Chepe Ubaque survived Colombia's mean streets. Now he helps others do the same.
Hip-hop, graffiti, break dancing, and journalism programs give teens in Colombia a safe way to express themselves – and avoid violence.
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One of the journalism workshop's 10-year-old participants, Andres (not his real name), witnessed the murder of his father nearly a year ago outside his house a few blocks from the workshop. His father had worked for a right-wing paramilitary group, or bacrim (bandas criminales – emergent gangs).Skip to next paragraph
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Immediately following his father's death, Andres talked about growing up to become an assassin and seeking revenge, Herrera says. But his time in the weekly journalism workshops has altered his perspective.
"When I started doing the workshops I didn't know what my dreams were, but I have been learning a lot of things, and I want to be a journalist," Andres said after the session. "Journalism is a very beautiful thing because it allows you to know the world, to know people."
Fenivar Lozada-Cubillos, a Soacha community leader and a mother of one of the workshop participants, calls the service Ubaque provides to the community "very key."
"He is giving these kids a sense of self-esteem and of leadership, to show them how they are important," Ms. Lozada-Cubillos explains.
Ubaque oversees the workshops and other activities, such as a mid-June memorial event featuring both hip-hop and street art acts held in Soacha's only park. The event honored a group of 19 Soacha teenage boys who in 2008 were allegedly murdered by the Colombian military and then disguised as guerrilla fighters so the soldiers could receive payment for the killings. The controversy – still unresolved in Colombia's courts – is known as the case of the falsos positivos, or fake positives.
"What we're teaching is that it's important to ask about things, to investigate things. Kids don't talk about these kinds of things in school," Ubaque says. "They are asking more about everything, from assassinations to what the president is doing."
Ubaque's easy charm, coupled with the sincere attention he offers to everyone he encounters, reveals little of the rough edge he had to project as a teenager in Soacha.
"It was a different life for me, when I first arrived, to have to answer to this strong violence," he says, sitting on a street curb a few blocks from his office on a quiet Saturday morning. "I had to run from things many times because people wanted to rob me or kill me. I wanted to become an adult very quickly – to get money, to get guns, because I didn't know another way to defend myself."
Instead Ubaque found the break-dancing scene. "Break dancing became my refuge, my escape, and I never got the guns," he says.
Ubaque now is guiding a group of Soacha teenagers on a similar path, says Blanca Nubia Monroy, a former Soacha resident and community activist whose 19-year-old son died in one of the falsos positivos cases.
"Chepe and the foundation, they are taking kids out of situations where they could be exposed to drugs and danger and bad friends and giving them a chance to do other things," says Ms. Monroy, who has known Ubaque many years and partnered with him on projects. She considers him to be "another son."
"[It] is very beautiful and very important work," she says, referring to Ubaque's efforts.
Ubaque describes the often-stigmatized hip-hop and street art scene here as a "contemporary revolution" that offers hope to teenagers.
"The power of the lyrics can motivate people to arm themselves behind ideas," he says.