Rap Transformed Lucia Vargas’s Life & She Uses it to Help Others

We wanted to learn a bit about Lucia Vargas Salina’s artistic journey, but Colombia’s social and political situation crops up in our conversation and completely takes over. Her music has always been connected to social transformation.

Lucia Vargas Salinas, at one of the protests. Photo / pikaramagazine

By Pau Herreros Castello and Sol Camarena Medina (Pikara Magazine)

HAVANA TIMES – Lucia Vargas Salinas started out as an activist when she was 13 or 14 years old. She was a member of a women’s rap group called Por Razones de Estado. The group really resonated with people because they were “two little girls with clear social and political beliefs.” We talked to Lucia about her artistic journey, but Colombia’s social and political situation crops up in our conversation and completely takes over. A tax reform bill, that would hit the middle and poor classes in particular, sparked social conflict in Colombia.

In Bogota, Vargas founded the Sur del Cielo (South of the Sky) organization and worked with young people in the community, for seven years. She is also a co-founder of the Latidos organization, “a very beautiful project that stems from rap, a culture that has been stigmatized since the beginning, but has socially transformed these communities and is accessible to young people.”

Your experience as an artist is inseparable from the social movements you form part of. We must ask: what is happening in Colombia right now?

The tax reform bill introduced a 19% tax on most purchases and activities, especially basic food items and our wages. With the pandemic, it was the last straw for everyone. A national strike was called on April 28th, and everybody took to the streets. We were already tired of the State’s systematic violence, non-compliance with signed agreements, corruption, extremely high wages for senators, among other things.

The protests managed to crush both this tax reform bill, as well as a health reform bill, which tried to privatize what is public right now. Later, ministers resigned and there’s been a domino effect, that continues to grow. People are beginning to take to the streets en masse. Faced with these protests, the State is responding with overwhelmingly strong and violent repression.

What repressive measures are you seeing?

This repression has always existed in Colombia, with the ESMAD (Mobile Anti-Riot Squad). We call them the Escuadron Muerte Anti Derechos (Anti-Rights Death Squad), because you already know there’s a mole when you go to a protest. The strongest assault came in Cali. It was so brutal that they deposed the mayor and put a police general in his place, in charge of the city. What used to happen in rural areas, distanced from the metropoli, is now happening within the city and it has intense consequences.

Poor people live in southern Bogota. People with lots of money live in the north. The city’s center, west and east is divided up amongst the rich, poor and middle classes. We had always marched towards the center of the city. With ESMAD’s state repression, people were enclosed. It’s a massacre, pretty much. In these protests, we thought we needed to head north. When people in this area realized that ESMAD was attacking citizens to keep them quiet, they began to stand with them.

There are videos showing ESMAD attacking the frontline. Most of them are kids, young people 17 or 18 years old, standing up with a shield against a man who has a machine gun and a truck. The repression was so harsh that a protest of the Mothers of the Frontline was organized, five or six days later. They also take to the streets to accompany their children now, and they have established protest points across the country.

Do you want to say anything to the international community?

The repression here was so much, that they cut the Internet in Cali. They cut the power so we wouldn’t have electricity. The attack was so severe that there was a moment when the international hacker collective “Anonymous” infiltrated and pulled down the Senate and President’s websites, and leaked congress members’ data.

There is some information that the whole world needs to know. They use weapons like Venom, grenade launchers that are used from ESMAD trucks. How is the State able to buy one of these Venom grenade launchers, when it costs 400,000 Colombian pesos, when they say they have no money for social programs? One of these stun grenades costs 90 euros, if I’m to do a rough conversion. The basic wage for a Colombian worker is 1 million pesos, which is about 224 euros.

There’s money to increase the Army’s violence; just like there is money to buy helicopters and planes, as well as to pay senators who earn 34 million pesos per month. That’s approximately 7,600 euros and there’s approximately 64 lawmakers.

In regard to the news bias, people couldn’t believe that the “false positives” were real. I’m talking about young people killed by the Army to then be disguised as dead guerrilla fighters. The world has to know that many young people disappeared from working-class neighborhoods. The Army used them to their benefit to show fallen guerrilla fighters in combat, so they would kidnap kids from neighborhoods. Mothers began looking for their children. There is a large movement of family members and even of false positive survivors. Young people with Down Syndrome and other mental diseases. There were outrageous cases, with bodies found wearing somebody else’s clothes and boots put on the wrong feet.

How does this violence affect you? How do you think it’s affecting lives in the most vulnerable communities?

Right now, I respect any form of struggle. I believe that the main impact has been psychological, for most people. We’re talking about a violence that has now become widespread. In 2010-2011, I had the chance to go on tour in Europe. When I used to search for information about paramilitaries here in Colombia, I couldn’t find anything. I searched again when I was in Germany, and some terrible videos came up. There were paramilitaries playing football with a farmer’s head. It’s been 10 years since that incident and I’d never seen it before, but these cases hadn’t reached cities yet.

Psychological harm is even greater among children. On my social media, there’s a video I made with a puppet called “Resistencia Paz Ex-guerra”, in which we explain the situation to children. They only ask why their throat hurts and why their eyes sting. ESMAD is throwing tear gas inside residential units. I think that now is the time for us to get ready. I hold onto the hope that things change at some point and the violence calms down, that there is a process for mental healing, both as individuals and collectively.

You asked about the impact of the violence here. Vulnerable communities are the hardest hit. This is a war that should be fought on a political level, at nobody’s expense. However, as it’s not been won politically, people are taking to the streets however they can. A lot of the time, violence has been the way.

I’m not justifying it because I have always been a supporter of the arts, knowing that it has the power to transform, to create communities where this art is really what takes these kids out of the conflict. However, they’ve pushed us to the extreme, to a point where all we want to do is burn everything down. They haven’t given us a government we can trust to find a political solution.

You’ve been organizing social interventions based on rap.

When I discovered rap, the beat was what I liked the most about it. My father was a musician, so I developed an ear for music when I was very young. I was fascinated by the music he listened to and would make when I was a little girl. Especially the music with a social and political message, songs like “Soñando con el abuelo”.

As I grew up, I discovered rap, punk and hardcore. I immersed myself to understand society from an anarchic and straight-edge point of view. Nevertheless, my soul has always sought its origins. So, I’ve come into contact with ancestral communities, that talk to me about spirituality and the importance of Nature as a revolution by taking care of and conserving Mother Earth. Indigenous people were already living in and taking care of this land before the Conquest. For example, the Misak people have been doing great work, with actions such as knocking down statues of “conquistadores”, reclaiming the history of their ancestral communities.

On the basis of social reintegration, all armed groups should remove children from the armed conflict. At that time, they didn’t know what they were doing because they were kids and the only thing they know is to pick up a gun and shoot. Plus, they have no political or ideological convictions. They are just following orders.

An organization called Taller de Vida, based in Usme, reached out to me to work with them using rap and to facilitate their social reintegration. It was a matter of working with children who had left the armed conflict, in a community in southern Bogota. Working as a woman, of course. I accepted, but it really affected me because my family has been personally hit by the war. I asked for them to replace me.

However, the girls from the organization insisted that it had to be woman that would give these rap workshops. I tried again and that’s when I managed to heal a very deep wound from the conflict. It involved forgiveness and beginning to see these children, not as paramilitaries or guerrilla fighters who grab onto guns and kill, but as children. They have incredible long-term damage; their bodies are marked, war scars.

We made a rap album with them. In the beginning, I didn’t understand why these rap workshops had to be led by a woman. The conclusion was that girls and women don’t obey women in war, only men. It was a patriarchal conflict. I believe that the power of love worked its magic, because I put my body and soul into our work. The girls we worked with learned what human rights and the patriarchy were. They also understood that their words don’t have less value than a man’s word. That’s when I learned that art transforms. Art was working on social transformation, Hip-hop was doing it.

The kids that started off with me were 8 or 9 years old, and now they must be 21 or 22. The groundwork for their development has been laid, and now they are each following their own paths. That was the most important thing for me: to create a seedbed. There are seeds that will continue to grow. This is what art is to me, apart from singing, which is cool and important too. Beyond art, what is it that you can do? What will be your activism so that your words ring true when you sing?

Tell us a little bit about your work with Latidos.

Latidos began working with removing children from the armed conflict. Its background was to stop children consuming psychoactive drugs. In Colombia, there is a long-established problem of micro-trafficking in neighborhoods. Kids are recruited to sell drugs. They are first given some to consume, and then they become involved in selling. Sometimes, kids consume and spend this money, they don’t pay, and they end up being killed. Here, there is talk about invisible borders between places where harder drugs are sold in every neighborhood.

A micro-trafficking war begins, and everyone ends up killed. Kids are involved in conflicts of interest in sales. When I began thinking about Latidos, I remembered how rap had transformed my life. I proposed taking this art to every corner of my country, with a social and political mission.

When I was working for Taller de Vida, we were being funded by different NGOs. When funding dried up, I was left with 60 kids. Their mothers asked me to carry on with the workshops, in their garages even. I couldn’t stop just because there wasn’t any money. I found a few places and we finally ended up settling in some small auditoriums, which were very beautiful and modest, with a roof to take shelter in case it began to rain. They were located in the park at Bogota aqueduct. I started the workshops up again with the kids, there.

Diet is extremely important for Latidos. Grassroots organizations always give soda, juice boxes and a sandwich or a chicken or meat pastie. However, when kids came to me, some of them had come without eating breakfast or without being able to go home and eating until the night. So, because I know that when you give something, you give the best you have, I would go to markets with my colleagues and ask for food. I had a vegetarian restaurant, and we would open very early. We’d wake up at 3 AM to cook and take them a decent meal.

When we’d arrive, the kids would already be there at 8 AM. We would start the workshop and at noon, we’d all eat a delicious meal; a vegetarian and well-presented meal. You can’t transform a society if you aren’t putting love into it. They realized this. After a while, once they grew a little older, they’d come with me to the market and help me cook. That’s how they knew that it was a voluntary job done with a lot of love.

When the community learned how we were financing Latidos, they supported us 100%. Plus, we didn’t receive any money from the State because we were never interested in it, we have always been self-sufficient with donations. But before anyone makes a contribution, I ask for them to come here. More than money, these kids need affection and for somebody to listen to them. Love is the most important thing, being attentive to them and them feeling like they have some support.

We also plant trees and clean up ravines. Respect for Nature is very important to us, just like recognition of our ancestors is. We have organized workshops with Usme’s ancestral board. There, you can find all their research about the indigenous communities that live in this area. They aren’t being taught this at high school. We’re trying to teach them this via art, so that they can open up their minds and understand that there are many possibilities in this world.

In order of usefulness, what can people contribute from other places in the world to help you?

First-aid support for the frontline. If I’ve inspired your trust, you can also send money. Here, I always buy first aid materials and hand them out. I’d record the delivery with a photo or video. It’s also important to spread this information, so that the whole world knows what’s really going on. We’ve been living like this for so long that people get tired of hearing what’s going on. But the attacks continue as strong as ever.

Reclaiming the Minga Indigena is crucial. The word Minga, means meeting; a meeting of knowledge, ideologies and work. The Indigenous Guard that was set up in indigenous communities, always supports us. It’s the only authority that people at protests respect; our elders, our ancestors. They are the indigenous communities that come from Cauca. This May, paramilitaries attacked the Minga. They were shot at from helicopters. The Minga don’t have weapons, only catapults, hoods and stones. Karen Tovar and I, Naturaleza Suprema, recorded a song to support them: Mis ancestros como guia. In the video of this song, you can see how they make their own weapons because they have nothing else to defend themselves with.

There’s another more extreme way. There’s a documentary behind this song, “En Tierras Tomadas” (In occupied lands). You can watch it on Vimeo. It shows everything that happened and how we came to create this song. With the gunfire, came a seizure of land from indigenous communities.

It’s incredible how the presence of a foreigner there reduces violence. The great problem is that the State could get in big trouble if it kills or injures a foreigner in one of these confrontations, more than if they kill a Colombian. Coming here to live with these communities is another way of helping, but it comes at the risk of leaving injured, or never leaving at all. Going into the real conflict. This is something that indigenous communities are really grateful for because it reduces State violence. This is already the heartbeat of everyone here. All forms of struggle are valid. Any help counts for us, in our situation.

Read more interviews here on Havana Times.