Contra Miradas: Narratives from the Urban Periphery
Kiersten Thamm in collaboration with Emily Hart
Medellín is nestled in the Aburrá Valley in Colombia, flanked by steep slopes in places, its terracotta neighbourhoods splashed across the wide valley floor as well as up onto the hillsides. As with many South American cities, the city grew rapidly and informally. People who moved to there often built their houses on the city periphery, which slowly crept up the steep slopes that surround the centre. These hills are now fully-fledged neighborhoods, or barrios, with close-set houses, winding staircases, and narrow streets
In 2004, Medellín became the first city to fully integrate an aerial cable car into its public transit system to connect the hillsides to the urban center. The project, named Metrocable, led by Metro de Medellín, was designed to connect isolated communities, who had suffered geographic and institutional neglect, with the city center.
National and international press celebrates the urban regeneration associated with this and other mobility infrastructure projects—but public attention has paid little attention to the actual residents of Medellín and the Metropolitan Area of the Aburrá Valley (AMVA).
The interdisciplinary research project ContraMiradas is trying to change that. The group explores the impact of infrastructure on residential social, economic, and cultural realities.
Through 130 interviews and six months of invrestigations, the research team learned about the community and its self-management within the planned and unplanned urban growth. The project visualizes the organization, construction, and survival of the people who live in peripheral neighborhoods of the northeastern region of Medellín. It resulted in an exhibition at the Biblioteca EPM that highlights the stories and images of residents. This article presents portions from that exhibition in a digital form.
The team that put the research and exhibition together included Colombians and Europeans who wanted to bring the periphery’s view to the story's center. They tried to combine theory, scientific results, and artifacts of everyday life to showcase the community’s practices and everyday self-management processes.
All images and quotes are courtesy of the Contra Miradas research team.
Informal Urban Growth
The city of Medellín is an economic center of Colombia and the decision-making epicenter of the entire Aburrá Valley. Regardless, it has been marked by violence. Most of the barrios that sit around the edges of the urban complex, high on the mountainside, have become the homes of people who fled from Colombia’s civil conflict, urban violence, and territorial disputes—communities with traumatic pasts.
These communities set up new homes in areas without infrastructure or government services. People moving to the area in search of decent living conditions and to avoid political violence without guaranteed essential services such as water, sewerage, and electricity. The high-risk areas prohibited the possibility of social assistance that provides housing or a job.
“Santo Domingo has always been a neighborhood permeated by the conflict over land use as a result of the illegal and informal occupation of the settlement on the neighborhood's land and its boundaries, this generated problems with the institutionality, precariousness, violence, etc., some of these problems are still latent."
- Member of a Foundation in Santo Domingo
Without paved roads and good drainage, the yellow dirt and dust of the roads is pervasive, staining shoes and clothes alike. Residents became stigmitized as “tenderrudos” and “patiamarillos” (yellow-shoes) for the dust covering their shoes. In the ContraMiradas memory workshop, participants worked on individual and collective memory from oral traditions and memories, and some recounted stories about how they worked to avoid that yellow dust. One participant said,
“Everything here was yellow dirt and bush, we had to walk a long way every time they came here, because without a road there was no transport. When it rained, they had to change their shoes at the Trasmayo Terminal.”
The yellow shoes have been a symbol of the hillside neighborhoods of Medellín. Its inhabitants had to go down from the top of the mountain to the Trasmayo Terminal on foot to work in the center of Medellín or its surroundings. Due to the conditions of the ground and lack of pavement, their shoes were always stained by the sand of the streets. To prevent the stigmas associated with dirty shoes, lockers were created at the bus terminal where they kept or loaned clean shoes for residents to use.
Intentional Infrastructure Interventions
Metrocable’s first line, Line K, now connects some of the city's most physically challenging to reach and socially marginalized areas in northeastern Medellín with the urban center. Today, around 150,000 people use Metrocable daily, and the use of 1.7 million gallons of diesel fuel per year has been prevented. Additional interventions included other metro lines and an extension of the road network, which had to form a rapid and wide network of roads that connected with the main sectors of the city. The territorial interventions have also reduced crime rates, increased access to education, reduction of daily travel times and the cost of commuting, and attracted new businesses, tourism, and investments to previously disconnected parts of the city.
Persistent, Creative Communities
Communities have implemented self-management practices that allow them to improve their living conditions while reiterating demands for state support to combat the social inequalities that are still apparent between the center and the periphery.
Granizal neighborhood has one of the most acute situations. Residents of Granizal have claimed the fundamental right to drinking water for years: the ongoing lack of access to a decent aqueduct system has marked their community struggle. Its absence has led to serious consequences for the public health of this population
The Covid pandemic helped residents to reinforce pressure on the state to respond to their demand for the right to drinking water, though the implementation of a successful recent lawsuit is lagging. Up to today, all they’ve received are a series of large containers with clean water. People are forced to walk to these containers to fill their buckets with water and transport them to their homes. Leidy, a resident of Granizal, talks about this emergency,
“The water is the most pressing emergency, because it is very dirty. In front of where my mom is, there is a water tank that is clean and is deposited by EPM cars. But the water that arrives here arrives very yellow, which I use for washing. When I don't have water from the tank, I boil the yellow water and drink it."
The community of Vereda Granizal, needing water, diverted it from an EPM pipeline that goes to the Piedras Blancas dam, stored it in tanks, and then distributed it to the houses through pipes. While that water has never been drinkable—even causing health problems in the community—this diversion presents a solution, albeit an irregular one, to a vital problem that neither EPM nor the Municipality of Bello have been willing to permanently solve. In recent years, EPM has installed tanks with a capacity of 1000L and 5000L in the territory that are filled every day so that the population of Manantiales and El Pinar can obtain the vital minimum of water in their homes. This photograph shows one of those water tanks on display in the exhibition.
Other infrastructure projects are needed to give residents access to health, training, recreation, and mobility.
“There are children who suffer stomach problems from the water that rises here. A child in a hospital, you have to get money. We need good water. We need ways for people and cars to enter. Also, organize the communal house, the children's library. Up there, they said they were going to give help for a field, but they don't help us.”
- Juan Carlos, inhabitant of the Portal de Oriente sector of the Granizal village, 2021
“The main health centers for the population of Granizal and Popular become pharmacies, since there they offer faster and more accessible services for the population [...]. However, it also puts into the discussion that people who do not have an economic resource cannot even access this service; an example is the Venezuelan population and other types of migrants."
- Member of a Foundation in Santo Domingo, 2021
These deficiencies in urban equipment are deeper in some sectors than in others, given that, just as in Granizal, fundamental issues such as networks for home services and transport routes are required in neighborhoods such as Santo Domingo or El Picacho.
It’s important to point out the instrumentalization to which the populations of sectors such as Granizal are subjected by groups with electoral aspirations. Unfortunately, political groups are only interested in the area and its people at election time. A social leader in Granizal reports,
“Every four years, there are elections. Each candidate makes it a political issue. ’Let's vote for this one because this one is going to legalize the area,’ but no one legalizes anything, and things remain the same.”
- Social leader in the Granizal village, 2021
It is worth highlighting the great variety of cultures gathered in the same sector, giving the possibility of intercultural dialogues. The identities of the neighborhoods of La Cruz, Manrique, Vereda Granizal, and Santo Domingo are mixtures of knowledge from inhabitants. Each person brings with them, whether in an overt or covert way, what was in their home at the time. Plants, animals, music, and foods mix in these neighborhoods.
“The football pitch in sector four of the neighborhoods of La Onda is a football pitch where Afro-Colombian communities have arrived, displaced by the state and displaced by armed groups. They have found refuge in the sector of the neighborhood, they have settled near and have taken advantage of the football pitch as a unique space for recreation, a unique space where they can meet with other people, where they can congregate and it is the only flat open space there is to share among the community.”
- Resident, La Cruz
Navigating Continuing Challenges
Through the words, objects, and images of its residents, we can begin to see the complex and layered truths of the Aburrá Valley: its urban realities are complicated, contradictory, and compelling.
This city is fragmented. Though its steep terracotta slopes gaze directly down onto the skyscrapers and government offices of Medellin, the periphery lies—in many ways—far from the centre. The gaps in infrastructure, services, and security persist, with acute consequences for the residents of many barrios.
“I call these territories airports. People land there and then go on their way to other opportunities. The expression airport is used for places where people can get to very easily. They land very easily after coming from a very complex situation.”
- Juan Camilo, Fundación Huellas
”You feel more from Bello at school, but at university you go to Medellín. You don’t tell a foreigner that you are from Bello; after all, Bello is more an addition to Medellín than its own place. What is there in Bello?”
- A resident of the Paris neighborhood in Bello
Though the metro goes some way to closing the chasm between the centre and the periphery, the fragmentation of the city is more than just geographical, and the cracks must not simply be papered over.
“The Metrocable means increased safety, particularly for women. But it also separates me from my neighbors and causes visual pollution and noise near the station. And at night, it’s a dead place around the station.”
- Mother and resident of El Pinal, Line M
"The Metrocable makes it much easier to get around and has brought about a change in the economic structure - there is more tourism and commerce. The neighborhood has a lot of potential, for example, cultural route, graffiti route, Museum of Memories, promotion of small businesses and creative industries."
- Estefania, Emily, CEDEZO, Santo Domingo, Line K
Many hours of life are spent collecting safe drinkable water, many pesos are spent paying illegal groups for security, and many go without dignified work.
In Colombia, there are around 50,000 recyclers earning a living by collecting solid waste. The recyclers of a Granizal neighborhood separate plastic bottles, a job that many of us do not do at home. Through their work, they contribute to a much cleaner world.
Amid a sense of exclusion and distance from the centre lies a sense of identity and closeness. In neighbourhoods that have created their own infrastructure, woven networks of community support continue fighting to have their rights recognised, and basic needs met.
Medellin demands more than a single narrative. Its history cannot be told via a cable car, a single piece of street art, or a single person. The city deserves a multitude of voices, media, and perspectives.
Learn more about Contra Miradas in Engligh
Resources referenced in the Contra Miradas project
Alcaldía de Medellín. (2006). Cerro Santo Domingo. https://bit.ly/3xW61mh
Ballesteros, J. I., Sierra, M., Torres, E. M., Velásquez, C., y Vélez, E. (2009). Santo Domingo Savio: un ter[r]itorio reterritorializado. https://bit.ly/3eJWSFD
Correa, M. (2009). Las víctimas del desplazamiento forzado toman la palabra. Reflexión Política, (21), 160-171. https://bit.ly/2JCfgno
Foro Social Mundial. (2005, enero). Carta Mundial por el derecho a la ciudad (N.o 5). https://www.ugr.es/~revpaz/documentacion/rpc_n5_2012_doc1.pdf
Duhau, E. (2002). Dimensiones socio-políticas de la irregularidad y la regularización de los asentamientos populares. https://bit.ly/39VcVPw
Fundación Berta Martínez de Jaramillo. (s.f.). Descripción demográfica barrio La Cruz. http://www.bertamartinez.org/Default.aspx?TabId=242
¡Granizal, ahora más cerca del agua potable y el alcantarillado público! (2020, Marzo, 3). Facultad de Derecho y Ciencias Políticas de la Universidad de Antioquia. https://bit.ly/36aEthD
Montoya, N. (2014). Urbanismo social en Medellín: una aproximación a partir de la utilización estratégica de los derechos. Estudios Políticos, (45), pp. 205-222. https://www.redalyc.org/articulo.oa?id=16431516011
Maldonado, J. Facultad CC Políticas y Sociología, Universidad Complutense, Madrid. Política y Sociedad, 25 (1997), Madrid (pp. 21-36)
Ortiz, A. (2012). Caracterización Comuna 3 Manrique de la ciudad de Medellín. https://bit.ly/3hSyBz8
Rengifo, C. J., Cárdenas, O. M., Suárez, E. M., Balbín, K., Quiroz, S. J., Henao, M. C., Muñoz, J. D., Garcés, M., Naranjo, G., y Granada, J. G. (2017, Octubre). Rutas de memoria colectiva, paz territorial y pedagogía crítica Comuna 3 de Medellín y Vereda Granizal de Bello. Universidad de Antioquia. http://hdl.handle.net/10495/12567
Ríos, A. F. (2019, Marzo, 6). En la vereda Granizal, banda pretende cobrar $8000 semanales por agua que ni siquiera es potable. Por los Derechos Humanos. https://bit.ly/33FsNll
Ruiz, Jaime. (2001). Antecedentes urbanísticos de Medellín. La Sociología en sus Escenarios, (5). https://revistas.udea.edu.co/index.php/ceo/article/view/1587
Torres, C. A. (2009). Ciudad informal colombiana: barrios construidos por la gente. Bogotá, Colombia: Universidad Nacional de Colombia.
Vargas, J. (2019). Granizal: un aula viva donde crece el vínculo que brota de la confianza. Significados para los actores comunitarios de la práctica académica basada en la Atención Primaria en Salud de la Facultad de Medicina de la Universidad de Antioquia en la Vereda Granizal de Bello, 2009-2018 [Tesis de maestría]. Universidad de Antioquia, Medellín, Colombia. https://bit.ly/3qDA8vm
Velásquez, C. A. (2013). Intervenciones estatales en sectores informales de Medellín. Experiencias en mejoramiento barrial urbano. Revista Bitácora Urbano Territorial, 23 (2), 139-146. https://www.redalyc.org/pdf/748/74830874017.pdf
Vélez, A., Tavera, D. J. y Ríos, M. A. (2016). Estrategias de desarrollo comunitario para el manejo de la visibilización político-administrativa en la vereda Granizal del municipio de Bello- Antioquia [Tesis de pregrado]. Corporación Universitaria Minuto de Dios, Bello, Colombia.