The tricky aspect about loving your hometown is that it’s difficult to explain why. You are more than willing to defend your homeplace when someone else takes a hit against it, but you are also its harshest critic—or, at least, that is the case for me.
Born and raised in Bogotá, Colombia, I understand a big chunk of my city’s flaws, and if anyone were to ask me about them, I would go on a rant that extensively details the issues with security, education, and welfare distribution. I’m keenly aware of the areas it fails in, and the people it affects. Yet, I’m still charmed by it. No matter where else I go (Paris, New York, or Toronto), no other city in the world can match the allure of going to school on a foggy morning as vendors open their doors to the public, even if these cities are safer and cleaner. To me, the contrast between Bogotá’s shiny industrial skyscrapers and rudimentary neighborhoods constitutes the never-changing essence of a city from the past with a futuristic vision whose streets are brimming with so many stories we cannot pretend to know all of them. The majority of these are not pretty or happy tales—life in the city is unforgiving—but it is the fact that they exist and intertwine that makes Bogotá so wonderful. It is the raw nature of these interconnected stories that make the city so appealing, and it has always been difficult to put into words the reasons why I find this to be the case. After all, the only person that can truly understand Batman’s love for Gotham despite its objectively horrendous state is Bruce Wayne, and I have neither the desire nor the brains to follow his example.
Fortunately, after buying a random book from the recommended section in a bookstore, I don’t have to struggle with explaining myself anymore. In turn, I will let Mario Mendoza, a fellow Bogotano and critically acclaimed Colombian author, take the reins for now. Originally a skeptic of his work, as I’ve never considered myself a fan of his pieces, I had low expectations when I first picked up Apocalipsis. Nonetheless, this wariness quickly evaporated once I started reading. Not only was the book good, with the compelling and easy-going writing that is characteristic of Mendoza’s work, but the words imprinted on the page divulge the same love for Bogotá I have been trying to explain. It is almost as if Mendoza took my feelings and wrote them into an ode that makes the city its main character, presenting the metropolis as an omnipotent presence that presides over its inhabitants’ lives by destroying them and molding them as it sees fit.
The first soul that Bogotá looms over—and the one that narrates the story—is the daily life of Marcos, an aspiring photographer that has his whole life uprooted when his father commits suicide and leaves a farewell note that reveals the existence of a twin brother. Not sure of what to do with this information, Marcos promises to take care of his brother and struggles to adapt to a life where the rose-colored image he had of his father shatters. His friends, the other six lives that are beaten down time and time again, are with him throughout the entire story, and they become his support as the city’s cruelty destroys his spirit. In many ways, Mendoza’s framing of Marcos’ tragedy (because that is exactly what it becomes) presents the reality faced by many of Bogotá’s citizens, where society would not let a poor, orphaned, high school graduate with a camera achieve his dreams. Ultimately, it didn’t matter how hard he tried—the city still devoured his aspirations and diminished his optimism, embodying the idea that life in Bogotá is everything but kind.
Still, it was this place, with its evil smile and lack of sympathy, that brought Marcos and his friends together. It was Bogotá. An ever-present goddess that influences the lives of its citizens by handpicking certain stories and demanding their intersection, allowing individuals to connect with one another and create a found family. Be it in neighborhood solidarity, or in gang membership, it is the city’s volatile nature that permits the foundation of a strong sense of resilient community. Here, Mendoza highlights how despite its brutality, Bogotá can also be warm and welcoming. It is almost as if the city takes in energy and gives back memories, tying its citizens down to a place that is drenched with historical significance. As a matter of fact, it is the city’s influence on Marcos and his friends’ lives that makes it impossible for him to dislike it, for he looks back to its alleys and can only picture adventures. It does not matter if they were horribly traumatic or extremely rewarding, since what is important is that they happened and they shaped who he became. These are the sidewalks where families would gossip about Mr. Nobody and his overnight activities while Marcos photographs doors to multiple realities. Marcos narrates a raw connection to a place that has not been objectively good, but that he appreciates to his core regardless. Because even as he laid on his deathbed, Marcos made his last words a desperate plea for the city to be remembered not for its beauty, but for the extravagant stories he uncovered on its buildings.
In the end, the Bogotá described by Mendoza in an amazingly written book is not a city designed to please. It is a metropolis that builds at the same time that it breaks, hiding its true nature under car honks and bar lights; a dark alley that encompasses the region’s political instability and social hierarchies at the same time that sheds a light on the country’s potential. It is a city whose beauty lies, not on its well-meaning façade, but on its tenacity and the strength of its citizens—on the people who, like Marcos, wake up every day to face its hardships without any complaints and settle back to sleep hoping for a better tomorrow. It is not the fairest place, but it is the one that ties stories together, silently watching Bogotanos grow up and transform in its crevices while handing their lives to the streets.
In its purest form, Bogotá is a city where the good and the bad demand to be felt. In their own way, each stumble and triumph reminds citizens of what it means to be passionate and courageous, to love without inhibitions, and to exist without fear—it prompts us to feel alive.
And I think that is the best gift any place can offer.