Laura Ortiz thought she could change the lives of children in Colombia’s most remote region by giving them books. But a trip there teaches her that she was the one who had much to learn from those communities.
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Martina: When Laura Ortiz was growing up in Colombia in the 80s, she had a favorite children’s musical group. It was called Oki Doki.
Laura: Ellos tenían una canción que se llamaba: “Paren no disparen”.
Martina: Paren no disparen, means stop, don’t shoot. Eight-year-old Laura loved this song. She’d jump on her parents bed and sing it at the top of her lungs, using a hairbrush as her microphone: Paren, paren, paren, no disparen. No destruyan el mundo. Que viva, viva, viva la vida, yo no quiero ser difunto.
Martina: Yo no quiero ser difunto, difunto as in deceased… Nobody was shocked by these song lyrics in Colombia. Children there, especially in rural areas, had to grow up in a true warzone.
Laura: Yo no, yo crecí en Bogotá.
Martina: Bogotá wasn’t super safe, but it certainly wasn’t the scene of the worst violence in the war. Laura had always wanted to do something to help the kids who weren’t as lucky as she was. So when she graduated with a degree in literature she thought of something she could offer them.
Laura: Yo creía que podía cambiar las vidas de esos niños con libros. Siempre he creído que la literatura tiene un poder especial para imaginar otros mundos posibles.
Martina: She thought literature could offer those kids a new world of possibilities, but her world was going to drastically change as well.
Laura: Yo era la que iba a aprender.
Martina: Bienvenidos and welcome to the Duolingo Spanish Podcast — I’m Martina Castro. Every episode, we bring you fascinating true stories to help you improve your Spanish listening and gain new perspectives on the world.
The storyteller will be using intermediate Spanish and I will be chiming in for context in English. If you miss something, you can always skip back and listen again – and we also offer full transcripts at podcast.duolingo.com.
Laura: En el año 2012 terminé mis estudios de Literatura en una universidad importante de Bogotá. Yo participaba mucho en programas de promoción de actividades para leer y escribir.
Martina: Laura’s love of literature led her to sign up for a government-funded program called Fiesta de la lectura, or The Reading Party. The program funded trips from Bogotá to rural areas of the country, so participants could share books with the communities there.
Laura: La idea era educar a las mujeres que trabajan con niños pequeños en esos pueblos remotos. Y también implementar bibliotecas para niños en los centros de atención a la infancia llamados “hogares comunitarios”.
Martina: The hogares comunitarios, or community homes, are for preschool aged children in towns without formal schools. “Community mothers” are the women who are paid to take care of them.
Laura: Dos compañeras y yo fuimos a Timbiquí: un pueblo a 450 kilómetros de Bogotá. Un lugar muy remoto en la costa del océano Pacífico y donde la selva está por todas partes. Era mi primera vez en la selva.
Martina: La selva is a tropical rainforest.
Laura: Solo se puede llegar a este pueblo en bote y por el mar. No hay carreteras en esa zona.
Martina: Timbiquí is one of many villages nestled between national parks. There are no roads, so the towns are mostly cut off from other parts of the country.
Laura: Al momento de empacar la maleta, lo más difícil fue elegir los 10 libros que me iba a llevar para compartir con las comunidades.
Martina: The first book she chose was “Where The Wild Things Are” by Maurice Sendak. In it, a young, troublesome kid crowns himself king of all the monsters so he can help them overcome their fears.
Laura: Otro libro fue “Niña Bonita”, de Ana María Machado. En la historia, una niña morena y un conejo blanco se hacen buenos amigos. Nosotras no íbamos a llevar todos los libros para las bibliotecas. Estos libros iban a llegar por correo después de nuestra visita.
Martina: You can’t get to Timbiquí by land, so Laura’s group traveled to Buenaventura, the closest port city. There they got on a boat for the last leg of the trip.
Laura: El viaje era por mar abierto, en aguas oscuras y con grandes olas. Fueron cinco horas de viaje. El bote golpeaba fuertemente contra el agua.
Martina: The last hour of the trip, the boat entered a mangrove forest, where trees with massive root structures grow from the soil in the brackish water. This was the first sign that they were close to Timbiquí.
Laura: Había sonidos de muchos animales: pájaros, reptiles grandes y hasta monos.
Martina: As soon as they arrived, they ran into a couple of heavily armed officials from the Anti-kidnapping and Anti-bribery divisions of the national police. They were wearing sunglasses, camouflage uniforms, helmets and bulletproof vests. They were also carrying huge guns.
Laura: Nosotras pensamos que estaban buscando a una persona desaparecida muy importante. Sentimos miedo, pero no preguntamos nada. En Colombia creemos que, a veces, es mejor no saber ciertas cosas, porque puede ser peligroso.
Martina: When the officials left, a young man came up to Laura and her colleagues. He asked them if they were there searching for gold or drugs. It turns out there were illegal mines in this area, and some cocaine factories.
Laura: Nosotras le dijimos: “No, venimos a traer libros. Somos parte de la Fiesta de la Lectura”.
Martina: The young man smiled and left. For the first time, they realized their books were like passports to an area of their own country that they had never visited before.
Martina: We’ll get right back to the story in just a moment, but first we want to tell you about a great way to support this podcast and continue practicing your Spanish. If you haven’t already tried duolingo, you can download it today and learn over 30 languages completely free. For even more convenience, like offline lessons and an add-free learning experience, upgrade to Duolingo Plus. You can start your 7 day free trial of Duolingo Plus by going to duolingo.com/getplus. Your subscription supports free content that you already know and love, like this podcast. Thanks and now let’s get back to the story.
Martina: Distances in Timbiquí are short. So when Laura’s group arrived, they walked to their first destination. She noticed immediately that they were followed by distrusting gazes from the residents.
Laura: Nosotras teníamos que encontrar la forma de ganarnos la confianza de las “madres comunitarias” en Timbiquí.
Martina: The first “community mother” they met was a 45 year old afro-colombian woman named Lucha. Laura can’t remember her last name.
Martina: Lucha had more than 10 children under her care. Her house, like most in the village, was small and made of wood. It was built on stilts to withstand floods from the nearby river.
Laura: Yo quería transmitirle a Lucha mi emoción por estar ahí. Por esa razón, le hablé con mucho entusiasmo de la biblioteca para niños que iba a llegar por correo.
Martina: But after Laura said this, Lucha looked back at her with a blank stare. Laura didn’t know what to think. Had she been wrong to assume the “community mothers” would want the library?
Laura: De repente, Lucha se levantó y nos ofreció algo de tomar llamado “biche”.
Martina: Biche is a homemade alcoholic drink. It’s been prepared and consumed in this area for centuries to cure different ailments. It’s also a symbol of union in this area of Colombia.
Laura: Era una bebida de color crema y con algunas hierbas en su interior.
Martina: As Laura sipped on her biche, she suddenly realized how it must have seemed to Lucha, for them to walk into her home and instantly start telling her about how things were going to get better, thanks to them. Laura decided to take a different approach.
Laura: Para demostrar mi respeto, tomé la decisión de escuchar, en lugar de enseñar.
Martina: Laura also took out the books they had brought for Lucha and the kids.
Laura: Le di a Lucha uno de los libros que llevaba en mi mochila, “Niña Bonita”.
Martina: It’s a book written by a Brazilian author back in the 80s, where the protagonist is a young black girl.
Laura: Los ojos de Lucha se iluminaron al ver que el libro contaba la historia de una niña negra. Y no solo eso… ¡Esta era la niña más bonita de todas! Hasta ahora, Lucha solo conocía cuentos donde las niñas bonitas eran blancas y rubias.
Martina: Lucha, inspired by the book, took out a guasá. That's a cylindrical instrument made of wood and seeds. As she shook it, she sang a song about the slaves who used to work the gold mines in this area.
Laura: Cuando leímos y cantamos juntas, fue la primera vez que nos conectamos.
Martina: Laura felt something shift. Not just in the room, but in her perspective about the entire trip.
Martina: The next day, Laura and her colleagues got on another boat to visit a community house in a nearby village. As they traveled along the Timbiquí river, they noticed the contamination in the water from the illegal gold mines nearby.1
Laura: Después de unas horas de viaje, vimos un grupo de casas en la distancia. En la playa había un poste con una bandera. Parecía ser la bandera de Colombia con sus colores amarillo, azul y rojo, pero tenía algo en el centro.
Martina: As soon as Laura got off the boat she noticed that in the middle of the flag she could make out the letters FARC-EP. Otherwise known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the armed guerrilla movement that was active in the country until 2017.
Laura: En ese momento, mis compañeras y yo nos miramos y nos comunicamos sin hablar. Con los ojos nos dijimos: “Tranquilas. Estamos en medio del territorio de la guerrilla. No digan nada”.
Martina: They hadn’t expected to enter a territory controlled by the rebel army. Neither the military nor the federal police could reach them here.
Laura: Le preguntamos a una mujer de la zona por la casa de Marta, el “hogar comunitario” adonde teníamos que ir. Nos dijeron que era la última casa de la derecha. Sólo había 15 casas y la selva estaba por todas partes.
Martina: This village was even more remote and cut off than Timbiquí. There was no electricity or gas; the radios were all battery powered. Everyone cooked on wood fires and it was common to find jaguars in the vegetable gardens.
Martina: As soon as they made their way to the community house, a line of kids had formed behind them.
Laura: Éramos 30 personas y nos metimos en nueve metros cuadrados. No solo estaban los bebés del “hogar comunitario”, también había niños de todas las edades.
Martina: A young 13 year old had also joined the group. He told them in a hushed voice that he wasn’t accepted to attend the middle school in Timbiquí. This meant he would have to go work with the rebel army.
Laura: Esa realidad nos hizo sentir inútiles. ¿De qué podían servir nuestros libros? De todas maneras, los sacamos de nuestras mochilas. Era lo único que podíamos ofrecer. Nos sentamos en un círculo, cantamos y leímos.
Martina: The books immediately inspired the youngest of the kids.
Laura: Entonces, les dimos papel y tizas de colores a los niños. Ellos comenzaron a pintar y estaban fascinados.
Martina: Laura was pleased to offer the kids an afternoon of playing with chalk and of storytelling. But she came away with something much more profound. Few back in Bogotá had any appreciation for how these “community mothers” are bravely racing and educating children in the midst of an armed conflict... all on their own.
Laura: El sol comenzó a caer. Teníamos que volver a Timbiquí antes de la noche.
Martina: A procession of kids and women accompanied the group to their boat as they said their goodbyes.
Laura: Cuando nos subimos al bote, las mujeres y las niñas comenzaron a cantar, como en un coro.
Martina: They could hear the women and children’s voices singing above the loud motor of the boat. As they drifted off, Laura could make out a few words from the song: “blessings”, “goodbye”, “journey”. Some kids even jumped into the river to swim along with them.
Laura: Éramos tres intrusas con libros y solo pasamos una tarde con ellos. Y nos dijeron adiós de una manera muy hermosa.
Martina: After that day, word got around about these women from Bogotá carrying books. More than 40 “community mothers” who lived in villages across the area asked Laura and her group to come back. They asked them to organize a day-long training for them in Timbiquí.
Laura: Desafortunadamente, el programa del gobierno no quiso dar el dinero necesario para traer a estas “madres comunitarias” a Timbiquí.
Martina: But they were so motivated by their experience, that Laura and her group joined forces with the “community mothers” to fund the training themselves. They raised enough money to organize a day-long training where they shared stories, read and sang together.
Laura: Las “madres comunitarias” aprendieron nuevas formas de enseñar: con obras de teatro, con lecturas acompañadas de música y con actividades en las bibliotecas. También comenzaron a educar a las familias de los niños. Así, padres e hijos aprendieron a leer juntos.
Martina: But Laura and her colleagues learned from the “community mothers” as well — about their culture and traditions, and about how they keep their communities together in the midst of war. In such a divided and diverse country as Colombia, Laura learned that with a simple act of coming together, they were all constructing peace.
Laura: Pudimos cambiar la desconfianza inicial y fuimos capaces de crear una hermosa y eterna relación en medio de la guerra y de una selva inhóspita.
Martina: Laura Ortiz now lives in Buenos Aires, where she works as a librarian and illustrator. This story was written by Tali Goldman, an Argentinian journalist.
If you liked this story, we’d love for you to share it with others. You can find a transcript at podcast.duolingo.com. And you can subscribe at Apple Podcasts or your favorite listening app, so you never miss an episode. With over 300 million users, Duolingo is the world's leading language learning platform, and the most downloaded education app in the world. Duolingo believes in making education free, fun and accessible to everyone. To join, download the app today, or find out more at duolingo.com. I’m the podcast’s executive producer, Martina Castro – gracias por escuchar.