I couldn’t leave Medellin without visiting Comuna 13. I’d climbed a giant rock, finally succeeded at sending a postcard (as of 8/31, it has yet to arrive), and admired the valley from tinted cable car windows. I even went paragliding, a peripheral activity that left me quite mareada. But lingering motion-sickness would not damper my final-day plan to visit this community of colorful murals, sweeping city views, and of course, out-door escalators. So after returning from our flying adventures, we took the metro to the San Javier station where, outside and around the corner, we asked the bus driver if he could drop us off at las escaleras eléctricas. He nodded. He already knew the deal.
The bus pulled away and it was not long before the seemingly ordinary neighborhood turned onto narrow streets and up a hill. Barely up the hill, the bus driver stopped to drop us off. He pointed in the direction of up and to the right, and in said direction we slowly walked. The street was fairly quiet, except for one passing boy and a car that’d just dropped off a woman and her baby. I thought to myself that we need to make a friend here – for insight and safety. We were giving all the papaya (opportunity for theft), we joked, as we poked our cameras in and out of our bags. Then we saw this view, and papaya did not matter as much.
Papaya mattered even less when our little friends with painted nails showed us how to use the giant, orange slide, or when we realized that we weren’t the only visitors riding the escalators and casually strolling around.
And just when I’d thought that Hernán probably thought us silly for taking jumping photos in front of the murals, he said that our presence made him – made them – happy. This (tourism) couldn’t take place here years ago, he said. Comuna 13’s location in the hills and near a major highway provided guerrilla groups with hiding from authority and control of goods going in and out of the city. He went on to explain how, in 2002, the government launched Operation Orion (involving the police, military, and paramilitary groups) to remove the left-wing extremists from the community. In what he called a four-day war, people died, many others suffered injuries, and some just disappeared. Even without the left extremists, gang activity remained (and still does today to some extent), and Comuna 13 earned the title of the most violent area in Medellin.
But today is different, Hernán reminded me. He was part of a neighborhood surveillance team stationed along the six escalators, and he and others delighted in our being there, in our learning about their community. His words touched my soul, and I could not wait to share what he’d just said.
We turned away from Hernán toward another escalator, but not without stopping to take photos of the faces on the wall ahead of us. The local surveillance guy in front of the mural was about to move out of the way when I told him to stay.
I must have jokingly asked if he painted one of the murals, because he laughed and said that the mural behind him was his own! He shared that he was part of a collective that created these works around the neighborhood and explained the dichotomy of his piece. The two sides of the face represent the past and present history of Comuna 13. The dead leaf and red eyes on the left represent the death and tears of the past, while the green in the right eye points to hope for the present and future.
I would have loved to spend an entire day here – to learn more about the history, people, and positive influence of art and hip hop in the community. But even with the hour that we did have, my spirit could not have been any more content, and I am I forever grateful for those brief interactions. Thank you, Spanish language skills! And thank you, Pacho and family, for the laughs. Just imagine the hen version of the new-age running man.
A much better overview of San Javier/Comuna 13 than I can provide, here!
More about the art/interview with an artist, here.