#8 The Day I Met Yuraima, Taught Me All There is to Know

Architects, in the service of a slum community in Caracas, shook up my idea of what greatness looks like. Thanks to their service, thousands of people suffer less and even create beauty -- even as all systems around them collapse.

#8 The Day I Met Yuraima, Taught Me All There is to Know

This Chapter is about the purpose and craft of listening. We start off in a slum in Caracas in 1996. Here I worked alongside architects putting themselves at the service of residents, who had experienced generations of cynical neglect from their government. The humility of my peers challenged what I had understood to be the tenets of success in my profession. Empowering ordinary, uneducated people to take charge was so much more important than an ingenious and exciting plan drafted by international experts. The first day alone, was enough to change my life. Now, almost thirty years later, as I revisit Caracas, we see how listening helped this community weather severe natural disasters, dictatorial politics, severe poverty and an epidemic of violence better than others.

The Beautiful, Unjust City on the Brink of ...

Caracas, 1996. Looking back, almost everything I ever needed to know happened the day I met Yuraima Martín. Far away from my home in London, I had rumbled through the mad traffic of Caracas, the capital of Venezuela, on a mini-bus, and from there by spanking clean metro to reach the campus of the Central University of Venezuela. Built by the architect Carlos Raul Villanueva in the early 1950’s, the campus is a masterpiece of modernist design in Latin America. It is my personal favorite piece of architecture anywhere in the world, a beautiful place to learn, with classrooms opening into lush gardens, and dogs sleeping in the shade of tropical trees. It is filled with colorful sculptures and murals by local and international artists, including Fernand Léger and Alexander Calder. All this art and architecture works together as a vision for a country on the move, to a bright future for all. What had brought me to Venezuela, however, was not its visionary architecture. In 1996, it was far from that vision crafted 40 years earlier. It was on the edge. Its broken, unjust and discriminatory political system was on the brink of collapse. A country that holds the largest known oil reserves in the world, was drowning in inequality and violence. And Caracas was the battleground, with 70% of the population living in informal settlements. In slums.

Universidad Central de Venezuela source: openhousbcn

The university was the first stop of my trip, and I came here to meet Yuraima Martín, a young professor of architecture. She was also an activist who, together with many other academics, was trying to assist the development of informal settlements in Caracas in a new way. I was interested in informal settlements because they are a testament to discriminatory public policies, and represent immense human resilience and ingenuity. Many great architects and planners had tried to intervene in slums. They had all failed, revealing the vanity of their projects. As an architecture student, it seemed to me, that if I was to understand the essence of what architecture can contribute to society, the informal settlements of Caracas would be a good place to start. And so, my professors had pointed me to Yuraima and her colleagues.

Looking into Trouble

What had inspired me to travel to Caracas was my visit, a year earlier, to Soweto (see Story #6) – the largest township in South Africa. Following the election of Nelson Mandela, social and political activists in South Africa had been riding the wave of triumph, liberation and their mandate for change. Venezuela, in 1996, was nothing like this. The country was stuck in its own version of apartheid, where instead of outright racism the discrimination was against the poor. In Venezuela, there was nothing like the political movement or activism of the African National Congress or the international sanctions to push for change. In Venezuela, change was not in the air. Internationally, it was best known for its oil, soap operas (telenovelas), and beauty queens. Those most acutely suffering from the state of affairs were the 61% of Venezuelans who were living in extreme poverty, and informality. They were systematically deprived of citizenship, voting rights and access to public services. Here, cards were firmly stacked against change.

Informal settlement, Caracas. source: Gustavo Maccio via dronestagr.am

Caracas was a city that worked only for the most privileged people. As an oil-rich country practicing social discrimination, its capital city served the needs of the wealthy and their cars first. Without a car, it was literally impossible to get around neighborhoods crisscrossed by motorways. The 70% of people who lived in informal settlements had no cars. When you looked at the city from above, it was a spectacular lesson in social geography: Modern high-rise buildings, parks and civic buildings occupied all flat areas. All else, the precarious hill-sides prone to landslides were built up huts, some of them stacked ten or more stories high. All this segregation and injustice was unsustainable. By 1996, Caracas was the world’s most dangerous city. Its murder rate was comparable to that of an active war zone.

The Place that Taught Me Everything

Yuraima had followed in her father César's footsteps to become an architect. Where other academics had supported the informal settlements from their faculties and homes in the privileged areas of Caracas, Yuraima and César had chosen to live and work in Catuche, a slum right in the heart of the city. Their vision was not just to provide technical assistance, but to be of service. In this, they were a lot like the Jesuits, who had moved to the area long ago to run schools, social and community services. And so, the first thing we did upon meeting on the beautiful grounds of the university, was to leave for Catuche and enter Yuraima and César’s world.

Yuraima parked her car on one of the regular streets just outside Catuche. From here we followed a spidery network of steep stairs and bridges to enter the neighborhood with its impossible geography, home to eleven thousand people. It was a labyrinth of houses organized around the Catuche creek that comes down from the Avila mountains, and gives the community its name. For over a hundred years it had brought drinking water from the mountains into the city. Now, in the absence of municipal services, it served people to dispose of their human and material waste. The creek was a black, smelly source of disease. We met families, children, gang members and community organizers. This settlement had started over 50 years earlier, and yet, official documents denied its existence. In a cynical reminder of Venezuela's discriminatory politics, maps at the planning office showed nothing but trees where Catuche stood. Eleven thousand people with all their lives and shelter were simply invisible to the bureaucrats. In Catuche, like the country as a whole, the government had for generations systematically not issued birth certificates to poor people in informal settlements. Without citizenship, they were deprived of voting rights, rights to health, education and basic municipal services. The political elite had simply declared all twenty million of them 'illegal immigrants'.

To See the Revolution, You Have to Unlearn

Yuraima showed me the plans for the upgrade of Catuche. At first glance, they did not excite me. I was disappointed. The plans were very sensible, practical engineering measures to secure the area, and manage flood water. I had secretly hoped to see some inspiring architecture, a grand vision emerging from the unplanned, unregulated life.  

My outlook began to change as I got to observe the way things worked in Catuche over the coming months. Listening to the life stories and history of people in the area, it dawned on me that in judging the plan, I overlooked the real sensation. Here in Catuche, I was witnessing something truly innovative, if not revolutionary. Yuraima and César weren’t simply working for the community, but had taken a cue from the Jesuits, who had long ago committed themselves to helping the people of Catuche take charge of their destiny through their organization Fe y Alegría. There was father José Virtuoso, known as Joseito, and Doris Barrento, a longtime community organizer running the community center. Together with Yuraima and César they would spend thirty years in the community. Their vision was not to help the community, but to provide the community with the care, skills and resources to help themselves. They had a radical vision: the people of Catuche, after years of neglect, should be completely emancipated. They should gain full control over all resources invested in their community. Yuraima explained their major achievement to me: “The community has negotiated to get all twenty-five million bolivars (about $250,000 in today's money) in development funding from the municipal government to implement its infrastructure upgrade program as it sees fit. It is free to determine how to use the money. If they wanted to blow it all on a Michael Jackson concert, they could!”

A Healing Journey to Empowerment

It had taken years of collaboration with countless organizations to provide the scientific basis and technical assistance needed for this empowerment. It took five years alone to constitute a legal entity fully controlled by the community in 1994, the Consorcio Catuche, to represent their interests and manage the use of development funds. Meanwhile, it was the presence and services offered by the Jesuits – the school, community centre and social activities – that kept bringing people of all ages together. Slowness was a matter of constant debate and negotiation. Do we really need to take decisions in this complicated manner and insist on having full control over the funds? Everyone knew that things would have been quicker, if they had let government officials do their thing. But as the project advanced, so did the ability of the community to embrace its complexity. The consortium learned every step of the way, and echoed that learning in the community to improve their decisions. Improvements began to happen as they upgraded infrastructure, and invested in education and other social measures. With every year, the community got stronger.

Chandigarh Secretariat Building by Le Corbusier source: Sanyam Bahga

Catuche was not a community advised by expert consultants, but a community that was actively winning its right to self-determination. Yuraima, César, Joseito and Doris were intentionally present in the community. Days weren't organized into meetings, but one long conversation moving from door to door, corner to corner. It was a radical departure from what I expected great architecture to look like. I was reminded of the story of Chandigarh, the new city built to represent India’s independence and self-determination. The government had hired the superstar architect Le Corbusier, the biggest name in architecture of its time, to lead its design. Despite its vision for democracy and independence, the Swiss architect and his colleagues soon began to sideline their Indian colleagues in decisions to impose their grand ideas. This imposition produced not just indignation among Indian architects, but also produced housing unsuitable to Indian lifestyles. It was criticized for serving the aesthetic aspirations of upper-caste Indians versed in Western culture, instead of society in all its diversity. What I saw in Catuche was a radically different path. Yuraima and César practiced architecture to empower people who had been imposed upon, lied to, cheated, traumatized and excluded for generations. In Catuche, they experienced power for the first time and learned how to wield it. What had seemed to be a boring infrastructure plan now looked infinitely more radical and visionary than Le Corbusier's grand schemes! And it would pay off in unexpected ways in the many tragedies that would hit Catuche in the years to come.

Tragedy of Vargas, source: Jorge Uzon - AFP

Design with Truth, Build with Beauty (in a Failing Country)

Just three years after my visit, in 1999, the ‘Tragedy of Vargas’ struck Venezuela. Torrential rain caused landslides, killing thousands of people in and around Caracas. Catuche, with the creek running through it, was devastated. 5,000 people lost their homes. Twelve people died. The death toll would have been much higher if it hadn’t been for years of infrastructure upgrades, preparation and training by the Consorcio Catuche. Everyone knew what to do, how to help. Even the ‘malandros’, the gang members, put their guns aside to help. But the catastrophe set the community development efforts back by years. Reconstruction efforts were delayed by years, and just as work got under way, the government put a break on it. The government agency responsible for funding the reconstruction work had decided to challenge the Consorcio Catuche's legitimacy and autonomy to implement projects. It took a supreme court challenge by the people of Catuche to assert their right to citizen participation, and their right to obtain and control the recovery funding.

Soon after, Venezuela began its rapid descend into deeper and deeper economic, social and political crisis. From 2011-2021 its GDP collapsed from $350 billion to $40 billion and Human Rights Watch issued an alert in 2019 that Venezuela's healthcare and food systems had collapsed. In Catuche, after an endless series of setbacks caused by the political chaos in the country, the Consorcio Catuche was dissolved and replaced by ASOCICA, a new entity controlled by entirely by the community that kept the model running. Operating for 30 years now, this form of organizing and empowerment has succeeded in holding the community together and build its capacity to solve problems. Like in 2005, when mothers from rivaling gang controlled areas of Catuche hosted a peace summit to stop the chronic violence and killing among their children. Their peace program, facilitated by Doris, still holds today, making gun violence a problem of the past.

Catuche stepped out of the hamster wheel of dependence, that for generations had trapped it in the hope for the next quick project to deliver relief. By taking charge, it built strength, capabilities and resilience that keeps serving it to come out stronger even as Venezuela entered free fall.
Celebrations and project celebrations in Catuche, 2019 Learn more here.

Despite the hardships and injustices that Catuche has had to endure, the community continues to pursue its vision for improvements. According to Maria Isabel Pena, a professor of architecture at the Central University of Venezuela and co-curator of the research consortium CCS450, Catuche remains special to this day and is focusing on its shared spaces. In a poetic echo with the great university campus, art is integral to all community new projects.

Really, Catuche Taught Me all I Needed to Know About Listening

The months I spent in Catuche provided me with a couple of big lessons that changed both my values, and my career. First, it helped me unlearn my preconceptions about professional excellence, away from imagining success solely as my ability to impose my ideas on others. Embracing the idea that everyone is an expert at their own life, is a lifelong challenge. It means that we have to find new ways of supporting others, contributing our skills and experience without imposing ourselves, like the Swiss architects did in Chandigarh. I may have had a first glimpse of what good looks like in Catuche, but it remains an uncomfortable, daily struggle, to put it into action at home, work or activism (more on that in my next story).

The other lesson I took from Catuche, is how important it is to provide permanence. The work of Yuraima and César, Father Joseito and Doris and the presence of their organization Fe y Alegría have provided continuity, humanity and care over the course of decades. Especially in precarious communities – wherever people are disadvantaged, poor, stigmatized, struggle to survive, live in fear, are excluded or not being heard – such permanence is critical. It is easy to be the traveling expert, as I have been throughout my career, diving in and out of communities. We need people and institutions to stay. We need to nurture and invest in them. Not so much to lead or control the community, but to serve it, whilst also holding and energizing the vision that building community is the right path to take.

Listening in Catuche, turns out to be like the best listening in the Slow Lane: it is open, patient, and generous in giving.

With this story, we have opened Chapter 2, to explore how we can practice listening. In my next story, I invite you to join me in my home, as I discover quite how elusive it is to put what I know about listening into practice.