Paper Dreams: Can this Medellín library transform a community?

By bogotapost January 31, 2019
Sueños de Papel community library. Photo by Sophie Foggin.

Sueños de Papel library is located in the neighbourhood of La Cruz in Manrique, Medellín. It is a space used by children and adults for learning, creativity and interaction with the community. The Bogotá Post along with Publicize Causes presents this exclusive look at a library looking to transform this troubled barrio.

The bus lurched to a halt with a squeal of complaint from the brakes. The driver jumped out and lifted the bonnet to let the chronically-overheated engine cool for a moment, taking advantage of a rest to chat with passersby, all the while avoiding the motorbikes optimistically inching through the tiny gap he had left between the bus and the wall.

Out of the bus window, Medellín was sprawled out beneath us in its red-bricked entirety, bordered by Antioquia’s green mountains. The journey up to La Cruz, Manrique was via a narrow road and an unrelenting incline, so high up the mountain that our taxi refused to take us this far. We were on our way to Sueños de Papel.

We went to this community library, founded by Wendy Estefanía Vera Tangarife, with the aim of finding out how one simple building can mean so much for a community that feels so isolated from the city it belongs to.

“La Cruz is the furthest neighbourhood away from the city,” explained Daniela Monsalve Posada, a social worker for the project. “It’s normal here for people to say ‘I’m going to Medellín,’ they don’t even feel like they are part of the city.”

The library sits atop the barrio of Manrique in Medellin. Photo by Frances Jenner

Created in 2016, Sueños de Papel is a small building perched on the edge of the steep valley painted with colourful designs and graffiti. Within these four walls, the project stemmed from a desire to improve children’s access to literature, but soon expanded into other areas such as origami, painting and music.

Sueños de Papel works to not only give children access to literature, but also to tap into their own imaginations and create stories and illustrations for a community newspaper called Entrecruzados. Entrecruzados is a platform for the neighbourhood’s young people to publish their short stories.

Entrecruzados is a newspaper that founded within the library. Photo courtesy of Sueños de Papel/Facebook

“One of the most wonderful things about Sueños de Papel is the Entrecruzados newspaper,” Monsalve said. “[The volunteers] started it, but those who really shine are the boys and girls. They write and draw [for] it by themselves, and they choose how it’s going to look. Part of the initiative is also for them to feel that their work is being read, and feel important, in the sense that, ‘we are young people, but we have infinite abilities.’”

“I’d write a story about magic trees that travel around and look after the world,” said eight-year-old Asly when we asked her what she’d write for the magazine when given the chance. “Pink birds with huge wings would live in the trees who’d help find areas that need their help,” she added.

Giving young people and children a voice is an integral part of Sueños de Papel, “We want to get more young people interested in showing their art through the newspaper,” Entrecruzados founder Tangarife told us. “[We are interested] not only in writing, but also drawing, photography, journalism, so that they explore more, and so there are more voices from La Cruz.”

Bringing literature to the highest neighbourhoods. Photo courtesy of
Sueños de Papel/Facebook.

However, the children are not the only ones who need to feel valued and listened to.

“We are trying to bring in the adult population as well, this is our constant challenge,” social worker Monsalve told us. “We want to open the door to these adults, so that they come to Sueños de Papel and feel like it belongs to them as well.”

One of the project’s goals was to make the space permanent for the community to use. Photo courtesy of Andrés Roldán

The mothers who come to the library to pick up their children already have a strong link to the community centre, Monsalve explained, but she has gone further to make Sueños more than just a place to pick up their kids and chat.

“I do everything with the female population, specifically with women in the area,” she said. “I have women’s groups where we talk about what violence we suffer, how we can stop this violence, how our body is a political terrain, but [we talk] about everything as women who are friends, not enemies. From there we start to talk a lot about misogyny, the patriarchy and machismo as a cultural axis, especially in the neighbourhood.”

A human rights study on the situation of women in Medellín from 2017 stated that the “female population is still the most victimised through psychological, physical and economic abuse in the home, as well as sexual abuse.”

It also reported that most inter-familial violence tends to take place in neighbourhoods with high levels of socio-economic difficulty, such as La Cruz, highlighting the importance of creating a safe and constructive space.

Sueños de Papel has surpassed all original expectations, becoming much more than a way to bring literature into the neighbourhood. Everybody who crosses the threshold is encouraged to take their own initiative by finding something that interests them, such as 14-year-old Bryan, who wrote a rap called Mi Barrio with the help of a friend.

Bryan, 14, wants to be a singer when he grows up. Photo by Andrés Roldan

The two boys, Bryan and Jeferson, performed the rap for the first time to a live audience at the Masterpeace event that took place in Medellín last year, which brings together community-based projects like Sueños de Papel from around the world.

Although the library plays a huge role in the area, there are people even further up the hill in La Cruz that still don’t know it exists. Tangarife explained that one of the project’s goals was to make the space permanent, but it is rented, with the volunteers collaboratively paying the rent every month.

“What we’d love more than anything is for it to be the community’s own space, a cultural hub for La Cruz,” said Tangarife, who dreams of owning the building.

“Right now, the library exists and is maintained through donations,” explained Monsalve. “Loads of individual volunteers come together to Sueños de Papel and say ‘I want to contribute to this dream.’”

The mural at the library is known for its distinctive vibrant colours and was painted by a local graffiti artist. Still from Sueños de Papel.

What began as Tangarife’s personal dream has evolved into something far larger than just a one-person project. The distinctive colourful walls were painted for free by a popular graffiti artist; the workshops are given by different people within the community; and even the name was voted for by the children who attend the library.

“Ultimately, Sueños de Papel is more than just a library, it’s the colourful little house,” said Monsalve. “In Sueños, what we have learnt is that we came here to transform, but at the end of the day we are the ones who have been transformed ourselves.”

Sueños de Papel forms part of the PeaceHub, a Medellín-based NGO that brings together peacemakers with experts, resources and international networks.Donations to help fund them can be made here.

With reporting by Frances Jenner and Sophie Foggin.