Sister countries Colombia and Venezuela have long been marked by migration between each other, seemingly taking turns of being a safe haven for one another as problems arose in each respective country at different times. Following an ongoing economic and political crisis in Venezuela, Colombia has received over 1.1 million Venezuelan migrants, formerly displaced Colombians began returning home as well. In Uprooted, a multimedia documentary project by a class of 26 students from the School of Media and Journalism at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, students visited Medellín, Colombia to tell the stories of the displaced people of the crisis in Venezuela, investigating how Colombia has come to the aid of its Bolivarian neighbor—and how it hasn’t.
“My gripe with American media’s coverage of the situation in Venezuela and the way it has spilled over into Colombia is that we’re losing the human side of these stories,” said Patty Matos, PR coordinator of the project and a native of Caracas, Venezuela.
Uprooted documents the marginalized lives of Venezuelan migrants in Medellín, whose stories are often absent in American coverage of Venezuela which has focused on narratives centered on the United States and a surface-level look at the issues.
One of the stories, titled “A Hopeful Voice,” tells the story of Irelys Rojas, a migrant who began singing in restaurants for tips shortly after arriving. The project features a video of Rojas singing and an inside look into her daily life and financial struggles. Another piece titled “Greater than Death” tells the story of a family who migrated to Medellín after one of the children in the family fell ill and needed special care.
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“We’re losing the nitty gritty details of the people affected by the crisis. Those are stories that deserve to be heard and deserve to be celebrated,” said Matos.
This project approaches the country in a different manner than conventional media, through combining narrative storytelling, documentary, and data journalism with an intimate focus on five areas: government and public policy, economy, children and education, health and safety, and women.
The digital project’s website allows for viewers to navigate through the diverse lives of migrants and their families whom students closely followed to capture their experiences. The project also explores themes of xenophobia, life as an undocumented immigrant, and moving quickly to make ends meet, while also visualizing the data behind every element of the stories.
The effort rose out of Documentary Multimedia Storytelling at UNC, a course in which journalism students embark on trips to cover important issues abroad in a collaborative multimedia project. Last year, for example, students covered Puerto Rico after Hurricane María.
Pat Davison, professor of the course and executive producer of Uprooted, said Medellín was a key vantage point to observe the migration crisis in a metropolitan area where Venezuelans have become a part of society.
“This is probably one of the more ambitious stories that we’ve undertaken,” said Davison. “We haven’t had a whole project on really difficult human issue like this.”
Followed by a group of coaches and professors, the large team of majority non-Latino students in the heart of Medellín faced their stories head-on, depending on the translation and guidance of the Latino and Venezuelan students, which served to help navigate a Latin American country and assess the safety of the team’s whereabouts.
That responsibility was also given to the team’s field producers—student journalists from Colombian universities who took their American colleagues through their country, learning from each other along the way.
“It was an enriching experience to see how they have taught journalism in the United States and compare it to how they have done it over here,” said Martín Villaneda Gómez, a student at Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana, who said working with Uprooted may be one of the best experiences of his life.
Covering these stories was difficult and rewarding for all the students but doing it as a Latina was a challenging experience for Patsy Montesinos, a reporter in the group covering education for Uprooted.
“It’s a lot of pressure being the only one who speaks Spanish in a group,” she said. “Our stories were in rough areas and there were guys who would be catcalling us all the time and I would be the only one who understood them.”
Carlos Salas, the lead designer for the project’s platform on Uprooted’s interactive team, shared with Montesinos and other students in feeling desperate at times in witnessing difficult circumstances for the Venezuelans in Medellín, while being empowered to serve them through Uprooted’s mission to share their stories.
Being the only Latino and Venezuelan in his assigned group, he said he was so busy with his role as a translator, a guide, and a connection to Venezuelans in his team, that he couldn’t work on the website’s design while on the reporting trip.
“My team of journalists was able to dive in a little deeper since the relationship with our stories’ subjects was so pure and so raw because we were both Venezuelan,” said Salas, who was behind the principal interactive design of Uprooted’s platform and was the only student of the project who didn’t study journalism.
“I never really considered the impact that storytelling has,” he said. “I can either feel guilty the fact that I’m on the other side of the story as a Venezuelan, or I can embrace the fact that I can come in and form these relationships and tell these stories in the most powerful way that we can.”
Aarón Sánchez Guerra is an early stage bilingual, bicultural freelance journalist and recent graduate of North Carolina State University with a B.A in English and a minor in journalism. His work spearheaded Latino coverage at his university’s paper and there he developed an interest in long form, narrative journalism. His writing is focused on migration, farmworker advocacy, international affairs, critical theory and zine storytelling. A native of the Rio Grande Valley in Texas and the state of Tamaulipas in Mexico, he hopes to talk about experiences from that borderland region in future work in print and radio.