Creative change in Coco Solo
photos and story by Han Cheung
If I would have an enemy, I would not have the desire for my enemy to live in a place like this. The people here, they just give up.
Pastor Mikey, resident of Coco Solo
The rain had just stopped as Rose Cromwell and Lorena Endara drive into Coco Solo. As they navigate through puddles on the dirt road, they pass by clusters of gutted concrete structures that stand mournfully amidst overgrown greenery and scattered piles of garbage.
Try, and it's still hard to imagine that this place was once a lively US Naval base complete with a theater, university, and a hospital. It feels like nobody has been here in decades. Once Endara parks the car, however, a group of children appear and eagerly gather around the car.
It is the third day of "Photography and Literacy," Cromwell and Endara's first workshop through their project Cambio Creativo. They aim to teach the youth in Coco Solo practical skills and encourage self-expression through a mix of art and education. Upcoming workshops will cover computer literacy, urban agriculture, poetry, and more.
Pastor Mikey, whom Cromwell calls the "unofficial mayor of Coco Solo," provides the space for the workshop. He has become a community mentor and father figure for many of the youth here, and is currently raising four teenage boys whose families couldn't provide for them.
"This is the only life they know," Mikey says. "They need proper education in order to get out the environment they're used to."
This environment came to be after the United States handed Coco Solo back to Panama in the 80s. The Panamanian government decided to use the crumbling base as a temporary shelter for homeless in Colon. Thirty years later, it isn't so temporary anymore.
Visible in the distance is the Colon Free Trade Zone, the second largest in the world. As billions of dollars pass by each year, the people in Coco Solo struggle just to keep their bellies full. Most of these homes don't have basic running water, electricity or any sort of security. ow
Completely self-funded, Cambio Creativo's first workshop has been a pretty successful endeavor. About 10 to 15 enthusiastic kids have been showing up each day.
Mikey's space is a dark, bare-walled room with nothing but a hammock, a blackboard and a few benches. The children are mostly sitting on the floor, hunched over their notebooks and diligently writing down their responses to the questions on the blackboard.
For the past few days they've been exploring their identities by writing about themselves, creating collages and realizing one idea in a self-portrait. Today, the topic is their environment.
Que te gusta de Coco Solo? Que no te gusta de Coco Solo? Como puedes mostrar eso en una foto?
After they finish writing, they go out in groups with either Cromwell or Endara to shoot. "We have them use tripods because we really want them to think and plan out their photos," Cromwell says.
The kids are full of ideas and energy. Manuel likes the animals in the community, while Gladys takes pictures of her friends playing. Vladimir doesn't like the dilapidated buildings, and Roberto has his friends stage an argument.
Tomorrow, they will receive prints of their photos and conclude the workshop by writing a written response on their photos. As many of them have never taken an art class before, Cromwell and Endara hope that this workshop inspires them to think creatively outside the box.
Cromwell is currently an MFA candidate in photography at Syracuse University. She stumbled across Coco Solo three years ago while doing research on the Afro-Antillean community in Panama as a Fullbright scholar. She met Bishop Brenda Barber while photographing a Revival Church.
"She told me, 'I want to take you somewhere,'" Cromwell recalls. "Halfway through the ride I realized we were heading towards Colon."
Besides doing her own photographic work, Cromwell ended up raising money for two community Christmas parties and also teaching English classes. She has been pretty much the only outside source helping Coco Solo on a consistent basis. "Rose is like an angel to us," Mikey says.
In February this year, she founded Cambio Creativo with Endara, a Panamanian photographer. Besides the fact that they are both photographers, another reason they started with a photography workshop is so that the children will have the knowledge to document future workshops.
"We want them to be able to own the project and have access to it," Endara says.
They envision the older kids even learning to maintain the blogs through future computer literacy workshops.
One long-term goal is that the children will eventually produce enough work to hold an exhibition, and even start selling their wares on the Internet as a "self-sustaining art practice."
Cromwell and Endara hope to start receiving outside funding and donations so that they can launch their full program. Currently they are working towards establishing Cambio Creativo as a non-profit organization.
Their next project will be to help create a community garden.
2010 by Eric Jackson
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