Medellin‘s Comuna 13 — one of the urban districts most affected by Colombia’s ongoing conflict — is far from trying to bury its violent history. Instead, residents are determined to keep memories live through street art.
The omnipresent art that adorns the walls of “La 13” provides a fascinating insight into the mindset of the community. Varying from murals showing the faces of fallen rappers mourned by the community to nursery-like images of Father Christmas, each etching has a different story to tell, different messages that all fit within the same narrative of peaceful but definite resistance that is gaining momentum in the district.
The art reveals a community that knows where it’s been and, more importantly, knows that it won’t be able to change for the better by ignoring its own past. At first glance, childlike pieces scattered around the district almost seem inappropriate amid the streets that have seen so much bloodshed, but they stand as a sign of the belief the community is placing in providing an alternative future for its young inhabitants in order to escape the ingrained culture of violence that dominates life in the barrio.
Graffiti is just one of the many artistic outlets that the community is now providing for its young residents, all of which stand together in offering a choice between supporting the gangs and investing in the future of the children in la 13. “Why pay $2 for war when you can pay $1.50 for play?” one leaflet reads, referring to the daily tax that the gangs and paramilitaries supposedly demand from local businesses and others living in specific zones. Instead the organization suggests “arming your children with a pen, a camera or a computer.”
For a community leader who tellingly asked not to be named, it is a question of changing the image of the Comuna, as seen from inside and out.
“The media portray this as a place where you can’t escape from the violence…if you have Comuna 13 written down on your C.V., it is unlikely you will get hired.”
This leads to a vicious circle, all founded in a lack of hope; if the people of Comuna 13 believe there is no other future for them they are more likely to accept the idea that there is nowhere to turn but to a life of gangs, drug trafficking and violence, further deepening the rift between the district and the rest of the city.
“We want to provide these kids with an alternative” says the anonymous youth leader involved in the neighborhood’s cultural projects.
It is this context that prevents the streets of la 13 from feeling like a morbid museum of tragedies that have befallen the community. The commemorative street art exists as the residents’ own documentation of the plight of the barrio, but it doesn’t look or feel like self-pity… each piece has its own agenda in the context of how the residents want to develop and improve their situation.
A clear example of this can be found at the bottom of the hill. 10 years down the line, it is plain to see that the military helicopters and planes of Operation Orion are still present in the memories of the community. Murals depicting the chaos stand proudly on the sides of the metro which has become the poster image for the “new” and “innovative” Medellin.
It is a clear sign to the government that the residents have not forgotten the indiscriminate brutality of their attacks on the crowded hills when they were trying to wipe out the gangs and retake control of the 13. The art is the community’s response to the state’s past attempts to “solve” the deep-rooted social problems of the area with perceived quick fixes; they know if real change is to be achieved, it will have to differ from the methods already attempted.
There are many people trying to speak on behalf of the Comuna 13; the culture of intimidation and silence makes for an unwelcoming atmosphere for outsiders trying to uncover exactly where the barrio stands compared with the rest of the “new” Medellin. However the street art offers a genuine insight into the outlook of the community and one tag stands out above the others in capturing the spirit of resistance that seems to be growing among the people, reading: “I am Comuna 13. Memory and Life are here.”
Whether or not the Comuna 13 will genuinely be able to shed its image as a hopeless outcast from Medellin and Colombia’s modern evolution, it seems the residents of La 13 won’t forget what has made them who they are.