Two siblings, one light of hope

Valeria and Juan José Montoya Restrepo are two siblings aged 17 and 16. Their childhood was marked by shortcomings and for some time their parents were drug dealers. However, they do not want to repeat the same steps and, refugees in cultural and educational processes, day after day they try to make their dreams come true in the streets of the Comuna 13.

Making theater for children and young people in Comuna 13 is a way to foster resistance. Photo: Courtesy

By: Mariluz Palacio Úsuga

Valeria has a roguish and lively look, she is outgoing and warm. Juan Jo – as everyone calls him – is somewhat enigmatic, but his big, penetrating black eyes reflect hope.

When I met them, I saw them arrive with the impetus of their age. By then I accompanied a social and creative entrepreneurship course designed by the English organization In Place of War (and the University of Manchester) and implemented by the Lluvia de Orión corporation in Comuna 13 of Medellín. They were part of the course. At first glance, they were full of joy, but behind the brightness of their eyes, a difficult story was hidden, which without understanding they had to face since childhood.

When I ask them about their childhood they define it with a word: «bad», if you look at it – as Valeria says – «in the general eyes of a classical family.» They grew up seeing their parents «stuck» in combos, being micro-traffickers, but also consumers. It was the work and the «easy» way they chose to bring money to their home.

Nevertheless, they were always very present parents. They believe that, by hiding the truth, they would free their children from that world of excess. Valeria clarifies that: «like a kind of bandage towards that reality that we already knew exists.» «We felt everything bad, but we didn’t know what it was,» said Juan Jo.

When they get older, their parents were more open, «in some way that has allowed us not to go astray or that we ourselves can have that awareness or criteria of being able to decide what we want or if we have more options,» says Valeria.

According to her, when there were shortcomings in the house, they were taught that it used to happen, but it would be much more develop in that environment of drugs and that world of excesses.

«We understood something: we couldn’t change their lives, but we could change ours, do other things, move forward and change our environment.»

Although their parents were there, these young guys experienced a relationship with a reserved and distant father and the absence of sweetness so typical of a mother.

María Alejandra, the mother of Juan Jo and Valeria, studied a semester of Bachelor of Education at the Antioquia´s University. Valeria says that maybe that frustrated career was implemented with them. «We were very encouraged by the love of reading and writing, but my mother is drastic, so it was not a tender education but a rugged one.»

They grew up in a small house in the Veinte de Julio neighborhood, in Comuna 13 in Medellín, a home they always shared with two or more pitbull dogs. «Those that my mother liked», remember Valeria and Juan Jo. Hence the sensitivity of both to animals, an inheritance of his mother, known as La Mona.

But far from living in a pleasant and quiet environment with their pets, the dogs, because of their territorial nature, used to fight and these siblings who at that time were eight and seven years old had to learn to separate them; a stressful factor and more than difficult for them to understand and only the prelude to what they would live next.

When the band fell completely…

Just one day after Valeria’s first communion, a blanket of fear and greater instability was attached to the family. Without receiving explanations they had to leave with few belongings towards the municipality of Copacabana.

The same criminal side for which their parents had worked for years threatened the family with death. They were forced to go to their maternal grandmother and, worse still, with the uncertainty generated by their father staying in the Comuna 13.

After that the fear was bigger. According to Valeria it was one of the scariest nights of her childhood, and she heard a telephone conversation in which her mother, the strong and brave, cried because her husband told her that at any moment they would killed him.

The image of audacious mother, who moves among the men of the «business» with hierarchy and courage, collapsed after that conversation. «At that moment I felt very scared and I realized that the world in which we moved was not as calm as they tried to pretend, that was where that band of innocence was taken away from me …» says Valeria.

In Copacabana Valeria had to grow up badly, suffered bullying and had several suicide attempts. «There were a lot of problems and my first escape was I’m going to kill myself, if I kill myself, I’m a less burden for this family.»

Despite the darkness that seemed to overshadow the dreams of the siblings, Valeria chose to take refuge in reading. «I began to read fantasy books, that was my marijuana, I became a bookworm», this hobby complemented her with writing, diaries in which she expressed her sadness, dreams and that hostile life that she and her brother used to face.

After carrying out a psychological process because of her suicide attempts, she gave up when she knew that the psychologist was telling her mother everything. Thus she concentrated on the diaries, five notebooks that she still retains, became the silent listeners of her entire life.

There was, in addition, something that nobody took from Valeria’s head, and it was a desire to make a  way back to her Comuna 13 and her neighborhood in Medellín, even if her parents did not allow it, nothing stopped her when she turned 15 years old.

After six years she returned to her neighborhood to meet her paternal relatives. She especially yearned to be able to hug Beatriz, her loving aunt who always filled that emptiness of tenderness she had at home.

Returning to the Veinte de Julio neighborhood brought her another opportunity: to know the writing workshop that was held in the Centro Occidental library of the El Salado neighborhood, and which was facilitated by a journalist and writer also from the Comuna 13. There she polished that innate talent she had and began writing not only to mitigate her sadness, but also to tell those stories so common in these neighborhoods of the city.

Photo: Courtesy.

Also, with Escena 3, a theatrical process that she joined in Copacabana, Valeria began working on the shyness that characterized her, thus becoming the jovial voice and safe image woman who projects today.

Hand in hand with Juan Jo

Valeria was going for her dreams, forging her own path away from that bloody path she had traveled. But there was someone who stayed and it was Juan Jo, her brother, the child she had always protected.

Juan Jo tried illegal drugs for the first time to experiment, and he felt that the effect that marijuana generated on him gave him those moments of freedom that had been taken away from him.

«When I came back and saw that Juan Jo was using marijuana, I realized that I didn’t know him and that I was losing him. It hurt a lot that he was on drugs. I decided to go to him, get high with him and ask him to tell me his things.» remembers Valeria.

It was Valeria’s mechanism, but the real intention was to convince him that there was another way out. «I said: yes Juan Jo, I know you like the effect of the drug, but look that there is another way out, I am doing other projects in Medellín … Wouldn’t you like to come with me to the theater? I wanted him to experience that in that environment can also live well without the need for drugs.»

After a while, Valeria met up with Mateo Rendón, a cousin who was about to finish the Bachelor of Arts at the University of Antioquia. He intended to found a theater corporation in Comuna 13 and her cousin was the perfect accomplice to prosecute that dream.

Valeria also saw an opportunity in the theater to share with her brother and recover that union they had lost. Thanks to Valeria, Juan Jo started with the classes in 2019.

Juan Jo remembers: «A busy mind is a calm mind.» Photo: Courtesy.

The tranquility of a municipality like Copacabana made Valeria seek to return to Medellin, «I’ve always had that need to help others who go through the same thing that I went through. I felt that in Copacabana I had no one to help, and that everything became very monotonous. If I returned to Medellin, I would find those adventures and stories to write about.

There were many reasons to be in Commune 13, but María Alejandra (Valeria and Juan Jo´s mother) who, although she abandoned the sale of narcotics never stopped the consumption of drugs, used to manipulate her children so that they would not stay so long in Medellín, taking advantage of the chronic depression that suffers from her youth.

Despite this, the siblings remained focused on their projects, for example, with La Parlacha, a theater corporation that Valeria founded with her cousin Mateo, they created the Popular Theater School. «I am about to finish the last level and I can become one of the teachers of the School,» explains Valeria; and next month she will start a writing workshop, taking advantage of that skill she has for this art.

In June, Valeria will finish her secondary education and what she wants to study is clear: social communication. She has another long-term dream: to buy El Gloria, a theater that is part of the history of Copacabana but is now converted into a winery.

Juan Jo, who is in the ninth grade, is forming Cortesía 13, a rap group with which he wants to put melody to those songs he writes. «I began to develop the imagination and the desire to sing and feel the music much more thoroughly.»

Now that fraternal love is renewed, because more than siblings they are great friends. Of those who go and set up a play, or create a creative project such as Rutas para la Memoria that was proposed in the Social Entrepreneurship workshops that ended a few days ago.

Just as the lights that illuminate the nights of the Comuna, Valeria and Juan Jo want to continue shining with their own light. Photo: Mariluz Úsuga Palace.

«We have a life of our own and we want to build resilience with all that we have lived and learned,» says Valeria. Their parents are not working now, but siblings can start generating their own income.

«The idea is not to get stuck, my parents resigned themselves to that life they have and I am not willing to resign myself to them, I am looking for other ways to get ahead. To recognize the skills and talents I have and make that resilience with that, ”concludes Valeria.



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