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CARACAS, Venezuela – When Angimar Bautista first moved to Caracas a decade ago, she was surprised to learn that residents refused to go out at night.
“It was very strange not being able to go to the square with friends because of, ‘Oh, the assailants,’” said Bautista, a 25-year-old art student from the eastern Venezuelan city of Ciudad Bolívar. “Everyone here seemed to live in fear of thugs.”
But not Bautista.
She was among 30 who participated in early July in an Urban Picnic, an evening organized by citizen rights group Ser Urbano (Urban Being) in which residents dined and socialized at night in a public space in one of the most violent cities in Latin America.
In 2011, there were 3,479 homicides in Caracas, according to the Observatorio Metropolitano de Seguridad Ciudadana (Metropolitan Observatory of Citizen Security), a dependency of the city’s government.
Meantime, the Public Safety Commission for the Metropolitan Region of Caracas’ first annual report documented 93% of murder victims in this city of 6.5 million were men between the ages of 15 and 24, and 90% of homicides involved a firearm.
Overall, there were 19,336 homicides in Venezuela last year, up from 13,080 in 2010, according to local NGO Observatorio Venezolano de la Violencia (Venezuelan Violence Observatory).
But those who participated in the Urban Picnic weren’t afraid to attend the potluck dinner.
The Plaza Don Bosco, a park in the east side of Caracas, became a communal table setting for the participants. Ser Urbano has organized Urban Picnics at numerous parks, squares, shopping malls and other public spaces in the city in the past four years.
José Orozco, a 33-year-old journalist who is among the founders of Ser Urbano, said the group was born out of the anguish of living in fear in a city where insecurity is so high.
“Insecurity in Caracas undoubtedly drives many people to lock themselves up, to get home earlier and to make fewer outings at night,” said Orozco, as he passed along containers with plantain mash, rice and vegetables. “If they do go out, it’s by car rather than on foot. In Caracas walking around is still a difficult thing. It’s a city designed around the car.”
Orozco said Ser Urbano wants to teach Venezuelans how to reclaim public spaces and respond to violence with civility.
“In March, we organized one of the picnics in a street were one of Ser Urbano’s members, Alex Duarte, was robbed,” Orozco added.
Ser Urbano is only one of the many Caracas-based organizations that have emerged during the past few years in an effort by residents to reclaim public spaces and city streets, with the ultimate goal of eradicating violence nationwide.
Organizations like graffiti-art collective Collectivox, pro-cycling NGO Bicimamis and “A Sampablera in Caracas,” a group that recreates an historic battle on the capital’s San Pablo square, are some of the burgeoning urban groups, whose names match their imaginative activities.
Ser Urbano, in addition to coordinating potluck dinners, also organizes pillow fights and “bubble battles,” where participants try to create the largest bubble.
“We know people think it’s weird because these are very uncommon things [in Caracas],” Orozco said. “But what we are really telling people is that it’s very simple to organize something like this. This is something you could do yourself in your community.”
It was a pillow fight that made Bautista a big fan of Ser Urbano.
“When I got there I didn’t understand any of it,” she said. “I saw some people hitting each other with pillows, but they were having a blast so I stayed.”
Spending time with “cool people” has helped Bautista overcome her shyness, and she rarely misses a Ser Urbano activity.
“Now, I feel part of the city,” she said.