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Alice Driver | Longreads | December 2019 | 7 minutes (1,783 words)
We are hungry but we aren’t afraid
Young and rebellious
And the disappeared?
The revolution will educate your children
– Graffiti scrawled on buildings lining the Plaza de Bolívar in Bogotá, Colombia during the national protests against the government in November 2019
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You hold a spoon that has been worn down by the hands of your mother, of your grandmother. You hold a kitchen pot upon which is written the history of women who labored to feed loved ones. You hold a cheese grater, a measuring cup, a tin pitcher, a colander, a potato masher, a whisk, and you stand thousands upon thousands strong, banging your spoons in rhythm, dancing and singing as you face a repressive police force, riot police armed with tear gas, drones and helicopters following your movements from above. As days pass into weeks, you stand in defiance, spoon and pot in hand, demanding with every clang that the government elected by you the people listen to its people. This is a cacerolazo, a method of peaceful protest with deep roots in Latin America in which women — in the domestic space and in the streets — play a central role.
In the ‘60s and ‘70s, women represented roughly 20 percent of the labor force in most Latin American countries, and the societal expectation was that women belonged at home with their children. Under dictatorship and in times of economic cuts and food shortages, women were particularly affected given their assumed role as caretakers of the family. And to protest such conditions — first in Chile in the ‘70s and later in Argentina and Venezuela — women took to the streets in numbers, banging pots and pans, and often they were joined by other sectors of society, particularly students. The cacerolazo created a challenge for repressive governments because it was hard — even in countries with government-controlled media — to justify violence against women, often accompanied by their children, banging pots and pans.
In 2019, students like Carolina Avellaneda, 23, participated in cacerolazos across Latin America to protest government corruption and growing inequality. Avellaneda, who is from Bogotá, Colombia, participated in a nationwide protest that began on November 21, 2019, and will continue until Colombian president Iván Duque Márquez responds to the requests of protesters. She said she had been inspired to participate in the cacerolazo by earlier protests in Chile. While some of those Chilean protesters had died and hundreds had lost the use of one or both eyes due to police tactics involving shooting peaceful protesters in the eye with rubber bullets, the government had at least been forced to listen to and negotiate with protesters on issues regarding inequality.
I interviewed Avellaneda at the Parque de los Hippies in Bogotá on November 23, the third day of the protests. She was among the thousands of students, mothers, and children banging on pots and pans. I covered the protests with Colombian photographer Sebastián Villegas on a motorbike, which allowed us to track the movements of the ESMAD, the riot police. The ESMAD wore black body armor, whose weight appeared to slow them down, and black helmets with clear plastic visors covering their faces. They traveled in pairs on motorbikes. A uniformed police officer drove each bike and behind him sat a member of the riot police who, upon arrival at a protest area, would quickly jump off the bike and get into formation with the ESMAD on-site. They used information gathered by drones and teams of helicopters to quickly find, surround, and disperse peaceful protesters in different parts of the city with stun grenades, tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, and paint guns (used to tag students to identify them as protesters for later punishment). Without the motorbike, it would have been impossible for me to witness the coordinated brutality of ESMAD.
The morning of November 23, Villegas and I went to the Parque Nacional Enrique Olaya Herrera, where a group of a few hundred students, mothers, and children had gathered to bang on pots and pans, dance, and sing. It was sunny and the atmosphere was relaxed, with dozens of students gathered in groups, sitting or lying on the ground, making protest signs that read It is better to lose than to win so little and We want peace. Some were petting dogs or pushing babies in strollers. In the afternoon, as we rode out of the park and toward the Plaza de Bolívar, the main plaza in the city and the location of another protest, we crossed paths with a fleet of ESMAD on motorbikes. We watched as they arrived at the periphery of the park, dismounted, and got into tight formation. By the time we arrived at the Plaza de Bolívar some 20 minutes later, I had received a text message from another journalist at the park noting that the riot police had thrown stun grenades and tear gas at the protesters, dispersing the gathering within minutes.
At the Plaza de Bolívar, students congregated on the steps of the government buildings, surrounding the plaza and chanting in unison, “No violence!” Many held up strips of white cloth, stretched tight between their two hands — a sign of peace. Some students ran around the periphery of the square waving large Colombian flags, while others chanted, “The people united will never be defeated!” Many stood beside their bicycles, and couples kissed and held hands. Within minutes, the riot police arrived on motorbikes in a two-line formation, dismounted, and marched into the plaza throwing stun grenades and dispersing tear gas and pepper spray. I read on Twitter in real time some Colombian news outlets reporting that most protesters were violent and only wanted to vandalize the city and steal. I stood on the farthest side of the plaza watching as ESMAD threw stun grenades, and at the first explosion of sound all the pigeons in the plaza rose in unison, the sound of their wings flapping as students ran in wild desperation toward the closest exits. As the pink and white smoke cleared, the riot police fought to take bikes away from a few remaining students in the plaza and quickly — before I could get my camera — grabbed others by the feet and dragged them across the plaza and into a nearby building. As Johana Quintero, 30, a protester and a communications professor at a university in Bogotá explained, “Governments have always tended to act repressively when faced with protesters. It is one of the ways to silence us and our requests, along with the use of excessive force by police. However, we aren’t afraid. We are here.”
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The riot police then gathered in the center of the square around a statue of Simón Bolívar and waited as two perfect lines of police driving motorbikes arrived, picked them up, then did a victory lap around the square before exiting as drones and helicopters hummed above. The riot police had tracked the location of protests around the city using those drones and helicopters and thus could arrive quickly, disperse crowds, and secure the periphery of the given location with the National Police of Colombia (UNIPOL) who wore army-green uniforms and body armor, and black helmets with plastic visors over their faces.
A few protesters, mostly women, stayed behind to try to talk to the UNIPOL, mostly men, who were blocking the entrance to the Plaza de Bolívar. “You know, this is a peaceful march,” said one young woman who leaned in close to the plastic visor of a member of the UNIPOL. A group of her fellow protesters proceeded to organize a sit-in directly in front of the UNIPOL, holding up signs that read, I am marching for the future of my children.
Leaving the Plaza de Bolívar and en route to witness another protest at the Parque de los Hippies, Villegas and I passed a group of protesters surrounded by ambulances, smoke, and wails rising from the crowd. Upon arriving at the Parque de los Hippies, we received word that the ambulances had arrived to help Dilan Cruz, an 18-year-old student who had been gravely injured when riot police aimed a tear gas canister at his head.
At the Parque de los Hippies, Avellaneda, an environmental engineering student at the Universidad del Bosque, stood, her face covered by a black bandana, wearing black-framed glasses, and ripped jeans. She held a cardboard sign on which she had written in green marker No fear. By her side was her friend Sofia de León Jaramillo 24, also a university student, who held a similar sign that read No violence. Avellaneda said, “I think the strike will last longer until we at least get a response from the government, the president, and the mayor, because they are attacking us and saying that we are vandals.” Although there had been vandalism, which usually occurred at night, citizens disagreed about the cause of it, and some believed that the police themselves might have paid for the vandalism to make protesters look violent, while others wanted to blame it on Venezuelan immigrants.
Although the participants in the protests were diverse, the inequality they were protesting had specific dimensions. Mateo Castro, 24, a friend of Avellaneda who worked as a systems administrator, said, “I am one of the lucky few who has a job because unemployment is high. I work and I’m here and I brought my pan and I’m here for the cacerolazo.” According to 2018 figures, unemployment among women in Colombia was 65 percent higher than among men. Jaramillo said she had joined the protests because she wanted to see labor and pension reforms. She explained, “We are following in the footsteps of other countries [like Chile] because we have a voice and we are young and we understand the reality and hope that the protest will continue until we are really heard.” She described the protests as a time bomb whose arrival, due to systemic inequality in Colombia and in the region, could have been predicted. “This is related to other events in Latin America, to what is happening in Chile, to what is happening in Bolivia,” she added.
Daniela, 29, a lawyer protesting at the Plaza de los Hippies, requested that her last name be excluded due to fear of repression. She explained that she was protesting because, “This government has torn up the peace agreement after 50 years of enduring war — well, much longer than that, but if you’re talking about the guerrilla war, we’ve spent half a century, 50 years [at war]. … But there is no political will to implement the agreements that were signed in Havana.” And in that half decade or more of warfare, women in Colombia have suffered the brunt of sexual violence.
As news of Dilan Cruz spread on social media — he was in the hospital in critical condition — protesters from all around the city, many with children and dogs in tow, began to surround the Parque de los Hippies and shut down the street. Graffiti around the plaza read Don’t be silent, shout! Crowds chanted, “You aren’t going to silence us.” A shirtless young man had written across his scrawny chest in black marker MARICA ES ÉL QUE NO LUCHA, and near him another student wore a flag cape on which she had painted the words No more deaths, peace. A woman rode by on a bike. She had attached the handle of a cooking pan to her bike handle and was using one hand to steer and the other hand to bang on the pan with a large wooden spoon. A young woman on a pink skateboard rolled by, and the back of her shirt read, Resist! I promised my mother I would not fall! On a statute behind her, a student scrawled quickly in spray paint, No more ESMAD! Duque Resign!
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As dusk fell, students lit torches and sang the national anthem. Quintero and other students said they would continue to participate in the protests as long as it took for the government to listen. Quintero was hopeful and explained, “I believe that one of the things that the protests have demonstrated to the country, especially in the context of Bogotá, which is where I live, is hope. Because although we have always been very quiet, submissive people to the State, it is the first time in many generations that we can see several acts of solidarity and diverse voices that are legitimately asking for profound transformation. It is hopeful, especially for new generations. They are very critical young people, they are young people who have taken to the streets despite state repression and serious police abuse.”
By Sunday morning, protesters had gathered in front of San Ignacio hospital, leaving flowers and notes for Cruz, who remained in critical condition. By Monday, November 25, Cruz was dead and protesters, outraged at the brutality that caused an 18-year-old armed with only a spoon to die, flowed into the streets in even greater numbers. The sound of them banging on pots and pans rang throughout the city, a funeral hymn, a peaceful cry for justice, for equality.
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Alice Driver is a longform journalist and translator based in Mexico City. She covers borders and migration, and she is the author of More or Less Dead. You can find her work at National Geographic, California Sunday, Time, Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and CNN.
Editor: Krista Stevens
Fact-checker: Steven Cohen
Copy editor: Jacob Gross