Comuna 13 was the most dangerous neighborhood in Medellín, Colombia, when Medellín was named the most dangerous city in the world. Gangs, drug cartels, and guerrillas held hostage this mountainside just outside the protection of city police—making it the center of Colombia's drug and ammunition trade in the 1990s. Invisible lines were drawn in the streets; stepping into another gang's territory meant a swift, certain death. 6,350 murders in one year alone. Found bodies, desperate mothers, fear-choked streets.
Then, in 2002, the Colombian government invaded this tortured territory and, with a bloodbath of military force, ousted the cartels. In the 20 years since, the people of Comuna 13 have done a stupendous thing. Their riotous creativity is casting out a cruel past.
Last week, I walked the streets of Comuna 13 to see for myself. I am the fortunate guest of the Juanfe Foundation, a stunning non-profit turning around the lives of teenage mothers, one at a time, with education, empowerment, healthcare, childcare, and jobs. We climb hundreds of winding steps into the Comuna to visit a teenage mother living in a two-room home with her 32 year old mother, brothers, and child, The tight community surrounding her is celebrating the holiday of San Juan, cooking communal stew in the street and dancing to the Latin beat of hip hop under the mid-day sun.
Her determination is real—wanting a better version of her life. So is that of the rapper who guides us back down the mountain, pride in his stride. Along the way, break-dancing breaks out in the street in jaw-dropping moves. Artful graffiti wakes up dull walls. Coffee houses spawn spontaneous rap (give me a word, any word…). Entrepreneurs stake out their corners, cooks hover over their grills, sugar cane juice flows from a press. New outdoor elevators carry throngs of visitors up the steep slopes. Energy is bright.
I walk the crowded streets, marveling at how—right there, in under 20 years—Medellín has gone from being named the most dangerous city in the world to, last year, being named the most innovative city in the world. I am breathing here the fumes of that transformation—ammunition into imagination. Dreaded silence into song. Fear into a fighting hope. Creativity is medicine for the blighted soul.
I think of the invisible lines we dare not cross—in our own anxious minds, in our divided country, our often cruel world. I think of the conflicts we house; the rifts we abide. If only we could learn from the resilient people on this mountain that there is another way. That creativity heals. That hearts need to be heard; magic made. That community makes us stronger. That across those invisible lines, we have a future together as one people, one world. And that we will create it—not in our gang sets defending our own small turf, no. But under the wide open skies, making soup for one another, raising daughters to be strong, dancing in the streets.
All the Best,