It’s 11.30 in the evening and I’m sitting on the floor of Dorian and Ximena Quintero’s apartment in the Colombian city of Medellín. They’re the coordinators of a grassroots group called Corporación Casa Mia (or “my house” in Spanish). Sophia the cat is stretching, and I’m taking life lessons from David, who’s another member of the group (I’m not using his surname to protect him).
In Colombia right now everybody’s talking about the public rejection of a deal with the FARC guerillas after 52 years of civil war by a tiny majority of those who voted, but somehow things feel a bit more optimistic when the person advocating peace is a 24-year-old who spent the majority of his teens working as a gunman. After taking part in Casa Mia’s rehabilitation program, David turned his hands to designing solar energy solutions. “The hardest work is that of finding peace inside of myself” he tells me, “I work on this everyday.”
For many years, Medellín was one of the focal points of the war which killed 260,000 people and displaced millions more internally. Given the absence of any effective government (along with the state’s active contribution to the violence), many residents mobilized themselves through their own grassroots organizations like Casa Mia, which was established in 1993. In Dorian’s words there was no grand vision behind the group, just “the ritual of hugs, affection, alternative language, an honour code, and a commitment to life.”
He was 14 when he moved, alone, to Medellín. His neighbourhood was a war zone, where he found himself “picking up the dead bodies of my friends from the streets”. But the members of Casa Mia protected him, just as he protected those who came after him like David, who joined the group four years ago. Dorian continued:
“When young people step into a conflict they feel estranged, separated and deeply alone. They need hugs, they need someone to hold them and to trust them. The crisis of our society is not just rooted in inequality, poverty and violence, but rather in a crisis of values, in a loss of our sense of community, in the death of our capacity to trust one another. Our society is wounded body and soul. With urgency, we need to recompose the fabric of affection, fill it with friendship, shared work and happiness.”
In the context of violence in Colombia, the most complicated challenge people face is often that of forgiving. “The paramilitary killed my brother,” Dorian told me, and his next sentence makes me shiver: “I practice forgiveness as a gift to myself.” You can’t teach how to forgive. Instead, Casa Mia tries to create safe spaces in which forgiveness, and particularly self-forgiveness, may be possible, and to use that as the foundation for a different life.
To guide them they’ve adopted the Quechua phrase Sumak Kawsay as their vision, commonly translated into Spanish as Buen Vivir (‘living well’ in English, or ‘living well together’). It’s a concept that grew out of Latin America’s indigenous cosmovisions which see human experience as fully integrated with nature and the rest of the community. To the members of Casa Mia, ‘living well together’ has become a constant practice—both the goal of what they do and a means to achieve it.
To promote this vision, the group relies heavily on symbolism and experiential learning. From the outside, the office looks like any other house in the neighborhood, but the door stays permanently open. Standing at the entrance you’ll see children and young people of different ages popping in and out, as if they’re dropping by the house of a friend. On the second floor there’s a ‘thinking room’ that’s decked out with beanbags, a comfy carpet and a psychedelic mirror mounted on the ceiling. It’s a reminder that we all need to see the world from unlikely angles. The thinking room has toys, an electric fountain, a projector and a small shelf of books.
One of the books looks like a children’s fable, but it has a hole cut right through the middle and a small mirror taped to the back cover. For what I wondered? I got my answer in a workshop where young people were asked to pick up the book and talk about any of the characters they found in its pages. But there were no characters, only a hole to look through with a mirror at the end. So they looked at themselves in the mirror and told their own stories to the group. Here’s what David said:
“I remember it was during a game we did in the countryside that something deep inside of me started to shift. To win the game, all I had to do was reach a table in the middle of a field, stand on it, and declare: ‘I am the master of my own life’. Everybody did it, and I was the last one to play. But I just could not do it.
Everybody was creating obstacles for me to get there. I kept getting up and being tackled down by the others in the game. I still remember Dorian yelling at me: ‘Are you going to give up? Are you really going to stop dreaming now? You are going to give up.’ At some point I lost it. I got angry. I was on the floor.
It all felt like a nightmare, but that game was a metaphor for my whole life.”
“And then?” I asked.
“I am not sure how it happened, it just did. I was so exhausted; they all must have thought the game was over. So they got distracted. And then I ran and I ran. I jumped on that table and I screamed: ‘I am the master of my life.’ That was such an important moment for me.”
Next to the thinking room there’s a small recording studio where Casa Mia captures the musical talents of young people in the neighbourhood. The last floor of the house is an open concept workshop-room: it brings to life theatre, dance, clowning and any other creative art you can think of. Moving around these rooms where people are taught self-exploration, forgiveness, and community living, I feel an undeniable sensation of lightness, energy, and vitality.
What matters, the group believes, is how young people interact with themselves and with others. The goal is for everyone to feel protected, heard, validated and cared for. So they remind people that to live in harmony with their environment they need to be able to inhabit their bodies, the first environment they have. This creates a much stronger sense of connectedness for whatever kinds of activism or community organizing they decide to take on. “We know that even if one person has a profound personal transformation, we have changed something important” as Ximena puts it.
They have a similar relationship with their planning processes. Casa Mia has a strategic plan exposed on the wall of their office—a large collage of coloured flipchart paper. This allows staff and volunteers to understand the organization, and it makes the work easily accessible. But it isn’t rigid: “we will do whatever is needed to support positive change in our community,” says Ximena, “what is needed in each historical moment might be different.”
To live well, young people need to recognize themselves and re-envision their lives. In the meantime, the group emphasizes that happiness is not to be found only out in the world, or in some imagined future. Instead, they practice community living in the here and now through potlucks, dances, theatre and collective action as part of a living commitment to ‘pre-figurative’ politics. Buen Vivir helps them to construct an organizational culture that supports the exploration of what ‘living well together’ means in concrete terms. For them, this idea is both vibrant and intimate. Living in harmony can help everyone to be connected, and it’s connection that makes us thrive as human beings.
Casa Mia talks about their project as a ‘dream in construction’, but if so it’s a very lucid dream. They believe that there’s no need to define ourselves, nor ideas such as Buen Vivir, too narrowly: by doing so we get stuck in a smaller version of ourselves. Instead, they encourage their community to wake up from the illusion of being helpless and find peace. There’s no need to make excuses for living well together.