By Corey Eno Ruffin
Hi, I’m Corey. I'm a traveling artist and performer who’s in Colombia for an extended South American walkabout.
I’m at a hostel in Bogota. Not doing much research into location, only knowing that I wanted to be in the historical part because I like history, I ended up in a bit of a crime-plagued area. This district, La Candelaria, is boho enough for my hipster sensibilities, having the adequate coffee, pastries, and tattooed ‘crypsters’ (look it up) hawking their handmade jewelry around the square.
But it’s in a historically poor neighborhood, right on the edge of gang-controlled territory. Two dudes in my hostel have already reported being mugged in plain daylight, so it's not so good for staying out late at night, though the $6 bed in the hostel is right in this artist’s budget.
But it still has its surprises, namely the Breaking Barriers tour. Asking around about crime and safety, I learned that one of the local gangs had reformed and was now focused on rehabilitating their community and that rehabilitation was funded in part by offering guided tours of their controlled corner of the slum.
What is the slum? El Egipto (yep, Egypt); a southeastern barrio of Bogotá with a population numbering around 20,000. The slum is partially undefined, as many of its residents built ramshackle homes on unclaimed and untitled land in the hills, and is divided into four quadrants which are controlled by four rival gangs.
The leader of the 10th Street Gang (named for the fact that their neighborhood is bisected by Calle 10), Harold, had spent much time in prison and much time in bloody battles for control of drugs and territory and, tired of the fighting and tired of the suffering, was now devoting his life to the improvement of El Egipto. If he didn’t, no one would as El Egipto is an area that is still not fully recognized by the City of Bogotá and has no public schools, little access to public utilities, and nearly no police support.
Our support would come in the form of four members of Harold’s crew, who surrounded us and kept an eye out for the duration of our short walk through Egipto: Keeping an eye out because they were currently at war with the neighboring gangs.
Juan Carlos, known as Monkey, showed us the stoop of the fortress; a large cement building strategically placed at a curve of Calle 10 that allowed good vantage over the neighborhood, enabling the gang to keep an eye out for both potential pedestrians and tourists to rob, as well as to keep an eye out for any encroaching enemies. The numerous bullet holes peppering the exterior walls told the story of countless battles fought and, on that wall, he showed us the first mural. One of nearly 30 or so that now decorate the barrio, this was the first. He and three friends had spray painted on a wall next to the fortress: ‘Egipto Somos Todos’ (we are all Egipto).
Shortly after painting the mural, Monkey and his friends were gunned down in front of it. He was the only one to survive. He lifted his shirt to show his bullet wounds, explained how the hole in his arm still ached any time there was a full moon. Onward, up the hill and into El Egipto.
Egipto is striking. Its plaster and cement walls are covered in murals. Normally I scoff at these kinds of sights, the “let's bring in artists to revitalize the neighborhood” call for free public art that I myself participated in in my hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan; in the Heartside District, a historically poor and minority community which has been struggling for over five decades.
I scoff because it is just that; let's bring in artists to make the “bad” neighborhood pretty and then we can triple the rents to bring in people like you, dear reader; the comfortable middle class and upper middle class citizen with a need for a fair trade coffee shop.
The artists brought in have no connection to the neighborhood, they are instructed to treat it like a blank canvas or a sketchbook, and they cover it at random with whatever thought or moods strike them at the opportunity to plaster walls with their understudied and untested craft. There’s nothing there, no context or relevance when some art school kid from the suburbs comes into a neighborhood their parents always avoided and does their pseudo graffiti meets cuphead style of high-top sneaker wearing Pokemon dragon/hamster hybrid accompanied by their handle, BigolBawls. It has no meaning, no significance, it's just a doodle.
This is not the case in El Egipto. Every inch has meaning and significance.
Artists contributed to a retelling of the story of El Egipto: A tribute to those who came before, those who died, and those who maintain it. Where Monkey stood and where his men died are a series of sigils. A paintbrush, to rehabilitate the barrio. A target, how they died. A microphone, the late night rap battles. A lightning bolt, the leader of the gang. A flame, mocking the designation the Bogotá officials give high crime areas. A crossbones: four bones are the four warring gangs. A camera, what they stole from tourists. And a wifi symbol, the future that their dead friends never lived to see. This is art, ladies and gentlemen; this is legacy and story.
Accompanied by our handlers and some friendly stray pups, we move further up the hill. “Welcome to my office,” says Harold in English. A concrete square no bigger than three parked cars with a soccer net that a few young boys are playing at. Here he sits and does his outreach to the youths. Soccer, movie night (where a film is projected on the red brick wall), hip hop concerts; anything he can do to keep these local kids who have no school and no outlet occupied.
Though they are at war, it is fully understood that all children from all territories are allowed to attend. There will be no violence; all are welcome. Across the street are storage containers, the men's workshop where they hone the crafts they learned in their work programs in prison. Next to that is the women’s workshop; where they labor to make jewelry and gifts to sell to the tourists walking in Plaza Bolivar.
Up, up we walk. “Now we are not on google maps,” says Harold. Welcome to the slum. This is not an official neighborhood, these are not city streets and these are not legal homes. We walk along narrow paths of reclaimed broken concrete and stone, up through the hills as water runs down the path and makes for a slippery foothold. Ramshackle homes of whatever salvaged materials one could drum up poke out of the steep hills and are nestled in between trees fruiting feijoa, maracuya, and lulo.
“My home,” says Harold proudly, pointing to the orange box on our right. He invites us in.
I’ve stayed in some places. I’ve lived with indigenous Quechua in the Amazon of Ecuador, I’ve stayed in homes of ethnic Maya in the Yucatan and the kind of stuff you’d expect; no hot water, hole in the floor where a toilet would be, and those places looked like a palace by comparison. But only in appearance, for it certainly felt like the palace of a king. “My son, my life,” says Harold as he introduces us to the beautiful young boy of barely two. I see his wife preparing stew on a stove that is running off a very old and very desiccated old tank of propane that I am sure no camper would allow to be attached to their RV, lest one errant spark lead to explosion.
Up the hill, onward.
We weave through the towering eucalyptus, brought in by settling Europeans to tame the land and keep it from flooding during the high rainy season; and to the newly built soccer field.
And the art everywhere around us told the story of the women who maintained homes and tended wounds, of the old man who maintained the only store and kept them fed, and of the stray cats who slinked around at night and showed them that they too must learn to hide in the shadows in order to survive.
This was far as we could go, we were now standing on the border of their territory. It was quite evident, the young gang member from the other side staring at us from his stoop made it clear we should not pass.
Down the hill. Down the hill to plumbing, electricity, restaurants, schools, hospitals, safety. None of that in El Egipto, but they are proud of their home anyway, a community pride and a sense of purpose and worth of the kind I’ve never seen, that made me want to live there.
A most welcoming, warm, kind, and vibrant little village at the corner of a giant city that refuses it acknowledgement or rights and whose borders are disputed by the other still active gangs who feel this strip should be one for cocaine, weapons, of battle; and of a sad, absolutely saddening, life for these young boys playing soccer in Harold’s office who would surely die were it not for his, Monkey’s, and all of the 10th Street Gang’s communal decision: no more, no more shall we die, we shall thrive.
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