DukeEngage Medellín
La Violencia is Not the Whole Story

Sancocho & The First Community Blog @ Pajarito

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."


Some parties are just better when a limo is involved. Bachelor and Bachelorette parties are great for limos. A limousine service can rent you a stretch limo that seats up to six people.

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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