Thursday, September 15, 2011

Bogotá Prison Pageant: Intro to the Investigation

From Steve Cosson in Bogotá:

I've been here in Bogotá for a couple weeks now leading the investigation for our new Bogotá Prison Pageant show (working title of course. Saying that title out loud kindof feels like coughing).  I'm just now getting a chance to catch my breath – both literally and figuratively.  Bogotá is about a mile and a half up in the air which I'm aware of every time I have to climb stairs. The city is quite a metropolis—it stretches North and South with the Andes bordering the city on the East. The wealthier people live to the North, the poorer to the South. I'm living somewhere in El Centro which as you might guess is in the middle of the two – 31st street to be exact at the intersection of two main drags – Carrera 7 and 13. Carrera 7 is almost completely dug up with construction which is a big drag. Por ejemplo, last night jack hammers were working till about 1 am.  Apparently the construction had a lot to do with corruption and kickbacks of Bogotá's last mayor.  Which is part of why he is no longer mayor.

But why I'm here: I'm leading a group of 5 Colombian actors/theater artists in an investigation of the annual beauty pageant that takes place each year here at El Buen Pastor, a women's prison. Sadly there is no pageant at the men's prison.  After much to-ing and fro-ing with the national prison bureaucracy we got access to El Buen Pastor about ten days ago and the group has been visiting each morning conducting interviews with the inmates – some contestants some not.  El Buen Pastor has 9 "pavellones" or cellblocks.  Though a straight translation would be "Pavillion" which sounds much more fun.  It's really not a fun place. The beds are concrete slabs and often women sleep on the floor.  The prison was built to hold 1,000 and currently holds 1,800. Each cell just has bars on the windows so it's fairly exposed to the elements. Oh, did I mention Bogotá is COLD. Or at least for a cell exposed to the night air it gets down to 40 degrees. From these 9 pavellones there are 12 contestants.  Three of the pavellones are grouped together since the population of each is fairly small.  So from the six, a "reinita" or young queen and a "reina madre" or older/mother queen is elected. 

There's a lot of pressure on each of these women to compete and win, of course. But unlike a traditional beauty pageant the emphasis is on the group and not just the contestant. So each pavellon (aka patio) has to work together to build a float according to a theme, and a group of women from each patio learn a traditional dance and make costumes to accompany the presentation of their reinas.  

The theme this year is "the planet." As one of the psychologists of the prison told us, the administration wanted to raise awareness of environmental issues and global warming (see here for The Civilians play about all that). So of the six patios each is assigned a region of Colombia (determining their dance and costumes) and a planet-related theme:  air, water, fire, earth, living planet, dead planet.  We spoke to one of the queens having to represent the "dead planet" and initially she was fairly bummed at her patio's theme. I've been informed though that as of yesterday she figured out how to make a really killer outfit that's both glamorous and scary so now she is psyched.  

The theme is also key for the "Desfile de Carrozas," or the Parade of Floats.  Here for example are the carrozas for the National Miss Coffee pageant: 
(Did I mention that beauty pageants are a big deal here?  There's a pageant for just about any place, food, product or abstract idea you can imagine).  The carrozas at El Buen Pastor are a big effort – weeks of work to make spectacular floats out of shopping carts, recycled materials and some paint. 

I'm hoping by the time of the Desfile de Carrozas that I'll get permission to take photos.  So far no luck there.  

Here however, are a couple photos of our team of interviewers waiting to enter the prison. This is a fun ritual they get to do every morning at 8AM.  In future blog postings I'll be introducing you to the Colombian Civilians.  

Un abrazo!

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