Colombia's armed conflict forced Jose "Chepe" Ubaque and his family to flee the countryside and settle in Soacha, a city southwest of Bogotá, when he was just 11. It is known as a magnet for both internally displaced Colombians (nearly 4 million) and armed groups.
Mr. Ubaque was able to beat the odds that the tough streets of Soacha stacked against him and landed scholarships to universities first in Bogotá and then in Canada. But he has gone on to do something even more remarkable: He has returned to Soacha. "When people can, they just leave Soacha," Ubaque says. But if the people of Soacha don't help themselves, no one will, he says.
What young people in Soacha need is their own voice, Ubaque says. Hip-hop, graffiti, break dancing, and journalism can all help by giving at-risk preteens and teenagers a safe way to express themselves, while also helping them avoid violence, he says.
"We have all of these things here – guerrillas, paramilitaries, the military," he says. "People tend to recognize violence and the problem, but not the possible solutions."
Since 2005, Ubaque's nonprofit organization, Fundacion Cultural Hip Hop La Diáspora, has been offering free, several-month-long workshops here involving 30 to 150 young people at a time. The group's sparse funding dried up months ago, but Ubaque continues to spend nearly every day in Soacha, a dusty, low-lying city of about 450,000 flanked by shantytowns that speckle the base of the green Andes Mountains.
Workshop participants keep coming. Some show up at the organization's inconspicuous office – a white house with bars on the windows – almost daily, even when there aren't any workshops scheduled.
"What's your news for today?" asked Laura Herrera one recent Saturday afternoon at a journalism workshop. Ms. Herrera, the foundation's social-communications specialist, and Ubaque's girlfriend, has led this group of mostly 10- and 11-year-olds for the past year.
The children shot their hands in the air; and, one by one, told their stories, which tied in with the session's theme of what constitutes violence. One girl said that there had been a lot of robberies in her neighborhood recently; a boy said that one of his peers brought marijuana to school.
The children discussed ideas on how to make their neighborhoods safer – more police on the streets, they all proposed – with disarming clarity, using phrases like "verbal violence" and "gender-based violence."
The discussion was far from abstract: Most of these children have been directly exposed to violence – in some cases instigated by Colombia's nearly 50-year-old internal armed conflict between government forces, paramilitary groups, leftist guerrilla insurgents, and criminal gangs.
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).
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.
Many of the participants in lyric writing and drawing workshops focus on politics, which Ubaque says is missing in the mainstream music scene in Colombia. Lack of basic public services like clean water, and the risks of being forced into armed groups, are two themes that teens feature in their songs and raps.
During a recent graffiti workshop, local street artist Fabian "Hash" Acosta peppered a small class of teenage boys with questions about the coming Soacha memorial event.
"Do you know about the falsos positivos?" he asked. Few of them did. But later they drafted sketches of a footprint, which would bear the names of the falsos positivos teenage boys.
Two weeks later, their plan was put into action at the memorial: Workshop members passed out cardboard cutouts of footprints with names, and people assembled them in the shape of one large footprint on the plaza.
As the event's emcee, Ubaque was both unassuming and magnetic. He introduced two raps about the desaparecidos, or disappeared people. Andres, the 10-year-old aspiring journalist from the workshop, made his rounds with a tape recorder, asking spectators about everything from their memories of Soacha to what they think has to be done to end the violence.
The event drew about 100 people and appeared to be a success. But Ubaque says that the foundation's lack of funds is limiting its possibilities. He wants to create a website, he says, and construct a recording studio for the teens.
"None of us is receiving any money," he says. "But we believe that it is possible to change Soacha in this way, that these young people have something important to offer Colombia. So we continue working."
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