By Bethany Tran
Imagine a mile-wide ravine in the middle of a city. Concrete homes are stacked one on top of another, each covered by corrugated metal roofs. Up to 100,000 people live here. There are 10 barrios, or neighborhoods, and the gang presence is undeniable and strong.
This is the slum of La Limonada in Guatemala City, Guatemala. And it is a violent place. Now, imagine you live here.
As much as poverty is discussed in mainstream media, the violence behind it rarely is. In many impoverished areas, violence is in plain sight. It is complicated and intense. Upheaval is caused by so many factors and takes many faces: sexual violence, forced labor, gang activity, gender-based aggression. In places like La Limonada, many faces of violence exist, but perhaps the most obvious here is the gang violence. Gangs relocated south from Los Angeles during the last years of the 36-year Guatemalan civil war during the 1990s, when the instability of the country made it fertile for the gangs to take root and prosper.
Now imagine, as a 10-year old, you were left alone for hours each day and an easy target for the gangs. Your father is gone, and your mother is working two jobs to get food on the table. She has to lie about where you live in order to even find a place to work. She’s never around, and it’s not really her fault.
In the years since the war, gangs have been growing their number, often in the marginalized communities like La Limonada. The lack of a family structure leaves many children vulnerable, and the stigmas abound. People here often have little options. The culture outside views them as second-class citizens, and people who live within the confines of the slum often have to lie about their address to even get a job. Many youth join the gangs, because of the lack of opportunity for education past the sixth grade. (School is not free in the higher grades.)
This has become a cycle for several generations, each following in the footsteps of the prior. Gangs operate under a structure of violence: theft, murder and territory wars. Members are branded with gang tattoos in visible places to prevent them from getting a job outside the gangs.
Imagine now, your 10-year-old self, picked up off the street, pulled into the semblance of a family, tattooed on your face, and forced to perform unspeakable acts. You do it, because you just want to belong to someone. You get sucked deeper. And why not? So many others have, too.
Violence is a cycle, and a difficult one to break. As an outsider, it seems like such a simple option to leave the gangs. But the utter lack of opportunity outside gang life leaves most without options. Imagine yourself a little older. You want to leave, but what are your alternatives? With your history, your tattoos, your lack of education and skills, you may be more than a little trapped.
But what if change came from within the community? From someone who knew and understood? What if your 10-year-old self grew up and decided to be the one to stop that cycle of violence in your family.
Opportunity is key in communities like La Limonada: opportunity without judgment and assumptions; opportunity that allows for choices in a place where not many exist. Within these violent communities, people who truly understand the culture are critical to true change. If finding a job can take someone out of the gang life, and as a result, reduce the violence in the community, economic empowerment has a tremendous role to play. If a social entrepreneur, perhaps one with the same gang tattoos, can provide options, then economic development can have a direct correlation to the reduction of violence.
The more recent shift in development from charity to investment is an important one in the conversations of poverty alleviation and, in turn, the reduction of violence. Investing in local business owners who are empowering their community through job opportunities is critical to the improvement of the overall safety of people living in slums. It can also prevent the 10-year olds who feel like there may be no other option from joining the gangs in the first place. If they’re able to see that options exist, if parents can earn enough from one job to be home as a caretaker, if those kids aren’t forced to spend their days on the streets, then just maybe that cycle can be broken. The injection of opportunity in the form of business training, micro loans, and the simplicity of linking arms with people in poverty can bring about the change that’s needed. This is the hard part though. In a society where the expectation of the speed of a drive through in basically everything, the patience required for investment development strategies is one that is possibly the hardest.
Maybe poverty and violence, so inextricably linked, can be fought against through the dignity of a job. And then, one after another, the system that keeps people in poverty will begin to crumble from within.
Image credit: Em Grey
Bethany Tran is the founder and designer-in-chief at The Root Collective, a certified B Corporation that partners with small-scale artisans in rural and urban slum communities. Bethany is dedicated to attacking social issues through economic development and empowerment by uplifting communities from within. She is passionate about starting conversations that matter and the influence that each of us holds in the everyday decisions we make.