Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Mayor of Bogotá, Democracy and AC/DC

The primary school all decked out.
Cascades of Bogotá’s signature rain bespattered the jalopy’s virtually opaque windshield as the vehicle powered up the hill to Nueva Esperanza. Crammed in the back seat next to two elderly women, I held on for dear life as the driver made a sharp turn at the next corner, sending a muddy spray towards an unlucky slumbering neighborhood dog.

“Por acá, por favor,” I said.

The vehicle came to an ungraceful halt. Grateful to still be counted among the living, I paid the driver and stepped out into the pouring rain.

When I looked up at Nueva Esperanza, the first thing I noticed was the enormous white tent that had been erected in the primary school’s courtyard. The second thing I noticed were the guns—lots of guns—being wielded by a contingent of Bogotá police and Colombian military personnel patrolling the area.  

The students and their parents watch the ceremony.
A military guard searched my bag and when he was satisfied I was not some kind of gringo assassin, allowed me to pass through the primary school’s gates. A lavish assortment of colorful balloons, streamers adorned the school’s interior. Within the tent was a massive stage with a large hanging banner that read, Bienvenidos—Colegio Nueva Esperanza: Educamos en el Respeto y Probidad.

I arrived just as Nueva Esperanza’s rector (principal) was finishing his opening remarks. Behind the rector sat Bogotá’s alcalde (mayor), Samuel Rojas, with his entourage of government officials and other misfits. A large seating area had been erected where students sat with their parents watching the rector speak.

Mayor Samuel Rojas speaking to the students.
As I made my way over to a good spot to watch, a few students yelled, “Teacher Mike!” and waved at me from the crowd. I smiled and waved back.

Although I only understood about half of the words the rector was saying, I knew what all the festivities were about—the inauguration of the Nueva Esperanza primary school. Nueva Esperanza is comprised of two structures—one for the primary and the other for the secondary school; the former was completed about a year ago.

After the rector finished his address, a few government officials spoke, including the Bogotá Secretary of Education. Heading up the speaking caboose was Mayor Rojas.

Prior to that day, I had heard a lot of things about Mayor Rojas—most of them negative. He is unpopular for a lot of reasons, but mainly because he has failed to follow through on most of his campaign promises. For instance, in 2008 he promised to construct a subway system for Bogotá and three years later… still no subway. Like many of Bogotá’s elected officials, he has also been accused of corruption on many occasions.

The students performing a Colombian dance.
When the mayor finished speaking about the virtues of knowledge and the government’s commitment to helping all the children of Bogotá realize their dreams, a group of Nueva Esperanza students put on a performance of traditional Colombian music and dance. The children had practiced for weeks to impress the mayor and they did an amazing job. The performance was a culmination of African, European and Native American influences—a bona fide representation of Colombia’s rich cultural heritage.

My students are awesome.
Afterward, I went to congratulate the children and tell them how much I enjoyed their performance. They were giddy from the thrill of performing in front of such important people—for them, this had been one of the most exciting experiences of their lives. When I asked if I could take a picture of them in their traditional Colombian clothes, one of the little girls grabbed my hand and insisted I join them in the picture. As I knelt down to take the picture with the kids, one of the boys put his sombrero on my head, officially making me one of the gang.

Not gonna lie—I felt pretty cool.

Well, cooler than Mayor Rojas, anyway.

When the ceremony ended, the mayor departed with his entourage in a heavily-armed convoy.

But the day was not yet over.

Me with the student dancers.
One of the teachers explained that they were going to have student government elections. Naturally, I volunteered to help and was assigned to monitor one of the voting stations. It was great to watch the kids come up to cast their votes—I believe that teaching children at a young age that their voice counts is the best way to strengthen the foundations of democracy. Although Latin America is renowned for its abundant supply of despots and dictators, Colombia has managed to maintain a strong democratic tradition—despite its checkered past.

When the students finished voting, I walked out to join one of my fellow teachers on the balcony overlooking the courtyard. Below, a few of the older students had hooked up a boom box to the stage speakers and were blasting reggae music.

“Los niños te quieren,” the teacher said as we watched below.

Helping a student cast her vote.
It was nice to hear those words—to know that although sometimes I feel like I am spinning my wheels trying to teach my students, at the very least, they like me.

I went down to mingle with the students as they listened and danced to their beloved reggae music. When I asked if they wanted to hear some American music, they nodded enthusiastically. I reached into my bag and retrieved my iPod and searched for a suitable song.

When I found what I was looking for, I hit play and for the first time in the history of southern Bogotá, the sweet rock jams of AC/DC filled the air.

“This song is called Back in Black,” I said.

Okay, technically it was Australian music, but they didn`t care.


  1. Hey Mike, I'm an Australian who's been an exchange student in Medellín this year and I've been going through your blog eagerly reading about your experiences because I'm interested in hanging around next year as an english teacher of some sort. Anyway, there's just one small error at the end of your post that no Australian could ignore: AC/DC are Australian!

  2. Hi Rasta,

    Haha nice catch. I guess what I meant to say was music that is popular in the states, but I will make the edit to give credit to Australia! Glad you enjoy the blog and good luck next year!


  3. No worries. I hope you keep it up. It really is very interesting to read about your experiences over there in la ciudad capital.