My Father’s Medellín: Colombia’s Comeback City
After years away, I saw my dad’s native Medellín through his eyes and found a Colombian city reinvented.
Illustrations by Jon Stich
“Are you sure this is where you want to go?” my dad asks when we hop off a squat bus at the base of Comuna 13, once one of Medellín’s most violent and impenetrable communes. Right then, two European tourists walk by, flaunting $3,000 Canons, and he does a double take. It’s easy to understand his surprise: A decade ago, this was the kind of place where bodies were left on the streets for days as a warning to anyone who crossed the guerrilla groups that ruled the hillside shanties.
We make our way up the steep hill on an orange-roofed electric staircase built in 2011 as part of a master plan to connect marginalized ’hoods with the rest of the city. As we ascend, the seamy world my Colombian father and mother grew up in feels distant. Along with street art that has beautified the ghetto and drawn tourism, this massive escalator helped the ’hood pull a 180.
On the ride up, we look down the veiny corridors of the labyrinthine realm and see tweens huddled around muralists at work during SurFest, an urban art festival that brings artists from around the world to paint new works on the walls of the tightly packed shanties and interact with the community. “We wanted local kids to see there is an alternative to joining a gang or getting wrapped up in drugs,” Daniel “Perro” Felipe Quiceno, a festival organizer and co-founder of the popular Medellín Graffiti Tour, tells me, when we run into him outside one of the new gift shops that have popped up since Comuna 13 became a viable stop on the visitor circuit. “These murals are how we tell our stories,” he adds. “Local graffiti artists often paint elephants because they have the longest memory. We want people–especially victims of our neighborhood’s violent past — to know we’ll never forget what happened here.”
From the top of the commune, I can appreciate the full beauty of my parents’ homeland. As a kid, I’d look up at the hills, twinkling like a holiday scene at night, and wonder what the view was like from up here. My dad casts a heavy gaze across the Tetris stacks of cinderblock shanties painted in every shade and down to the redbrick city flourishing in the valley. “Even when things were really bad, we never lost hope this was possible,” he says, as if reading my mind.
I lived in Medellín off and on until I was six, when my family settled in Florida in the early ’90s. Back then, the cartel ran the city and economic prospects were dire. My dad, though, was always drawn back home. At weekly family gatherings in Miami, he’d be the guy leading a mirthful group in belting the Colombian anthem at 3 a.m. It didn’t take long for the legal system to decide he’d never be American. After he was deported, my brother and I spent every summer, winter, and spring break with him in Medellín — just enough time to know the city, but not enough to actually know it.
As an adult, my trips got more sporadic, but an uptick of chatter about Colombia following the release of the Netflix series Narcos and the peace agreement that earned president Juan Manuel Santos Calderón a Nobel Peace Prize had me feeling the pull. The distaste for the cartel-framed view of the country is an inherited trait. Most Colombians want to change the blood-soaked narrative that TV and movies perpetuate. I decided to go back for the first time in three years with a writing assignment to report on civic innovations (the only way to avoid family obligations and the comforting routines of being somewhere you consider home). The goal was twofold: Time and space had created a distance between my father and me, and the urgency of his recent 50th birthday weighed heavy on my conscience. So I enlisted him to be my guide for the week.
“I haven’t been to most of these places,” he admits the next morning, as he runs through a list of recommendations collected on our first day on the ground. This isn’t unusual. Many Colombians are just now discovering parts of their country. For decades, leftist guerrilla groups, right-wing paramilitaries, cartels, and other criminal groups had sole dominion over entire neighborhoods and rural provinces.
But today, on a typical springlike Medellín day, we can stroll through Moravia, once designated a “red zone” for its intense paramilitary activity. One of the most densely populated areas in South America, Moravia was settled around and atop a public dump in the ’60s and ’70s by rural dwellers displaced by guerrilla warfare. In 2006, the city started a clean-up project to turn the massive trash mound into a hilltop garden.
Near the neighborhood’s celebrated community center, we push through the throng, weaving around makeshift sidewalk shops and ducking under laundry lines. The crowd thins out closer to the hill, where a tangle of dirt, scraggly pieces of cloth, and a few distinguishable relics on the escarpment remind us that this verdant hill was once 1.5 million tons of trash — among other things. “Nobody has a solid count of how many bodies were dumped here,” my uncle, who has tagged along, says, when we reach the top. “I can’t believe this is what’s here today.” We peek inside a greenhouse, where a woman is watering rows of tall bromeliads, and inspect the trash-art installations positioned around the razor-cut hedges of golden dewdrops and pinkish jungle geraniums, outside. On the way back down, I see a house tagged with the popular resistance motto, “They tried to bury us, but they didn’t know we were seeds.” Nowhere is this more fitting.
A little later, waiting for the train to go back home, I point out that the station is as clean as the first time I rode the metro soon after its celebrated debut in 1995. “People in Medellín have a lot of local pride,” my dad says. “We take care of what we have.” He then explains that the urban renewal we see can be traced back to the early 2000s, when a mayor with no political background was smart enough to capitalize on that Paisa [people from Medellín] pride and motivated the citizens to heal the city. The mayor appointed local reps in underserved communities, let the people voice their needs, and called on them to design and maintain the projects.
Over the next few days, my dad and I people-watch at UVA Aguas Claras, one of the the ultramodern parks built on the previously sketchy areas that surround the city’s water reservoir tanks. We listen to grandfathers tell stories on the lawn of one of the nine library parks, public libraries surrounded by green space that bolster marginal districts. We eat our way through Medellín’s stylish first food hall, and dine on Amazonian pirarucú [a freshwater fish] at La Chagra, where a young chef wants locals to remember their indigenous roots. We meet expats who recognized Medellín’s potential early on and built snazzy properties like Patio del Mundo and Casacol, which have rentals on Airbnb. “People are finally recognizing what we always knew,” my dad says excitedly one afternoon as we’re walking along a new linear park that blankets a highway near the river (the artery that divides the city is also waging a comeback). “This is the best city on the planet; beautiful and very forward-thinking with tenacious and resourceful people. If there’s a challenge, we’ll figure out a solution and get it done.”
The more time we spend together, the more I see my dad has changed, too. There’s something softer, less edgy about him, and he’s more open than I’ve ever known him to be. We sit on one of the park’s wooden chaises and eat 75-cent hot dogs topped with a traditional assortment of crumbled chips, pink sauce (mayo with ketchup), and slaw as he shares lessons from his military days and the time he spent cleaning skyscraper windows in New York City. He talks about his brother, who was senselessly gunned down by kids asserting their manhood in a neighborhood not far from where we’re sitting, and about the dozens of friends he lost to the drug war. I can’t believe how much I don’t know about my dad — especially when he might have the most interesting life of anyone I know.
There is no world in which 15 years ago he and I would have been wandering downtown, close to dusk. And yet, that’s where we are on my last day in town. After ambling through the space station-like Parque de las Luces, a library-park with 300 giant light towers (inspired by a former revitalization plan called “Medellín Is Light, an Urban Poem”), and Plaza Botero (the cobblestoned square where Fernando Botero , a native son and acclaimed sculptor known for his exaggerated plump statues and paintings of people and animals, placed 23 of his statues to give everyone free access to high art), we land at the expansive Parque San Antonio. I make a beeline for a cart selling mango with lime and salt, a favorite Colombian street food. The jovial vendor douses the ripe chunks of fruit, and I turn to see my dad standing in front of two Botero bird sculptures, one half blown away. “That happened in 1995 when a bomb here killed many people,” the man explains, growing somber. “It was a turning point for the city. We realized things had gone too far.” Botero donated the bird, along with a pristine replica, to be left there as a reminder for what the city has to lose if it reverts back to violence.
In the breezy air of the late afternoon, couples sit on the ledge of the unwounded bird, and I join my dad in front of the copper statues. “There’s one thing every Paisa knows,” he says, and puts his arm around my shoulders. “We have to keep moving forward. We can’t forget the past, but we can’t live in it either.” He’s talking as much about the city as he is about us. My dad is hoping our time apart hasn’t caused an irreparable rift and that I won’t let another three years pass before I return. And I know this time I won’t. There’s too much about this place and this man I still want to know.
About the author: Stephanie Granada is a Colombian-American freelance writer, who splits her time between Florida and Colorado. She’s into books, her dog, all things ocean-related, and small towns. You can also find her work in Sunset, Woman’s Day, National Geographic Traveler, Southern Living, and others.