La Sierra’s Progress
Once dominated by ongoing violence, La Sierra welcomed us this weekend for Día de las Velitas, a Christmas celebration.
High above downtown Medellín, peace now rules this barrio. Contrary to its outdated reputation, Medellín and its neighborhoods are making remarkable progress. Few foreigners make it to these lofty, remote outskirts, but those who do are rewarded with stunning views of the city and the attention of a curious and energetic community looking to move forward.
This is a daunting place to carve out a livelihood. The economic heart of Medellín was built on the floor of a long narrow valley. The surrounding Andean hills rise up steeply. The harsh slopes made it nearly worthless for the functions we expect from a city. So this was the land open for poor rural migrants. They built shelters in whatever space and with whichever materials were available. One such area became La Sierra, a tangle of paths, steps, and ramshackle homes stacked nearly on top of one another. For many years this was the most dangerous barrio in Medellín.
Alba, our hostess, told us of La Sierra’s grim past. Control of the drug routes was the goal, murder was the means. She detailed the painstaking process of negotiating a cease-fire between the rival barrios. During the time the negotiations were underway, the city undertook the challenging process of integrating isolated La Sierra with the economic heart of Medellin. The terrain demanded more innovative thinking than the usual civic mass transportation problems. The slopes were far too steep for trams or trains. The solution: gondolas. People are lifted above the city from one barrio to the next. Another problem: the lanes between houses were too narrow and steep for traditional short-run mass transit like a bus, so the city installed long outdoor escalators into the hillsides. The dirt paths through the neighborhoods were paved and had concrete steps cut in. The city invited the people to express their stories via colorful and poignant wall murals.
While still distressingly poor, the revitalization is impressive. The walkways are clean. The parks the city added are well-maintained. There is a butcher shop and some small restaurants. Tiendas sell water, empanadas, candy, and beer. Some of the shops are separate structures, others sell right out of people's front doors. There is life and energy here; even some shades of hope. Many of Medellín’s best athletes come from these hillsides. The children are now dedicated, fervent students. The young men make the vertical commute into the city to learn trades instead of taking up arms. Alba patiently answered our questions until the sun began to set. Then she invited us back to her restaurant and fed us buñuelos and natilla along with hot cocoa and aguardiente, a fiery anise-flavored distillation of sugar cane.
After nightfall the scene changed from merely fascinating to downright magical. We joined the community in lighting small candles and placing them on the steps and paths that crisscross the barrio. Children and adults put on fireworks displays and we watched hot-air lanterns rise up and float over the city far below us. Music blared. Children ran up and down the steps. People sang and danced.
Jesús Martinez, one of the young men featured in the 2002 documentary “La Sierra,” declared “…if you want to change, you can do it on your own. You just need the willpower.” It seems that enough young men have decided, like Jesús, that they can change how they think. “I think about giving [my son] a better life. Teaching him to do good instead of bad.” As with everywhere, there are still problems. Young men still join gangs; too many early teenage pregnancies. But the determination of the political leaders, the city planners, and the community members to think in new ways has paid off.