Crime & Justice

Religion, cinema help boost spirits in violence-racked Venezuelan shantytown

By Hector Pereira

Caracas, May 18 (efe-epa).- Local residents wave white cloths as a symbol of peace and faith while a pastor preaches over a loudspeaker in the heart of the Venezuelan capital’s largest slum district, where a group of community and religious leaders also recently organized a viewing of the animated film “The Book of Life” to lift the spirits of young people confined to their homes during the pandemic.

Jaime Perez, one of the organizers of the cinema activity, told Efe that the idea of screening that film on the roof of a brick shack was “something unprecedented” in Petare, where numerous armed confrontations have occurred between criminal gangs and security forces this month, although thus far official information about the clashes has been scant.

“Cinema also is able to transform and raise consciousness,” said the 34-year-old Perez, who insisted that violence and crime do not define this sprawling district that is home to a vast array of ramshackle brick dwellings on steep hills overlooking eastern Caracas.

“Petare isn’t that … the neighborhood is solidarity and grandeur,” he said, though also acknowledging the tragedy suffered by local residents due to a longstanding economic crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic, which has triggered a nationwide “social quarantine” since mid-March to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus.

“There’s hunger,” and the salaries “are not enough to live on for even one day,” Perez said.

Not everyone is willing to comment on-camera about the violence in Petare, although one woman, Yuleidy Lopez, spoke about the constant fear she experiences.

“You’re afraid to even look out the window with this whole situation. We’re mainly afraid for our children … when we go outside or peek out the window, we’re really very scared,” the 24-year-old mother said.

Lopez, who also said she is worried about the high cost of food and the lack of domestic gas in the area, looks on happily as her seven-year-old daughter anxiously sits on a window sill so as not to miss a single scene of “The Book of Life,” a 2014 animated film directed by Mexican filmmaker Jorge Gutierrez that tells the story of a bullfighter’s afterlife adventure.

She said this is a time to “share more among family and pray.”

With nothing more than a loudspeaker and a microphone, local residents have launched a Christian radio station,” whose programming schedule includes the fervent preaching of pastors and some forms of audience participation via mobile messaging and shouts and signals from the windows of the brick shacks.

“When you raise your flag, you’re saying that the darkness is defeated. you’re saying that you are victorious … hallelujah,” one of the radio preachers said while observing the reactions of people waving their white cloths and cheering.

The “radio station,” which operates just nine hours a week with no dial or website, was the response of a local Protestant church to mandatory church closures during the pandemic.

But children, especially those with no television inside their homes, are most enthralled by the showing of “The Book of Life” in Petare’s Jose Felix Ribas neighborhood.

Once the film starts, dozens of people observe total silence at window sills, in doorways or on stairwells.

Melany Marquez, a mother of two, told Efe that this initiative helps replace other recreational activities – such as playground visits – that have been paralyzed due to the coronavirus-triggered lockdowns

This is being done “mainly for the children, because they get really scared with those things (the shootouts); at least to have their minds occupied on something, it’s good that they carry out projects like this,” the 40-year-old woman said.

As a woman of faith, she said the religious services provide hope and reassurance to the people of Petare, many of whom have not had running water for several days and must walk up and down steep stairs due to limited public transportation.

At the halfway point of the film, now in the darkness of night, one resident comments to some neighbors, “you can hear the shots nearby; they’ve started up again.”

In Petare’s “book of life,” violence is always just around the corner. EFE-EPA

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