I arrived in Medellín, Colombia a few days after a man who claimed to be acting with divine guidance killed three and wounded nine at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs. The very next morning I learned that 14 people had been killed and 22 seriously injured at an attack on a holiday party at the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health.
A day or so later, “The Daily Show” ran a montage of clips of President Obama responding to a series of mass shootings. Watching that, you start to ponder the normalization of terror.
Many people in the U.S. like to think of Americans as civilized. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard someone righteously condemn the barbarism of another society without noticing the scale of our own. So I can’t imagine a better place than Medellín—whose name evokes in the minds of my fellow citizens images of the narco-terrorism that allowed drug lord Pablo Escobar to hold sway over the city until he was killed in 1993—to explore the question of how to transform a society in the grip of fear and violence into a functioning civil society.
Are you surprised that the answer is art and culture? For decades, I’ve been asking people to envision the commitment to communal creativity fully expressed in public programs, to dream into a future shaped by their largest vision.
Are you surprised when I tell you that in Medellín, I saw this future and felt as if I had walked into a dream, the extraordinary made real? I promise you I am not romanticizing: Medellín is a city of 2.5 million with a significant share of poverty, gangs, and crime. For some of the poorest, Escobar was seen as a Robin Hood and “civil society” doesn’t exactly ring a bell. The challenges of class, race, and gender privilege persist. I am not claiming to have discovered heaven on earth, but something almost as extraordinary for an observer coming from the U.S. circa 2015: a public sector that has embodied and supported the public interest in culture with tremendous forethought, intentionality, and caring; and results to match that intention.
I was invited to Medellín to deliver a keynote at a congress of networks in music, dance, theater, and visual arts supported by a municipal public sector that devotes nearly forty percent of its budget to education and culture. (New York comes close, with nearly one-third of its budget allocated to education, plus a small fraction for culture, but most U.S. cities fall far short.) The largest network is La Red de Escuelas de Musica de Medellín. Here’s a description in the network’s own words:
The Medellín, Colombia music schools network, “la Red,” is a public citywide program created by the Mayor’s Office…as a response to Municipal Council Agreements 03 and 04 of 1996 and 072 of 1998. Its primary purpose is to generate and strengthen processes of coexistence and civic culture in children and youth through the enjoyment and learning of music.
It is one of the five Artistic and Cultural Education Networks of the City’s Department of Cultural Affairs, and is operated by the Faculty of Arts of the University of Antioquia.
La Red works in five dimensions: Pedagogical, Aesthetic-music, Social-cultural, Communicative and Administrative….
- To encourage dialogue, inclusion, participation, and social integration
- To nurture citizens for life through art and culture
- To ensure the rights of children and youth in the dimensions of being, doing and knowing
- To strengthen and promote a public social and musical program in Medellín.
The network operates 27 music schools, 13 focusing on stringed instruments and 14 on wind instruments and percussion. They are based in repurposed houses and a variety of cultural centers in 14 of the city’s 16 communes, engaging 5,000 students between 7 and 24 years of age, who take music lessons and participate in choirs, bands and orchestras. Visit the network’s YouTube channel to see videos focusing on its programs. You’ll find more details at the website.
In the space of a few days, I met many people involved in La Red and the corresponding networks in dance, drama, and visual arts. Here are just two of the things I saw:
Parents and siblings beaming on folding chairs for an outdoor recital—the last before the school closed for winter holiday break—held in the driveway of a two-story house that serves as the network’s smallest school. The Escuela de Música de Villatina sits high on a hill in Comuna 8 in the eastern part of the city, reached via narrow streets lined with small houses and shops. Advanced students waited patiently as beginners took their turn. The director, Alvaro Acosta, gracefully made space for a longtime student, now in college, to conduct one piece. The stories I heard as I sat and listened are the ones my heart longs to hear: a boy who felt he could never fit in finding ways to connect and and form friendships through music and the community it created; a girl who sustained herself through her mother’s long illness and passing through music and the sense of extended family it enabled.
Under the enthusiastic and loving direction of director Claudia García, we watched a string ensemble at the Escuela La Milagrosa—based in the Casa de la Cultura Avila, perched on a hillside not so far away in Comuna 9—rehearse for its performance in an upcoming civic event. The young members were kind enough to answer a visitor’s questions about how they got involved. One after another, they told similar stories: I love music, but never thought I could learn. One day, I was walking past with my mother and hearing the music, asked if we could go in. We discovered music lessons were free! That was a dozen years ago, and now I am teaching the little ones, and seeing myself in them. As we left, Claudia turned to us: “I think I am going to let them perform without a conductor; they have worked so hard and are doing so well, they don’t need me onstage.”
I want to share some of the words of Ana Cecilia Restrepo, La Red’s director, when—thinking of Paris, Beirut, Colorado Springs, San Bernardino—I asked how it had come to pass that in remaking itself, Medellín understood culture as the crucible in which a civil society would be forged. Ana stressed (as had everyone else I spoke with) that while art is important, one aspect in particular surpassed all others: the ability of people to come together through creative expression in “a real encounter, the encounter that produces joy, pleasure, enjoyment.” It’s not the production of an artwork that generates the desire to connect in this way, but the encounter itself, shaped by art.
Ana explained that in the recent history of Medellín, the atmosphere of terror that reigned until the mid-90s kept people in “a state of isolation, in a state of alienation, we really couldn’t find ways of relating to each other that weren’t constricting. I didn’t live here when the dark days of those violent times were going on,” she told me, “but I remember coming to visit and at 8 o’clock at night, not one single car on the street, not being able to go out after 8 o’clock at night. Any moving thing was a threat. Any moving vehicle—a taxi, a motorcycle, anything—would spark negative thoughts. As soon as I was getting off the airplane coming to Colombia, the lens immediately became a lens of fear and risk, a lens of how exposed we are.
“We weren’t able to go out, we weren’t able to meet, so people began to feel that we have to do something to take back the streets, to get rid of the fear. It starts on that level. Around in December, as you’ve seen, it’s very festive here, very Christmasy. A lot of fireworks are used. At that time when you heard them it was like, “Is this a bomb?” They used the fireworks to cover up the bombs. Now I think being able to celebrate and being able to make noise, that’s an important thing, being able to not fear, being able to talk. It’s still at a turning point, I feel, even 20 years later.”
In the late 90s, Ana explained, Medellín began to look for “places that has gone through this sort of oppression, through this sort of terror. There are a lot of things about Barcelona that people here identify with, not only politically speaking, historically speaking, and culturally speaking, but also geographically. After something had ended, how do these other countries bring back possibility and weave social fabric? One thing that happened a lot in Barcelona is that culture and cultural activities were very easy to get to and engage and have a relationship and having enjoyment around. The whole idea is that the cultural aspect of life is directly linked to citizenship, to a civic culture.
“If you compare Medellín to Bogota, for example, the investment in culture was more towards higher art purposes, high quality productions and and hyperbolized festivals. Where here it’s been linked to this idea of citizenship, how we create, educate, and transform people into citizens. Embedded in that is this whole idea that started even before the late 1990s. We see small organizations and civil society start to gather on a very small scale. But at least we start to dream on paper how culture can be central, and those little dreams are picked up in different ways by the right people at the right time to make an impact.
“Sometimes it comes down to that. For example, the Red was basically a couple of people who were lobbying, a particular Mayor gets elected and listens to them and says okay, it’s going to be a reality. Things start to happen in the early 90s that carry on into the late 90s. The central idea is that you create civil society through participation, and that was getting written down, planned, and carried out. Now we have a cultural participation system with a structure of councils. It’s more sophisticated and elaborate, but it started out in this place where we all have to do something, nobody would do it for us, we were just taking the risk and not knowing that the things we were doing would have these results.”
Think about the U.S. cities in which people fear to walk at night. Can we transform a culture of violence too? In Part Two of this series, I will share more stories from Ana Restrepo, and from Medellín’s neighborhoods—fire jugglers at stoplights!—including the remarkable Casa de la Cultura Los Alcazares in Comuna 12, deeply involved in a network of community gardens Medellín has embraced.
Here’s a spirited performance by La Red’s tango orchestra of a piece that appears on the network’s second CD, Melancolico Medellín.