Rumbas in the Barrio: Personal Lives in a Venezuelan Collectivist Project
This excerpt from Sujatha Fernandes' Curated Stories: The Uses and Misuses of Storytelling (Oxford University Press, 2017) — which "considers the rise of storytelling alongside the broader shift to neoliberal, free-market economies...[and] also explores how storytelling might be reclaimed to allow for the complexity of experience to be expressed in pursuit of transformative social change" — was first published at Upside Down World.
In this chapter, I look at the state-sponsored storytelling workshops conducted through the Misión Cultura program in Venezuela in the mid-2000s under the radical leftist leader Hugo Chávez. Before his death in 2013 due to cancer, Chávez had pursued a program of regional integration and national redistribution based on the vision of the nineteenth-century independence leader Simón Bolívar. The autobiography workshops of the Misión Cultura were instituted in 2005 as part of a broader Bolivarian project. Barrio residents, workers, indigenous people, and peasants across the country were engaged in writing their personal narratives and local histories under the guidance of trained facilitators. Alongside the other government-sponsored social missions that provided health care, literacy training, soup kitchens, and subsidized groceries, the Misión Cultura aimed to “give words, voice, to us, those always silenced.” The mission sought to build up a popular alternative archive of people’s stories and histories, alongside the official archives that have traditionally defined the national history.
The anti-neoliberal orientation of the Chávez government and its alliances with social justice movements in the country and across the region enabled distinct options for grassroots social action, and that range is also apparent within the Misión Cultura storytelling project. One option that the Bolivarian project made available was a revolutionary subjectivity with Chávez’s life story as a model. Another option that the Misión Cultura made available was an alternative register for narration that allowed for a decentering of the unitary subject and its location in broader community networks. These two options were taken up in various ways by the participants of the Misión. While some participants modeled their life stories on Chávez’s epic tale of revolutionary conversion, others, often those with a strong base in mobilized barrio movements, linked their personal experiences to the collective register — identified by Alessandro Portelli as the life of the neighborhood and collective participation. It is this relinking of the personal, political, and collective registers that made possible alternative modes of storytelling in post-neoliberal settings.
The program piloted in 2005 in the Caracas parish of Macarao with 51 participants. By 2008, at the height of the program, some 32,335 people were participating in the autobiography workshops. Although these testimonios do not address the current conjuncture, they can build a picture of the vast breadth and depth of popular forces that have participated in the Bolivarian Revolution, forces that continue to work today under much more difficult and constrained circumstances.
Embodiment and Everyday Struggles: Ricardo José Guerrero
Ricardo José Guerrero, a cultural activist from the parish of La Pastora in Caracas who suffers from diastrophic dwarfism, completed a story through the Misión Cultura in 2014. He describes his condition in detail: “It involves knotted tendons in all joints of the fingers, elbows and knees, with deformities in the feet and the central trunk of the body.” The key events in Guerrero’s autobiography are focused in the cotidiano, the everyday experiences and struggles of those from the barrio.
Guerrero feels ashamed of his physical difference when compared to his “normal” siblings, and because of the neighbors and friends who continually tell his mother that he is abnormal and needs medical treatment. When he is brought to the local Hospital San Juan Dios in Caracas, a medical priest assures his mother that there is no need to operate, that doctors will only want to experiment with him. God has made him this way, says the doctor, and we should respect it. Nevertheless, with mounting pressure from others, Guerrero’s mother takes him to other hospitals where he begins a lifelong experience of medical intervention, surgery, and treatments to correct his disability. As he grows older, he continues to encounter humiliations. The family of his first girlfriend pressures her to end the relationship with him, “simply because I was a midget, deformed, and ugly.” These humiliations were combined with the abuse he suffered when his mother worked as a domestic worker in the home of a wealthy family. He recounts the physical beatings and verbal abuse he received from Erasmo, his mother’s employer. At times the abuse was sexual, as when Erasmo was masturbating in the bathroom and called Guerrero to come inside and watch him. Guerrero’s mother finally makes the decision to leave after one day Guerrero is in the bath and Erasmo enters and slaps Guerrero on his buttocks with the palm of his hands.
After this experience, Guerrero and his mother moved in with his grandmother in the Caracas barrio of Las Torres in La Vega. It is in the space of the barrio, and the Callejón Ricaute, the alley where he plays with the other children of the neighborhood, that Guerrero comes to learn that he is equal and valued: “In the barrio I learned to feel equal to the rest of my friends. Or rather, they taught me, without knowing or proposing it, to feel myself in conditions of equality, where I often forgot my physical condition, although I was different to them.” He was not coddled or treated as lesser in capacity or humiliated for being different. Rather, “If we had to fight, we had to do it with the resources and conditions that we had.” Guerrero came to know all of the corners, alleys, sidewalks, and most hidden areas of the barrio, where he played, conversed with the neighbors, and came to feel part of a community. He describes the interconnection of people’s lives in the space of the barrio in these terms:
Every one of the residents was linked together magically, secretly, and in a strange way we all had to deal with one another. There existed ties and affinities that are hard to explain, although every person had their individuality and unique personality, although beyond the door of each house there was a very specific reality, and each of these have very definite shades. Despite everything that can be said of this and that, the barrio is only one. When I go into the streets and begin to explore its places and interact with people, there is another mode of amusement, a motive, a history that connects you with someone or something.
Guerrero is speaking of the space of the barrio as a totality that comprises the unique lives and features of each individual, but that is also a space of interdependence where the social ties and links between these individuals based on history, culture, and coexistence produce a feeling of unity. At the same time, Guerrero does not idealize this space of the barrio as one of idyllic harmony, which over time he says became the site for gang wars and violence; he recounts that various friends he grew up with were killed by firearms.
Afro-Venezuelan fiestas and culture are profoundly interconnected with Guerrero’s community organizing work. From a young age, he recalls his mother taking him to an amusement park called El Parque Mecánico, where he would go on the rides and hear music from the legendary salsa orchestras Sonora Matancera, los Melódicos, Billo Caracas Boy, la Dimensión la Tina, and Beny More. Enjoying the fresh breeze high above the city, looking down at the people and cars in the city like little dolls, the music would invoke in him a nostalgia and profound sadness, “perhaps because I was living as a child the complexity of my being.” As a child, Guerrero liked to play the drums, and as he couldn’t afford to buy one, he made one himself:
I would take a plastic container, one of those that the Parmalat milk came in, a kilo. I removed the bottom and it became a cylinder. I sanded the edges and I bought a red sheet known as Teype, like those that electricians use. I started wrapping it on one diameter, passing it on all sides, in myriad ways, making the sheet stretch until it covered everything, leaving a uniform skin. This is how I made my first drum.
With few resources, Guerrero created his first drum that had a deep and resonant sound. Along with his friends Gusano and Tico, Guerrero formed a Guaguanco band, where they sang and played. Guerrero also liked to dance and although he danced all different kinds of dance, he was known best as a rumbero, a specifically Afro-Venezuelan rhythmic style.
As he grew older, Guerrero came into contact with a wide range of musical influences and cultural activists who encouraged him to pursue a more radical agenda with his performance. One of these was a social activist in his barrio Nelson García, who had formed a Cultural Center Las Torres. The way in which García talked, with a passion and revolutionary fervor, was exciting for Guerrero. He began to formulate a more critical attitude to the world, to express his own ideas, “in other words, I learnt how to become a critical thinker, dialectic, creative, and transcendental, a man who was a fighter, revolutionary, and rebel.” He worked with García on a play about social injustice in the lives of street children, and they went all over the city presenting the play in different barrios.
Guerrero came of age at a moment of heightened cultural activism and regional political uprisings. He performed at a concert organized by the legendary revolutionary folksinger Alí Primera, and his theatre group dressed as guerrillas in solidarity with the FMLN guerrillas in El Salvador. He performed with the radical cultural grouping Grupo Madera, asking Chu Quintero how to play the bongos. Together with García and another friend Javier Sánchez, Guerrero created a group of clowns, calling himself Payaso Pompon, and this became a way for him to earn an income. By connecting the collective space of the barrio with struggles for social justice, over the course of his story Guerrero transitions from networked collective subjecthood to what Margaret Mills refers to as the “activist collective subjecthood of the testimony genre.” This represents an alternative form of political agency to that of the self-reliant and individual revolutionary leader.
As the various urban communities confronted government plans for urban remodeling and relocation of barrio residents, Guerrero and García formed a drumming group known as Drummers against Displacement (Los Tambores en Contra de Los Desalojos). Later, with the Experimental Group Example of Friendship (Grupo Experimental Ejemplo de Amistad, GEEA) in the barrio Las Torres, they campaigned to name a park after Alí Primera, who had died in a car accident. Guerrero worked closely with a network of local organizations in Las Torres and La Vega, including the Cultural Center Los Torres and the Grupo Caribes de Itagua of El Gordo Edgar. All of these groups engaged in specific local actions, but they met frequently to discuss and debate ideas, as well as to start up their own newspaper known as Los Incultos (The Uncultivated). They also collaborated in the yearly religious festivals of Cruz de Mayo, the Comparasas, percussion workshops, and other activities.
Although Guerrero’s cultural activities and political involvement come from his location in the everyday space of the barrio, this space is also shaped by various state agencies and private foundations. Guerrero says that he studied in percussion workshops organized by the Fundación Bigott, a philanthropic organization set up by British American Tobacco, which invested heavily in the field of culture as a way to promote itself after tobacco advertising was outlawed in 1981. He also worked as a cultural promoter under the Chávez administration with the cultural institutions Fundarte and the National Council for Culture (Consejo Nacional de la Cultura, CONAC). This is similar to Peraza, who mentions his cultural work with the Ministry of Education, CONAC, Montessori schools, and the municipality.
The key events in Guerrero’s autobiography are focused in the cotidiano, the everyday experiences and struggles of those from the barrio. After living for many years in a crowded house with his grandmother, Guerrero moves with his mother and siblings to their own rancho, a precariously constructed house in the upper reaches of the barrio Las Torres. He recalls that it cost his mother 4,000 bolívares, it was assigned the number 0017 by the National Guard, and it was like a little matchbox, with a toilet behind it. Guerrero describes the problems of transport for those living in the ranchos. They have to wake up at five in the morning or earlier to catch a bus and then train to go to their work. As a result, many have developed “a level of patience, of tolerance in the midst of disorder and noise that all of this generates.” Then, Guerrero recounts how in December 1999, the rancho collapsed during a storm:
On December 15 at 9:00 pm, in the year 1999, a large tree behind our house at the top of Los Mercedores and Las Torres collapsed. It had been raining a lot for the three days prior. The rancho was inundated with water and mud. I was out of it, stunned in this moment. I didn’t want to leave the rancho and lose everything. Before the walls collapsed, I rushed out, thanks to Wuilfredo, a neighbor and Morao’s brother-in-law, who shook me out of it and made me react by letting out a loud scream. Five minutes passed after I left the rancho and suddenly, in fractions of a second, the walls fell in of what was my home. I was in shorts and without a shirt, with the rubber boots that I had on in this moment. All of our belongings were now in the mud.
The collapse of his home is a defining moment in Guerrero’s life because of the way it alters his life circumstances, forcing him to live with many others in a makeshift camp that was to become his home. It is these daily struggles — of housing, transport, sanitation, and then dislocation — as well as the collective space of the barrio and the cultural activities he is involved with that shape the specific form of consciousness and agency that undergirds his narrative.
Community-based activism extends to Guerrero’s time in the relocation camp in the Parque Recreacional Sur. After facing depression, isolation, and dependency on his mother, he began working with the Unified Social Fund (FUS) to organize people in the camp. He convened assemblies in order to name work commissions, and he gave percussion classes to children in the camp. He taught the children origami, organized sport activities, and managed to find spaces for the children in local schools. In the camp, he ended up meeting a woman, María Ariza, who became his long-term partner.
Toward the end of his narrative, Guerrero recounts that he and María were given an apartment in the nearby northern state of Miranda by the housing authority. He had also won a grant from Fundarte to give percussion classes in Los Torres. He then ran into problems with the local Consejo Comunal, a form of community-based organization sponsored by the Chávez administration. The Consejo Comunal of Las Torres issued a damaging commentary saying that he had robbed this money. They wrote notices to the community saying that Guerrero was molesting the children. Guerrero defended himself by saying that it was because of his critical and revolutionary attitude toward the members of the Consejo Comunal that they were harassing him, and he ends the autobiography by affirming his firm defense of the “Bolivarian process led by Comandante Hugo Chávez Frías.”
Guerrero sees culture as a space for encounter and collaboration. He gives a detailed description of the Cruz de Mayo fiesta, which was re-created in the barrio Las Torres for the first time in 1983. The ability to have the fiesta depended on the networks of collaboration that existed between families in the barrio, which would allow them to house visitors and serve them food, make toilets available for the evening, and other necessities that arose. Guerrero says that each passing year they put together a more beautiful altar, with an alcove made of bamboo and palms, flowers, fruits, and harvests from the land that represent the multicolors of nature, abundance, and light that illuminate the path forward. He describes the impact of the event in the following terms:
We were able to invite many Afro-Venezuelan musical groups from Caracas. . . . Also attending were social and community organizations, social fighters and revolutionary youth from distinct places and distinct organizations. We try to convert the Velorio de Cruz into a great meeting of brothers, of friendship and solidarity and full of commitment to struggle. It is not only the magical-religious, the mystical, the deity, and the devotion to the Cruz de Mayo. It also implies organization, the search for spaces to share as a community, and recognize each other as brothers united by a single topographical identity, with the same needs and sharing the same reality.
There are many definitions of culture in Guerrero’s description. There is culture as spirituality, culture as a way of being, culture as a means of organization, culture as the space of collective life, and culture as a vehicle for cultural identity. Culture is intrinsically connected with the everyday life of the barrio, what Frantz Fanon has referred to as the zone of occult instability, from where alternate modes of subject-making and radical forms of agency can become available.
Sujatha Fernandes teaches in the Departments of Political Economy and Sociology & Social Policy at the University of Sydney. She is the author of several books, including Who Can Stop the Drums? Urban Social Movements in Chávez’s Venezuela (Duke University Press 2010).