Cartagena, Colombia, where I’ve been coming yearly for more than half my life, is now firmly the tourist hotspot of South America, the destination for 300,000 last year — everyone from backpackers to cruise-ship passengers and high-end wedding couples (the Cathedral and major churches are now booked up two years ahead). Some sectors of the economy do well from this, but there’s a price to pay.
Cartagena has become commodified, which is more like a branding operation than anything else I can think of, and of course this means choosing what to show and what to discard. It also means turning the selling points of Brand Cartagena into product attributes that the tourist audience can fully engage with. That’s marketing speak for turning the old colonial houses in narrow lanes into bars, restaurants, boutique hotels and boutiques, until almost the entire old city is fully fit to sell. None of this is surprising, all of it is inevitable, but the Cartagena that visitors now see is pretty much a construct. The unique character of South America’s second oldest colonial city slips further from view.
Wheelie in the barrio
More than that, ask any tourist about the experience and it will all have been delightful, with the possible exception of the usual scams. Such a pretty city, so historic, so special, so eager to please. Often too eager to please, as the Tourist Corporation and Mayor’s office have an unusual new task, which is to monitor and ban pop-up tours offering prostitution. but in any case, Brand Cartagena is rapidly becoming its own separate world, far removed from the real life of a city that now has a population of one million.
A year ago, in the January 2017 newsletter, Two Tales of One City, I wrote about the other, real Cartagena, and introduced the barrio of sector Rafael Núñez, poor and unloved, the focus of my old friend Elena Mogollon’s charitable foundation Granitos de Paz. To recap, it began with infant schooling, and is now one of the country’s respected models for bringing education to the tugurios (slums). It extended to a community centre, followed by helping families to grow vegetables and herbs in their backyards (which the Foundation collects and sells in the city), training women in income-generating skills like beauty services, and now that more donations are coming in from abroad, helping to build new houses. All of this is necessary because the normal municipal services that we’d expect in Europe and the US don’t stretch out to include the entire city, especially the tugurios. This is in common with many Latin cities, and it doesn’t help that Cartagena has recently been wracked with corruption scandals.
Despite the success of Granitos de Paz in its 14 year history, Elena realised there’s a gap, and that’s what happens to the teenagers, many of whom have actually been through the foundation’s infant schooling. Poverty and lack of job opportunities don’t do much for family life and parenting — not too many good examples being set — and that leads to pandillas: street gangs. Yes, they should be at school, but they’ve misbehaved and have been thrown out, and after a year or two there’s no way to get back and catch up, even if the schools wanted them. The pandilleros, as these teenagers are called, get by on the usual street gang activities, which I don’t need to elaborate here but are largely illegal, apart from odd jobs like selling lottery tickets. It’s not much of a life and most of them would like to get out of it and back into something useful. And there are also the turf wars: stand-offfs with machetes and rocks, the occasional shooting. Not a great life.
So now Grantos de Paz has a new programme, which is offering further education, to be followed by attempts at job placement. The programme also has to take care of educational down-time, when the panditleros are back out on the streets with time to get into trouble, and after talks with the local pandilla found that the idea of learning photography has appeal. So that’s where I come in, and over the last ten days I’ve been meeting them, talking and setting up a workshop. Altogether there are 20, between the ages of 15 and 22. Roughly half have a cellphone (not asking where they come from) although one is in the pawnshop, and so far we’ve made a couple of walks around the barrio, they showing me around and I showing them first steps in shooting.
There’s a purpose to this beyond just a few lessons. There has to be because I’m not here in Cartagena for long, and we need momentum. So my idea is a storytelling project that will be a communal effort by these teenagers. We’re calling it Our Barrio, and we’re publishing on Instagram, which is the easiest and most accessible publishing platform for this kind of ongoing story. They’re tasked with exploring their own neighbourhood, inside and out, and photographing as many aspects of life as they can find. We started it only this week, and this is the first posting to kick things off…
I’m under no illusion about the effort to keep it going. Some of them are going to be more interested than others. Some have natural shooting ability, others will need to persevere more and that’s going to demand more effort from them. The one great advantage they have, as I told them, is access. This is a barrio in which much of daily life happens on the street, and doors are open. I’m in the middle of convincing them that though barrio life may seem to them obvious and of little interest, their potential audience in the outside world WILL be intrigued to enter a different world from their own. One small example is the intense colourfulness of about a quarter of the houses. It’s a tradition, they say, and my own theory is that strong colours, like the ones below, are a feature of tropical poverty because they cost little and help to brighten up a poor life. Here in Rafael Núñez, a local paint company helps out. In any case, this is about as far from Kelly Hoppen taupe as you can get, thank God. And it’s eye-catching for the camera.
Mauro on his cellphone
Sergio cleaning fish
Finally, as the Guardian online likes to say, since you’re here I have a small favour to ask. These guys need a little encouragement, and as we’ve chosen to start a new Instagram account, the very best encouragement of all is Followers and Likes. If you have a mind to smile on the Our Barrio project, could you take a look at @OurBarrio, then please Follow it and Like a picture. It won’t cost you a thing, and they’ll be thrilled. Every Follow and Like will be an encouragement.