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Remembering Place: Memory and Violence

in Medellin, Colombia
Place-heart-memory here is a genuine mysterium conliautumis which yields heart
as the place of memory, memory as the place where heart is left, heart as what is
left of remembered place.
Edward Case), 'Getting Placed: Soul in Space
In the city of Medellin stories dwell in parks, bars, and corner stores; they
circulate through streets and avenues and are organized in reference to ke
mnemonic landmarks such as billboards, buildings, ravines or hills. Memo-
ries are bound to place, dwelling in natural and urban landscapes, in local site
and chronological referents and in sensorial and biographical environments.
But it is also within place
This article examines the connections between
people, memories and violence through an eth-
nographic account of the ways places are rendered
meaningful in Medellin, Colombia. In this city,
daily life has been profoundly affected by a multi-
layered violent conflict where multiple armed ac-
tors, scenarios and forms of violence interplay. The
article describes practices of place-making such as
landmarking, place-naming, soundscaping, and
imagining that invest places with significance and
maintain a local implicit knowledge that allows
circulation and survival in the city. Through these
practices of place-making, memory has become a
bridging practice that restores a sense of place to
the experience of displacement that violence in-
flicts in peoples lives. These processes, however,
arc at risk of becoming emptied of meaning b\
the power of widespread violences to suppress and
fragment and b\ the w a\ s terror and fear are re-
making, the social landscape.
and territorial references
that Medellin's city dwell-
ers can better describe the
tangible presence of vio-
lence in their lives. For
residents of Medellin.
where the last 20 years of
drug-related, political
and even day violence
have profoundly affected
daily life, the immediacy
of the "here or in the
not-so-far 'there" marks
the places and stories of
death, the marks of vio-
lence on physical struc-
tures and physical bodies,
and the invisible bound-
aries that define areas of
no circulation. \ lolence
,: [,iw: A:, , ^ 1 "' "6
2002 \ \nthropologicil A
276 Journal of Latin American Anthropology
Pilar Riano-Alcala
Instituto Colombiano de
Antropologia e Historia
dwells and circulates in the street, the block or in residents homes, operating
as a displacing and segregating force. As in a palimpsest, these places have
become mnemonic marks where layers of memories overlap. Places are marked
by memories of death, destruction or fighting as they can be haunted by im-
ages of horror and destruction, but the memories of group rituals, local myths
or collective moments of encounter inhabit these places as well.
This article explores these connections between people, memories and
violence through an eth-
nographic account of the
cultural practices by
which places are rendered
meaningful in Medellin,
Colombia. Located in an-
thropological debates on
the cultural dimensions
of violence, the article
approaches violence as a
lived experience. It exam-
ines how individuals re-
create cultural strategies
and practices when faced
with the uncertainties of
their living conditions
under widespread vio-
lence (Warren 1993).
The article specifically
explores how places are
culturally constructed b
El articulo examina las relaciones entre
individuos, memorias y violencia a traves de una
descripcion etnografica de los modos en que los
lugares adquieren significado para los residentes
de Medellin, Colombia. En esta ciudad, la vida
diaria ha sido profundamente afectada por un
conflicto violento en el que interactiian diversos
actores armados, escenarios y formas de violencia.
Se describen practicas de construccion de lugares
que marcan el paisaje, nombran los lugares,
inscriben el paisaje sonoro y la imaginacion y los
revisten de significado mientras que mantienen un
saber local que permite circular y sobrevivir en la
ciudad. Desde estas practicas la memoria se
transforma en una practica puente que restaura
un sentido de lugar a la experiencia de
desplazamiento impuesta por las violencias. Sin
embargo, estos procesos se encuentran en riesgo
de perder sentido por el poder fragmentador de
las multiples violencias y por los modos en que el
terror y el miedo estan rehaciendo el paisaje social.
Remembering Place: Memory and Violence 277
Medellm's city dwellers, and how city dwellers invest these places with signifi-
cancewhich I will refer to as "sense of place."
Memory in this article constitutes a guiding theme and a methodological
tool to examine the lived experience of violence. Here are examined the ways
in which memory has preserved some of the secrets of the cultural and social
survival of Medellfn's city dwellers and the workings and politics of memory
in a society where violent practices have silenced many areas of daily life. I
argue that in the city of Medellm, memory has become a bridging practice
that allows city dwellers to make sense of the living environment as a vivid
social and relational milieu. Practices of memory, in this context, restore a
sense of place to the experiences of displacement, discontinuity and fragmen-
tation that violence inflicts on people's lives.
Medellin: Conflicts and Violences
Medellin is the capital of the Department of Antioquia and the second
largest city in Colombia. Located in the Valley of Aburra at 1,600 meters, the
city is surrounded by mountains and tropical jungle vegetation. In the 1980s,
Medellin became the strategic centre for the operations of the powerful Medellin
cartel, undergoing a dramatic social transformation.
Youth, in particular,
joined gangs, became sicarios (hired assassins) or part of an underground net-
work of illegal services for organized crime. When the Medellin cartel de-
clared war on the state (early 1990s), bombs and the killing of high profile
politicians from the left and the right, of judges, of ministers and political
activists proliferated in the country.
Death statistics and victim profiles changed dramatically on a local and
national level. The victims of homicide were now mostly men (90 percent)
between 13 and 38 years old (85 percent) [Camacho and Guzman 1990]. By
1985, homicide became the first cause of death in the country, a trend that
remains through today. Colombia had become one of the most violent coun-
tries worldwide, reaching a yearly average of 77 homicides per 100,000 people.
By 1991, the city of Medellin was showing a much bleaker picture, reaching a
rate of 381 homicides per 100,000 people (Corporaci6n Regi6n 1999).
Since the end of the eighties, the proliferation and growth of the national
guerrilla groups and the paramilitary groups also had a major impact in the
city of Medellin.
On a national level, the two leftist guerrilla groups, particu-
larly the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or Revolu-
tionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and the ELN (Eje*rcito de Liberaci6n
Nacional, or National Liberation Army), demonstrated a steady growth in the
number of combatants, controlled territories, and subversive actions. The right-
wing paramilitary groups financed by rich landowners and drug cartels, ex-
panded through the national landscape and consolidated in a national organi-
278 Journal of Latin American Anthropology
zation, the AUC (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, or United Self-Defense
Forces of Colombia). The urban militias that originally emerged as a form of
urban guerrilla gained a strong territorial presence in the barrios of Medellfn.
The urban militias respresented a unique mixing of political actor and orga-
nized gang with a self-proclaimed mission to protect the barrios from youth
gangs and petty crime (Ceballos 2000). Death squads continued with their
"cleanup" campaigns directed mainly at those who were associated with either
the guerrilla, the consumption of drugs or the perpetration of crime (Comision
de Estudios sobre la Violencia 1992). During the time of my fieldwork, the
two main local armed actors were the militias and the youth gangs. Both
groups had a territorial presence in the barrios of Medellm, fighting over con-
trol of territories.
Place-Making: Memory Landscapes and Landmarks
During a memory workshop
with youth workers from the city of
Hector, a youth worker and a poet, stands up in front of the group
to name a place in the city that triggers significant memories and emotions to
Hector: Playa Avenue ... There is a time I remember, that has marked me,
that has marked this city, and it is between '87 and '89, in this city there
were at least ten poetry workgroups, and I remember once, in one week,
we launched seven poetry magazines, and I remember it was precisely the
same time when they were doing so much KILLING in Medellin, [but]
there were also many poetry readings [...] So one would leave a recital at
the National [University] and then the next day go to another at the
Antioquia [University], and then back to the one at the Medellin [Uni-
versity] , and there was a moment, during the famous curfew, the worst,
worst moment, the day that Juan Gomez [the city's mayor] lifted the cur-
few.., that was a recital that no one missed. Playa Avenue was packed, it
was amazing, and we rolled out poems, we rolled out tragedy and that day
we wanted to pay tribute [his voice breaks] to a friend..., one of the youngest
poets, they killed him and another pekdo (kid) around Oriental [avenue]
..., he was smoking bareta (pot) and after that [crying]... they institution-
alized Poetry in Medellfn, and everything ended up in a goddamned fes-
tival... [silence]
Hector's sense of this place is made from the memory of an intense lived
experience as well as from the emotions and images brought forward by events
like the death of his friend, the commemorative act, the presence of poetry in
the streets, and the city curfew. The years Hector is making reference to were
brought up in almost every session or interview I had with Medellfns city
Remembering Place: Memory and Violence 279
dwellers. For some, those were the feared times of "the bombs" when the
Medellfn drug cartel imposed a climate of terror in the country to pressure the
government to reverse the extradition of Colombians to United States. Every-
day life was affected quite dramatically for all those living in Medellfn, as the
probability of a bomb anywhere in the city was very real. Hector's narrative is
also revealing of other circumstances that took place during those years. Po-
etry survived and coexisted with violence, poetry circulated on the streets that
were often the site of the explosions, poetry defied the city curfew, and poetry
also suffered the pain of death.
In Hector's narrative, the physical space of the avenue takes on new mean-
ing, one that is not restricted to spatial boundaries but re-created in memory
by his sensorial experience of having been there at the poetry recitals and
conmemoration. It introduces us to some of the ways in which Medellfn city
dwellers encounter and make places: by remembering and reconstructing what
happened there through storytelling, by drawing out specific kinds of knowl-
edge about life in the city, by apprehending their physical uniqueness, by
naming or renaming these places, by establishing landmarks; and, as Hector
says, by recognizing the ways that places and events have "marked" them.
Sensing of place is one of the most basic dimensions of human experience
and one that is highly informative of our relationship with the environment
and the landscapes that surround us (Basso 1997; Casey 1996). Places consti-
tute physical, social and sensorial realms for our actions, but for our memo-
ries and imaginations as well. Place-making is a cultural activity that all of us
"do" in order to locate ourselves meaningfully in the environment we interact
with. My inquiry into place-making is concerned with the capacity of places
like the streets and avenues of Medellfn to trigger memory and imagination,
to connect people to a sense of history and to reveal some of the ways by
which we come to define who we are and where our sense of rootedness and
belonging come from.
The Memory of Things Seen
For the ancient Aztecs, in tlilli, in tlapalli, la tinta negra y roja de sus codices were
the colors symbolizing escritura y sabiduria [...] An image is a bridge between
evoked emotions and conscious knowledge; words are cables that hold up the
bridge. Images are more direct, more immediate than words, and close to the
unconscious. I write the myth in me, the myths I am, the myths I want to become.
The word, the image and the feeling have a palatable energy, a kind of power.
Con imagenes domo mi miedo, cruzo los abismos que tengo por dentro.
Gloria Anzaldua, "Tlilli, Tlapalli: The Path of the Red and Black-Ink"
In a memory workshop with youth from Barrio Antioquia,
I now hear
Jennifer, a young woman born in the barrio. She had constructed an image
(see Fig. 1) out of cut-outs and placed it on a square base for a memory quilt
280 Journal of Latin American Anthropology
about the war. 1 he ston she tells is framed in landscape and topographic
referents, and reveals the seasonal experience that walking and street wander-
ing have for these \outh. Jennifer shows her image, created with intense red
and black colours of a street in the barrio and at night:
Jennifer: I want here to represent the night. That day they had killed m\
best friend Camilo. Lets see, that da}' I was sleeping in my house, and he
knew he couldn't go there [to an alley] because he knew they were tr) ing
to kill him, but I don't know, cuando uno se vd a monr la muerte lo bused
(when you're going to die then death will find you). That day he was over
there and when he got to the corner they were waiting for him and they
killed him, then the boys ran in and dragged him out of there up to
, and then got to the corner where I live, then my little sister ran in
and woke me up and told me: "Jennifer, Jennifer, they killed Camilo.
When I got outside they had him halfway down the block, and so I couldn't
really do anything, I left and went with them to the hospital but he was
already dead; that day they killed another guy too. So ... with m\ drawing
I want to express my sadness when I realized that they had killed my
Fig. 1. Jennifer's drawing.
Remembering Place; \Iemor\ and \ioleme 281
In representing the event of the death of her friend, Jennifer captures
through colour and form, and later through narration, the meaning and im-
pact of this event in her life. As she describes the night the event happened, we
understand that it is the memory of an intense visual, sensorial and placed
experience that assists Jennifer in creating her image. This is the memory of
"things seen" that illustrates the dialectical relationship between memory and
image production and the ways they inform and operate through each other
(Melion and Kuchler 1991).
Jennifer's image is a powerful one that gives central importance to those
physical features of the place where her friend was killed and the place where
she last saw him. Through a striking combination of colours and forms, Jen-
nifer maps her emotions in the walls and streets. This centrality of streets is
certainly one that stands out for any visitor to Barrio Antioquia, as it has the
widest streets I have ever seen in a low-income barrio in Colombia. In con-
trast to the great majority of low-income neighbourhoods, Barrio Antioquia
is located in a central area of the city. It is laid out on flat terrain and sur-
rounded by Medellin's old airport and the industrial district. In Jennifer's
image, the action takes place in the middle of the street. These are streets
widely used for social and recreational purposes and they play a central role in
the social life of the barrio. Their importance is now celebrated in a yearly
festival called "Calles de Cultura" (Streets of Culture). The festival brings people,
local schools, institutions and organizations together in a celebration with
music, street parades and troupes, poetry, mimes, art and local economic ac-
tivities. The Calles de Cultura festival, the Easter and Virgen del Carmen
processions, the Halloween parade and the Christmas celebrations are all rec-
ognized as "neutral" events respected by everyone. The tacit agreement for
everyone in the barrio is that these activities are not to be disrupted with any
kind of violence and that these are occasions where circulating through the
entire barrio with the parade is possible. The landmarks in Jennifer's image are
also attached to specific physical structures, to buildings such as Medias Cristal,
the site of a sock/garment factory where many people of the barrio work, to
landscape features such as the trees, and to the streets and alleys where resi-
dents can or cannot walk.
Jennifer's story also reveals the weakening effects of violence on spaces
like the streets that have represented for barrio's residents places of meaningful
social interaction. The transformation of streets into territories of bloody vio-
lence is an expression of the multiple forms in which violence is experienced
by Medellin's residents. A significant number of Medellm's residents have been
displaced from their homes as a consequence of the territorial violence and
the direct impact that macro violences (drug-related, politically inspired or
those of state repression) are having in marking defined cartographies of ter-
282 Journal of Latin American Anthropology
ror and fear across the city. The arrival in Medellm of large numbers of inter-
nally displaced people who are escaping terror and violence from rural areas
and small towns, combined with the lack of local and national strategies to
address the internal displacement problem, have produced a multifolded cri-
sis with clear re-territorializing effects.
A notorious aspei t of the urban trans-
formation of Medellin is seen in the ways that a territor becomes not only
the stage for confrontations but it also symbolizes pow :r, [...] 1 he territory
has become for the whole city, the most immediate regi ler of the oscillations
of war' (Villa 1998:2). In this changing urban landscape Medellins residents
struggle to maintain a sense of coherence through practices of memory and place-
Music is a key element of the barrios of Medellins soundscape. Music
blasts from buses, houses, corner stores and bars without seeming to create
anv conflict or bother anyone. The scene of two gigantic speakers standing
outside a house loudly playing salsa, ballads or disco music is common in
many barrios. Musical sounds, it can be said, are very much engraved in place
and are key descriptors of the ways places are sensed. Nidier, a male youth
from Barrio Antioquia, brought to my attention the power of music to recall
past events and to describe collective feelings and social memories. His idea
was that music is the key tool for activating youth's remembering because
music has the power to take one back in time and place. During the work-
shop, Nidier constructed a quilt image (see Fig. 2) in which he re-creates a
green area on the outskirts of Barrio Antioquia, an area with very old trees and
a ravine. Nidier describes, Fig 2. Nidter's drawing.
Remembering Place: Memory and Violence 283
Nidier: Here I represent that time, OK? Like the time was of la vioUncia
(the violence), anyway this here was like a ravine, [in] the La Cueva sector.
Yeah, so then all this was all bush, the river, the ravine, anyway. So I
represented this because me and a buddy, actually one time, me and a
bunch of buddies were there, everyone en su discurso (minding their own
business), talking, and one of them made this comment: "The day that I
die put this record on, because it signifies everything" [Nidier plays the
song "Siempre Alegre" of Raphie Leavitt]. So this record, it always brings
me good memories
One has to pass through life always happy
After one dies what is it worth
You have to enjoy all the pleasures
Nobody knows when one is going to die
As life is short I live it
And enjoy it with wine and women
I have to spend my life always happy
Ay le lo lay, le lo lay [coro]
Ay le lo lay always happy.
I don't want you to cry for me when I die
If you have to cry for me do it while I live.
Nidier's image brings the sound landscape to the making and sensing of
place. In his narrative and through his image, soundscapes (the sounds of the
natural environment, their conversation and the music), the setting, and the
events are brought together as important elements of his remembering. The
memory of his dead friend is recreated in the natural landscape and it is fully
evoked through listening and playing the song. The lyrics of the song deliver
a message of "how life should be lived," and this message is passed on to the
experience of place. The lesson is supported by a logic that eases the immi-
nence that death has for these youth by stressing the message of life as a simple
matter of enjoyment.
Songs, in particular, have a cycle of social life that gives them representa-
tional and documentary capacities; furthermore, they can provide guidance
to the ways that places are sensed and constructed. The social life of songs
makes reference to the periods when the song is listened to most and to the
specific events that took place during those periods. When the song is played
again later, the events are recalled.
The times of party and celebration are another source of soundscape
memory. One of the remembered times in Barrio Antioquia is when the "en-
tire" barrio learned to dance the Brazilian lambada in the eighties and when
the oppressive presence of violence made a mark in the memory of this music
and the places it was heard.
284 Journal of Latin American Anthropology
Journal entry June I9
, 1997. Memory workshop with a group of30 women
and two men from the Training Centre (Barrio Antioquia):
Sandra, a widow in her twenties with two girls, plays a tape of Lambada
music. The response to the rhythm is immediate and everyone begins
clapping, moving, swinging left and right against each other and laugh-
ing. Aura and Sandra end up dancing in front of everyone. They dance
making wide pelvic movements, lifting their legs up and down, and mov-
ing the rest of their bodies to the sensuous rhythm with passionate and
dramatic composure. The others follow them by clapping. Everyone is
laughing and moving. When the song finishes, Sandra explains,
Sandra: Ah no... I liked this music a lot, and they danced to it in the
Barrio Antioquia . Natusha sang it ["What year was that?" another person
asks], it was in December of 1989.
We danced it in a line, everyone got up and formed a train, everyone got
up (numerous people talking, shouting, explaining how they danced) ... a
really short skirt showing her belly and her hair up in a headband ["Natusha
was incredible!!" says another] ["Even her clothes!"] and everyone in a
little train, dancing. Back then anyone who listened to Natusha was cool,
her clothing was the fashion, they even had contests to see who could
dance like her and imitate her the best.
Omar: ... Back then, with that music in a discotheque they made people
strip and dance naked, and if they didn't do it they killed them..., it was in
a disco they called La Orquidea.
Pilar: Who were these people?
O: A gang, back then they were the Chinos [name of the gang] who lived
in El Chispero.
The lambada soundscape described by Sandra and Omar gives a glimpse
of the barrio's life and mood during a specific period of time. While music
and dance bring everyone together in a community of movement and plea-
sure, violence enters as an underground marker of the memory and of the
music and places where the lambada was heard and danced. Somehow, the
pervasive presence and memory of violence has not destroyed the intense and
warm memory of the pleasurable times. It is a conflictive coexistence, but
both sets of memories continue to dwell in places. In brief, this troublesome
coexistence names the cultural dynamics at work in places affected by vio-
lence and the ambiguity of ethical and social boundaries that legitimize the
actions of the agents of violence or place them in the realm of the underground.
Remembering Place: Memory and Violence 285
Nidier and Jennifer stood in front of the group to tell their stories as did
Sandra with her stones and dance. They told these stories with their bodies,
their movements, their pauses, and their voices. The expressive practice of the
telling and the ways they performed the stories imbued acts, events and ob-
jects with meaning. 1 heir bodies remembered through the acts of bending,
walking or dancing, while their remembering became a re-enactment of the
events described and an expression of the ways they, as youth, experience and
sense place. It is precisely this sense of place as a realm of embodied experi-
ence that provides youth such as Nidier, Jennifer or Sandra with a sense of
belonging and knowledge that maintain coherence and continuity even when
the}' are faced with death and destruction. This type of place-based explora-
tion of memory and violence provides me with a critical stance for questioning
the disregard in literature on violence for an analysis of the crucial ways in
which memory and place mediate and shape the lived experience of violence.
Memories are always attached to, or inherent in places; place is the house of
memor) and memory is the house of place in the soul.
Michael Perlman, Imaginal Memory and the Place of Hiroshima
Juan, a youth leader of the Zona Nor Oriental (Northeastern Zone) of
speaks of his experiences with las casas juveniles (youth houses). The
} outh houses were established in 1990 as one of the initiatives taken by the First
Presidential Office of Medellin to respond to the dramatic situation of violence
affecting the city in those years. Juans image (see Fig. 3) and its story engage us
with the multiple lived relations that youth establish with places and the processes
by which specific locations or physical buildings acquire meaning. Juan describes
his image while recalling several events.
hig. 3. /uiiiis drau ing.
286 Journal of Latin American Anthropology
Juan: This here is the horizon, here is a little sun that is rising, a street that
goes down, this is me and this a friend of mine; this is a store, and here in
the back, here is Dona Rubiela and a sister of hers washing a blood stain
that was on the street. This was on the 24 of December, at sunrise ... no,
not at sunrise, it was already morning. [...] From ' 91, that is to say that we
put together the casa juvenil from about the end of' 89, Giovanny was the
last one, but it was a kind of a build-up ... from a certain period onwards
there began to be many fights, a lot of problems, lots of disputes within
the group, so many opted, and we opted, to leave. But I want to make this
comment about youth work because la casa juvenil in that moment, and
I think it will always be that way, was not something carried out within
four walls and a roof. It was more a feeling, like a kind of duty; in any case
we'd all left the casa juvenil and in December of' 93 we decided to put on
an event in the barrio.
He goes on to describe how, among other things, they got presents for the
barrio's poorer children and how they gave them away:
So off we went, this is the memory that I have so clearly atada (tied) to the
ravine, we grabbed a huge pile of gifts, a pile of things we had ready, and
we headed to the ravine, everything in huge bags and boxes ["but we did
buy some beautiful wrapping paper," says another], which we decorated
and headed off to the ravine, I remember now that ... we were going
along completely overloaded with stuff, and Giovanny, since he was more
or less heavy, or muscular (he said he was muscular), so Giovanny was
carrying two packages, all full of himself, and the ravine was channelled at
a certain angle, and bang! he slipped and went down. When he tried to
get up the guy was slipping back and forth, we just sat there looking
at him and the guy says "have you seen nothing you dickheads, are
you going to help me or not?"... but he was like that. . . the following
day [after they had delivered the presents] around sunrise they killed
A sentiment, "a feeling" and "a kind of duty," the adjectives that Juan uses
to describe the setting convey in all its richness the various meanings of "to be
in place": it is about the experiencing and knowing developed through the
awareness and familiarity of "having been there," it is about a body in motion
that senses the "qualities" of places (sounds, smells, events happening, risks,
etc.) and that, in this case, is interpreted by Juan as a memory "tied" to a place
like the ravine. In telling the story of his friend and their activities, Juan stepped
back from his familiar surroundings and daily life to recognize with full aware-
ness how he sensed places like the ravine or the youth house.
Remembering Place: Memory and Violence 287
Juan's story is supposedly about a community activity, but it is also about
the killing of his friend and the places where his memories dwell. The narra-
tive is displaced between these two events and an evocation of place that is
tied to his memories of friendship, neighbours and community work; to spe-
cific landmarks like the ravine; and to images like the two neighbours washing
away blood and the thread of blood running down the street; or his friend
hanging from the edge of the gully. The grounding of his relation to places is
one of implacement. we are or inhabit places through our bodies, by being
concretely placed there (Casey 1996).
The place of the casas juveniles as one that goes beyond the physical
features to evoke "a feeling" and "a kind of duty" was repeated in many of
the sessions I had with members and ex-members of the youth houses. The
house dwells in memory and in the desire to be together, to be part of a
group. The architecture of a place is symbolically constructed in Juan's
story because for the members of the casas juveniles, the house is, first and
foremost, an emotional construction. The houses changed, they moved from
one location to another, but the idea of the house as a place of friendship,
acceptance and gathering remained. Occasionally, the building itself car-
ries a profound meaning when behind it there is a story of collective effort,
like in the memory of this youth about the collective construction of the
Arley: La casa juvenil ... the last one that I belonged to was right be-
side the church, I actually remember a lot because we built it right
from the ground level, and finished the interior. We all participated, be
that by sweeping up or any small thing, and at the same time each
person felt that this belonged to him, because one didn't just go to
meetings, but also could say I painted this wall, or I swept up this floor
... that was in '92, if I'm not wrong ... I believe that the most glorious
moments of the casa juvenil were then, in that moment, the house was
truly something that one dreamed of, and I'd like that to be the case
today as well.
The house as a physical space also became a place of refuge and an
alternative environment to the street:
Cesar: A beautiful thing about "Open Hearts" [the name of one of the
casas] is to have entered the process by connecting with many young
people, because so many of them hung around there, fumando vicio
(doing drugs), and they were often harassed by the milicianos (urban
[and we would tell them] "if you do that there something
will happen to you," "if you don't change..." anyway, many of them
are not around here today to tell the story, it was very hard in that time.
288 Journal of Latin American Anthropology
At the heart of this sense of place was the recognition that it was "there"
where they, as youth, were able to make a place for themselves in society. At the
time the youth from the Northeastern Zone (popularly known as "la Comuna
Nor Oriental) were gaining a reputation as violent and as hired assassins. A
widespread stereotype of violent youth emerged and was widely used to de-
scribe and exclude youth from this zone. In this context of exclusion, the
finding of a place in the youth houses profoundly marked these youth and
provided them with the referents to maintain a sense of belonging and a way
to make sense of an extremely difficult period in their lives.
The theme of la casa appeared in many forms in the memories of these
youth. The house serves as a powerful image that evokes refuge, a place of
one's own, and remarkable memories, but also a way of inhabiting and
dwelling. The project of las casas juveniles as an economic, social and
cultural alternative for youth involved in the spiral of violence ran into
several difficulties. But even if the project did not succeed in achieving the
expected institutional outcomes, the idea of a "house of our own" took
deep root in those who participated and are still alive. This way of place-
making as an activity of dwelling helps us understand that the relation
between individuals and places is not restricted to its role as a context for
action. It is a relation that goes beyond, into the ways in which individuals
become aware of themselves in interaction with the environment that sur-
rounds them, and into the power of places to situate individuals in that
Place-naming has been examined in anthropological literature as a key
cultural practice that situates people's minds in historical time and space. It
connects them with their past and bringing forward a repertoire of local
knowledge and stories that connect individuals with a sensuous landscape
and geography (Basso 1997; Cronon 1992; Cruikshank 1990; Fox 1997).
This literature has pointed to the value of exploring place-naming for its
capacity to communicate the conceptual frameworks and verbal practices
with which communities appropriate their geography (Basso 1997). I ex-
amine here the cultural significance of place-naming in an urban environ-
ment like Medellin. The exploration of these practices offers a rich ground
to examine how Medellin's residents appropriate and make sense of their
surrounding environment. The impact that disseminated violence has in
the community's social fabric and in the familiar places of circulation and
residence is also discussed.
Moral Lessons and Myth-Names
In September 1997, I was at Ana's house with two other women, one
about the same age as Ana (around 28 years old), the other 18 years old.
Remembering Place: Memory and Violence 289
They were talking about a video recording made that day of the barrio's his-
tory. In their conversation, they mentioned El Callejdn del Infierno (Hell's
Alley). I asked them about the name and Ana responded that the name was
given because a muchacho (young man) who was a "drug addict" killed his
mother there. Ana described the muchacho's desperation to get drugs and
how his friends told him that he could only get them if he killed his mother
and brought her heart back. This young man was so desperate for drugs,
Ana emphasized, that he killed his mother with a dagger, pulled her heart
out, and began running. Running through El Callej6n del Infierno, he
stumbled and fell, his mother's heart slipping from his hands. From the
ground, her heart spoke to him:
Mijo se aporrid mucho?" (Son, are you
badly hurt?). Ana finishes her story by saying that for this reason the area
is called "El Callej6n del Infierno."
As I listened to Ana, the contents of the story sounded familiar. I men-
tioned to Ana that I had heard the story before somewhere outside Barrio
Antioquia. Ana emphatically told me that the story is unique to Barrio
Antioquia. Her grandmother told it for many years and she died several years
ago. Her friend agreed, but the youngest woman in our group said that she
had never heard that story before. Ana suggested that I check with her mother-
in-law, who also knew the story. I shared the story with a friend and as I retold
it, I remembered where and when I had heard it before. It was in June 1997,
during the International Poetry Festival that takes place every year in Medellin.
The final night in an open-air theatre, 60 poets from all over the world read
their poems to an audience of more than 2,000 people. One of the poets was
Nedzad Ibrisimovic, a Bosnian-Herzegovinian poet who read a poem that
deeply engaged the public and received a very warm response. His poem was
about a youth combatant during the Balkan war who was trapped in the spiral
of war and violence. This young combatant kills his mother, pulls her heart
out, runs and falls down. On the floor her heart asks whether he is all right.
Many lessons can be derived from this story, particularly in an environ-
ment like Barrio Antioquia where drug use is widespread and the picture of a
young person challenged to cross moral and ethical boundaries is also com-
mon. The Hell's Alley story speaks of a threshold situation, as the boundary
that this young man crosses is one of the most "sacred" ones: it is the bound-
ary of respecting the life of a mother, a revered icon in the regional culture.
Although the story is a contested one that is not shared by everyone in the
barrio, it illustrates the social knowledge and moral repertoire that circulate
through places and names, and the ways these become collective symbolic
texts for the making of social commentaries and conveying moral education.
Moreover, they make reference to mythical material and to everyday life expe-
riences, endemic tensions and dilemmas (Warren 1998). The origin of the
290 Journal of Latin American Anthropology
story and its similarities with the one told by the Ibrisimovic poem hint at
their mythical qualities and the ways bodies, subjects and relations have been
worked into different geographical and cultural contexts to exemplify similar
core cultural values at risk, and the fissures in the ethical and social fabric
generated by the impact of continued violence and war.
Changing Names, Changing Dynamics
"El Quinto," the name of another street in Barrio Antioquia, illustrates
another type of social knowledge in circulation and further illustrates the com-
municative power of place-naming:
Marfa: "El Quinto" (the fifth) ... because it was like the fifth block of the
Bellavista Prison. From the houses on the street they sold all sorts of drugs.
One passed by there and everybody was like this [she crouches down on
her haunches]. In the prisons the inmates are like that, offering mari-
juana, everybody smoking...
Previous to "El Quinto," the street was called "El Callejon del Oeste" (the
Alley of the Wild West) for its resemblance to the "American West" that Bar-
rio Antioquia's inhabitants have seen on TV: ongoing shootouts, marks of
gunfire on doors, fights, male bullies, and all kinds of illegal transactions.
Both names capture a mood that is sensed in this place, a dynamic and a
movement that takes place in this block at a particular time. They both have
rich descriptive qualities that focus on the social dynamics rather than on the
geographical features. The names work, in this case, as visual and comparative
metaphors between the actions taking place in the streets and the images they
evoke from TV or from prison.
The changing name of one of the sectors in the barrio, El Chispero, sug-
gests a similar kind of historicity in place transformation and social dynamics.
Martha explains the name changes, beginning with the name of "Marquetalia."
Martha: Marquetalia Street... was behind the Health Centre by the new
street that opened afterwards. I've heard that they called it "Marquetalia"
because some man who was very nasty lived there for a long time, and
after he died they started to call the street that (Marquetalio was his last
name). After that Los Chunes [a gang] came and started to hang around
the corner, about seven years ago. I guess they were called Los Chunes
because one of them was named Chun. Anyways, they all hung around
the corner and gathered together to smoke marijuana and so the place
was called "El Chispero." First because they killed and later because they
lit so many chispas [sparks produced by smoking crack and marijuana].
Places change names, as the barrio, the social situation and the individu-
als change. In the two cases cited, the change of the name reflects the change
Remembering Place: Memory and Violence 291
of activities, social actors and social dynamics taking place. The "Callej6n del
Oeste" was the name used when this street was at the centre of the conflict
because it was the territory of the gangs of apartamenteros (apartment bur-
glars). When the activity of drug dealing transformed the dynamics of the
street, it was renamed as "El Quinto." Name changing, furthermore, is part of
the history of barrio Antioquia and illustrates the stories, interests and powers
that are captured and contested in a name. A community leader speaks of the
various names of the barrio:
Pablo: The first name for the barrio was "Fundadores" (the Founders),
because that was what people from here called it. Not just a name out of
nowhere, but because the same people who lived here had founded it.
Afterwards they called it "Barrio Antioquia" because people had come
here from all over the state. The barrio was also known as "Korea." When
they established a tolerance zone here it became known as Korea because
of the prostitutes, the violence. Then came the name of "Trinidad" with
the foundation of Santisima Trinidad church, about 50 years ago. Father
Mario Morales urged us to call the barrio with that name because the
names of Antioquia or Founders were stained and he wanted to give things
a new face; it was his idea.
The narrative establishes a distinction between the practice of naming
and that of referring. The name given is reserved for the place where there is a
sense of belongingin this case to "Barrio Antioquia"or the name that is
officially assigned, "Barrio Trinidad." The other names given are modes of
reference that describe what is happening during a particular period; for ex-
ample, "Fundadores" names the origins of the barrio, and "Korea" describes
when the barrio became a red light district during the 1950s, the years that
Colombia sent troops to fight in the Korean war. The history of the name
changes in Barrio Antioquia exemplifies how social stigma and exclusion are
shaped by policy and religious interventions, and also how a community's
practices of naming resist and re-create this.
Barrio Antioquia is territorially divided by its people into sectors: La Cueva,
El Cuadradero, La 68, El Chispero, El Coco, La 65 y La 25, Los Ranchos. By
naming places city dwellers locate themselves in distinctive topographic refer-
ents and differentiate between sectors, dynamics, social networks and rela-
tions in the barrio. In barrios like Barrio Antioquia, solidarity and friendship
networks are primarily attached to the sector one lives in. Naming the sector
one lives in is a way of identifying "where I come from." The sector becomes
the source for a feeling of rootedness and for networks of friendship, solidar-
ity and help. In the climate of violence and social conflict that has permeated
these barrios, this is also the main means for differentiation. Inside Barrio
292 Journal of Latin American Anthropology
Antioquia, for example, the territorial and place differences mark and define
who relates to whom, what types of communicative interaction engage people,
and different ways of walking and circulating. This territorial dynamic orga-
nizes the lived experience of violence for the barrio's residents and establishes
the boundaries of their circulation through streets and public spaces. Outside
the barrio and when speaking to outsiders, however, it is the name of "Barrio
Antioquia" that brings everybody together. Barrio Antioquia's inhabitants are
proud of their barrio, and when they are away, their longing is for the barrio as
a whole.
Typologies of Social Space and Spatial Practices
The names change as the dynamics of the place change. The mutating
names convey, in a pictorial way, practical information about the emplace-
ment of violence and its social actors. Places and their names are tools that the
barrio's inhabitants use to relate to the surrounding landscape with a height-
ened awareness of who is present, what is happening and what could happen.
The awareness also comes from a developed typology of placesaccording to
degree of risk and intensity of conflict. This typology is applied to qualify the
names of specific locations not only in this barrio but also in many other
barrios of Medellin. Territories and places are classified and named according
to the degree of risk/safety and the activities taking place there. The denomi-
nation of "hot" places, for example, describes places that are in the middle of
the conflict and where one may run physical risks. The denomination is rich
in linguistic variances that are used according to the various degrees of
danger that an individual may experience: "hot," "burning," "boiling," and
so on.
The recognition of the "mood" characterizing each territory is a vital
component of the local knowledge that city dwellers apply in their daily
experience. During my extended fieldwork in 1996-1997, and on the three
other occasions I returned to Medellin, I learned to recognize the changes
of "mood" in the barrios and streets according to the improvement or dete-
rioration of the conflict. I became aware, for example, of the changes in
ways of looking, moving, and interacting in the street by adults, youth and
children; and in the uses of physical buildings and structures (e.g., the open-
ing or closing of doors and windows). The mood of a place is apprehended
mainly by a direct knowledge and awareness of changes in sensorial, emo-
tional, social and geographical traits. Through this awareness, the indi-
vidual relates to the surrounding social space and grasps the distinct gen-
erative energy of each place (Walter 1988). Memory plays a key role here.
It provides city dwellers with the tools and referents to sense places and the
transformations operating in them.
Remembering Place: Memory and Violence 293
There is a subsidiary set of naming typologies that describes the mood of
places and territories, one that is mostly built around images of fire and meta-
phors of death. Verbs related to death are used to describe the transformations
that territories may have suffered as a result of the changes in conflict dynam-
ics or in the feelings that individuals attach to these places. The references are
made, for example, to a conflict "that is dead," and to geographical sectors
"that are dead." While making a mental map of the barrio, Milton, the leader
of the youth gang of El Cuadradero in Barrio Antioquia, described the sector
of La Cueva as a sector that "is now dead." He explained that the conflict in
this sector was no longer active, and that as a result he considered this sector
"dead." A "dead sector" also implies that there is not an active gang group or
heightened feelings against this territory. "Death" is used as descriptive of
absence, loss, or lack of fighting.
Images of heat and verbs associated with fire function as symbolic and
sensorial descriptors of evil and violence: the individuals, groups and territo-
ries "se calientan" (literally, "heat up"). Individuals and territories become dan-
gerous, and sectors or barrios become territories of fighting and violence.
Calentarse has become a local idiom to describe the sensorial transition and
excitement felt by the individual who becomes fully immersed in violent ac-
tivities, and it is also used in its traditional popular meaning as a descriptor of
sexual arousal. This local idiom of "calentarse" inscribes an active agency to
the individual, but also attaches this active agency to the place or territory.
The places that are calientes are characterized by a territorial mood that be-
haves like fire, the understanding of which requires a kind of sensuous reason-
ing in which sensation and desire are deeply intertwined in giving individuals
a knowledge of place.
The sensing of a place-mood is articulated in embod-
ied experiences of heightened awareness. For the ordinary city dweller, this
knowledge of places according to mood and "temperature" functions as a cir-
culation marker of the paths and detours to take.
For individuals the sensorial transition of calentarse conjures up the force
devastating and abrasiveof fire and heat, but also situates desire as a funda-
mental aspect of the mood that places and individuals acquire. Calentarse is
an act linked to pleasure and desire. The decisions and subsequent actions of
someone who is "caliente" mix sexual desire with excitement and an awareness
that develops when an individual is actively participating in violent actions.
In a local context in which the use of weapons and the control of territories
are highly recognized, to be a calentdn is a sought after status for men and
women. According to the following dialogue among members of the gang of
El Cuadradero, this condition of calent6n opens for them opportunities of
social and sexual recognition,
294 Journal of Latin American Anthropology
Milton: What really kills the barrio is that everybody wants to have fame
["Yeah! Yeah!" say several of them].
Wilfredo: The peladas (girls) are that way, I mean the meaner the guy is
the more they like him!
M: ... And women in the barrio ... because the best known ones get "to
eat" up the toughest guys ... in a barrio a guy doesn't need to chase after
girls, they themselves say to you "Psst... looking good!," yeah, and one as
a calent6n gets them even easier.
The individuals, then, by becoming calientes, have access to "fame." We
hear from Milton that fame is what people in the barrio "die for." Attached to
it are territorial power and social and sexual recognition. This connection
between calentarse and fame is, as the members of the gang of El Cuadradero
are keenly aware of, a driving force in the youths' involvement in violent ac-
tions. In this view, violence becomes a sensorial and communicative experi-
ence that dwells in bodies and territories, induces pleasure and is enacted
through territorial practices and through bodily and territorial desires.
The apprehension of the mood of places is informed by a direct local
knowledge of the felt quality of places. It is also a practice that allows city
dwellers to grasp the city environment and the social relationships taking place.
Typologies of place-mood reveal types of interactions, appropriations and uses
of specific territories and places by city dwellers. They constitute an useful
tool for urban dwellers to make decisions about risks and ways of walking and
travelling, while they work as a kind of thermometer that assists residents in
their trajectories in and through the city.
Home Far Away From Home
Throughout the years, the number of travellers from Barrio Antioquia to
the United States as part of the networks of drug trafficking has remained
high, with some of them staying away for long periods of time and others
going back and forth.
In the American "North," Barrio Antioquia's inhabit-
ants have tried to "re-construct" a sense of place, by re-creating the barrio's
ambience and relations and by place-naming. A sector of Queens in New York
is called "Barrio Antioquia of the U.S.A." because, as Don Ram6n says, "Queens
is where you can always meet someone from the barrio." Don Ramon, a long-
time resident of Barrio Antioquia, describes to Santiago, my research assistant
and a barrio youth leader, how naming evolved in the U.S.:
Ram6n: I'm from '77, the first year that I went..., but the large majority
went to work at whatever they could find: washing dishes, running er-
Remembering Place: Memory and Violence 295
rands, in the factories, whatever... Yeah, there would've been one or two
who had some bad habits, like the carteristas (purse-snatchers). But they
realized one thing, and that is that gringos don't really carry money in
their purses, only credit cards, and back then we didn't realize what a
credit card was. So they would steal the purse and throw away the cards!
[...] After that came the height of the ... the powder [cocaine], and then
yeah! people really began to travel. I've been told, by somebody from
there in the United States, about the cocaine business, about the business
going on in the cafes. [Yes?] They examined the "goods" and counted the
money, right there at the tables [of bars like] Las Acacias, La Fonda, Gran
Colombiano ... eh, what was it called? La Herradura, Anoranzas ... I don't
know if Anoranzas was there at that time, but at that place everybody
ended speaking of the business, all those people.
Santiago: Where exactly were these places you speak to me of?
R: In Queens, exactly on Rusbel Avenue [Roosevelt Avenue], all this was
more or less on Rusbel Avenue, and at certain times, this was called ... for
example, a place called La Fonda, but everybody called "El Baliska" [name
of the most popular bar in the barrio in Medellin]. Imagine! It was the
meeting place for all the people from Barrio Antioquia , to meet, to chat,
to do business ... and they ate there too, because it was a Colombian
restaurant... they've told me that the restaurant, not the whole business,
but the restaurant, was Dona Alicia's, the wife of that man from the Mejias,
the one they call "Majapo," [;el Majapo!] exactly! His wife was the owner
of the restaurant. They used to serve paisa platters [a regional dish, a tray
with beans, rice, fried plantains, pork rind, eggs, arepas and cole slaw] ...
so everybody got together to enjoy the good food, and as a place to meet,
right? But then the police began to come down hard on those places, and
that scared people.
The links of this community with the distribution of drugs have re-cre-
ated local social and place referents in United States through the practice of
renaming locations and sites of meeting in the U.S. with the names of places
located in the barrio; however, place referents that relate to the larger city of
Medellin are practically non-existent among Barrio Antioquia inhabitants.
The non-existence of these city referents is mostly explained by the stigmati-
zation and exclusion from the rest of the city that Barrio Antioquia's people
have experienced since the 1950s, when the barrio was declared Medellin's
red light district. In contrast, residents of the barrio recognize several place
referents that are located in the United States. But as the previous narrative
suggests, the practice of place-naming and reconstructing place is one of imag-
296 Journal of Latin American Anthropology
ining and rc-constructing "home" far away from home. The feelings of long-
ing experienced in a foreign land where barrio residents live in an ongoing
situation of risk are placed in the bars, restaurants and streets. Here they meet
to remember "home," to learn about what is going on at home, to listen to
music from "home," and to eat.
The prevalence of place-naming among the residents of Barrio
Antioquia can be seen as a way of maintaining a sense of place. This is
nurtured by the historicity of the events evoked by the name, by the bio-
graphical and mnemonic texture that is attached both to the place and its
name, by the moral lessons that may be drawn from stories that tell about
places, and on occasion by the accuracy of their topographic and physical
descriptions. Place-names in this urban context are imbued with creative
ways of naming that evoke past stories, foundational myths, emotions, moral
lessons, or powerful descriptions of physical and social features of the place.
Place-names provide city residents with mental images and a local social
knowledge that guide their practices of walking, circulating and interact-
ing, and become cultural resources that direct them in their daily life.
The link between imagination and place is no trivial matter. The existential
question "where do I belong?" is addressed to the imagination.
Eugene Walter, Placeways
During my fieldwork, I was struck by the passion with which many com-
munity workers and young people envisioned and engaged in projects toward
the transformation of their surroundings into meaningful places of their imagi-
nation. I met with this kind of envisioning in the Zona Nor Oriental (North-
eastern Zone). Hernan, the director of a local non-governmental organization
and a resident of the zone, took me to an area underneath a high traffic bridge
that gives access to the barrio Villa del Socorro and several others. Years ago,
Manuel, a community leader, conceived the idea of building an open-air the-
atre under the bridge. With the assistance of a local architect, the project was
made, but Manuel never saw it completed, as he was killed before the theatre
was finished. Today, a commemorative plaque in the central column of the
bridge pays homage to the leader and explains the "baptism" of the theatre
with his name. The unique design of the theatre blends with every feature of
the landscape. The concrete stairs are the sitting spaces of the theatre and are
laid out in a circular motion that follows from the bottom of the hill to the
top street-level area the many slopes of the craggy land. On each side of the
rows of stairs, Hernan explains, are houses that have been beautified thanks to
the efforts of residents following the completion of the theatre. The stage is
Remembering Place: Memory and Violence 297
found on the flattest and lowest area. Columns on the north side of the bridge
are used for film projection and for storing film machines. The columns on
the south side constitute the background of the stage. On one of them, Nemo,
a French urban landscape artist, painted one of his urban wandering men. In
between the columns on the south side, a community room was built. The red
brick walls of the community room and the stage floor contrast with the green
and grassy area, the yellow stones, and the gray colour of the approximately
one hundred rows of stairs.
Hernan speaks vividly about the project. He describes the past land-
scape of a smelly garbage disposal area, a feared "hole," a very muddy and
slippery ravine that was causing major erosion in the steep and deforested
foothills while the houses in the surrounding area were sliding. He talks
about the efforts and intense work involved in educating the community on
the value and future of such a project. His attachment to this place is both
sentimental and symbolic, and is one that is shared by many others. Today
the landscape is fused with the human and mnemonic energy that is the
place of the bridge as a centre of cultural and social activity. This act of
place-making involves, in a dialectical relation, acts of remembering and
imagining. The quality of the place is experienced here through memory
and imagination (Walter 1988). In imagining this place, Manuel, Hernan,
and others projected their view of community beyond themselves, to the
realm of their imagination about what might be a community. Today, the
commemorative plaque takes Hernan back to what did happen and to the
memory of Manuel's death. The bridge, meanwhile, continues to provide a
material and symbolic rooting of his work and his imaginings of the realm
of possibilities for his community work. The close ties and dynamic rela-
tionship between place, memory, and imagining speak of the relationship
among past, present and future that is embedded in the acts of remember-
ing and forgetting.
Communities of Memory in Place
My concern with the cultural dimensions of violence has shaped my
ethnographic focus on the lived experience of Medellm's city dwellers.
This focus is not on one form of violencepolitical, domestic or drug-
relatedbut on the ways that multiple forms of violence impact the daily
lives of city dwellers and their plural and transcendent responses: resis-
tance, resilience, grief, pain, humor, and irony (Kleinman and Kleinman
1997). This approach to violence links up with a growing body of anthro-
pological work known as "ethnographies of violence." This body of work
examines questions about the formative, performative and phenomenologi-
cal dimensions of violence, and poses fundamental questions about human
nature and the meaning of humanity in the face of a worldwide spread of
violent conflicts and systemic terror (Robben and Nordstrom 1995; Jenkins
298 Journal of Latin American Anthropology
1998). Taking distance from essentialist and singular understandings of
violence that neglect to see how violence enters into the most fundamental
features of people's lives, this article has documented the ways that memory
and a sense of place shape the lived experience of violence in the daily life
of Medellfns inhabitants (Robben and Nordstrom 1995). It examined the
de-territorialization and re-territorialization effects of violence in the so-
cial and physical landscape of Medellin and how city dwellers, through
memory and place-making, re-signify territories and re-configure their cul-
tural identities. This analysis intends to make a contribution to a wider
discussion within anthropology and other disciplines, on questions of hu-
man agency and the interplay of culture and memory in violent conflicts
(Margold 1999).
In the city of Medellin, the associations among people, memories and
places are troublesome. Memories that tie people together and instruct them
about who they are inhabit a place, as does a sense of destruction and pain.
Memories of terror are imprinted in places, and feelings of fear have radi-
cally transformed the relationships of people and places. The investment
of places with significanceeven in physical sites where all social ties or
physical referents have been removedis mainly facilitated by the capac-
ity of memory to transgress physical boundaries. Memory acts as a "bridg-
ing practice" that maintains a local implicit knowledge. Such knowledge
informs city dwellers on safe circulation routes and the ways of operating
while walking or travelling. It further informs the city dwellers on circula-
tion tactics that combine resourcefulness, sagacity, know-how, a sense of
opportunity and a deep sense of the mood and energies of territories. I
argue that when the social fabric of daily life is seriously affected by the
dynamics of violence, it is in remembering and forgetting that Medellin's
city dwellers are finding common referents and an awareness of the things
and beings they have lost to violence. Within communities that are divided
by war, for whom the opportunities to communicate and interact are threat-
ened, this shared way of sensing places through memory is an expression
of and metaphor for establishing a sense of continuity and identity.
Through place, the city dwellers of Medellin share memories that weave
together a sense of belonging to a temporal community. This is constructed
through remembering and forgetting practices and through the attachment
to the stories and emotions that places hold. These communities of memory
are temporarily constructed when neighbours meet and share stories, and
may become attached to more lasting social bonds like the youth group or
the family. To be rooted, in this context, challenges restricted spatial and so-
cial boundaries and fixed referents of identity or community to involve what
Liisa Malkki (1995) refers to as a "chronical" mobility and routine displace-
ment of peoples that requires them to "invent homes and homelands" through
Remembering Place: Memory and Violence 299
memory The imaginative uses of memory, its circulation through interstices,
and the vitality of an implicit local knowledge enable city dwellers to re-create
communities of memory and a sense of place. These processes, however, are at
risk of becoming emptied of meaning by the dynamics of violence and by the
power that violence hasas a form of communicationto suppress and frag-
Acknowledgments. This work is developed from my doctoral dissertation
Dwellers of Memory: An Ethnography of Place, Memory and Violence in Medellin,
Colombia, University of British Columbia, 2000. Fieldwork was supported
by Corporacion Region in Medellfn and grants received from the Social Sci-
ences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) and the International De-
velopment Research Centre (IDRC). My thanks to Anne Mackleam, Clemencia
Rodriguez, Sebastian Gil-Riafio, Eva Veres, the participants at the panel
"Memory, Representations and Narratives: Rethinking Violence in Colom-
bia" (Latin American Studies Association, Miami, 2000), and the anonymous
reviewers of JLAA for their valuable comments and suggestions.
1. The roots of violence in Medellin, as in Colombia, are connected with
a longer history of social conflict, struggles over land and resources, partisan
political divisions and civil wars such as La Guerra de losMilDias (The War of
a Thousand Days) between 1899-1903, and La Violencia between 1946-1965.
Contemporary violence in Colombia encompasses a variety of forms of vio-
lence, armed actors and a wide scope of human rights abuses.
2. The armed conflict between the guerrilla groups, government troops
and paramilitary groups goes back to the early 1960s when the FARC (Fuerzas
Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of
Colombia) emerged as a peasant guerrilla that rebelled against the Liberal and
Conservative ruling classes.
3. In applying memory as a methodological tool for my fieldwork, I used
group and interactive research methods such as memory workshops and eth-
nographic techniques such as walkabouts. During the memory workshops,
visual and verbal arts methods were developed as data-collecting strategies.
These methods enabled an exploration of the multiple sensorial and mean-
ingful dimensions that are embedded in the remembering acts. Participants in
the workshop engaged in various activities such as constructing memory im-
ages, listening to songs, telling stories, evoking smells, describing landscapes,
acknowledging the remembering body, and re-constructing mental maps. The
workshop, as a group and interactive methodology, was a key component of
this methodological approach. For a discussion of the workshops as an ethno-
graphic research method, see Riano 1999.
4. This workshop took place on April 1997, with the participation of 27
youth workers. These workers are involved with governmental and non-gov-
ernmental organizations and grassroots organizations across the city that de-
300 Journal of Latin American Anthropology
velop programs such as for youth leadership and organizing, conflict resolu-
tion and peace processes, recreational, educational and cultural development
5. The field material quoted in this article comes from fieldwork notes
and taped material. The taped material was translated from Spanish to En-
glish by Dean Brown and the author of this article.
6. La Avenida de la Playa ... Hay, una e*poca que yo recuerdo, que me ha
marcado, que ha marcado esta ciudad, y es, entre el '87 y el ' 89, en esta
ciudad habia por lo menos diez talleres de poesfa, y yo me acuerdo que, en
una semana, hicimos el lanzamiento de siete revistas de poesia, y era
precisamente la epoca en que estaban MATANDO duro, duro en Medellin;
habia tambie'n muchos recitales al punto que nosotros nos reuniamos y
les programamos los recitales para no coincidir. Entonces uno salfa del
recital de la [Universidad] Nacional, y entraba al otro dia que iba pa'l de la
[Universidad] Antioquia, despues se iba pa'l de la [Universidad] Medellin.
Y hubo un momento, del famoso toque de queda, el momento mds, mas
duro, el dfa que Juan Gomez [el alcalde] paro el toque de queda... a ese
recital nadie falto. La Avenida de la Playa era llena, eso fue tenaz [increible],
y nosotros rodamos poemas, nosotros rodamos tragedia, y, ese dia
queriamos saludar [se le quiebra la voz] a un amigo, un poeta de los mas
jovenes, lo mataron junto a otro pelado, alii en la Oriental [una de las
avenidas principales del centro de Medellin], estaban fumando bareta, y
despues [llorando] ... institucionalizaron la Poesia en Medellin y todo
quedo en un hijueputa festival de poesia... [silencio]
7. Barrio Antioquia's origins date back to the 1910s when immigrants
from the countryside, artisans and working-class families settled in the barrio.
In the 1950s, the barrio lived the effects of La Violencia, a civil war between
the liberal and conservative parties that claimed the lives of thousands of Co-
lombians. In 1951, Barrio Antioquia was declared the red light district of
Medellfn. Daily life changed dramatically for its residents. The decree lasted
two years and left a legacy of social stigma and violence. Since the late sixties,
the drug economy has had a great impact in the barrio. Barrio Antioquia is
the main supplier of drugs for the residents of Medellin and many of its resi-
dents have "visited" the United States as "mules," individual carriers of drugs.
Many others have been involved as intermediaries in the business or through
youth gangs that provide services to the drug cartels. The cultural and social
life of the barrio is rich and very dynamic. Inhabitants of Barrio Antioquia
feel a strong sense of belonging to the barrio.
8. Youth in Barrio Antioquia refer to "the war" as the period in the early
nineties when the barrio was territorially divided in six sectors. The "war" was
between the gangs that controlled each of the six sectors.
Remembering Place: Memory and Violence 301
9. Quiero representar la noche. El dfa en que mataron a mi mcjor amigo
que se llamaba Camilo. A ver, ese dfa yo me encontraba durmiendo en mi
casa, o sea, y e*l sabfa que por ahf no se podfa meter porque sabfa que lo
mataban, pero no se\ cuando uno se va a morir la muerte lo busca. fil ese
dfa e*l se meti6 por ahf y cuando Ileg6 a la esquina lo estaban espcrando, lo
mataron, los muchachos se metieron hasta alii y lo sacaron por todo esto...
hasta la 25, y llegaron a esta esquina, que es la esquina donde yo vivo, no
se, y en ese momento mi hermanita entro la chiquitica y me despert6 y
me dijo: "Jennifer, Jennifer mataron a Camilo." Cuando yo llegue* lo tenfan
ya en la mitad de la cuadra, entonces yo pues yo ya no podia hacer nada,
yo sail y me fui con ellos para el hospital pero ya el iba muerto; ese dfa
mataron a otro tambien. Entonces yo con mi dibujo quiero como expresar
la tristeza que a mi me dio cuando me di cuenta que habfan matado a mi
amigo. [Memory workshop with 12 youth from Barrio Antioquia, May 1997]
10. Antioquia is the department of Colombia that produces the larger
numbers of forced displacement, 45 percent (Comision Colombiana de Juristas,
1997). In 1998, 8,000 displaced families arrived in Medellfn. These families
were largely ignored by the municipal, departamental and national authori-
ties and established large new squatter settlements in areas of high risk for
landslides. The proportion of this massive displacement towards the cities
mirrors the massive migration towards the cities in the period of the civil war
known as "La Violencia" (1950s-60s) that radically transformed Colombian
11. Aca yo represento el tiempo ^sf? como que el tiempo era de la violencia,
pues esto aca era como la quebradita, el sector de La Cueva. Si, entonces
esto era pura manga, el no, la quebrada, bueno. Entonces yo represente
ahf porque yo con un compafiero, en cierta oportunidad varios compafieros
y yo estabamos ahf, todos en su discurso, en sus comentarios y uno de
ellos dio el comentario: "El dfa que yo me muera me ponen este disco,
que con este disco significa todo." [Memory workshop with 12 youth
from Barrio Antioquia, May 1997]
12. Raphie Leavitt y su orquesta. Oro Salsero, 1994.
13. In a historical analysis of youth cultural expressions in the Colombian
city, I argued that the relations established with music and with the city space
have shaped youth cultural expressions. Music, in its different rhythmic mani-
festations, is a mediating element within the urban experience, providing youth
a meaningful field in which to ground different styles that ultimately become
the building blocks of youth identities, generate differences of style that per-
mit identification (Riano 1991). There is a long repertoire of salsa songs that
accompany and provide "guidance" for Medellfn s youth. In the memory work-
shops, youth talked about their barrio's or their groups hymns and symbols.
302 Journal of Latin American Anthropology
Most of these songs sing to the crude realities of poverty, death, drugs and
violence but also expose some of the basic values and logic of loyalties that this
generation has accepted.
14. Sandra: Ah no .. mire esa miisica me gustaba mucho y la bailaban en
el barrio Antioquia, la cantaba Natusha, [,;En que* afios rue? pregunta otra
persona] fue en el mes de diciembre del afio 1989.
Se bailaba en filita, todo el mundo salfa como en trencito todo el mundo
salfa [varias hablando gritando explicando]... una falda alta, ombliguera y
una balaca, [Es que la Natusha era tremenda jpues!] [jhasta la ropa!] todo
el mundo en trencito bailando. En ese entonces el que escuchara a Natusha
era tremendo, hasta salio la moda de la ropa de ella, se hacfan concursos
de el que mejor bailara y la imitara.
Omar:... Si, que por esa epoca, con esa miisica en una discoteca los hicieron
desnudar y bailar desnudos y si no lo hacian los mataban.
Pilar: ,;Quienes eran ellos?
O: Un combo, en ese tiempo eran los Chinos que vivian en El Chispero.
15. Medellfn is divided in six urban zones and 16 communes. A zone
includes an area of several barrios from various social and economic levels and
is divided in communes that share social and economic characteristics. The
Northeastern Zone is located west of the city's downtown. The settlement
process of this zone took place predominantly during the 1970s and 1980s
through illegal urbanization and invasiones (squatters) and some by commer-
cial urbanization. Geographically, the distinctive element of the Northeastern
Zone is its location at the foothills of the surrounding city's mountains and its
steep topography (Secretaria de Bienestar Social 1996; Naranjo 1992).
16. The mandate of the first Presidential Office of Medellfn was to de-
velop alternatives to the critical social emergency that the city was facing. In
1990, youth houses began providing attention to youth at risk and involved
with violent lifestyles and were established in some of the barrios that were
identified as most affected by violence. The house was either rented or bought
and was assigned to a youth group that became responsible for running the house,
and for organizing recreational and educational activities. Governmental and non-
governmental organizations supported these youth in planning their activities as
well as in their educational programming. See Marquez and Ospina 1999.
17. Este es el horizonte, aqui hay un sol chiquitico que esti amaneciendo,
una calle que baja, este soy yo y este un amigo mio; esta es una tienda,
aquf como en la parte de atris de la tienda, aquf estin dona Rubiela y
una hermana de ella lavando una mancha de sangre que habfa en esta
Remembering Place: Memory and Violence 303
calle. Esto rue un 24 de diciembre, en la madrugada, en la madrugada no,
ya fue en la mafiana. [ ] A partir del ' 91, es decir nosotros integramos la
casa desde finales del '89, Giovanny fue el ultimo, pero eso rue como
progresivo, a partir de cierto periodo empezaron a haber muchas pclcas,
muchos problemas, mucha disputa alii adentro, entonces muchos optaron
y optamos por salirnos, pero de todas maneras quiero hacer ese comentario,
lo del trabajo juvenil porque lo de casa juvenil en ese momento era y yo
creo que siempre lo va a ser, algo que no estaba remitido como a un
espacio asi, cuatro paredes y un techo, sino que era algo mas como un
sentimiento, como una especie de deber; en todo caso nosotros estabamos
ya todos por fuera de la casa juvenil y en diciembre del '93 decidimos
hacer una actividad en el barrio.
[ I
Entonces nosotros agarramos, ese es el recuerdo que yo tengo atado a la
quebrada, agarramos un monton de regalos, un monton de cosas que
teniamos listas y nos la llevamos para la Canada, en bolsas y en costales
["pero compramos unos papelitos muy bonitos, " dice otro] los
decoramos y arrancamos para la Canada, recuerdo que ahora [...] porque
nosotros ibamos como muy atarugados con muchas cosas y el como
era mas o menos gordito o acuerpado (el decia que era acuerpado),
entonces el llevaba dos paquetes, asi todo picado, entonces la Canada
esta canalizada hasta cierto tramo, listo, y se resbalo y al levantarse el
man quedo asi de lado a lado y nosotros mirandolo y el man ",;Que no
han visto nada guevones, me van a recibir o que?" pero era como eso.
Creo que fue al dia siguiente o a la misma madrugada de ese dia que
fue que a el lo asesinaron. [Memory workshop with 12 members and
ex-members of three youth houses, October 1997]
18. La casa juvenil... la ultima pues en la que yo estuve quedaba junto a la
iglesia, yo me acuerdo mucho pues de verdad [la] construimos como desde
lo material y desde lo interior. Todos participabamos, fuera barriendo o
haciendo cualquier cosa y al mismo tiempo cada uno sentia que si eso era
de el, porque no solamente iba a las reuniones, sino que decia yo pinte esa
pared, o yo barro el piso ... eso fue en el '92 si mal no estoy [...] Yo creo
que de los momentos mas gloriosos que tuvo la casa juvenil fue ese, en ese
momento, la casa juvenil verdaderamente era algo que uno soii6 alguna
vez y eso mismo me gustaria que fuera ahora tambien. [Memory work-
shop with 17 members and ex-members of three youth houses, Novem-
ber 1997]
19. When the milicianos made their presence in the barrios they took
upon themselves the task of "cleaning" the barrios from insecurity and
risk. Drug users were targeted by the milicianos with the argument that
they had been involved in acts of violence against the barrio's people. Milicianos
304 Journal of Latin American Anthropology
would give them up to three notices requesting that they quit their drug con-
sumption or their attacks on the barrio's people. If they did not follow their
orders, they were killed. Initially these actions were mostly welcomed by the
pobladores as they allowed them to enter, exit and move in the barrio without
the fear of being robbed or attacked. With time, however, many began to
question their form of social cleansing and vertical exercise of power and the
denial of opportunities for drug users.
20. Una cosa muy bonita de "Corazones Abiertos" [nombre de la casa] es
haber ingresado al proceso y haber vinculado a muchos pelados, porque
los pelados se mantenian por ahf fumando vicio y los acechaban mucho
los milicianos, [y nosotros les deciamos] "que si se hacen ahi les va a pasar
algo" "que si no cambian . . . " en fin, hoy muchos no estan para contar la
historia, eso fue muy duro en esa epoca. [Memory workshop with eight
members and ex-members of three youth houses, October 1997]
21. Traditionally, in the regional culture (referred as "antioquefio"), the
mother has played a key role as the center of the domestic world and the
extended family. With the economic and social crisis of the region during the
seventies and eighties, this role was accentuated by the increase number of
women headed households and single motherhood (Salazar and Jaramillo
1994). Salazar (1990) has documented youth gangs' re-creation of certain
regional cultural elements such as Catholic religious practices and the spirit of
retaliation which have provided gang members with a kind of ethical back-
drop to their violent actions. Thus, Catholic symbols and beliefs are inte-
grated into the gang culture. Of especial significance is the devotion to the
Virgin Mary. In fact, according to Salazar, "God has been overthrown. The
virgin gave him a coup d'etat" (Salazar 1990:197). The virgin is a closer, femi-
nine, loyal, and more permissive figure to whom gang members pray and ask
for good luck because she is a mother.
22. "El Quinto" ... porque ha sido como el quinto patio de la carcel
Bellavista. Era una calle de casas donde vendian puro vicio [drogas].
Uno pasaba por alia y todos eran asi [se pone en posicion de cuclillas]
En las carceles los presos son asi, ofreciendo marihuana, todo el mundo
fumando asi ... [Memory workshop with women of Barrio Antioquia,
June 1997]
23. La Calle Marquetalia ... eso fue detras del Centro de Salud por la calle
nueva que abrieron despues. He oido decir que le decian "Marquetalia"
porque alii vivi6 mucho tiempo un sefior que era muy malo y le decfan
Marquetalio, el se murio y asi colocaron la calle. Despues llegaron Los
Chunes [nombre de la banda] hace como siete afios o tal vez mds, ellos se
hacfan en la esquina. A uno de ellos le decfan Chun y por eso los colocaron
asf. En todo caso ellos se hacfan en esa esquina y hacfan una choza para
meterse a fumar marihuana y por eso la pusieron "El Chispero." Primero
Remembering Place: Memory and Violence 305
era porque mataban y despu& porque enccndfan muchas "chispas" [al
fumar bazuco y marihuana]!!! [Memory workshop with women of Barrio
Antioquia, June 1997]
24. El primer nombre [del barrio] fue "Fundadores" porque toda la gente
que habfa en este terreno se referfan como la parte de Fundadores, no fue
que dijeran que asf se llamarfa sino que la gente lo llamaba asf porque allf
vivfan sus propios fundadores. Despue*s lo llamaron "Barrio Antioquia"
porque venia gente de todas partes del departamento. El barrio tuvo otro
nombre era "Corea." Cuando llego la zona de tolerancia en todo Medellm
le decian a este barrio Corea debido a lo de las prostitutas, la violencia.
Luego vino el nombre de barrio "Trinidad" con la fundacion de la iglesia
Santisima Trinidad, eso hace mas 6 menos 50 afios cuando el padre Mario
Morales motivo a llamar el barrio con este nombre porque el nombre de
Barrio Antioquia o Fundadores estaba muy sucio y el queria darle una
cara nueva, el fue el de la idea. [Memory workshop with community
leaders of Barrio Antioquia, June 1997]
25. Here I follow Walters (1988) review of Plato's philosophy of place as
a matrix of energies and an active receptacle. Walter believes that the appre-
hension of a place requires a sensuous reasoning. He expands Plato's idea that
the grasping and knowledge of place is both outside reason and sensation,
"but, something elsea curious, spurious mode of grasping reality" (Walter
1988:121-122). The apprehension of the mood of the place is governed by
this kind of sensuous reasoning. It is a knowledge that needs to be carefully
grasped when trying to capture the mood of places that are subjected to the
dynamics of violence.
26. Milton: Lo que mata al barrio es que todo el mundo quiere tener fama
[uh si!variossi, si].
Wilfredo: Las peladas tambien entre uno mas malo sea, mas lo quieren.
M: ... No es que las mujeres en el barrio solamente ... porque la que
tenga mas fama se come al mas teso ... en el barrio uno como hombre
no tiene la necesidad de vacilar las mujeres, ellas le dicen a uno: "oiste,
como estas de bueno" si, y uno calent6n mas facil las consigue... [Memory
Workshop, Barrio Antioquia, July 1997]
27. Since the 1960s and particularly since the 1970s, many people from
Barrio Antioquia have travelled as mules (drug carriers) to United States.
28. Ram6n: Yo soy de por alii del afio '77, que fui la primera vez yo,
pero la gran mayorfa que fue antes iba a trabajar en lo que fuera: lavando
platos, haciendo mandados, en las fibricas, en todas esas cuestiones,
ya ... Ya hab/an uno que otro que tenfan las malas mafias como los
306 Journal of Latin American Anthropology
carteristas pcro se dieron cuenta de una gran cosa ... que los gringos no
acostumbran a sacar dinero en la cartera, unicamente las tarjetas de cr&iito.
[...] Ya despue*s de esto a lo que ya empez6 el auge de la ... del polvo,
entonces ya si empez6 a viajar la gente; y me cuentan, me contaba alguien
alia" en los Estados Unidos, que alia hacian los negocios de la cocaina, los
negocios los hacfan en las mesas de los cafe's [^sfii?]. Se examinaba el ma-
terial y se contaba la plata; ah/ en las mesas de los negocios: [en bares
como] Las Acacias, La Fonda, Gran Colombia, eh... ,;c6mo se llamaba?
... La Herradura, Aiioranzas, que no se* si Afioranzas era de esa e*poca,
pero que ahf en Aiioranzas siempre terminaban hablando de negocios,
todas esas personas.
Santiago: Estos sectores que Ud. me estaba hablando ,;de donde eran?
R: Eso era en del sector de Queens. Exactamente en Rusbel Avenue, eso era
mas que todo Rusbel Avenue, eso era en determinado momento, eso rue
llamadooo... por ejemplo, un negocio que se llamaba la fonda, la gente lo
llamaban alia "El Baliska" [nombre del bar mas popular en el barrio] [jah!]
jlmagfnate pues! O sea que era el centra de reunion de la gente que era del
Barrio Antioquia [jdaro!] alii se encontraban, conversaban, hacian negocios
... ahi comian, porque era un restaurante colombiano, eso era de ... segun
me dicen a mi el restaurante, no el negocio en si, el restaurante era de dona
Alicia, la esposa de ese sefior de los Mejias, al que le llaman "el Majapo" [jel
Majapo!] jexactamente! La esposa de el era la duefia del restaurante. Por
alia Servian unas bandejas paisas, eso... entonces alia todo el mundo se
reunia a disfrutar de la buena comida y muchos se encontraban ahi como
punto de reunion, en ese entonces ,;cierto? y ya despues la policia empezo
a caerle a estos sitios asi, entonces eso espanto mucho a la gente. [Inter-
view, December 1997]
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