Go to Sleep, My Child; Go To Sleep, My Love

You can hear the bullets fly, you can feel the heavy atmosphere in Medellín’s comunas, which are dominated by fights between gangs, and you could say, at first glance, that no one here can be saved. But suddenly, right here, in a place without place, almost imaginary, and with all the resources of the First World, Good Start childcare centers operate alongside the popular libraries. Amidst the chaos, a route that leads away from death has been constructed (they are called “Roads of Happiness”). Oscillating between naïveté, audacity, and the stubborn persistence that characterizes great works, the project seeks to educate children in the logic of pure fantasy: to educate them for peace.

At the top of a mountain, the man looks at what was his, or believed was his, and sighs. It is a gesture, a remnant of his gang-member pride, from over five years ago—the last time I saw him in this northeast slum of Medellín—when he was the leader of his “ring” and could point with his finger, in the distance, to the streets and corners that marked the borders of his territory. Now he points like anyone else in the neighborhood: from the road up that hill to the store that charges cell phones, down that alley—narrow, like those of any shantytown—to the church, that area belongs to one gang. Down that alley to the right, that belongs to another. What the man—thirty-six years old and toothless thanks to a beating at the police station half a year ago—is marking is what in this city of paramilitaries and beauty is called an invisible border, or “invisible frontier,” whatever you prefer, my friend.

Geovany with his wife, Norma, and his daughter
Alfredo Srur, Geovany no quiere ser Rambo

It’s a concept that seized me during this week in Medellín; it takes up residence, as I go from one place to another. It does so in the comuna, when I visit Alfredo Srur’s old gang-member friend, the subject of his photo-essay Geovany no quiere ser Rambo (Geovany doesn’t want to be Rambo) of which the image of the young man giving a bottle of milk to one of his twins is part. It also seizes me in the workshop— “Memories of the Violence”— when an old-time local reporter complains to the youngest of those in attendance that no one has told a story about the invisible borders. And again while I report on a new public program in Medellín, which they call the PI, or Primera Infancia (Early Childhood)—as always, using titles that are so technical and officious. Since I’ve arrived in the city, by sheer coincidence or because the subject is in the air but not covered in the press, people tell me about the new childcare centers the local government has built and opened as part of the Good Start program in the poorest and most strife-ridden neighborhoods in Medellín. They are spectacular buildings, incredibly well equipped, designed, and inhabited. When you see them you want to be a child again, a baby, in order to grow up in one; a friendlier, happier space couldn’t be imagined. That’s why I decide to go off the well-beaten path that reports on those who play a leading role in the violence—such as Geovany—and go up the hill in search of good news instead.

The City of Children

I’m in “The Orchard” in the Northwest, dangerous like few other places during these days of BACRIMs, the abbreviation for the criminal gangs formed by the ex-paramilitaries demobilized in 2003. There are red blocks shaped like bricks from one of those Lego games for children. Seen from above, that is exactly what they are, interlocking pieces. The architect’s studio that designed them worked with teachers and artists. As soon as you see how each object, each piece of furniture, is sized to scale, you realize that everything is proportional to the children. A group of them are in a theater class: they’re presenting Pinocchio. There is a stage, bleachers, and dressing rooms, one for boys and one for girls, with miniature mirrors and chairs. In the bathroom, the toilets are petite, the urinals are small, the sinks are waist-high, and the mirrors reflect their diminutive size. There is also a room for crawlers from one to two years of age. The building also has an early stimulation room for babies three months and older. The nursing area is over there. The mothers, almost half of them teenagers, come three times a day to breastfeed their babies in an atmosphere closer to a spa than to a school, with harmonious classical music and the scent of wildflowers in the background. Best of all is the art studio, where an artist lets them experiment with colors, objects, and clay. Three-year-olds already know how to work the wooden potter’s wheel that shapes their objects. They use their feet to rotate the wheel, and their hands to mold the forms.

Rosi Betancur, the director, whose degree is in Early Childhood Education, walks up and down this garden tucked into the hillside of the Northwest wearing high-heeled boots. The children are with their teachers, but also with a group of “community mothers” from the neighborhood. Rosi greets the doctors, a nutritionist and a pediatrician, who examine the children and keep track of their medical histories, and calls the boys and girls by name, as if she knew the hundred-odd names of those present today. Rosi proudly shows the enormous dining room with colorful plates and spoons on small tables, the tiny sinks where the children wash their hands, and the diminutive towels they use to dry them. They’re given three meals a day between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m.: 80% of the required daily intake. In just two months the children have gained weight. The garden is full of kids who come from other parts of the country, displaced by paramilitary violence or by the FARC guerillas, especially from the region of Caquetá, which is why so many children are of African descent, and why so many of the books do battle against discrimination: the whiter children segregate the black ones. Some of them lived in the enormous garbage dump in Moravia, another zone of the city that changed under the previous administration of Sergio Fajardo—now running for governor of Antioquia—and that continues to change under the present mayor, the writer Alonso Salazar. It was the “First Lady,” as the wife of the local government leader is called, who first had the idea and lobbied for the childcare centers. Her name is Marta Liliana Herrera Reyes, and she’s a psychologist who has worked primarily in education and in programs dealing with the drug policy. She is familiar with the crossroads faced by youth, and realizes that “strong hand” policies and the police, weapons and social control, only perpetuate violence. That explains the effort to invest so heavily in the childcare centers. Seven have been inaugurated, and seventeen in total will have been completed before the end of the year, when the mayor leaves office. To guarantee their completion, the local council and the Antioquia legislature, needs to pass a law requiring that the next administration will continue with these policies. It all depends on continuity.

Good Start

In the Northwest, around the 13th comuna, and especially in the 5th and 6th, gangs are engaged in open warfare. That is why gunfire can be heard every now and then in the schools, and its echoes in the children’s gardens. As we walk through a Good Start Expo that is adjacent to the book fair, a staff member relates how they’ve not only been planning to build new centers, but plan to build peace as well. At the Expo, groups of children get off buses that have brought them from all the comunas and, without realizing how, they step into a fantasy world: at each stop, at each stand, they encounter what this program calls “Magic Beings:” animals, spirits, fairies, princes and princesses that walk and perform for them. This year the idea is to motivate them to read and everything is planned so that they will create their own stories: an actress plays the part of a local grandmother who tells stories, and as she spins her tales the characters appear, materializing among the kids like characters out of a Antioquian Disneyworld. In the midst of a frenzy of stories and characters I hear my guide mention the Guardian Communities and the Roads to Happiness, but I don’t quite understand what she’s talking about.

Until Laura Gil, who is something like Good Start’s quality control supervisor, tells me that they are aware that in order to educate children to be independent, innovative, and creative adults, they must take into account that Medellín has been pummeled by the armed conflict. Those children, the same ones amazed by the Magic Beings, live with the “imaginary borders.” Because their parents and siblings are not able to cross certain streets, they are sometimes unable to come to the children’s gardens, or to go from the gardens to one of the five innovative libraries built in the densest comunas. That’s why the program created the Roads to Happiness, a march without drums that includes all the children in the center, any emblems that identify the neighborhood, the Magic Beings, a chirimía—a kind of flute—and balloons, flags and objects in a variety of colors, to walk on the very same routes that are not supposed to be walked: in this way the paths of those who perpetuate violence are marked with happiness. The man who organizes them, who paves the way, is Orlando Guzmán, a dark-skinned man who likes to talk to everyone, including the bad guys. The first thing he does when he arrives at a comuna is to identify the “watchman,” the lookout planted on a strategic corner by every gang. Often it’s a candy vendor, or someone who washes cars, or someone who smokes and smokes and drinks sodas without leaving his spot.

“I’m from Good Start, my friend, do you know where the childcare center is?” he asks.

Usually the lookout will let him pass. Only once did things turn ugly. The lookout had a rifle on his shoulder and he aimed it:

“Hey, where’re you goin’?”

“I’m Orlando Guzmán, I work for Good Start…” He launched into an explanation but couldn’t stop thinking: “This is it. Now it’s my turn.”

The lookout listened to him, lowered his rifle and said:

“Everything’s cool, dude. Good Start’s great. My son is in Good Start.”

That’s the logic of the Roads to Happiness: gang members are parents, their children often go to the centers. And that’s why colored stickers are placed on neighbors or shopkeepers who’ve become members of the Guardian Communities that protect the children’s rights. And there are other, smaller stickers that are placed on the chests of certain neighbors, even the chests of good local boys like Geovany, who for some reason, you know, no longer wants to be Rambo. The “invisible borders” have become colorful paths. That’s how Medellín is waking up.


Translated by Margaret B. Carson