resources in books and encyclopedias in the library at Duke and UCLA. Before I left for winter break to finish this final paper, I had scanned, copied, and printed several articles that I copied onto my flash drive and could read on the plane.

Thus, when I was faced with the task of finding information on the history of Comuna 13 and Aranjuez, two of some of the most well known and infamous neighborhoods in Medellin, I was surprised to find what appeared to me as a simple task in the United States, was actually one of the most frustrating and daunting assignments I had ever taken. Libraries here are high security, and I had to check in my things at each one, forcing me to lug around my laptop, charger, and reading glasses with me everywhere I went. In addition, I had to carry my camera to take pictures because in the Biblioteca Publico Piloto, there was no scanner available to scan in images that I had found. I also had to give them my identification number, which for all intensive purposes, is my birthday, and I had to report back this number to them when I left. I felt like I was an intruder in some kind of top secret government facility.

In the Biblioteca Publico Piloto, no videos were available, and the only newspaper articles that we found on Aranjuez and Comuna 13 at the earliest, dated back to only the early 1990s. In the Sala de Antiquoia, we found a huge thesis on Aranjuez, but we were not allowed to check it out or photocopy it. In the library at the University Nacional, the librarian presented us with a few books on the history of Medellin in general, with nothing specific to what we were looking for. The video archives were closed off to the general public because it was the summer and most of the audiovisual material that she could find us dealt solely with the violence of Medellin and were in VHS form.

In this arduous process of research, I realized how important this Historical Memory Project is and why we are doing it. At times, it may not be as tangible as some of the other DukeEngage Projects, especially because we may not see the results right away. However, making information about Medellin that is accessible, presentable, and unbiased in a medium that everyone can comprehend is something that few have done before. In this way, we are pioneer historians, paving the road for future documentarians. I hope that by telling this untold story of Medellin, I can add to the existing and scant archive of knowledge and make it easier for the next generation to find accurate information about this extraordinary city."
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Living Here

Tuesday, July 28, 2009
Whether it's being the newest hija/o of host moms, falling in love with Carlos E Restrepo, or discovering something new about the lifestyle here, simply living in Medellin itself is one of the most remarkable experiences.

"The Morning Ritual
Half asleep, I can feel the sun streaming into my room. The fruit man is shouting in the distance about piñas and aguacate. I can hear Merce, my host mom, chattering away on the phone in the living room. She speaks so fast that I cannot understand a word she’s saying.

I get out of bed and walk to the bathroom, waving hi to Merce as she continues to talk. By the time I brush my teeth and get dressed, there’s breakfast waiting on the table. The firsrt week or two, breakfast was pretty predictable. A big plate of fruit and a little bowl of what look like ChocoPuffs. Either Merce really likes papaya or she thinks I really like papaya because the fruit is usually lots of papaya with some other fruit mixed in. Or sometimes it’s just papaya. I pour my milk-in-a-bag into my cereal, hoping that I don’t get strawberry milk like I did one time last week. Instead, this time I get lactose-free milk by accident because Angelica, one of the boarders living in my house, is lactose-intolerant.

Nowadays, however, breakfast is a little different. Angelica was telling me that Merce was worried that I don’t like the food she makes because I don’t eat very much. I told Angelica to tell her that I definitely like everything she’s made so far. I think she was very happy to hear this because ever since then, breakfast has been expanding. It’s really quite an adventure. She started by adding hot chocolate to my daily glass of juice, then an egg or two and a few chunks of bread, and now a banana or orange also pops up along with a stack of saltine crackers. Occasionally I get an arepa with a piece of quesito, but there is nothing –ito about it. The offer of Tosh graham crackers always stands but I generally decline because I feel like I’m about to explode. I suppose it would be relevant now to add that I usually don’t eat breakfast at home or at Duke.

Though breakfast sometimes seems like a 5K marathon, I like it. Enrique, my host father, often sits with me and sometimes I help him fill in the English words in his crossword puzzle. Otherwise, we talk about really random things like the International Space Station, Shakira or the grammatical difficulties of Spanish and English. It makes for some interesting vocab practice. The other day he taught me what I think is an inappropriate word to call a male friend, but I’m not exactly sure. In any case, Merce heard this while walking by and shook her head in kind of a mock disapproval.

Meanwhile, Merce will shout from the kitchen for Enrique to shut up and let me talk more. The other day, she came in rather aghast about the state of my jeans, after my hike through mud and cow poop in the mountains last weekend. I tried to tell her that it’s OK, that even though the mud stains are probably permanent, I could just wear them at home. She marched off with declarations of defeating the stains, no matter what happens. I still haven’t seen those jeans yet; they must be undergoing quite a scrubbing!

Now Merce comes in and sits down to tell Enrique about what happened last night. It was probably the most amusing thing I’ve seen happen in the house yet. I came home to find Merce and Julián, the other student boarder, trying to shoo away a giant moth that flew into the bathroom. I decided this would be a good time to tell them about another moth that had taken up residence in my room the whole day. Merce bursts out laughing, comes back armed with a bucket and broom, and the two of them begin an epic battle against the two moths. There’s just something about seeing your 4’10” host mother run around frantically waving a broom at 10pm at night that makes you feel like part of the family.

Back to breakfast. After I chug down the last of the hot chocolate, I rush to my room to pick up my things and head out the door, kissing Enrique and Merce good-bye and reassuring her that I do indeed have my keys, my sunscreen/sunglasses if we’re going outside all day, and that I’ll be home for dinner. She wishes me well and I’m off for another day."

"I love Carlos E. After only a month, I know Carlos E. is one of the most fascinating neighborhoods I’ve ever been in. Day after day I find myself spending hours sitting in the cafes or simply lying back by those absurd modern art pipes. I think I laid back and looked at the sky maybe 3 times before coming to Medellin. Something about the area is extremely calming and gives rise to reflection. In Cleveland (a city already lacking excitement for youth), I live in the suburbs where this type of hippie-culture is largely relegated to people’s basements. The situation is largely similar at Duke… except for maybe the Coffee House. What makes Carlos E. so unique and inviting to me is how open people are. Any night of the week, you sit on one of the benches and you will hear several guitar players strumming freely, be offered countless trinkets and bracelets, and sometimes get a pretty decent contact high.
Given this neighborhood’s remarkable history as the first social housing project in Medellin, the infusion of youth culture and ideals is particularly intriguing. I feel that Medellin is a very youth-driven city, and Carlos E. epitomizes this idea.

Earlier this week, a kid who couldn’t have been older than 13 wearing a Bob Marley t-shirt and a massive Rastafarian hat asked me for a light for his very large… cigarette. I paused for a second, because he almost seemed like a caricature, a perfect representation of every Rasta stereotype I’ve seen on television or in films. Where I’ve lived in the United States (I can only speak for Cleveland really; I have to imagine somewhere like San Francisco is entirely different), I think that a combination of stricter policing and a much more pervasive obsession with self-image would have prevented this kid from leaving his house. Instead, here in Medellin he can relax in a beautiful park with hundreds of others.

All of this brings me back to why I love Carlos E: the lack of concern for appearance, lack of pretense, and full genuine embrace of its own culture and history. For me, there’s no place like it."

"Doña Clara reminds me of my grandmother – and in all the best ways. She wants to feed me too much all the time, she has lunch with her friends to gossip and brag about their grandchildren, she watches her telenovelas (soap operas) religiously, and her gestures and words are always backed with love and affection. I couldn’t think of any better way to experience the culture of a city and its people than to live with them, and I think that’s the real beauty of homestay families. In Medellín, you’re not a boarder – you’re a son or a daughter that has just recently arrived into the family. This past weekend I had some sort of bacterial stomach infection, and I practically passed out on my bed for 48 hours. And though Doña Clara didn’t poke and prod me, she was always there for me and I could see the concern in her eyes – the same that I would have seen in my grandmother’s. She asked if it was anything she had cooked, what she should change differently about my diet to accommodate me – anything that could be done, she wanted to do it. Being sick in a foreign place is one of the most uncomfortable situations in existence; I really wanted to be back home and in my own bed with familiar food. But Doña Clara’s care and affection and homemade chicken soup made me realize that I was in a home, and I was part of the family, and I couldn’t have asked for better attention than what she gave me.

On Friday, she went on a daytrip to Santa Fe de Antioquia and left bright and early at 6 am. When I woke up about four hours later, she had fruit lying out for me for breakfast, along with an assortment of breads and crackers, and hot chocolate waiting in a thermos. Even when she isn’t in the house, I still feel like she’s there to watch over me. I was really excited this Sunday when I asked if I could go with her to mass. She said yes, that she’d love to go with me, and we walked over to a gorgeous church only about five minutes away from home. Although I could barely understand the priest because he spoke through a horrible microphone system, I followed cues from Doña Clara on when to kneel and when to stand, and she seemed really proud that I went with her. On the walk back, we discussed various Christian faiths. I explained that I am Episcopalian, and the services are similar to Catholic services; her greatest interest laid in how priests are allowed to marry in the Episcopalian Church but not the Catholic Church. We even discussed evangelical services, with their less formal rites and more emphasis on expression of faith through music. Sunday morning turned out to be the perfect bonding time, and once again I felt like I was part of the family."

"To say the least, my host mother wants to make sure I have everything I need. From food, to clothing, to my daily routine, Marta wants to make sure that I am happy; and if anything is lacking, she does everything she can to help me fix my issue (no matter how small it is; no matter how many times I tell her “no importa”).

The first evidence I saw of this was when I wanted to use the gym in Anne’s building. When my host mother learned that the doorman turned me away, she was quite upset. Before the phone call was made to Doña Clara, the entire family discussed the issue (we were all in Doña Marta’s bed room: Luisa, Doña Marta, Esteban, Samuel, and I), and the conclusion was that Doña Clara should talk to the doorman. Marta then called Doña Clara, and Doña Clara promptly spoke with the doorman, who then proceeded to illegally allow me to use the gym! This was the first time I learned how things got done in my family: as a collective.

The second time I noticed how much family involvement is needed to accomplish something was when I found that one of my shirts was missing. I told my host mother about it, because it had been two weeks since I had put the shirt in the laundry.

I suppose I should have known this, but she was very bothered by the missing shirt. First my host mother asked her daughter if the maid had given her the shirt by accident; but the shirt was not to be found in her closet. My host mother then asked the maid to look out on the porch (where all of the clothes are hung up); the shirt was not there. Please keep in mind: during this process, I tried several times to say that we could wait, maybe it would turn up, maybe it fell behind something: but my host mother was not to be stopped!

Next, Marta came in and sat on my bed, and told the maid to come in my room. The both of them proceeded to tell me to open my closet, take out each piece of clothing (to make sure the shirt wasn't "stuck" to anything), then go through each drawer and take out EVERYTHING and MAKE SURE the shirt was not there. The shirt did not appear.

At this point, my host mother appeared somewhat put out. The missing shirt defeated her. However, soon a light came into her eyes, when she remembered that a few weeks ago her younger granddaughter had been staying with us, and that perhaps the maid had given the shirt to the girl, thinking it was hers. Sure enough, my host mother called the house, and the shirt was there!

This incident again proved to me that Colombian families are extremely close. They want to know EXACTLY what is going on at all times, and if you have everything you need. If you don't, they will do whatever they can to help you fix whatever problem (no matter how small) you may have. They also will not hesitate to call up their relatives, tell them all about your problems, and ask them if they can help you. Although this can seem somewhat stifling at times, for the most part I find it rather endearing.

This week, I feel as though I got to know a different side of the family as well. Luisa and I spent about two hours looking through all of their family pictures and videos. Most of them were of Samuel when he was born, but there were also pictures of Christmas, birthday parties, etc. It seems like any child’s birthday, any holiday, even any Sunday is an excuse for everyone to get together, get a cake, and hang out. I really admire the sense of family that they have- they clearly rely on each other for a lot of support (emotional and otherwise) and genuinely enjoy spending time together.

I often wish that my siblings and I shared this kind of closeness. Although we are close, we live far away from each other and I do not see them as often as I would like. I thought about this before I came to Colombia, but now seeing an example up close, I see how it can be easily accomplished. "

"Colombians don’t sleep. Or if they do I cannot figure out when. Our Compañeros are currently enjoying their summer vacation. In Colombia, this vacation means taking on one or two jobs in addition to a “concurso”, an architectural competition that is apparently very important to the career of a future architect. During these months when they are out of school it seems to me they work harder than when I am in school. My compañero gets up at 7 am daily and after work meets up with his group and works on his concurso. One Saturday day night he couldn’t go out and I told him I was sorry he had to stay in working. He said he wasn’t, that he really enjoys the work that he does. I don’t know how our compañeros remain healthy, kind, relaxed individuals.

The two students we are interviewing for EPM have a similar view of sleep. We were making plans to meet to shadow their community service and Allison and I balked at the thought of meeting at seven. Both students laughed and said that 7 was nothing, sometimes they have to be at class at 6. As we made our way to the Nacional at 6:50, the street was full of people, young and old, all getting a start on their day. I’ve been told the people in Medellín work harder then anywhere else in Colombia, and I can believe it.

The one time we went out all night, Carlos, one of our Colombian professors had to work the next day. How a man can go into the office after hours dancing salsa and watching the sun rise is beyond me. Where does this work ethic come from? How can Colombians make time for full careers and time to enjoy themselves? I value the way Paisas seem to live their lives, full of work, but full of enjoyment as well."

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Comfama: Like all the non-profits in the US combined

Wednesday, July 22, 2009
At times it is very difficult to explain to a US audience what is Comfama, the private, non-profit company we are working with. Comfama's role in the city is massive. Founded by the joint efforts of labor unions and other companies, it provides social, health, recreational, educational services, and more. After weeks of tours of its facilities, headquarters, day care centers, Parques Bibliotecas and its subway system, here are some of the impressions we received, including what we thought about the Jardin Social in the heart of Comuna 13.

"What I remember most about the CONFAMA projects is their inclusivity, providing services for the young and old, men and women, the physically able and the physically handicapped, the mentally fit and mentally handicapped, and those who live in the neighborhood and those who do not. They do not discriminate against socioeconomic status, and for them, the inability to pay for a service should not deny the availability of it. As Gloria had mentioned today, Confama’s system of compensation provides for those who cannot provide for themselves. Like health care in European nations, for example, the healthy subsidize the sick, a concept mostly alien to the United States. Unlike the stigma attached to the welfare system in the US, in Medellin, Confama aids members of the community who are not “too lazy to work” or unable to “pull themselves up from the ground” but often times, those that work too hard, and those, through no fault of their own, need a helping hand. These include children, single mothers, displaced families, victims of violence, widows, and more. 45% of the population earns incomes below the poverty level, no more than $500 a month.

It seems appropriate that this system of the “caja de compensacion” that Colombians use reflects their generous and warm culture. Colombians take care of each other, a concept of solididarity that appears foreign to the United States.

For single mothers, especially, Confama’s services can make the world of difference. Vocational training, such as sewing workshops, teaches single mothers skills that they can use to work to earn extra income. Free and low cost day cares, too, allow single mothers to work during the day while they otherwise would have had no choice but to stay at home and care for their children.
A US audience should know that Medellin or Colombia is not just synonymous with cocaine, FARC, Pablo Escobar, and violence, but that the people of Medellin are actively trying to erase the infamy of the past and replace it with a brighter future. There is a strong effort to educate the population and revitalize the city with culture and art. Loans for education, small businesses, and housing give the community social and economic opportunities once too far out of reach.

I was especially impressed by the daycare in the heart of Comuna 13 because it was the first time in a long time I had seen so many young children in one place, their innocence radiating through the dark, violent conditions which may have surrounded them. It was then that I was reminded that children not just cute little people but fundamentally different from us. The opposite of old is not young, but new, for they see the world through fresh, unadulterated eyes, before they learn the ideas of society that we take for granted every day. Despite warring families, the threat of stray bullets, and whatever socioeconomic condition hand they have been dealt, they explore new spaces without fear of getting hurt, cry without hiding their tears, and greet and smile at complete strangers. It is through them that we learn that the world we live in is at times more artificial than real."

"The COMFAMA project that made the most prominent impression on me was the Vivienda Saludable Pajarito. Although all of the other services COMFAMA provides are impressive and make a huge difference in the lives of the people they touch, the people we met in these apartments were receiving something particularly special from COMFAMA- a home that they otherwise might not be able to provide for their families.

Additionally, the people that we met with in Pajarito showed an enthusiasm for our visit that was unrivaled by that at any of the facilities we saw. Some of the people were guards who had stayed hours after their work had ended to meet with us, others opened their homes up so we were able to see what COMFAMA has done for them. Their curiosity about what we thought about Medellín and what we had heard before we came revealed how excited they are about our work and the potential it has for changing the future image of Colombia and Medellín.

When I imagine where these families would be living if COMFAMA had not built these apartment buildings, the difference is incredible. It was also encouraging to hear about the programs for children that have come out of the new community in the apartments- the day care, the cultural events, etc., because these are other elements that would not exist without the apartment buildings."

"From the first few minutes of our visit, the Jardin Social looks like any other day care. There are children running around on the playground giggling, playing games, doing creative art projects, taking naps, and eating snacks. However, after hearing about the routine for hiding under a table in case of gunfire, it is inevitable to feel the large weight that rests on the shoulders of these caregivers.

I was struck by the contrast of the tranquility that pervaded the area inside the Jardin Social and the violence that existed in the threat of the words of the tour guide. I also began thinking about how the day care began: with various mothers in the neighborhood taking in children for the day, some of whom could have been the children of their husband’s political enemies. I will never understand how these women felt, but I do understand that they did something wonderful for the other mothers in the community and for the children by creating a safe haven in a day care.
The potential this daycare has amazed me. If it is maintained well, it could change the political divisions in the neighborhood. If two children of opposing sides in the neighborhood remain friends, when they are old enough to understand the gang violence, will they choose sides against their schoolmates? Or will they choose to be friendly and break the cycle of violence that has plagued Comuna 13?
I’m not sure if that potential for peace really exists. I also know that having those children together in one place could create an even more charged atmosphere for violence. However, it seems that COMFAMA is opening doors for that community in the future with the Jardin Social that have remained closed for many years."

"I think what got me the most was the attitudes of both the COMFAMA people and the residents of El Pajarito. Both were so welcoming and excited to have us over, and there seemed to be this atmosphere of hope, peace and future opportunity. The residents were so glad to have us come see their homes and it’s really very humbling to see how hard they work to furnish their houses and finish the floors and walls.

I think that it’s important for Americans to see how far Medellín has come with very visual images like El Pajarito and the daycare center of Comuna Trece. In general, when people have an image of somewhere planted in their heads, it’s so hard to get them to think something different. But in the past week, we’ve seen so many astounding achievements and so much investment in future opportunities that the image of Medellín that is in most people’s heads really does not exist anymore. The violence and past history is necessary. It’s important to recall that image. But the most significant aspect of Medellín is no longer violence. It is transformation for a better future."

"COMFAMA’s well-financed, structured childcare facilities have been the most impressive part of our touring over the last week. As I mentioned last week, I think that one of the most important tasks in reestablishing ties between the state and the community and cutting off future violence at the source is to cater extensively to children in impoverished areas. Not only are COMFAMA’s daycares staffed with qualified professionals, each one contains a computer lab and playground equipment. Some of the facilities (Arranjuez, Itagui) even have swimming pools and full gymnasiums. Personally, I have been very surprised and impressed by the attention and care given to such a small but important population demographic. Just as importantly, COMFAMA has done an excellent job in making their facilities accessible to the community, not only by hosting plenty of cultural programming but by heavily subsidizing the costs of education. As we learned at the Sede in Caldas, 45% of Colombians live beneath the poverty line; a family of four, receiving funds from SISBÉN has only $25 a month to spend on education. COMFAMA has made it a central priority to ensure that these families in the poorest neighborhoods have access to educational resources. Finally, I love the integration between the daycare facilities and the libraries: fostering an early love of knowledge and literacy is crucial to all later aspects of education."
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Funded by generous grants from Duke University and donations from Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, DukeEngage has made it possible for us, a group of six Duke students, to embark on a 7-week civic engagement project, The Historical Memory/Community Literacy Project, in Medellin, Colombia. Our team also includes 57 students from Emerson College in Boston who created a multi-media catalog & a short film "108 things you might not know about medellín".

In collaboration with our directors, Dr. Tamera Marko of Emerson College and Jota Samper of MIT, we are producing 7 short documentaries about various communities in Medellin. We want you know to know that in Medellin, a city in the process of peace, la violencia is not the whole story.

Emerson College Medellin
DukeEngage Colombia 08
Parques Bibliotecas
Universidad Nacional de Colombia
Carlos E. Restrepo
Pajarito Vivienda


Tamera Marko, Ph.D.

Jota Samper