Alex Rocha is a tour guide on a mission. His mission is simple: to change the face of the barrios where he grew up. He's looking for volunteers who can help him.
Charity starts at home they say and this certified tour guide with over ten years of experience, who speaks fluent English and has worked as a translator, a teacher and mentor is determined to leave his mark in the barrio where he was brought up.
Right beside the Cartagena airport is a neighbourhood that despite being the first place most visitors to Cartagena see is one people rarely go back to.
The barrio that welcomes you to Cartagena is a place that few would recommend you visit. Not Alex. There are no horse-drawn carriages offering romantic strolls in this part of town, no sandy beaches or fancy restaurants but he still wants to take you there.
San Francisco is a neighbourhood that over the years has earned a bad rep'. The social problems so often associated with marginalized communities in Colombia -crime, drugs, prostitution- have created a stigma for the barrio. But like everywhere it's not all bad, there are good people doing great things that, unfortunately, have been overshadowed by the negatives. One of these great people is Alex.
Brought up in neighbouring barrio La Maria, Alex is the founder and force behind San Francisco's Alex Rocha Youth Center.
Created last year, the youth centre aims to be a safe haven for the youth of this part of town. It seeks to give back to the community; helping to keep kids off the streets by teaching them art, music, dance, languages, and helping them find jobs in the tourism industry. It is always looking for volunteers who can do something to inspire the children to help theirbarrioescape the vicious cycle of poverty, crime and violence.
Here, in an interview with This Is Cartagena contributor and volunteer Katrin Kocsis, Alex paints a picture of what life is like in the barrio and what he's doing to change it.
Q: What was it like growing up in a neighbourhood like La María? What are the challenges faced growing up in neighbourhoods like these?
It was hard. We lacked basic necessities. We never owned a tv, there was no running water. We collected it from a truck that came to the neighbourhood, and then brought it back to the house. As youth we would always hear stories about guys smoking marijuana and doing cocaine, usually in the neighbourhoods around us; San Francisco, La Esperanza. They were glorified; we thought that if we could be like them, we could be heroes.
Q: Was there a lot of gang activity?
Oh yeah, lots of gangs. You know, before they didn't use guns, now they do. Before they used machetes, baseball bats. Now they have these homemade pistols, it's a lot more common now. I guess they have better technology now…an easier way to defeat the enemy. I got involved in these things. Gangs, drug abuse. It's a big problem. Most kids, that's what they get into. They don't want to go to school. And you know these days, the criminal organizations use the youth in the communities. Leaders who live in the communities, who know the kids personally; they get them involved. They turn them into hit men. Put them on the back of a motorcycle with a gun in their hand. These kids, they are easy to influence. They are affected by their environment, seeing everyone around them doing the same things. Then they make money, spend it on partying, and get deeper into the lifestyle.
Q: What are some of the most important problems you feel are often ignored in poorer neighbourhoods such as these, across Cartagena?
Education. The schools are not focused on keeping the kids in school. They should be visiting the houses of these kids to see how they are living, and talking to the parents. They don't do that. They need to work with the families to keep the kids off the streets. It's a lack of caring, they just want to manipulate the system. This city comes from a background of slavery. Seventy percent of its people come from an African background. The people who run the city want to keep it the same. I lived the same way as these kids are living now. When I was growing up, no one ever came to my house to see how I was doing. There were never any programs to help me. I never felt like they cared. If you go to the South-East of Cartagena, all of these neighbourhoods - El Pozón, Olaya, Líbano, La Candelaria, San Francisco just to name a few -- they are all African American communities and they all have the worst living conditions.
Q: What influenced or inspired you to pursue something like the Youth Centre?
The things I've seen growing up as a kid. Youth, going down the wrong path in life, without an education, just not being able to make it. When I already began on the path of the youth centre, I found out about this pastor from the United States who was also a rapper. He was using Hip Hop to reach out to the community. One of the tools I use is English. God gave me the knowledge of English and I want to use it to give back. I've been teaching English for 11 years, and now I want my community to learn too. This is a tourist city and speaking English is a great advantage in finding a job.
Q: In what ways does the centre give back to the community?
We give back to the community with English. We give back to the community by feeding kids who can't be fed at home, by teaching youth to be more aware of what's going on around them. We want to teach using eye-opening activities. I think English is definitely a way to do that. Teaching values Is also important. Everyone is welcome. We don't pick and choose. Kids, teenagers, adults, the whole community is welcome. One of the focuses is to teach things that will help them find jobs in their future. In the future I hope to have computers in the centre. If we teach them how to use computers, I think it is a very useful tool.
Q: How can people get involved?
I'm not asking for money. I am asking for skills and knowledge. We want people that come here to teach the children what they know, to give them better opportunities. It can be anything; dancing, singing, baseball. There is always something for everyone. For example if someone knows how to make kites -- they can come to the centre and give classes on kite-making. In Cartagena there is a season for kite flying, so if someone knows how to make kites here, it can be a good opportunity.
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