Interview with Cati Restrepo, Global Voices Contributor

A few weeks ago I found myself in Medellín, Colombia, when I realised that up until then there was no interview with Cati Restrepo [es] on Gobal Voices. I decided to rectify this omission and got straight in touch with her and we met up in a place known as Pueblito Paisa [es], where I recorded the videos included in this post. The remainder of the text was completed in the following days.

Of course, I am taking it as read that everyone knows @Catirestrepo, who was the natural leader and most public face of the project financed by Rising Voices: Hiperbarrio, a project which she left one year ago. Whilst she was a member of the project, Cati was the winner of the Miss Talent prize in the city of Medellín, which led her to front her own project known as Women and Digital Inclusion [es]. In addition to being an active Global Voices collaborator [es] she is also currently involved in many other things. I would therefore like to invite you to get to know her a little more.

Global Voices (GV): Hello Cati, tell us about your life before blogs and social networks…

Cati Restrepo (CR): It was really a fairly quiet, normal life. I was at school (I discovered blogs and social networks when I started university) and I basically spent my time doing all of those tasks related to being at school, or singing, playing my violin and reading any book I could find.

So as you can see, it was a fairly simple life which was based around my family and academic projects and that library environment taught me responsibility and discipline and is partly to blame for the fact that I seem to go “against” my maternal Caribbean genes, they are lovers of vallenato music and seafood, which are things I struggle with now. Although the question of seafood is simply a matter of learning to enjoy it, my love for vallenato died a long time ago as a result of not being able to sleep in December with the rumba music coming from the neighbours’ houses.

And well, if you're talking about a time “before blogs”, I was a keen hiker and early-riser so I loved to go out walking, making the most of the all of the greenery around me and soaking up the first rays of the sun. There are no more of those walks now.

GV: Could you describe your area for those who don't know Medellín or Colombia?

CR: I live in San Javier [es] – La Loma which is a neighbourhood located between the urban and rural areas of the city of Medellín. It is a meeting place between one dynamic and another which means that you can enjoy air which is much cleaner than in the city itself (Medellín being a fairly green city), but you still have the presence of a regional road which leads not only to the downtown area of the city but also other nearby towns.

It is not an area with a lot of urban facilities – parks, libraries and that kind of thing – (partly because of the fairly mountainous geographical conditions, partly because of a struggle for resources) but about 12,000 people live there, divided among 8 fairly different districts.

There are both clearly residential neighbourhoods and places where there are elderly people working on the land; which, as you can imagine, makes it fairly interesting to live here, or in Medellín in general where the same feeling exists: it is a service sector focused place (and previously a textile one), but whose outskirts are less urban and have a feeling of nostalgia for the rural lifestyle. So if you want a country atmosphere, just go a few minutes out of the the city and there it is.

GV: You mentioned your love of reading. Could you recommend some books to us?

CR: I'll name a few rather than recommending them, as books whose stories have affected me quite a lot, but that doesn't mean that this is the only type of reading I go for. First of all, I think that it would be good to read The Little Prince again. It's a book in which something different happens with each reading.

As for Columbian authors, One Hundred Years of Solitude really stirs the emotions; and another which I discovered recently: Fragments of Furtive Love by Héctor Abad Faciolince, which is the story of a woman who has had many lovers in her life and who tells the last of these the story of one of her previous lovers after each time they make love.

I could also mention some stories by women in Arab countries: A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini is really beautiful and 300 Days in Afghanistan [es], by the doctor Natalia Aguirre (which was made into a book after being published in a magazine) is a very human approach to the life of a culture which we know little about in the West.

GV: Apart from your experiences with Hiperbarrio and Global Voices, do you use the internet for anything else in your life?

CR: As I mentioned before, my involvement with the internet coincided with my going to university. During the first semester I was invited to take part in HiperBarrio [es] (a Rising Voices project) and that's where the story with the blogs began. Social networks came soon afterwards thanks, for example, to Juliana Rincon [es], who taught me to use Twitter and also by my own exploration.

The most important thing I get out of using the internet in my life is a fairly important tool for self-expression. It has enabled me to meet a lot of people and at the same time to promote myself. Events I have signed up to, or to which I have been invited, are thanks to contacts I've made via the internet and to the fact that I have been able to promote myself. I could also say that I have met some of the people who are now important in my life after they have spoken to me on blogs and since I started to get involved in projects related to citizen media.

GV: Tell us about your academic career.

CR: I'm a Social Work student in the last year of my degree and you could say that Social Work found me. When I left school I chose to apply to study one option in Exact Sciences and another in the Social field at university, and that's how I came to apply for Chemical Engineering (which I loved at school) and for Psychology or Social Work which appealed to other interests in my life such as working with people and being a leader of X or Y thing.

I didn't get a place on the Chemical Engineering course, despite have the necessary marks, so when I found out that I could sign up for Social Work I did so even though one week later people were telling me, “Listen, there is a place on the Chemical Engineering course”. It was just then that I took the definitive decision to stay in the social work field, partly because at school I had been in research groups relating to social topics and because the offers for short courses which I started had a lot to do with community work and simply because I enjoyed it.

GV: How do you reconcile your profession with your love of citizen media?

CR: Good question. Reconciling Social Work with my love of citizen media is something which I have always had to “confront”. A lot of my professors don't see the internet as anything important, whereas I think that it deserves all of of our attention especially if you want to engage with society.

We ought to recognise that society is changing, right? And that a large part of the dynamic of today's society flows via the internet. Not to recognise that would be a terrible mistake, so I'll be in class debating with my professor every time the author of a text mentions globalisation (Professor, doesn't the internet form part of globalisation?) or having fun when we talk about rights and naturally information come up as one of them. Not to mention when we talk about working with teenagers or young people and I can say “Ahh, see how they can spend all day on the internet and they don't separate one reality from the other? They grew up with that!”

However, I'm sure that academia is just one stage, a cycle which I hope to complete successfully and that in the end combining Social Work and communication will not be a decision made by the people giving my classes, but it will be my own decision as a professional. In fact, when I've had to give workshops relating to citizen journalism it is very difficult not to include techniques I've learned as a Social Work student and not to reflect on things like “It should be possible to work from difference” and “It must be recognised that another person is a human being, before being a doctor, psychologist etc”. In conclusion, I love the fact that the citizen media have informed my professional training.

GV: A lot is said about the power of social networks in Latin American countries, but we see things like what happened to Mockus and we come to doubt that power. What do you think?

CR: Here I'd like to use the term “virtual citizens”. My opinion is that a certain percentage of those using social networks end up taking on a self-obsessed view of themselves as national heroes saving the world through the internet, but forgetting that the real work is outside and that we existed before we had computers and that things were done at another pace, whether they worked or not.

Even if the internet has changed social dynamics and enabled self-expression, we mustn't forget that in our context the number of people with access to IT equipment is low compared to the total number of citizens. Therefore, you might see 50 computers arrive in a school, but…what are they being used for and which tools are being taught? Even the teachers need to be shown how to use the equipment (many of them are resisting because they are being forced to use computers) to take computers beyond the tool itself and show them how to use them effectively.

And well, what happened with Mockus is that while he caused a phenomenon on Twitter and Facebook (the vast majority of internet users were promoting his candidature), in the “real world” his main opponent and the now president were doing work at grass-roots level. A lot of people had faith in him because Mockus was standing out online, but they forgot that the internet access rates in Colombia are not high. Indigenous and rural communities, for example, have difficulty just getting an email account and it was to those people that the current president was successfully appealing (by clean or dirty tactics, but successfully) and this made the difference.

However, it should not be ignored that there are many grass-roots groups using the internet to make themselves known and to seek resources and that there are many people for whom the internet has become a tool for self-expression and for promoting their skills.

GV: In line with that, how do you see the outlook of the various initiatives on the internet in Colombia?

CR: This outlook is double-sided: one positive feature has to do with the fact that the internet is reaching more communities and its use is becoming “qualified” somewhat, but the other side is that it sometimes closely resembles the expression “a lot of geeks but nothing substantial” and I'll explain:

There are many projects, but I don't see any movement between them. Projects can be said to be good, interesting, but they have a short-term impetus and then reach a point at which they attain an egotistical and self-obsessed stance and, as I mentioned in another question, I believe that life moves at a different pace and the fact that our actions here make us feel important, does not mean that we are “the last bottle of water in the desert”.

I think that this is what's happening to some of the internet projects in Colombia: they overestimate the value of their achievements and this leads them not to mix between themselves and even to turn their initiative into a circle of communication between its members and no-one else. There are a lot of stories to be told, but I think that sometimes they don't come out due to the cult of the self which sometimes surrounds the internet. This finally manifests itself in that we always see the same groups of people at computer-related events and, what is worse, conversing only with their computer screens rather than with other people.

I believe it would be in the interest of everyone to foster a real level of integration here, taking advantage of the added level of equality that the internet gives us. If it's saying, “Look, here are communication tools that allow us to empower communities.” Why not use them effectively for that and turn everything that happens here into a real and active exercise of citizenship?

GV: Is there anything else you'd like to add?

CR: I'd like to take this opportunity to thank the way that the Global Voices community has welcomed me, both as a participant in Rising Voices and later as an author. It is very satisfying to be able to meet everyone, and to hear their stories, and to learn so much from what is written and published about their countries. Furthermore, it has been wonderful to be able to read more about my country and the world in general through what I find on the internet (which is part of my daily aim since I was invited to join the community as an author). Each person at Global Voices and every story I have heard represents endless ways which have allowed me to decide what to learn and what to dream and to see that there is always something more to do and certainly there are many voices that need and deserve to be heard.

Thank you Cati for your time. For readers who are interested I leave you with the links to the group of one of the projects which Cati is currently working on: Young people online for peace – Castilla [es], the My Blood Foundation [es], of the popular singer Juanes; to the page of the Colombia Turner Syndrome Foundation [es], a project which Cati is working on; to three videos on Medellín as seen from the Nutibara hills (1, 2, and 3) with Cati describing the different areas of the city, and this video in which Cati explains what the Arepa is all about. (This isn't the point, but I don't like the Arepa and neither does David Sasaki).

The photo in this post comes from Cati's Flickr account and is used with her permission.

The videos were translated and subtitled by Jessica Fawcett and Louella Mahabir


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