San Antonio’s charm in Cali: Bridging the past and present

The eclectic architecture of Cali's San Antonio neighborhood. Photo: Gaia Neiman.

“They came from the fields,” Claudia tells me when explaining the ancestral history of the neighborhood where she grew up. “It’s one of the oldest neighborhoods in Cali.” The bright historical center, with its colorful houses covered in street art, is the image that would promptly come to mind if you’ve ever visited the city. Given Cali’s popularity, the historical San Antonio is still transitioning from residential to touristic, which means that the barrio’s older residents are struggling to adjust to the influx of international investment and a changing landscape.

The increased interest in the neighborhood has skyrocketed the prices of real estate, food, and everyday goods. Gentrification isn’t just the inflated price of homes, pushing out Caleños to favor new American residents or hotels. It is also the conflict between a traditional way of life that seeks enjoyment in their accustomed way of life, and another seeking financial productivity.

The dilemma is out of the hands of the city-dwellers as they witness their beloved barrio growing. It is morphing into a hipster cafe, vegan food, sushi-loving impersonation of what it once was. The input of international cuisine is often appreciated due to the variety it brings, in addition to accommodating tourism’s needs, but the imitations of what the international world imagines to be ‘typical campesino’ or ‘traditions of the abuela’ only appropriates real Caleño food.

Talking to Guiovanna, she points out her various uncles’ and cousins’ homes which she can see from her balcony. San Antonio contains her roots, her memories, and her routine is entirely contained among the shops she refers to not by the name of the establishment but by that of the shopkeeper. “It’s not as it used to be,” she says, melancholic because although the trendy coffee shops are mostly constrained to the main streets, the residential areas are still privy to the higher crime rates that San Antonio has become taunted by.

Due to all the wealth and foreigners it has attracted, the neighborhood has also charmed the consistent attention of petty criminals. Guiovanna used to play in the streets here with her brothers, but in the present day, the thought of leaving her home in the quiet hours of 1 to 3 pm, a time for guaranteed robberies, makes her affraid. Pickpocketing, and muggings with firearms are used against tourists and residents alike.

Guiovanna laments the escalation of prices: “You’re giving me the foreigner’s price!” she’d exclaim to her local shopkeeper. “Although, it’s very sad that a price would be changed because a foreigner is making a purchase.” She recounts that this form of taking advantage of wealthier Westerners was preceded by a rather romantic one. Women from the poorer areas of the city would crowd La Topa, the salsa club beloved by travelers, as well as San Antonio’s hostels, to find a foreign husband. There is a general consensus among residents that the company among the streets has degenerated, together with the quality of their colleagues, investors out of touch with San Antonio and its values, who are in town to generate income rather than community.

Notwithstanding, most residents are enthusiastic about the more diverse company in the squares, populating the markets and parks. They love to meet foreigners and tell their stories, so that the experience of visitors in Cali is often much more authentic and integrated than in most cities. Teo was so excited to speak to me about his neighborhood and hopes that people will keep visiting from abroad. Although it is in the Colombian nature to be welcoming, Caleños are all too thorough. Furthermore, there are some among the barrio who look at it from a more realistic standpoint, that our epoch is one of change, and that gentrification is inevitable if the city is to go with the times.

In addition to augmenting the diversification of the city, the international appeal has encouraged the city to make security improvements. A few months ago, the initiative “Cali, Volvamos a Sonreír,” or “let’s go back to smiling,” was launched, a grassroots movement aiming for Caleños to join in a united effort to recover the safety of San Antonio’s streets.

The residents seem skeptical but appreciative that some effort is being made by their authorities. They are also charged less for basic bills, such as water and electricity, because of cultural heritage status and the tourism it brings. Such local measures have definitely contributed to the amelioration of the barrio’s increased prices, traffic, noise, and modernization, but those who have always lived here, who have witnessed the neighborhood changing, who cherish the quiet, especially in their final years, remain dissatisfied and scared.

A typical scene from Cali’s traditional San Antonio neighborhood. Photo: Gaia Neiman.