For the people who live it…
For the people who live it, history is personal. And if you live it intensely, you feel you own it, or it owns you. (Holland Cotter)
Colombia’s history is complicated; I’m only beginning to understand how very little I understand. Our dear friend, Matteo, has lived it though, and one of his dearest friends, Milton, has lived it intensely. After hearing their story, I think Milton would say he both owns and has been owned by it.
During the opening chapters of Milton’s story, I’m not totally clear if Matteo — who is translating — is pronouncing his name Milton or Militant. Initially, it’s clear that there are many moments when society would certainly consider him the latter. But as we move through the story, the only thing that eventually seems militant is to disagree with Milton’s opening statement: my family was destined to fail.
His family lived in Cazuca –the largest informal community in Colombia, back dropped by its largest city, Bogota — and they had fallen deep into narcotic trafficking.
As we know by now, these stories don’t go well, and Milton’s family suffered in the worst ways: the paramilitary’s “social cleansing campaign” killed each member of his entire family and extended family — one-by-one — so quickly that they couldn’t even bury their family members before another one was dead.
To survive, Milton was forced into hiding, exiled to the dark basement of a neighbor for over a year. His neighbors secretly kept him alive, but eventually he said he would rather die than stay exiled, so he finally came out.
And he didn’t die. The year as a fugitive transformed him, and eventually he met Matteo and together started working to protect the beauty in their Cazuca community.
With tears in his eyes, Matteo shares the beautiful struggle of building their “beacon of light” (Amsa, in Spanish), his first company and his hope for Cazuca: At times, they didn’t know where their meal for the night would come from. At times they had to share coffees.
After 5 years, they realized that they weren’t going to reach the scale they had dreamed of. That they could be a light on the hillside — illuminating the path — but not necessarily organizing the millions to follow that path.
At this point, Matteo said he “stepped away from Amsa because it was the right thing to do.”
He doesn’t say that this was the hardest thing he’s ever done, but he doesn’t have to. It’s there in his voice. It was not only his baby, but his hope, his purpose, his way of being in the world.
People we met in Colombia — including his own wife — often told us that Matteo is more Colombian than they are. If, by Colombian, they mean resilient, empathetic, passionate, beautiful, than perhaps it’s Matteo’s time in Cazuca that makes this statement true. In many ways, in fact, it feels like Cazuca made him. In the same way that it made Milton.
Matteo and Milton’s stories are incredible for so many reasons, including because they reminds us that our struggles can become our deepest beauties. Our tears can become our deepest gratitude. Our basement exile is what allows us to break free. Our depression is what allows us to dream.
It reminds us that stepping down allows us to keep climbing. And our devastation is what allows us to continue to create.