One of the most beautiful things about ConeXión Mosaco’s work is seeing how people become inspired with a new dream of transforming their community. One such dreamer is Angelina, who lives with her family in ‘El Potrero,’ one of the most severely marginalized areas of the San Sebastián neighborhood in Los Reyes La Paz.
What interested her in becoming involved with our work was the emphasis on human rights. Unfortunately, a corrupt political group headed up by one particular local “boss” exerts a lot of power over the residents of ‘El Potrero’ through threats and extortion. Angelina explains that access to electricity is one of the group’s most powerful means of control, “She’ll tell you that you have to attend a political rally. And if you don’t go, they’ll cut off your electricity for 2 weeks.”
Angelina tells the story of the engineer from the electrical commission who built the transformer. The local ‘boss’ gave him permission to set up electrical service for a number of families who paid him $3,500 pesos each, on the condition that the members of her group would be able to use the transformer for free. However, as soon as the transformer was up and running, the group threw rocks to drive the engineer out of the community, taking over the transformer themselves and then denying electricity to those who had paid to have it built.
The electricity is also used to financially exploit the residents of this impoverished community. “The transformer works just fine,” Angelina says, “but suddenly the electricity will go out.” The ‘boss’ will then go around to each family and tell them that the transformer isn’t working. “She will say that each family needs to pitch in $50 pesos to fix it; there are 700 of us here. Then the man from the electric company comes and flips a switch. In less than 5 minutes the electricity is back on, but she has collected thousands of pesos. Her big fear is that someone else will come in and install electricity in this area, and she won’t control it anymore.”
In this community context of corruption, intimidation and injustice, the Fortaleza project began our organizing process. As an entry strategy, staff launched a series of participatory workshops on topics that community members requested. However, the idea that the community would organize and learn about their rights was threatening to the local ‘strongmen,’ and they tried to keep people from attending. Angelina says the local ‘boss’ blatantly threatened them: “She told everyone in the neighborhood that she would cut their electricity off if they went to the workshops. But instead of deterring me, it actually made me more determined. And I tell everyone the same thing. Those kinds of threats should make us want to attend even more, because we are learning about our rights.”
“In the workshops, I see an alternative. We come together, we organize and we learn. I would like to live in a community where everyone says ‘hi’ to each other. Where we all live in harmony and people look out for each other. That people would care about what’s best for everyone and not just for themselves. I dream about my neighborhood being like that. In my ideal community, we would also all have our basic services and everyone would work together for the things we need in our neighborhood.”
“I think it is possible to achieve this community that I dream about. Even though we all look at things differently, we can live together in peace. In just a short time, I have seen a change in the people who attend the workshops. Here in ‘El Potrero,’ even though you’re cooped up at home all day, you don’t talk to your neighbors, you don’t even know them. But at the workshops, we laugh, we have fun, but most importantly, we get to know each other. Now people talk to each other when they meet in the street. They never used to do that. The workshops have made that difference. This Sunday, on our street we are having a meeting about pitching in to put up streetlights. That’s what I see in the workshops. They call us to unity, to work together.”
The call to unity is for all of us. We are working to bring together individuals and communities in such a way that lives and systems are transformed. As the diverse pieces of this complex mosaic come together, we can see a new vision emerge from the apathy and injustice which often characterize slum neighborhoods: a dream of justice, harmony and God’s shalom, manifest here on earth.