Whenever you ask Ely Ríos Bonilla where she is from, she always smiles and replies in the same way: “The town that dreams.” It takes some conversation before she tells you the geographical details.
Her town is the Afro-Colombian community of Libertad, located in the department of Sucre on Colombia’s Caribbean coast. If Ely’s personality is any indicator, it is a community quick to laugh but also serious about addressing the challenges of the past and those that lie ahead.
Twenty-year-old Ely encountered Bogotá for the very first time last month.
For visitors from outside of Colombia, experiencing the capital is a literal journey to a foreign city — from the language to the food. Even for Colombians, the city can be just as foreign.
Ely’s reasons for visiting Bogotá, however, have very little to do with tourism and everything to do with dreams.
“I am here to learn theatre and to take what I learned back to my community,” states Ely about the month-long class she is attending on Theatre of the Oppressed, a workshop-style learning environment that uses drama as a way to explore power dynamics and relationships.
Besides attending classes, Ely is learning about the differences between two worlds: the coast and the capital. “I had always heard that it is cold here,” she says with a laugh, “and now I know that is true.”
The formality of a city of millions has also been hard to get used to, compared to the easy-going nature of life in Libertad, a town of only 6,000. Yet, as Ely remarks, “at the same time, the people are caring, just with a different style and different words for a lot of things.”
History is also different. While Bogotá has received many of Colombia’s internally displaced, Libertad lived the violence firsthand.
“As opposed to the majority of communities in the area, Libertad was never displaced and is known instead as a community of resistance,” explains the actor.
During the early 2000s, a local paramilitary commander chose the community as a base camp, starting a wave of violence.
Ely’s older brother, David Ríos, was one of the casualties of atrocities carried out by the paramilitaries against Libertad’s civilian population. He was killed during the height of the violence, and it is his memory that prompted her involvement in theatre and music.
Ely’s first love is songwriting, and when some of Libertad’s young people formed a community music group called Afromusica, she was asked to participate.
“After my brother died, I could not talk about him without tears,” remembers Ely, “But I was able to write a song to express my pain.”
Music and poetry are important traditions of the coast and Décimas, ten-verse ballads, are composed on the spot and recited at important events. Bullerengue is a traditional Afro-Colombian musical genre that dates back to the age of slavery.
For the young people of Libertad, not just Ely, reclaiming this musical heritage is an important part of working for the community.
Afromusica was started because of limited employment possibilities. When the shrimp canning factory closed down almost two years ago, life in Libertad slowed to a near halt.
Many were left without a job, and with alternatives few and far between, some of the town’s young people were drawn to armed groups and drugs.
The band, with 10 main members, provides a different space within this remote community, and members encourage creativity, as well as making a cultural connection their past and present.
One of their most popular compositions is what Ely refers to as “bullerengue-rap,” a unique mix of traditional beats with urban rap. What makes this song quite remarkable is that the youngsters and community elders of Libertad worked together in its creation to uphold the memory of their town and demand their rights, through music, as conflict victims.
Despite the differences Ely has found in being in a big city, music and theatre have bridged a gap for her.
“We dream about a better future. That as young people we can move forward, achieve a better future for our community and for our families.”