Wrapped up against the rainy season, the residents of Bogotá’s poorest neighborhood are crowding on the main street, pushing strollers over the pitted dirt roads and past the piles of rubbish where scavenging dogs growl over scraps. Today’s a public holiday, Saint Joseph’s Day, and in Cazuca, this means visiting local friends and family, and buying arepas at the market.
Extended family and a few neighbors are gathered in the tiny house where Richard Mendoza lives with his parents and sister. The front room doubles as a bedroom, where Richard’s parents Sonia and Marcos sleep, and his family members are perched on the edge of the double bed and on the few chairs crammed into the room.
The bare concrete walls and floor seem to absorb the meagre light coming from the house’s sole window. Someone stands to flick the light switch, igniting a bare bulb that flickers where it hangs from the ceiling.
The family, who are all neatly turned out for the occasion, sit quietly. Their eyes move from my face to the notepad I’m holding.
“How old are you, Richard?” I ask. Eyes shift to the slight young man, who grins uncomfortably at the sudden attention.
“Twenty,” he replies shyly. His gaze slides over my face and down to the floor. His speech is slurred; his body contorted by hip dysplasia. He also has learning difficulties, the extent of which are unclear.
There’s a brief silence, and Richard’s aunt Amanda takes over.
Amanda’s the self-appointed family spokesperson, and does much of the talking, offering opinions, religious praise and information in an intense stream. She’s sitting beside me, so close our knees bump together when she leans forward to make a point.
Amanda tells us that Richard is in his final year of high school. He attends school on the weekends, with other adult students. His learning difficulties mean he’s a few years behind his peers.
I ask Richard if he likes going to school.
“Yes,” he replies. “I like school.”
Amanda nods approvingly. She begins to describe Richard’s journey to school. It’s a thirty minute walk over uneven roads, she says. Difficult for someone with Richard’s mobility problems. Residents have scattered broken bricks and stones over the surfaces for drainage, but when it rains the streets become rivers.
“When it rains heavily, no one can leave the house,” Amanda continues. “But Richard’s disciplined, very disciplined. He never misses a day of school, does he, Sonia?”
Richard’s mother, Sonia, is downcast, drifting silently between the front room and the kitchen, where she’s making coffee. She starts slightly at the sound of her name.
“No,” she murmurs shyly. She wipes her hands uncomfortably on her trousers and smiles politely. Then she disappears back into the kitchen.
I turn to Richard, who is still looking at the floor. Before Amanda can draw breath again, I ask him if he’ll show me his bedroom. Amanda springs out of her chair.
“It’s at the back, this way,” she says.
She leads the way to the back of the house. The rest of the family follow, crowding around Richard in the doorway as I look politely around the small, dark room. There are two beds: Richard shares the space with his sixteen-year-old sister, Marcela. Like teenage bedrooms the world over, there are pictures on the walls: Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, inspirational quotes. “Never give up,” says one.
As one, everyone shuffles back into the living room.
Amanda explains to me that Richard’s conditions are due to a fall Sonia suffered while pregnant. She had high blood pressure, and collapsed, and it took a while for help to arrive. “It’s a miracle Richard survived. He’s a miracle from God,” she says, watching my face to make sure I’ve understood.
Richard grins, nodding absent agreement. It’s a line he’s clearly heard many times.
Hoping to speak to Richard alone, I turn to him and if he can show me the street. He agrees, and stands up in unison with the rest of the family.
We all walk two houses down to another aunt’s home. When Richard walks, I can understand the effort it must take him to simply walk thirty minutes each way to school. His feet point inwards, he sways as he moves and his head snaps back with involuntary tics.
Shyly, Richard tells me a little about his life. Monday to Friday is a long time to fill in between classes, so I ask him how he spends the time. “I read, and watch television,” he says. He loves the National Geographic and Discovery channels. He also watches Cosmos, the science show.
“I’m interested in everything in the universe; I find everything about the universe interesting,” he says.
Richard’s own universe is small, I discover. It orbits almost entirely around home, school, and the houses of his family members and a couple of friends. The furthest he travels is La Candelaria, a neighborhood a kilometer away.
Amanda joins us again, and Richard stares into the distance as she relates the family story, the one that they’ve been telling for more than a decade: how the whole family was forced to flee guerrilla war in the countryside during the Colombian conflict. Taking just a few items of clothing, they left the crops and animals on their modest farm and made their way to Bogotá.
As of November the conflict is officially over, and FARC guerillas are in the process of disarming. But for Colombia’s six million displaced people, the uncertainty and hardship continues. “There are so many displaced people in Cazuca, and the government does nothing,” Amanda says.
After a couple of years without steady work, the Mendoza family left Cazuca for the countryside to look for work. The eight years that followed were bleak, Amanda says, lowering her voice as she describes the family’s hardships. Although she chose to stay in Cazuca, she knows every detail. The village where the family lived was small and isolated, and there was no work. Without prospects the family sunk into a depression. Ricardo’s older brother committed suicide, swallowing a fatal dose of poison. This tragedy was the catalyst for the remaining family to move back to the city.
During those eight years in the country Richard’s disability went untreated. I later read that hip dysplasia can vary in severity, but early medical intervention is crucial to manage the condition. For a long, possibly critical time, Richard saw no doctor, and his body’s misalignment worsened. However, he managed to attend school, and it was during this period that by the age of ten, he’d taught himself to walk by pulling himself up a rail the ran around his house.
I marvel at the thought of Richard laboring along the rail, teaching himself to walk.
Amanda nods emphatically. “It was a miracle from God,” she says in a trembling voice. She turns to Sonia, who is hovering in the background.
“It was a miracle,” Sonia agrees.
The two women also believe horse riding at the finca (small farm) opened up his hips.
“The finca was isolated, you had to ride a horse to the village. Sonia and I get very nervous when he’s on the horse,” she says. “And Richard’s nervous too, but he loves animals.”
Richard agrees. “Dogs, and chickens…” he trails off.
“All animals,” Amanda says firmly. “He likes to read books about biology, the human body.”
Is the interest in human biology due to his own condition? Richard frowns. “No,” he says. “I’m just interested.”
He’s also interested in world politics, he says. Of course, there’s no shortage of politics here in Colombia, where the recent peace deal exposed ideological gulfs as the country argued whether or not to vote for peace at the cost of leaving the guerillas who had a hand in the deaths of thousands go unpunished.
“I would like to see people become equal, especially displaced people,” he says dutifully, looking at his aunt, who smiles. Like being a miracle of God, the family’s displaced status has become a central part of Richard’s identity.
Richard would like to go to university and become a systems engineer, he says. Whether this will be possible, neither Sonia or Amanda have any idea. Have they asked about government support, after Richard graduates?
“No. I don’t know,” says Sonia vaguely.
I ask Sonia what she wants for Richard in his life. She looks surprised by the question. “He needs to study a lot,” she says finally.
“She wants him to become a professional so he can support her,” Amanda says.
Amanda’s only son has a good job as an office worker, and she doesn’t work. She and her husband have a decent sized house three doors down from Richard’s family. They own a taxi, a point of pride in a neighborhood where vehicles are relatively rare.
Sonia doesn’t work either, or at least, she doesn’t have a regular job. She has worked as a cleaner in the past, but jobs seemed to slip through her fingers. She’ll often work a trial day here, or there, but is rarely asked back. Until two years ago, under the former mayor, the family received monthly food stamps for Richard. The $200,000 peso (US$70) vouchers — well over a week’s minimum wage — were invaluable. But a change in mayor meant a shift in local policy, and this help is now gone.
We walk up the steep street to Amanda’s house and climb up to her roof terrace. From here you can see the Cazuca hillside, its ramshackle cinderblock homes tumbling down to the plain where the city, hidden under a carpet of fog, stretches out in every direction.
From the terrace, Amanda points out Richard’s father, Marcos. He’s working on a small construction site below the house. He looks up at us and waves. Like Sonia, Marcos only works sporadically. When I ask why, Amanda shrugs. “There is no work in Cazuca,” she says.
She returns to the subject of government support, or lack thereof.
“The government ignores displaced people,” Amanda says. Her voice wobbles and there are tears in her eyes. “I’m very worried, the whole family needs help. Sonia is four years younger than me but she’s like my daughter, and she’s struggling.”
Richard already receives a raft of government-funded therapies: physical therapy to help open his hands and realign his legs; occupational therapy to improve everyday tasks; and speech therapy to help him enunciate.
He’s also in line for a number of corrective surgeries. Surgeons will assess his back and hips to see what can be done to help open up his nerves, which are tight and knotted. When will the assessment happen? I ask Sonia.
“I don’t know, we’re waiting,” she says.
Amanda says she has dreams for Richard, and his young cousins that live in Cazuca. “Seeing them grow up in violence, in suffering, is very hard.”
It’s dangerous here, especially after dark. There are a lot of robberies. “It’s best to stay in at night,” Amanda says. Still, it’s better than it was ten years ago, when they’d wake up to the sight of new corpses in the street each morning.
“Yes, it’s better now,” she says, “but everyone wants to get out of here.”
I ask Richard what he wants. If university doesn’t work out, he’d like to be an actor. His heroes are Sylvester Stallone, Jean Claude Van Damme and Jackie Chan. The problem is, he’s very shy, he admits. He gives a sudden, loud laugh. He’d also like to go to Medellin to ride the metro there, he says. Maybe to San Andres, the Caribbean Island destination popular with Colombian holiday makers.
“I’d like to go on a plane,” he says, the wide grin lighting up his face. “I wouldn’t be scared. I’d like to see new places.”
I imagine Richard on a plane, watching Cazuca recede behind him. I picture him alone, with each passing mile taking him further from his family and the identity they’ve imposed on him, shedding his past and embarking on a future that’s his alone.
The problem is, as I leave Richard’s house, it is hard for me to imagine such a trip for him right now. Without quite being able to put my finger on it, I’m troubled by something about the dynamic between him and his family: the ways his family never quite lets me alone with him, the ways in which he always seems to repeat to me something else they’ve already said when I ask him a direct question.
To what purpose? I don’t know. As an outsider, it is always difficult to know what is happening within a family, but I worry I’ve been fed a story that has been rehearsed for years: of poverty, of displacement, and of disability. This narrative shapes the family’s identity, and while its broad strokes are self-evidently true, I feel like there’s more to it than there is being let on.
The claustrophobic home with its stark concrete walls seems emblematic of a larger, more weighty oppression enveloping the family. Every question I’ve asked about Richard’s future care or education is deflected with a “we’ll wait and see” type answer. I feel frustrated; I don’t know whether this is apathy, defeatism, or if they’re being deliberately vague because the answer doesn’t fit the narrative they’re presenting.
Perhaps this is all too cynical, but it underlines the difficulty in reporting on everyday people with disabilities, especially those who live without privileges in some of the poorest places in the world. Either way, it feels as if Richard–like so many people struggling with conditions around the world–has little agency in his own future.
But that’s why there’s hope. So as I walk down the streets of Bogotá’s poorest neighborhood, wrapped up against the rain, I hope. I hope for Richard and his dream: a ride on an airplane to a place where his agency will be his own.