Fredy Asprilla stands on a concrete platform, the corrugated rooftops of Medellín’s Comuna 13 neighborhood behind him, as he describes the hip-hop cassette tape that changed his life.
The songs were in English, he explains in Spanish. “We didn’t know what they were saying at first, but eventually we learned about the words and the rhythms and the history of the music behind Run-DMC and Wu-Tang Clan. They were singing about similar problems like racism that young Black men like me were facing in our own community.”
Asprilla is one of the countless men from the marginalized communities of Medellín, Colombia, that were decades-long strongholds for drug cartels and guerrilla groups during the most violent chapters of the city’s past. Comuna 13, which sits on the hilly outskirts of the city, was in the 1980s and ’90s considered one of the world’s most dangerous neighborhoods. The poor and underprivileged youths who lived there were recruited by traffickers and rebel groups to carry out illegal and violent activities that cost many their lives.
In the wake of a historic 2016 peace deal between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC—a rebel group notorious for its high-profile terrorist acts and involvement in the country’s illegal drug trade—Comuna 13 has become a symbol of resilience. It’s now frequented by tourists who come to see its multihued graffiti murals, ride its outdoor escalators, walk its music-filled streets, and dine at its bustling restaurants. As we spend the afternoon joining Asprilla in an energetic drum circle and dining on cazuela de frijoles, a dish of beans, pork belly, plantains, and rice, at the women-owned Berracas de la 13 restaurant, it’s hard for me to imagine that not too long ago, Asprilla and other kids feared for their safety on a daily basis.
My small group of travelers met Asprilla on a walking tour organized by Colombia-based Impulse Travel, which has recently begun to partner with international tourism companies with the help of U.S.-based nonprofit group Tourism Cares. The objective of our Afrotour experience is to offer a glimpse at the neighborhood through the eyes of its Afro Colombian residents and to learn how community members like Asprilla have reconnected with their roots through music and the arts. Over the next two days, we’d take part in a handful of community-led tours in different parts of the city that are helping to change the city’s narrative. Impulse Travel’s hope is to let community leaders paint a more realistic picture of the city for visitors whose image of Medellín is still associated with the drug lord Pablo Escobar, whose story was glamorized in Netflix’s popular Narcos series.
Our guides all come from the communities we’re visiting, including Comuna 13–born Ana Cristina Vélez, our Afrotour guide who is translating Asprilla’s words from Spanish to English. There on the hill, she tells us that in 2003, Asprilla turned his love of music into Son Batá, a music collective and social enterprise that uses creative self-expression as a tool for transforming the lives of underserved youths. “The illegal [drug trafficking and guerrilla] groups in this neighborhood offered these boys money, power, and women,” she tells us. “But that cassette tape gave them empowerment through a microphone instead. It allowed them to connect with people in the community and to be recognized and successful in a different way.”
Vélez had kicked off the tour by sharing that when she was a girl, she used to sleep in the corridor of her family’s small apartment to avoid stray bullets at night. “Every time I stand in front of people and tell these stories, I’m a part of the peace process of this country,” she said. As she explained her past to us, I wondered whether sharing her story with visitors also played a role in her own healing.
Earlier in the day, we had joined Impulse Travel’s “Pablo Who?” tour, which showcases the positive infrastructural developments in Medellín in recent years while also dispelling the myth perpetuated by other city tours that portray Escobar and his rivals as “Robin Hood” figures who took from the rich to help the poor. On the tour, Carolina Díaz, a Medellín native, took us on the Miraflores Cable Car. When it opened in 2019, the transit system transformed the working-class neighborhood of Miraflores by giving residents better access to jobs and resources in the city center. The cable car is part of a larger system that debuted in 2004, when Medellín became the world’s first urban metro system to fully integrate aerial cable cars.
“Every time I stand in front of people and tell these stories, I’m a part of the peace process of this country.”
As the shiny white cable car lifted us over the brick buildings, sports courts, and narrow streets of Miraflores, we gazed down at the hillside neighborhood—another former recruiting spot for guerrillas and drug traffickers. Our trip took us to a neighborhood library where kids had gathered to read, and I thought about how game-changing it is that they now have direct access to the economic, social, and cultural opportunities in the heart of the city. At a table in the corner, Díaz quietly explained the main actors behind Colombian history over the past century—the government, guerrillas, the paramilitary, and drug traffickers.
The human toll of the conflict between these players over the last few decades is the subject of the Museo Casa de la Memoria, or House of Memory Museum, which we visited later that morning. “We tell our visitors that there are no single truths in this space,” said museum guide Luisa Fernanda Orozco Valencia, a journalism student at University of Antioquia.
She pointed out an image of a mother, taken by photographer Natalia Botero, holding the skull of her dead son, who had disappeared in the hands of a paramilitary group. The mother’s expression revealed a heartbreaking mixture of sadness and relief at finding closure after 10 years of not knowing what had happened to her son. Nearby, another image by photographer Jesus Abad Colorado depicted a woman’s arm, which was tattooed against her will as part of sexual violence conducted by a paramilitary and drug trafficking group. “This image shows us how women can suffer differently from armed conflict,” Valencia explained.
Angela Maria Holguin Ramirez, who was born and raised in the working-class neighborhood of Moravia, is the cofounder of a social enterprise called Moravia Tours, which organizes community-led tours through Moravia. The day after our visits to Comuna 13 and Miraflores, she’s our guide on a walk through her neighborhood, which also suffered paramilitary and drug violence, but today offers a hopeful glimpse at the city’s future.
We make our way through the winding streets flanked by low-slung buildings, where we encounter thriving, women-led projects, including La Cocina Movil, a food awareness project that focuses on health and nutrition. At outdoor tables at La Cocina Movil, we linger over avocado-topped arepas and a celery lemonade drink while chatting with the founders. We meet some of the organizers behind Ecojardicon, another women-led social enterprise that operates a nearby greenhouse and offers gardening and landscaping services.
As we continue along the streets of Moravia, I see plants and flowers growing out of old tires and disused toilets, all carefully maintained by community members. We arrive at a community center designed by Rogelio Salmona, a famous Franco Colombian architect, for a demonstration of capoeira—a Brazilian martial art that has found its way to the Moravia neighborhood. Lina Tobón, who also spent her childhood in Moravia, leads Corporación Mangle, which harnesses capoeira as a tool for encouraging life skills, values, and critical thinking in vulnerable populations.
Tobón, who is nicknamed Cafeina for her seemingly endless supply of energy and her perpetual smile, leads us through a capoeira crash course, set to the intoxicating live sound of a berimbau, a musical bow with African roots, and an atabaque, a tall Afro Brazilian hand drum that we all take turns playing. She beams as she takes the hands of a member of our group and tells him to mirror her in the center of the circle—called a roda in Portuguese—that we’ve created around them. He attempts to keep up with her in what capoeiristas call “play”—a kind of back and forth scrimmage of the dancelike moves she’s teaching us. Tobón, who is visibly pregnant, throws her legs above her head for spinning kicks and pauses for elegant headstands, making it all look so easy. Soon afterwards, we all take turns in pairs, entering the center of the circle and cheering when someone throws a particularly good kick or successfully dodges their partner’s advances.
When it’s time for me to play with one of Tobón’s students, I try to follow the rhythm of the drum, ducking my head low before throwing my leg up over my head, terrified that I might hit my opponent in the face. He swiftly ducks out of the way, having practiced the art for years. Despite my awkward motions, my initial inhibitions over this new physical language melt away. Even as we practice a martial art that was built to be deadly, the encouraging calls of our fellow capoeiristas create an almost instantaneous feeling of trust and support. I quickly feel bonded to this community that Tobón has lovingly fostered here.
“I used to want to be the world’s best capoeira master, but that’s not the goal anymore,” Tobón explains in Spanish after we finish. “I only want to share it, because capoeira, and the community that was built around it here, made me believe in the power of community to lead people toward their dreams.”
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