Venezuelan Youth Street Culture Festival

The gathering is one of a series of “Youth Street Culture Festivals” that take place each month in a different neighborhood of this rapidly transforming, explosively overcrowded, historically agricultural town at the Northern tip of the Andes Mountain range. The purpose, according to José Miguel Jiménez, one of the festival organizers, is “to rescue, bolster, and redefine what is the cultural identity of Venezuela."

The brim of a young hip-hop artist’s beige beanie hides a quarter of his face as his peers observe cross-legged from the concrete below. His cheek and lips grip the microphone intensely. The timid posture of his thinly adolescent frame can barely contain the newly found power and energy budding from each stomp he plants on the rickety stage in a weedy university parking lot in Mérida, Venezuela.

To the beatboxed rhythms laid down by his “panas” (a slang term that means pals), he grumbles, almost defensively, some of the most profound lyricism uttered on this grayish day: “With Latin blood I am proud to be a third-worldist. For us what is valuable in life is what we’ve got here. We walk the streets talking to ourselves. But we ain’t crazy, we just know ourselves better.”

The gathering is one of a series of “Youth Street Culture Festivals” that take place each month in a different neighborhood of this rapidly transforming, explosively overcrowded, historically agricultural town at the Northern tip of the Andes Mountain range. The purpose, according to José Miguel Jiménez, one of the festival organizers, is “to rescue, bolster, and redefine what is the cultural identity of Venezuela, in which the young have been called once again by history to play an important role.”

Cultural Proposal

Jiménez works at the National Youth Institute (INJ) created in 2002 with the passage of the National Youth Law, which complies with the new constitution approved by popular referendum shortly after the election of President Hugo Chávez. The institute links up with a multitude of young leftist organizations in the community to compel young people’s protagonistic participation in Venezuela’s radically changing democracy. Jiménez clarifies that “much more than simply an opportunity to listen to good music, the street culture festival is a cultural proposal, that young people reclaim public spaces in order to express the autonomous culture of our generation, in the unique context of our localities.”

One of the many kids around the disc changer stokes a reggae mix of Pink Floyd’s “Time.” Quasi-familiar electric guitar simulations mix with lyrics pronounced in an unabashedly colloquial Spanglish accent. A twenty-something-year-old member of Utopía 78, an organization which constructs in theory and practice a uniquely Latin American-style utopia, injects his commentary: “The idea is culture in the street. Not for money. Not for fame. For the people. Our generation in the street.”

We listeners are hovering among cultures, fashions, generations, and national borders. And something new.

That youth are participating now, more than ever, in Venezuelan politics, is widely acknowledged. Many at the festival attribute this to the increased opportunities for youth participation created during what is called “el proceso”, or “the process” of socialist-oriented political change underway in Venezuela.

Endrina Castillo, a law student who operates an independent radio show broadcast by internet to several Latin American countries, happily declares, “The fact of living in this historic time in our country is marvelous, beyond compare, especially for the people formerly excluded. We are cultivating the street culture as an alternative to the elitist cultural circles which have always dominated.”

Arnaldo Rondón, a passionate member of the Communist Youth of Venezuela, interprets this as a good sign for a broader national youth movement: “The Left, the communists, anarchists, and socialists, have been fractured on their own paths for years. Here, youth from these ideologies have formed a union rooted in the election of Chávez.”

Rondón sheds some light on why a festival promoting street culture was held in a university parking lot, explaining dryly “we are confiscating space from the rightist-dominated university, in order to carry out our rebellion.” The majority of organizers and participants in the festival echo the call. University students–and the universities themselves–should be directly involved in community organizing, rather than sequestered in campus life, the organizers say.

Transforming the University

Numerous public higher education programs have been created based on this philosophy since Chávez was elected. In contrast, the prestigious Universidad de los Andes (ULA), the public institution for which Mérida is renowned, is wholly resistant to change. The student government, although currently full of red shirts and pro-Chávez sound bites, has fixed its efforts mainly on student matters, typically student physical health, discounted bus fare, and career-building concerns. Just like in the past, the revolving door spins rapidly between these student leaders and the local and state government institutions, as well as the “misiones,” social programs created by Chávez that have brought tangible benefits to millions. Other dominant student groups with immense faculty support plaster the campus with anti-Chávez publicity and teach-ins. They have made headlines for burning buses, sacking public offices, and massively assaulting police officers in opposition to what they see as Chávez’s attacks on university autonomy.

The flood of accessible education alternatives amplified in the last eight years has eroded the earth around the university, highlighting the formerly less visible ways in which the traditional university system is not really accessible to the public. Participants in the street culture festival are now more disposed to regard the school as a pseudo-leftist, elite-recycling factory. Stoking these sentiments is the long pent-up sense of powerlessness felt by many of Mérida’s high school graduates in the shadow of the university which defines their city and yet is so far from their reality. They declare solidarity with Chávez and view the new programs as public institutions truly connected to the people.

Criticizing the Dominant Party

Despite the leftward tilt of festival participants and organizers, denunciations of corruption within the ranks of the dominant governing parties are hurled with such might and frequency that one might attribute the gray clouds darkening the festival to this institutional impropriety. Castillo makes no small mention of the fact that “no process is without its faults. There are still people who, with their personal behavior, are damaging and robbing from the process. These people are corrupt.”

Jose Ángel Ribero, an anarchist strolling with a small group of conscientious objectors, opines that the flaws go beyond personal behavior, and are frighteningly integral to the structure of the revolution. He fears social movements are losing autonomy, and strongly disagrees with the popular belief that Chávez’s presidency is necessary for the survival of the revolution. “We cannot elect rebellion” he quips. “Elected leaders who legislate when, how, where, and why the people will organize ourselves is not a strategy for long-term radical change”.

Ribero and his “panas” denounce the military culture they perceive in Venezuelan politics, educational methodology, government officials’ background and rhetoric, and even the country’s popularly approved human rights-based constitution. “Our constitution states that in order to defend our national sovereignty, the national armed forces must have a monopoly on violence,” he diagnoses like a geneticist. “This tells us that the military is not something separate from the state, it is the state.” Questioning whether this revolution is truly democratic, he asserts in his soothing, humble voice, “in no army does democracy exist. In no army does consensus exist, nor horizontal decision-making among equals.”

Ribero affirms that the festival “is a step forward because it is a place where young people can act freely and creatively.” However, the festival loses legitimacy because it is compelled and financed by government agencies, and it takes place in a university setting, “where the state and the upper classes have been maintained and fertilized for generations.”

Festival organizers from within and outside the government express their agreement to varying degrees with Ribero’s sentiments. Rondón confirms that “I am not a Chavista, I am a revolutionary. We have to maintain and repair the process that [Chávez] is forming and compelling.”

Class and Gender

Jiménez looks ponderously at what he has helped organized. Conveying the mild shame of hard-nosed self-evaluation, he acknowledges, “The next festival should be below in the barrio,” referring to the bustling lower-income community literally at the bottom of the cliff on top of which the university is perched. His tone is enlivened as he reaffirms that such debate and self-criticism are part of the purpose of this festival, asserting “we are waking up the desires of the people and their obligation to debate, discuss, think, to continue struggling for change, transformation, and construction of a patrimony in team with the government.”

Perhaps not enough participants at the street festival are conscious of the fact that all the performers and organizers trampling the stage and occupying the mics are boys. Mary Salazar, a tiny high schooler whose mature outspokenness betrays her age and image, is simply unimpressed by what the men came to do. “I am mostly here to see the jugglers,” she smiles watching the mixed-gender group of playful performers livening up a section of the grass behind the stage they seem to hardly know exists.

Flor Salcedo, a young cultural promoter from the Autonomous Institute in another part of town, describes the situation with more confrontational language: “All forms of cultural expression are supposed to have equal respect in the street culture space, but not surprisingly the boys on the stage are the dominant visual, audio, and spatial force. The activity is centralized, bureaucratized, male-dominated and it is not culturally diverse or creative.”

Salazar thinks for a moment, her eyes still on the jugglers. “This is not a revolution. There is so much objectification of women. The non-concrete mayor… the bureaucracy, the commercials, the propaganda all treat women like sexual objects.” Like all the youth at the festival, seething with anger at the injustices of the world, Salazar does not merely point out the problems without grappling for a solution. “I sympathize with anarchist ideology. Something more independent. Women need to revalorize ourselves and be proud and not exploited.”

Breaking Traditions

Transformation. Revalorization. Diversity. Independence. Community. Reclamation. Festival goers collectively compose young people’s continuously morphing sense of self-identity. They exhibit a sense of transience as well as concreteness, a feeling of pertinence to their local surrounding and global life simultaneously.

Salazar is active in a local, predominantly youth coalition that is organizing to bring an end to the annual bullfighting festival for which Mérida is nationally recognized. They advocate not only respect for animals and for life, but independence from the imperialist cultural inheritance imposed violently by the Spanish empire and passed through the generations. The coalition’s previous march to – and temporary occupation of – the municipal government building left the concrete walls of the quaint town center decorated by volumes of concisely poetic graffiti, such as “Bullfights: Not art nor culture. IMPERIALIST LEGACY.” Salazar and her “panas” see their youth as a primary force in breaking these traditions and constructing new identities.

Perhaps Salazar’s localized “independentism” is kin to the amplified solidarity manifested by Endrina Castillo’s internet radio program. Castillo praises, “young people in this part of the world, in the South including Mexico, struggling to create an alternative, better world.” She agrees that Latin American youth are breaking the eggshell of imperially imposed identities and traditions.

But empires for Castillo are hardly a thing of the past. “This generation is very rebellious and discontent with the quantity of injustices in the world…We are constructing an identity which is unique and new and rejecting the identity of violence which we see daily coming from the [U.S.] empire.”

Arnaldo Rondón wastes no breath in placing Venezuelan youth within the scope of a historically defined international movement. “Our first objective as part of international youth is to make the voice of the people heard against war, against the imperialist aggressions of the United States in Iraq and all over the world. We will not suck the nipples of the imperialist mother like the Right in Venezuela,” he proclaims with a straight face and without a trace of self-absorption.

Rondón calls out to “all just societies in the world…Get up! Get out on the street! Don’t sit around! If they repress us, we will overcome them, anything is possible,” he assures. “To be young and not be revolutionary is a contradiction, like Salvador Allende said… another world is possible. Don’t be defeated.” He demonstrates with his short, thick arms the intercontinental bear hug he wishes to send out to those with socialism in their blood.

The National Institute of Youth’s quarterly magazine attributes the “glocalization” of Venezuelan youth identity partly to surging information technology, which has demonstrated positive effects but is also precariously new. One worrisome issue is “transculturization.” Many interpretations of this phenomenon are reproduced at the street culture festival. Despite varying wordage, folks unanimously feel that their dominant neighbor to the North has a profoundly invasive impact on almost every aspect of their lives. They hold this truth to be self-evident.

U.S. Influence

“The United States makes Venezuelans imitate them in a way that damages our own identity” is the blunt summary of the self-described “apolitical” Daniela Ramírez. Law student Camilo Alero has a more passive conception of trancultural agency, describing how “the American dream captures Venezuelan youth and a huge cultural defect is produced”. A nearby “pana” expands on the thought: “I do not have an American dream. I have a Bolivarian dream. This means I do not run and hide from problems. I see the reality, the war and suffering that is behind the American dream, and I do not get caught up in the pursuit of money in the North like many of us [Venezuelans].”

A strapping young man with stiffly gelled hair struts along the perimeter of the parking lot avoiding the festival, shoulders hugged by a tight black T-shirt with emboldened white letters across the front: “FBI”. He is not the only muscular Venezuelan man following that fashion trend, and young women have their own version. An adolescent walks out of class up the hill with her breasts falling out of her pink blouse, which is decorated with English words outlined with glittering sequins: “Latin pleasure individual”.

“More than anything, style” is the way Jiménez thinks the U.S. influences Venezuelan youth, through their clothing, music, television programs, and customs such as consumerist individualism. But he certainly wouldn’t regard it as only superficial. According to him, U.S. domination is the continuation of what northern people began in Latin America 500 years ago, and globalization mainly strengthens it. The street festivals, likewise, are the current phase of this centuries-long struggle for life and identity.

Rondón says the United States invades principally through “the exploitation of men by men.” He analyzes the less concrete forms of U.S. influence with staunch historical materialism, decrying “the lies of the international media, which mesmerize us and make us unable and unwilling to pick up a book and cultivate something Venezuelan.”

Rondón boisterously sums up another sentiment that might be even more unanimous among young Venezuelan activists than their views of U.S. cultural influence. “We are absolutely NOT against the people of the United States, or Spain, or France. We are against the brutal non-democratic governments, against most of all Bush, who murders and murders unchecked. We are with the People worldwide.” The words pound off his protruding chest. Perhaps Rondón´s political connection to the People of the Earth is more ideologically pure than the ways his peers demonstrate their globalness. For instance, in the street festival as well as out on the street, young Venezuelans chug Pepsi Cola as though it were the magic potion of youth culture. Even the commonly used word “pana” is adapted from the English word “partner”.

What is Authenticity?

At the end of the day, congruity is the exception, not the rule. Mara Fernanda is a student activist known for her flamboyant bear hugs who is loved, despised, and embraced by her peers in a plethora of organizations from rural organizing to feminism. As she sucks down boxed Chilean wine at the end of the festival her eyes overflow with tears of rage. With her trembling lips her heart struggles to expound the misery she feels about all this. She mutters, “even when we strive to redefine our own culture, we only obsess about things from the outside. Hip-hop is from poor communities in New York, it is not pertinent to my culture. Reggae and the ‘legalize marijuana’ movement are from pot-heads in the Caribbean, they are not pertinent to my culture. In Venezuela we have lost what it is to be authentic.”

Another hip-hop artist stalks the stage, fills our heads with original words, then descends. His energy continues to surge even after stepping down from his spot of power; he gathers a group of new “panas” on the grass and begins rapping to their beats. The mist turns to rain, the usual mountain weather pattern. Some of the younger mosh-pit creators begin to throw punches at each other. A young male organizer, wishing for ideological and orderly closure to the festival, takes the stage and reads into the mic from the “Street Culture Manifesto” he wrote for the festival: “Culture, like all our patrimony, is reinvented.”

At this festival by, for, and of youth, opinions and lifestyles reverberate dissidently. Participants denounce imperialist influence while rapping, chatting, and getting on a soap-box about being autonomous or Venezuelan. At the same time, their lives are saturated with transnational corporate influence (they might call it infiltration), and their actions reflect many clashing cultures rather than unity or tradition. The visions of the worlds they want to create do not have fixed names nor unchanging characteristics. If they imitate, it’s because imitation is interpretative reinvention, not carbon-copying. It is as though history is passing stories through them, and together they are crafting whole new genres.

James Suggett is a Melman Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and a Foreign Policy In Focus  contributor who is living in Mérida, Venezuela.