Note: If you’re interested in visiting La Comuna 13 in Medellin, please read my detailed travel guide including maps and safety precautions here.
It was the first of many lockdown drills with my students in the two years I taught at a middle school in Spokane, Washington’s West Central neighborhood also known as “Felony Flats.” It was the sort of neighborhood I would never walk alone in at night even though it was where most of my students lived. My students and I were huddled under the desks, and despite their knowledge that these drills took place several times a year, I could see the fear in their almost teenage eyes.
One girl, who was always first to tell the boys to shut up if they were disrupting the lesson, asked me why there were so many school shootings. It was a question I hated that she had to ask and I struggled to answer; I didn’t know how to explain the brokenness of the world to a 12-year old. I still don’t. I remember saying something vague about mental illnesses and bullying even though it felt like a hollow excuse more than an actual reason.
Another boy, who prided himself in being a slacker and wore the same black hoodie every day did a little Justin Bieber hair flip and grilled me, “Do you know if this is a drill or not? Why are we under our desks? What good would that do?” He was right, but there was nowhere else to go. I answered candidly, “It’s just a drill, and I don’t know why we’re under our desks; I agree it seems stupid,” I continued with conviction now, “If it was real, I would do everything I could to make sure nothing happens to any of you.”
I’ve had a savior complex since I was in middle school when I stood up during Home Ec. and shouted at a girl to shut up because she was picking on someone with a learning disability (for the record, I was the one who got detention). If we ever did have a real lockdown, I knew it would take a lot more sacrifice than shouting at a mean popular girl, but that’s the kind of thing I promised as a first-year, part-time English teacher who was only 25-years old. It’s the kind of promise other teachers have died to keep in the United States, and for some reason most teachers silently accept and prepare for.
I’ve been questioned and confronted many times about why on earth I would want to be a teacher these days, let alone one in a troubled neighborhood. It comes down to a belief that there is hope for these kids and neighborhoods. It’s easier to write than to remember in the midst of fights, theft, lockdowns, shootings, poverty, homelessness, and abuse. I don’t know why there is so much evil in the world, but I know there is good beyond my understanding too. So everyday, I woke up, repeated that to myself, and tried to inspire my students to build a better world than the one we have now while trying to do the same. I spent a lot of energy pushing aside the helplessness when I heard the realities behind some of my students’ lives. I even occasionally sobbed to my mentor on the phone about how I felt one of my students was going to end up in jail and there was nothing I could do about it while in the Arbys drive-thru line. My hope to make a difference sometimes felt like a naïve fantasy.
So when I heard the story behind La Comuna 13 in Medellin, I knew I had to see it for myself (despite the travel warnings). La Comuna 13 is tangible proof that everything I hoped for neighborhood renewal, community projects, and the power of education and art was true. And that says a lot since this was a community that was beyond any brokenness I had seen. During Pablo Escobar’s war against the Colombian government in the 90s, Medellin’s murder rate was “at 381 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, it was 40 times higher than the UN marker of ‘epidemic’ rate of 10 per 100,000” (Brookings Institution). Five years ago, the neighborhood was notoriously dangerous; 243 of the city’s 2,019 murders took place in La Comuna 13. Almost 1,500 residents were displaced the same year due to gang violence fighting to control the area and nearby highway (and therefore the import/exports of drugs, guns, and money). Extortion was a daily occurrence; bus drivers refused routes there, and police officers were murdered (InsightCrime.org). In 2011, two high school students were shot doing their homework (ColombiaReports.com). In 2012, local hip-hop artist, El Duke, was murdered, along with several other hip-hop artists, for daring to speak out against the gang violence (ColombiaReports.com).
But Colombians have fought back and have been for almost 25 years. In 1991, a new constitutional assembly dreamed and designed a better future. The new constitution was “citizen-rights oriented, strengthened provisions for participation, decentralization, access to justice, and other important issues” (CitiScope.org). Soon after the city built the country’s first metro line and cable cars. Cultural centers, libraries, and a complete overhaul of the city’s education agenda also contributed to the rebirth of not only Medellin, but also its poorest neighborhoods like La Comuna 13. Most recently, Medellin finished installing a series of escalators in Comuna 13 in order to connect its residents with the rest of the city and provide safer, more efficient public transportation. While the escalators were being built (2011-2014), there were still dozens of senseless deaths, including that of an innocent bystander: a 9-year old boy. However, since the completing of the escalators, violence has practically vanished in this area due to the “electric escalators” ceasefire between gangs in the area (CitiScope.org).
The renaissance of this neighborhood didn’t happen over night, in a year, or even in a decade, but it is happening. In 2014, Medellin was named the world’s most innovative city, and the honor was largely in part due to the infrastructure implemented in La Comuna 13. There are even tour groups that visit the area to admire the neighborhood’s street art. As an outsider, I can’t say if this neighborhood is healed; I don’t want to paint too pretty of a picture because income inequality is still a huge problem (CitiScope.org). I only spent an afternoon there, but here’s what I saw: teenagers playing soccer while adults cheered them on, kids in Colombia soccer jerseys coming up to us asking to practice the English they learned in school, community pride, kids happily playing, friendly smiles, warm welcomes, and some truly spectacular graffiti. I felt safe, seeing several members of the surveillance team that patrol the escalators in their matching red jackets, and it was my favorite day in Medellin. I walked back to the metro with a deep gratitude for the opportunity to experience this story and take home some proof that there’s always a way up.