The streets of Barranquilla, Colombia are vibrant, the air thick with humidity, and each corner has its own fruit stand filled with sweet juicy treats. Barranquilla has no designated bus stops, so I lean over the edge of the sidewalk frantically waving my arm, as if to dry the sweat stains on my shirt, to stop the speedy public bus. A brightly colored bus skirts to a stop and a man jumps out to usher me on. I barely step on and the driver plants his foot on the gas once again weaving through traffic. The driver is blasting vallenato through the stereo and basks in the only tiny fan on the bus. I gratefully plop down on a window seat.
During the five months I lived in Barranquilla I witnessed how the front of the bus became a stage where Venezuelan refugees told their stories and sang. Each story caused my stomach to drop and evoked a deep ache in my chest that I would hold as if holding my breath would make their stories any less real, help the hurt in some way. Then, I could forget in lecture halls and dance classes the reality millions of Venezuelan refugees face everyday. This is what privilege feels like. The privilege to study abroad, to take a bus to university every day, to forget, to be born in a country that is definitely not perfect but at least has not driven five million citizens to flee as has happened in Venezuela. Alca Mendoza is one of 1.7 million refugees who have fled to Colombia. When he arrived in Barranquilla he said he had no choice but to sing on the buses to make money to send home to his girlfriend who was pregnant. Mendoza is a determined, hard working, and courageous entrepreneur. I had the honor to speak with him and hear his story.
LR: When and why did you start rapping?
“I began rapping when I was 13 years old. I suffered from depression and one day I attempted suicide. When I heard a song by Canserbero called Mañana Será Otro Día, it saved me. Changed my life. I started making my own raps and composing. Rap was a way to express, to protest, you get when I’m saying?”
“I focus more on making conscious and romantic rap. There is a protest in songs, against the abuse of power, in reference to the authorities, the government, or any kind of abuse of power.”
Music was the first career Mendoza became invested in and what initially sustained him as a refugee in Colombia. After two years in Colombia he has opened a music studio that offers affordable recording prices to Venezuelan street rappers who otherwise would not be able to get their music recorded due to lack of funds.
About Mendoza’s production studio
“There are people who have talent, that have the experience and mentality to make music. They have potential, but don’t have the resources to explode that potential. In a regular studio they charge you two million pesos (~$537) to record a track. In our production we only charge 70 thousand pesos (~$18), which is nothing, it is super accessible and done with good quality… I do it more than anything to give people, who have talent and potential but don’t have the resources to record a track, the opportunity to do so.”
Mendoza has not only achieved his dreams in the face of adversity, but works to give opportunities to others who are experiencing hardships. I was curious how he viewed his success and what he was proud of.
LR: What are you proud of?
“When I was little my parents abandoned me and my grandmother raised me. One night before going to bed she asked me to promise her that despite having a disability I would succeed in life. She made me promise I would achieve great things. I was only nine years old so I promised simply because she asked me to. The next morning when I got up I was told she had passed away that night. Today I feel proud to have fulfilled that promise in one way or another. I’m not going to tell you I have been an angel, that my whole life I have done good things, because it’s not like that. I’ve done bad things, like all people have. But despite that, I know I have achieved in fulfilling that promise and I feel proud of that.”
Alca Mendoza has pursued various passions in his journey to fulfil the promise he made to his grandmother. He is a professional skateboarder, surfer, graphic designer, music producer, rapper, and motivational speaker. Rapping is not Mendoza’s main source of income anymore he explained to me. He was mainly working as a motivational coach prior to COVID-19 putting a halt to conferences. Mendoza began motivational coaching after a documentary about his life was released when he was 19.
LR: How did you become a motivational coach?
“I didn’t study to be a motivational coach. I simply try to tell my life story, but not in a dramatic way to get people’s pity. I talk about my life to deliver my points, to then motivate them. “
“First I worked in music, when I was leaving the studio in Venezuela one day I passed in front of a skate park. I started to skate instead of using the wheelchair I had been using to get around… One day when I was at the skate park a friend, Dahory Gonzales, invited me to the beach. He introduced me to a friend, Gilber Baez, who had a surfing school, Los Cocos Surf School, and I started learning to surf at his school. Later someone took some photos of me for a magazine and a few days later proposed that we make a documentary about my life.
So that was the boom, it was their plan and they made El Plan de Dios by Gustavo Sulbaran y Marisabel Lorenzo in 2014 for a film festival that happens every year in Caracas. We ended up winning the festival, which gave me the initial public recognition… After the documentary I started doing conferences and that became the main work I did.”
In his early 20’s Mendoza began giving motivational speeches in Venezuela. However, he was forced to immigrate at the age of 24 to Colombia due to the Venezuelan crisis. His friends told him it was embarrassing to rap on the bus because he had achieved great success in Venezuela. However, rapping was something he loved to do, and it was one of the only ways to initially make money as a refugee. After a year of being in Colombia he managed to start giving conferences again, mainly to Colombian youth.
“You have to take advantage of every day. Learn to do new things. That would be the message. To fight for what you want because at some point it will give fruit. I’m saying it from personal experience.”
“There are fears that make a great person. We are all full of fear, fear of failing, fear that people will judge us for thinking differently. But if we did not have fears we wouldn’t be alive.
When I was a kid my fear was that I was going to be rejected by others. And in my case there was a lot of bullying and that generated more fear. But are you going to live your whole life with that fear? When are you going to go out and get to know the world? I gave the world the opportunity to get to know me and for me to get to know the world. I converted myself into the protagonist of my life.”
“It’s not only a message of motivation, but I tell the story of how I dared to physically sit up when I was 16 years old. At that age I didn’t know much, I didn’t talk to anyone, and no one was looking after me. So I had to start taking care of myself. I talk about experiences like that in my talk. How I was acting out of wanting to be accepted by others, but I realized I had to accept myself first. That gave me the initiative to accept myself how I am and not care what others thought of me. I dared to change my wheelchair out for a skateboard. A pair of legs doesn’t define a person. What defines them is their attitude and how they approach life.”
Mendoza spreads this message and lives his life with these values. He wants his daughter to be proud to call him her dad, which he knows entails embodying his values.
Mendoza’s partner and child have been in Venezuela since visiting family for the holiday in December 2019. In early March he returned to Venezuela to escort them across the border back to their house in Barranquilla. However, due to COVID-19 the Venezuelan border has been locked down, and he is still stuck in Venezuela today.
Pursuing dreams in a broken system
“If I am being honest, I believe opportunities have to be created by you personally. My thought is opportunity will not come knocking at your door, you have to go searching for them… For 7 years we went to the government to get housing aid, and nothing. They never gave us anything or helped. Here in Venezuela when the elections start the government always starts to build houses and help people in need, but simply when there are electoral campaigns. They do it to buy people.”
“After being in Colombia for two years I have my own house due to my hard work. Of course, the difference is that in Colombia the economy is more stable. It is a little difficult in Colombia, but nothing in comparison to Venezuela. So, I don’t believe the government can prevent people from achieving their dreams. Like I’ve said before, the government has never helped me. Never. When I really needed the help they turned their backs. So, I cannot think that the government can destroy my dreams.
For example, there is a person who wants to start their own business. Here in Venezuela this is very difficult. It is the government’s fault but it’s something you have no control of. How do you make a government change? How do you tell a government to accommodate its country? I mean, never. So, I think we have to leave the system and government aside and build our own dreams. To find a way to be independent, that has nothing to do with the government.”
Hopefully soon, Mendoza can return to the humid and bustling streets of Barranquilla where he will continue working to motivate youth and provide recording space for Venezuelan refugees.
Lyrics from one of Mendoza’s raps
“Take advantage of every opportunity, smile. Life makes you cry because that is what creates courage. Continue moving forward, don’t look back. Start to have confidence in yourself, act with optimism. Know that you’re alive for a reason… Always remember you have a pair of legs, two arms. Stop thinking about achieving your goals, and do it. Motivation, perseverance, just believe in yourself. Don’t doubt what you want, you can obtain it. You only have this one life, don’t ever allow anyone else to live it for you and that’s how things go.”
Oriana LoCicero | Bates College
Oriana is a recent graduate of Bates College with a B.S. in Chemistry and a minor in Dance. She was co-raised by her mother, who was born in Puerto Rico, and her Argentine grandmother. At the age of seven, her family relocated to Argentina for three years. Passionate storytelling was a core aspect of how her grandmother raised her, painting pictures in her mind of Buenos Aires in the sixties and her arrival to the U.S. as an immigrant. As Oriana grew older, her grandmother recounted stories of Los Desaparecidos. This was one of the first times that Oriana identified the power of stories to humanize human rights issues. During her junior year in college Oriana studied abroad in Barranquilla, Colombia where she heard stories everyday on the bus to school from Venezuelan immigrants describing the reality they live in. In her classes, she learned about the unjust history of the Indigenous population and later visited various Indigenous reservations where she was confronted with how the history continues to play out until present day. These experiences deepened her understanding of how personal stories allow the reality of the injustice to have a stronger impact. Oriana is motivated to work with Latina Republic to provide a platform for individual stories to be heard, so we can better understand, empathize, and be motivated to take action in human rights issues.