Carolina Velez-Rendon divides her life this way: the time before the murder and the time after. Before, she was a Caleña, a child of privilege born and raised in Cali, Colombia. Before, she was a teenager blind to the struggles of her country. Then drug traffickers kidnapped someone she loved.
“I went to a river to look for his body because the narcotraficantes were known to drop the bodies there. The river was long and deep and it had a sandbar and there were people there, children and adults, and that was their job, taking those bodies and parts of bodies out for the people trying to identify them,” she says.
“I thought, ‘How can we walk through the world without paying attention to this?’ And I decided I cannot walk in life seeing those things happen and ignoring them. … I started seeing what injustice, oppression and poverty looked like in my country. I started putting a name to things.”
Velez-Rendon became a student activist. Eventually forced to flee Colombia, she came to Richmond 11 years ago, receiving political asylum in this country. In a sense, she picked up where she left off, working with the poor and the oppressed and helping — first through Catholic Charities and later, Safe Harbor — refugees and immigrants, as well as victims of domestic violence and human trafficking.
She consults nonprofits working with immigrants on issues of culture, oppression, human trafficking and sexual violence. At the Wayside Center, she helped organize undocumented students. She stands out, one colleague there says, in the way she gives people the dignity of finding their own solutions rather than telling them what to do.
In the time before, Velez-Rendon wore the blinders of privilege. In this, the time after, she refuses to look away.