Postgraduate Researcher, DEV, University of East Anglia
2nd October 2013, Mérida, Venezuela.
Waking twisted in thin sheets I count my mosquito bites and listen to the house waking up around me, punctuated by car alarms and the motos racing by in the barrio outside the window. I moved to a house in La Cuesta two weeks ago at the southern edge of barrio Pueblo Nuevo. I’m staying with a lovely family who have lived in the barrio all their lives. From here, my research is all around me, blaring on loud speakers from the Evangelical church across the road, knocking on our front gate to buy the ice creams that the family sell, in the personalities in the barrio that I speak to every day on my way to work. My interviews are now with neighbours and colleagues not ‘participants’. Arriving at La Escuelita in the mornings, the mural of Chavez salutes both me and Fidel Castro from the wall next to the Mercal. I duck through the door and am mobbed by leg-clinging, piggyback-demanding, puppy-wielding urchins. This is life now and I feel like I’m gradually making sense of it, as I struggle to teach guitar classes and filming techniques in Spanish and help with adult education in the afternoons.
Here the syllabus is completely participative and student-led. That means choosing not only the subject but who does what and when and why. There are teams of students in charge of evaluation, registration and so on. Next week we are starting socio-productive workshops to make toothpaste to use and sell and there is a plan to film the process to share with other communities here and abroad. The atmosphere is very different to schools in the UK, of course, with dogs biting your ankles during class and reggaeton pumping outside during staff meetings.
Various community meetings are giving me the chance to begin to understand ‘direct democracy’ as it exists in the barrio. On Mondays the Communal Council meeting takes place in the street outside La Escuelita, broadcasting the discussions into every house on Calle Primera with loudspeakers. It’s a very Venezuelan way of communicating. Some initial suspicion has been replaced by a warm welcome for both me and my project. Living in the barrio and working at the school mean those awkward conversations I planned back in the UK where I ‘frame my research’ for people are much more casual, as people try and work out which house I live in and which of their friends I work with. At times I catch myself and remember how worried I was only a few weeks ago- whether I would even get permission to be here, whether there would even be anything to research.
In terms of the insecurity: it seems manageable right now. It’s a concern for all of the residents, myself included, and a major action point for the school in particular. In daylight there are streets I avoid, but not many. Getting a taxi into the barrio at night is almost impossible and walking is not an option following this weekend’s fatal shooting at the edge of the barrio, only two blocks away. But this face of Pueblo Nuevo is not a fair reflection on the community. Because of its central location, muggers flee the police in the city centre into the barrio, whether they live here or not, knowing the police will not follow. Some more academic insights will come soon, honest. For now it’s mainly osmosis.