“Who dies the most? The people from the Colombian Pacific”
Don Gu is a cultural manager from Tumaco, Colombia. He has been working with children and young people for over 25 years to get them out of violent networks through a medium he considers powerful: culture. This is his testimony.
Don Gu speaks:
My name is Gustavo Colorado. I was born in Tumaco, Nariño, a town of African settlement in southwestern Colombia. I grew up in a neighborhood called ‘Avenida la Playa.’ When I was two months old, I got typhoid fever, that is, polio, which affected my right foot. I grew up with my grandmother because my mom left me with her. She was my mom and dad.
Growing up with polio was very difficult because I had to fight it to be able to walk, and there was no doctor to evaluate what disease I had. My grandmother used herbs to cure me, and I asked God to help me walk. I learned to walk late, when I was 16. At this age I started to understand how to reach society without becoming a criminal or part of some criminal gang because I was disabled.
I had to face a lot of discrimination at school. As a result, I began to look at music so people could see something different in me than the disability. I began to learn a little bit of music, which was something I already had inside me and is in my blood, but which I had never practiced.
I began to be a part of the Tumaco Foundation and to follow our ancestors’ musical legacy. Then, I learned to make some lutherie with the master Crípulo Ramos and advanced in my arts. I lived in the ‘Avenida la Playa’ area for almost 25 years. Then I moved to a sector further away, ‘La Ciudadela.'
La Ciudadela was a slum, a marginalized sector with a strong chain of misery. And a structural misery: from mental to physical poverty, and unsatisfied needs. A place without water, without energy, without anything. It is the place where misery starts, where violence is born, where what we live in Colombia, in our villages, originates.
When I saw that situation, I started to think about how to get the kids to not take to guns. First, I started handing out lemonade; I would take out a big pot and gather the children and youth and talk to them.
When I had a large group, I started to introduce them to the idea of music, dance, and lutherie, and began a work that I didn't think would happen. They started to believe in the process of culture, of art. Finally, we began to create an association called "Centro Cultural Artesanal de Música, Danza y Artesanía" with the idea of continuing to protect them, a safe place that protected them from all the violence.
We began to rehearse and learn to do things we did not know how to do. Many people came. We were even recognized by UNHCR (United Nations Agency for Refugees) in Nariño, who even gave us tools for lutherie.
Still, we were in the process of getting the boys away from the guns. It is usually not their fault when they end up getting into violence. They have needs to fulfill, because even when in Tumaco people work in shelling, fishing, and some agriculture, it's not enough to make ends meet. So we strated to work with the families. We told them that, through art, we could help their children get ahead.
Many people were interested and helping me with this initiative. But once they saw what hapened to me, they did not want to continue.
Don Gu stops speaking.
Don Gu had to leave Tumaco in 2018 after receiving threats and an attack outside his home. He went to Bogotá, where he works with Fundación Gratitud and is looking for a way to continue supporting young people, so they don't fall into the nets of violence.
Don Gu speaks:
Today, I still teach music and lutherie workshops. It has been a very tough life. Doing something for someone makes me happy. People who don't know what hunger is, criticize the person who takes a gun. But they don't know how difficult it is in the villages for parents to have some money to bring food to their children.
I do not justify it, but it is a reality that the State is not interested in. The State does not have eyes for the Pacific people either, and it is the only one that can protect them. That is why it is up to the people themselves to arm themselves with energy.
I want to create a school in Tumaco where young people feel safe, where they are going to learn an art and share without getting hurt. I'm looking for resources for that. And that school will have the same name as the center which I started: "Centro Cultural Artesanal de Música, Danza y Artesanía.” That is the only way to protect our young people, through art and culture.
Tumaco is a very rich and poor town at the same time. It is the center of the Pacific, which is why it has also become a territory of much violence.
It has one of the best ports in Latin America, through which many things should come to us, but that's not the case. Tumaco has no aqueduct. We still bathe with coca, which is a sign of how backward and how forgotten the town is.
Another issue is that Tumaco was damaged by coca. When coca arrives in Tumaco, we don't know where it comes from.. In Nariño, the replacement of coca crops for illicit use faces great challenges amid state neglect and conflict.
Don Gu stops speaking.
For the peasant communities, indigenous of the Awá people and afro-descendants, coca became a cancer during the last three decades, due to the so-called "war on drugs", the militarization of the Colombian geography through Plan Colombia, and the sprayings with the herbicide glyphosate. All this pushed the coca growers from Putumayo towards the piedmont forests and the Pacific coast of Nariño.
The conflict generated by various irregular groups that benefit from the production of cocaine hydrochloride affects the inhabitant’s social conditions, who see in the inclusion of their territories in the first stage of the Integrated National Program for the Substitution of Illicit Crops (PNIS) an opportunity to improve their living conditions, following the signing of the peace accords between the national government and the former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in 2016.
The increase in coca cultivation in Nariño is worrying. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) "Monitoring of territories affected by illicit crops 2017," this area of the country ranks first in terms of area planted with coca leaf, with 45.735 hectares, of which 19.516 hectares (42.6 percent) are located in Tumaco; followed by Putumayo, with 26.589; and Norte de Santander, with 28.244 hectares. According to the international organization, the three departments account for 60 percent of the total area planted in Colombia.
Instruments represent a country, my region: a legacy to protect us from that physical and mental violence
Don Gu speaks:
The reality is that all the Afro settlements in Colombia live in poverty. Who dies the most? The Pacific people. We pay for the broken plates of the rest, and that is why it is up to the community to come up with any activity to confront the situation, to minimize the violence. But the truth is that in Colombia, violence has become part of the culture.
Other social leaders have died because they tried to save their villages, their people. It is painful and terrible that we go through something like this today.
When you take young people and teach them something different, you become a target for those who want them for violence. I had more than 300 young people in my workshops, teaching them music, dance. But people who live from weapons, from the conflict, wanted these children. And that's where the fighting begins.
Violence has always been there. Violence is stronger than the pandemic.
I work with Fundación Gratitud, a foundation that believes that art and culture can create social transformation and bring emotional well-being. They train cultural managers in the territory so that they can improve processes within communities. They teach something that they themselves invented: cultural empathy, which consists of understanding how others feel when they understand their cultural manifestations. In the end, they fulfill a role that the government should fulfill: help communities.
I want to go back to Tumaco, but I can't.
For now, I will continue my work with the foundation and play my instruments: the marimba, the cununo, the bass drum. Instruments that represent a country, my region: a legacy to protect us from physical and mental violence.
I want to go back to Tumaco, to my boys, who taught me so much too. I want to teach them that culture is one of the most powerful means of leaving violence behind and moving forward.
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