July 10th, 2010

Castilla Neighborhood in Medellin, Colombia

It has rained every day of my trip to Medellin so far and I’m ready to dry the hell out. I was hopeful to do so on Saturday, July 10th because the sun shined almost the entire day.

Sin Armas (Unarmed)

I was scheduled to take the short taxi ride up to Castilla, a barrio north of Medellin, for a street party and music festival called “Sin Armas” (unarmed) to document the event and ultimately to video hometown punk rockers “Los Suziox” in action among their most die hard fans as they help headline the event.

No More Violence

Despite all the recent positive press about Medellin’s turnaround from having the dubious distinction of the murder capital of the world in the 1990s to a city “safer” than many U.S. cities now (and it certainly is, especially  in the Southern part which consist of Poblado, the main tourist zone), the fact remains that narco traffickers are still responsible for way too much violence in the streets of poor, working class barrios in the north. Ground zero for their battles in Medellin is  in Castilla.

To combat the violence and to take their streets back, the very good people of Castilla (I met many of them, they are truly some of the nicest, warmest people I’ve ever met) decided to stage a street party and festival to protest the violence and guns which often takes innocent lives.

The festival and parade was held on the main street in Castilla, which is lined with cool little restaurants and clubs, and word has it this part of the barrio is still safe.

But I was told that if one were to venture one block either side to the corner (la esquina) at night, things get dramatically more dicey.

I was also told that 8 blocks from the staging area where Los Suziox and the other bands were scheduled to perform, Colombian police and military personnel would not even venture in.

If you are like me and you thought extreme violence in Colombia was a thing of the past, then I guess we all have to become more aware. When the wealthier citizens and tourist of any city go from being terrorized to feeling protected and safe enough to travel freely and go about their normal lives, I can see how the international press would have a field day with such a dramatic turnaround story.

Spot the Gringo in the Parade

But what of the poor and middle class areas filled with everyday people who are working hard to feed their families and go about their everyday lives?

I have heard really good things about what the Medellin government has done to combat both violence and poverty. They’ve located new government projects and tourist attractions in some of the poorer neighborhoods, spurring both economic development and insuring that people visit these places rather than cut them off  as “no man’s land” from the rest of the city.

Medellin is a city on the move with new malls, new skyscrapers and new hotels and apartments being built all the time.

But safety and security are relative terms. When you consider the dramatic turnaround Medellin has made since the 1990s, it is a heck of a turnaround and should be lauded.

A Fake Funeral Procession

However, the good people of Castilla also deserve better. They deserve to be able to walk along the streets with their family without fear of being caught in the crossfire of rival narco trafficking gangs who have fought  for control of the neighborhood.

On this night, the citizens of Castilla were claiming their power and taking back their neighborhood, claiming “sin armas” (Unarmed).

There were signs of solidarity all throughout the neighborhood including flags and signs on storefronts, people wearing white “No Armas” T-Shirts (I have one!), street performances, poetry, dance performances, a parade and last but not least a music festival at the stage by the park, which featured local bands playing reggae, hip hop and as I said, one of the finest punk bands around anywhere, “Los Suziox”.

I arrived at 5pm or so and was able to witness a few street performances and then was even included in the parade down the main drag.

Not only was I the only Gringo in the parade I’m pretty sure I was the only Gringo at the entire festival and that was fine by me. My hostel and the nearby Parque Lleras is full of them and while I’ve met many of them and they are very nice, I didn’t come here to hang out with other Gringos and nothing could match the un-distilled warmth of the wonderful people of Castilla.

Dance Performers

Castilla was also crawling with punks and that added to the warmth of the evening for me. They were there to show their support and  listen to Los Suziox. Most knew Punk Outlaw and guessed pretty quickly that I was there to cover the event for Punk Outlaw.

Backstage

Pretty soon my supply of stickers, business cards and T-Shirts was completely depleted. After marching in the parade, I ended up trading in the Punk Outlaw shirt off my back for a coveted “Sin Armas” T-Shirt to show my support. But I didn’t just give, I also received, lots of CDs and too many free shots of Vodka much to my dismay (I was trying to remain lucid because I had to work).

Alas, Mother Nature in her infinite wisdom, decided to let the skies open up and it went from trickling to raining cats and dogs (for my Latin readers, it basically means it rained a lot).

Celebrating Life

Yet, best I could tell NO ONE left. People danced in the streets while getting soaking wet, or they hung out under a storefront ledge drinking, eating,  singing along and having a good time. It was one of those cold, soaking miserable rains that gets into your bones and yet no one seemed to mind one bit. Amazing. I’m telling you the people of Castilla are a hardy, passionate bunch that don’t let a little discomfort get in the way of a good time.

Punk Outlaw Fans

By the time Los Suziox was scheduled to play (under an elevated and  thankfully a covered stage), the crowd had heard some hip hop and reggae, but they were now ready for some kick ass punk music.

Los Suziox Fans

When Los Suziox first song kicked off, the rain let up and the crowd went nuts as they tore through 10 or so songs from their repertoire, which by now is very familiar to me as they are all on my ipod. They also sang a cover of the Clash’s “London Calling” for one of the more mellow moments.

But most of the time, it was let it rip and it was all I could do to stay on stage and continue taping rather than jumping down in the wet chaos that was the wrecking pit below. These soaked punks were having a hell of a good time and singing along to every word of every song that lead singer Andres and company belted out.

Los Suziox is tight, that I already know after watching them rehearse on a couple of occasions. But this is the first time I’ve witnessed them playing live for their fans and it is indeed a trip. I don’t think I’ve witnessed any band (and I’ve seen a bunch) conjure up as much emotion as these guys did in Castilla on this wet night in July.

Maybe the pain and misery that needless violence creates simultaneously drives a need for people who suffer the consequences to celebrate life with abandon in the good times. Or maybe Los Suziox is just that great of a band. Or maybe the folks who live in Castilla are a rare bunch who can bear so much pain and experience so much joy at the same time. It’s probably all of the above and then some. I’m not 100% sure but I do know I won’t forget the energy from this evening for a long, long time.

Circle Pit

I’ll hope to use it to carry me through the difficult times of my own. I’m really glad I got to participate in this event and I sincerely hope the people of Castilla can find the relief from the violence they are so desperately seeking.

Stay tuned, exclusive video from Los Suziox concert at Sin Armas Festival is coming soon and in the meantime if you want to check out the rest of the pics visit the “Sin Armas” set on our Flikr Page.

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