We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print… We lived in the gaps between the stories.
– Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale
Many of my paintings and photos have stories behind them. I’m sure this woman in the painting above has a story. Only I don’t know it. But I do know a few facts, and I bet I can find a few stats. And sometimes, if you peek around the edges or peer into the gaps, stats and facts may be enough.
Just the Facts
Fact: I met the woman above in Ciudad Bolívar – “Bolivar City” for those who can’t hang with my Spanglish† – a locality in the far south of Bogotá. For the life of me, I can’t remember her name. I remember her as One-of-the-Many-People-I’ve-Met-in-Bolivar City, and she probably remembers me as El Gringo – which may convey something about us both. But I can tell you a little bit about her because her story is similar to the other 700,000 to 1 million people that live in one of Bogotá’s poorest areas.
†Fact: Spanglish is officially recognized as a language by The Royal Spanish Academy.††
††Opinion Bordering on Fact: Creo que esto makes me officially bilingüe.
Fact: By many indicators this area has the worst social conditions in Bogotá.
Fact: Here, more than 90% of residents are classified as poor or very poor by the city’s government. I’ve no idea where that line is drawn, where the laws of subtraction turn poor into very poor. I don’t know when it is that superlatives ensure that you remain nameless.
Opinion Bordering on Fact: There’s a good chance that I’ll never know first hand.
Más Facts Para Ti
Fact: The densest neighborhood in Ciudad Bolívar is San Francisco, which has a density of 46,900 habitants per square kilometer. To make sense of that, consider that Tokyo has less than 20,000 habitants per square kilometer and New York less than 10,000.†
†Fact and Opinion, then Fact: I’m not a journalist and I’m a lazy researcher, but the the stats I found vary depending on the source. The one thing that doesn’t seem to vary though is that the population density of this area is double to quadruple that of Tokyo or NYC.
Fact: Bogotá is surrounded by mountains and unlike my home country, where million dollar homes are built high on mountainsides, the poorest neighborhoods populate the slopes.
Opinion: I actually find the uniform orange brick houses crawling up the green mountainsides a picturesque effect – from afar. The effect up-close is a realization about the universal continuity of back-breaking poverty. Impoverishment looks the same in every country.
Fact: 90% of the area is mountainous. Paved roads lead to the base of the mountains and stop along with many public utilities. Most of the roads in these areas are unpaved and the roads leading to houses are little more than footpaths up and down the mountain.
Fact and Opinion: Bogotá receives an average of 120mm† of rainfall during the rainy seasons; in these areas daily life can become a total mess.
†Fact and Opinion Bordering on Fact: For Los Estados Unidenses, 120mm is about 4.72 inches. We ‘Mericans prefer our systems of measurement to remain muy complicado.
With My Own Eyes: Siete Facts and Dos Opinions
1) This woman lives in a house with her three children, husband, and mother-in-law.
2) My living room is bigger than her house.
3) My living room is no bigger than the average living room in North America.
4) Her house doesn’t have indoor plumbing.
5) I have two and a half bathrooms.
6) Out of kindness, this woman fed me and others a meal that was more than she could afford.
7) This woman is older than me, but not by much.
Where am I going with this? Nowhere. I just wanted to tell you a bit about the painting above, about the woman in it. I’m just throwing around some facts, blown’ up some stats – facts and stats that tell a story of two completely different lives. Sometimes our lives are reduced a little too easily to lines of numbers and little black marks on a page. And sometimes I’m reminded that behind each fact is a story, in between those lines are lives, and behind each stat is a face.