Patricia Ariza

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Fellow Since 1997
Corporación Colombiana de Teatro
This description of Patricia Ariza's work was prepared when Patricia Ariza was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1997 .


Patricia Ariza is promoting social empowerment among Colombia's most excluded sectors of society, including indigenous people, blacks, drug addicts, women displaced by violence, and especially youth. Her movement enables these groups to engage with society at large, and in safe community-based settings to present their own solutions to the country's problems of poverty, violence, guerrilla groups, drug trafficking, corruption, refugees, and other social issues.

The New Idea

Patricia Ariza has developed an innovative program that permits the most excluded sectors of society to dialogue with the larger society and design and implement their own creative solutions to social problems. This movement involves a network of volunteers comprised of artists, teachers, members of marginal social groups, government workers, and citizen organizations, who work together to ensure that excluded groups are incorporated into community development programs. Through extensive and systematic workshops, members of excluded groups regain their self-esteem and values. They work together to create artistic presentations and cultural events which are performed before the general public. Parallel to this, Patricia's program taps into the collective imagination of the people who live and experience social problems on a daily basis. Based on this firsthand knowledge, the groups are encouraged to develop their own solutions to the problems of poverty, lack of infrastructure, violence, and other social ills. Previously excluded groups learn how to raise awareness of issues facing their communities, to participate in public debate, and to dialogue with society at large.

The Problem

Like many of its Latin American neighbors, Colombia has shifted in the past 50 years from a nation of largely rural inhabitants to a highly urbanized setting, with some 75 percent of Colombians now living in urban areas. In addition to the many Colombians who come to the cities in search of improved economic prospects, hundreds of thousands of families trying to escape the recent violence of the countryside now find themselves as refugees in newly formed cities and shantytowns. In many cases, this tide of urban migration has been accompanied by a neglect or rejection of cultural and social traditions. The capital of Colombia, Bogotá, is a city of approximately seven million inhabitants, over one million of whom are refugees who have fled violence in the countryside. Despite their desires to escape the crime, threats, and constant danger which have become endemic to rural life in Colombia, city life has proven equally violent. Bogotá is one of the most violent cities in the world, home to many of the 42,000 violent deaths and assassinations reported in Colombia in 1996. The majority of victims killed are young people under the age of 30. Refugees typically arrive to the cities hostile, unemployed, and in shock. Few programs or activities exist to address these problems or help them cope with their new realities. Children and young people are especially affected by the violence and the absence of strong cultural traditions which characterize urban life-particularly poor, urban life-in Colombia. Street children are publicly referred to as "disposables" by the police and politicians. In many sectors of the country, where there is nothing to identify with except pain, the children speak only about violence, the war, and the dead. This scenario of exclusion has led many urban dwellers to become involved in the illegal economy of contraband, drug trade, and arms trafficking, all of which generate new forms of violence. Out of fear and desperation people become involved in guerrilla and paramilitary groups. There is daily armed confrontation in the countryside between the guerrillas, primarily farm workers, and armed paramilitary groups protecting business interests. Drug trafficking and corruption, fed by the high levels of consumption in large metropolitan areas of the United States and Europe, has penetrated every level of Colombian society. The link between these sectors and civil society, the economic results of money-laundering, and the arrival of businesses that feed on these "narco-dollars" have changed the economic map of the country, land ownership, the formation of the cities, and political and cultural ethics.

The Strategy

Patricia Ariza believes in the humanity and creative potential of all people, including the most marginalized and disadvantaged, and sees this potential as a critically important vehicle for restoring and developing their self-esteem. Based on this belief, Patricia is using artistic expression as a means for enhancing the self-esteem of marginal groups and promoting social dialogue between these groups and the society at large. She has formed a team of ten colleagues who work with her in the various programs throughout the city and the countryside. This team identifies a marginalized sector of the community to work with, such as sex workers, street children, drug addicts, or women displaced by violence. Contacts are made with leaders of the identified group, and workers begin to develop a relationship with them. They then organize a small event, such as a concert or theater performance, with the children, women and other inhabitants in the neighborhood. Using art as a vehicle for communicating the personal experiences and fundamental conflicts they have experienced with society, the performers present their creative expression. Later, artists and professional theater instructors begin to work with them in workshops, debates, improvisations, and other activities, until they have created an original script for a play, skit, oral narrative, or other testimony. These creative endeavors are presented before the public in diverse places such as community theaters, parks, public buildings, and in the street. The work is repeated in various locales to ensure a diverse array of audiences. As a result, the previously excluded group interacts with other groups-such as student associations, citizen organizations, and the government-about specific projects and programs that they are working on or want to develop. The events are funded through profit-sharing ventures with local concession stands and ice cream vendors. Concurrently, other projects are introduced into the group, such as the construction of youth centers, the formation of ongoing neighborhood groups, the formation of a band, mural painting, interviews of public and social community leaders, and the publication of written works and musical tapes. After this initial coming-together, the groups begin to take on a life of their own, electing leaders and establishing themselves as a force in the community. For example, a group of prostitutes that was brought together as part of Patricia's program has now formed a group of their own, through which they have established a child care center and health center in their community. Patricia has been working for three years with a group of impoverished kids from Turbo who have formed a rap group and are in the process of releasing their first compact disc. They have become famous in Colombia, appearing in the press and on television, and plan to use the profits from the compact disc sales to pay for music school. Patricia also organized a group of street children who presented a theater production of their own creation about the realities of living on the streets to their most hated enemies-4,000 members of the Colombian police department. After the production the children taught the police officers how to break-dance. The youth have now formed a permanent theater group in the city. Patricia's methodology for building the self-esteem of marginalized groups and fomenting dialogue between them and other sectors of society has already begun to spread into new areas. Last year, she went to Brazil to present her model at a festival for street people. She has made contacts with Ashoka Fellow Ximena Costales in Ecuador and will begin to work with Colombian prisoners in Ecuador (a large percentage of prisoners in Ecuador are Colombians who are serving time for drug violations). She also plans to go to Germany to work with Colombian women in German jails. In her native Colombia, Patricia is currently working on a project to begin forming groups of women in the conflict zones around the country. These groups of women are planning to knit a peace blanket on the steps of the government buildings and to invite the Argentine Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo to join them in their efforts to stop the violence in Colombia. Patricia and her team are also in the process of editing a new musical tape of peace songs which was produced by the youth group organized in the community of Uraba. She has developed a plan to work with university student volunteers, through which they will be able to earn credit through practical experience in the field. Patricia has developed excellent relations with the press and communications media. She uses radio, television, and the written media to spread the ideas and work of excluded sectors of society.

The Person

Patricia Ariza was born in Velez Santender. Her mother was a farm worker and her father an artist. When Patricia was very young her family moved to the city of Bogotá as refugees from the violence in their rural community. The family lived in a poor neighborhood and started an art supply store, studio, and workshop. The four young children in the family continued to study, and Patricia, the youngest, was able to attend university with the financial support of her parents and brothers. During the 1960s, while in the university, Patricia became a student leader and developed an interest in culture as a means of social change and dialogue. She helped to establish the University Cultural Center and developed a program that permitted students to leave the university and work in the poor neighborhoods of Bogotá. This Center provided a place for students to become involved in social issues and an outlet for the artistic expression by young people from the shantytowns. In 1966 Patricia co-founded Colombia's first alternative theater, Teatro Candelaria, which recently celebrated its twentieth anniversary. She was later instrumental in the formation of the Cultural Theater Movement in Colombia and the Colombian Theater Corporation. Over the years Patricia has diversified her interests and has founded various activities and programs, including the organization of numerous "Festivals and Events for Artists and Intellectuals in Defense of Peace and National Culture." Using her twenty years of experience in the Colombian cultural and social movement, over the past five years Patricia has developed a program to work with marginal and excluded sectors in society by promoting their images and ideas through cultural events and connecting them through their own creative projects with the state, the media, and society as a whole.