Happy, Alive, Complete
CÚCUTA, Colombia—More than 3 million citizens have been displaced during the past decade of Colombia’s armed conflict, around 120,000 in Norte de Santander, a state that lies on the country’s border with Venezuela. As part of a series for the magazine at which I’m interning, I went with an editor to the barrios just outside of Cúcuta, the state’s muggy capital, where many of these displaced people have recently settled.
At first I was nervous: no one had been told in advance that we were coming, and they had no idea who we were—why would they let us photograph and videotape them? My Colombian editor seemed unconcerned.
He began taking pictures of a girl playing in her backyard. When her mom came out, I turned away instinctively, and pretended to film another area. But she invited us in, offered food and drinks, and posed for photos. “Mommy’s going to be on TV,” her daughter said.
Gradually, I grew more comfortable, filming a pair of girls playing on the street, who smiled and posed. A little boy giggled as he showed me the bunk-bed on which he slept in his one-room house. By the refrigerator, his father smiled.
During my time in Latin America, I had looked at these people—their bright, crumbling houses; their dark, wrinkled faces; the rivers in which they bathed—and seen poverty and sadness. But they didn’t.
“We’re happy,” one man said as he sat in front of his house. Displaced by paramilitary troops in 2007, he had settled in this shantytown and begun making leather shoes and sandals, which he sells for six to seven dollars at the Venezuelan border. “My family and I,” he continued, motioning with his knife toward the back room, where his son watched TV, “we’re alive, we’re complete, and that’s what matters.”
At the end of the day, we noticed a woman, a shirt over her head for shade against the sun. She was heading to a bus stop to meet her son from soccer practice—a two-hour journey uphill—so we gave her a lift. She sat by the window, and recounted in a flat tone her recent displacement by paramilitaries, who had killed her brother-in-law.
I was photographing houses alongside the road. I reached over to take pictures out her window, and asked her to press the black electronic button to roll it down. “How?” she asked.
We came from different worlds: she didn’t know how car windows open, basic aspects of her life were foreign to me. Just as I saw people like her initially as an objective representation of poverty, they could have seen me as an objective representation of American privilege. They seemed not to: by sharing their thoughts, by inviting me into their homes, they demonstrated acceptance of me as a human being—someone from an entirely different culture perhaps, but someone who could understood common emotions, of sadness, love and hope. Through simple human interaction, both our worlds had become larger.
As we neared the bus stop, my editor told her how much he liked her town. It must be a nice place to live, he said.
“Yes, sir,” she said. “I think so too. I hope.”
Sascha Bercovitch ’14, a Crimson design editor, is a history concentrator in Currier House.