Uncle Javier had a Toyota Land Cruiser with tinted windows. I used to take refuge there with Marcela, my cousin. The car not only had a panic button to activate an alarm that wailed like the end of the world, it also had a microphone. It was like playing with a walkie-talkie. We would punch the button and yell out the first thing that came into our heads – “Get out of the way, we’ve got an injured person here, let us through!” – our voices blaring out over the loudspeaker.

Cali, Colombia, 2015. Photograph by Hilzías Salazar. Used by permission.

It was said that of all our family, the person who ran the biggest risks was my uncle Javier. I didn’t really understand what that meant, but there was a reason he had that car and a mansion and a pack of Rottweilers we weren’t allowed to get close to. His Toyota was a bunker. Marcela and I believed it could withstand anything: an explosion, an earthquake, a tsunami, gunshots.

In Cali, most people tint the windows of their cars, so as to get the feeling of safety that Marcela and I used to have in her father’s Toyota, or that we’d get by covering up with a sheet at night. That’s how people try to survive when they feel exposed.

Back when my uncle Javier still lived in the city, my dad had a Renault 4. One day I asked him to tint the windows so that nothing would happen to us when we went out for grilled chicken or to the movies, as we often did. He answered that tinted windows were in poor taste, and that he didn’t owe anything to anyone. Also, he added, people will rob you whether or not the windows are tinted. And yes: he was right then, and he’s still right now. People get robbed whether or not their windows are tinted. The thieves knock on the glass with their fist or with the grip of their handgun and that’s it: open sesame. They never know what they’ll get; it’s almost like cracking open a Kinder Surprise egg. Sometimes they get an iPhone or a big wad of cash; other times, a broken cell phone – that’s fairly common now, unfortunately for the thieves. If you really want to avoid a robbery, it’s more effective to carry an old cell phone to use as a decoy than it is to tint your windows. The only thing the windows do is show the thieves their own reflections without them having to see the person waiting on the other side. The victim is a mere shadow, incapable of calling for empathy. If I ever had to commit an armed robbery, I’m pretty sure I’d rather do it in front of a mirror.

In the end, tinted windows are really there for only one reason: to cut you off from contact with the world.

But people continue to insist on their dark barriers. What used to be the mark of drug traffickers or politicians has become the norm here. In Cali, tinting your car windows is just expected, like buying a case for your cell phone. It’s the trend, plus it’s supposed to help with climate control: the dark glass reflects UV light from the sun. But in the end, tinted windows are really there for only one reason: to cut you off from contact with the world. How do the city and our sensations of it change if we pass through it in a blackened bubble?

Photograph by Rivera Notario. Used by permission.

You couldn’t roll down the windows of my uncle’s Toyota, so when he took us to the McDonald’s drive-through, he had to open the door to order. We never got out of the car to eat in the restaurant, since it was more fun to eat in his mansion, in front of the home theater. My uncle would make sure there was no one suspicious around, then he’d poke his head out to speak to the woman taking orders. He’d order double for everyone – thanks to him, I got the whole collection of Star Wars III figurines. Then he’d give the responsibility of retrieving the hamburgers to us kids. He’d pull the Land Cruiser forward a few meters, as you do at a fast-food joint. Whoever was sitting in the left seat got the job; one day it was my turn. I opened the door of the armored vehicle, grabbed the food as fast as I could, and passed out the boxes. Because I wasn’t that strong, I didn’t manage to close the door all the way. Slam it harder, said my uncle’s wife, if it opens, the street kids will kidnap you.

It’s almost impossible now to visualize the humanity of the people who look out from behind the dark tinted windows. 

Rolling down the windows is dangerous. The proliferation of tinted glass reveals a fear of common spaces, of going out. Cali, a city of lights, bounces off the dark panes. A car with tinted windows is a severed neuron: color is perceived differently, the noise from the street is tamed, the air conditioning filters the smells. Public areas are viewed with distrust. There’s a reason most people prefer the shopping malls, which get bigger and swankier every year, to the parks and plazas. This sense of danger has estranged us from the city, filling it with black mirrors that deflect everything unwanted while we travel from point A to point B. Street vendors selling gum and candies knock on the car windows the way you’d knock on the windows of a house that’s so dark inside it seems empty.

Despite traffic laws that regulate how dark tinted windows can be, it’s almost impossible now to visualize the humanity of the people who look out from behind them.

The sun was a quivering scoop of orange sherbet, melting and dripping inside the car.

I remember a day when my family left the city to eat sancocho, a traditional Colombian dish, at a restaurant in the country. After lunch, I told my uncle that I wanted to ride back with him. He said yes, but my cousin Marcela had a different idea. She wanted to make faces at people, she told me. I had a hard time saying no to my cousin – I still do – so I agreed, and we went back to the city in my dad’s Renault. We didn’t know it then, but making faces at people would become one of our favorite games. This was the first time we tried it. We drove with the windows down. The wind dried out our mouths, got in our eyes and noses. When we caught the smell of a factory or of roadkill or of a rotting sugarcane field, she’d accuse me of farting and I’d accuse her. The sun was a quivering scoop of orange sherbet, melting and dripping inside the car. Once we got into the city, we flattened ourselves against the back seat and poked our heads up against the rear window like a pair of puppets. Then we made faces at the people behind us, sticking out our tongues and crossing our eyes. They saw us, and we saw them. Some responded with a conspiratorial grin, and others gave us the finger, which made us laugh our heads off and spurred us to find new victims. We kept it up all along the streets we drove through. That day our game must have lasted an hour and a half at the most. Before she got out of the car to run to the front door of their mansion, my cousin told me she was going to ask her father to get rid of the tinted windows on his Toyota. Cars with clear windows like my dad’s, she said, were just as fun.

Maybe at that age she didn’t sense the danger we’re all in, out on the streets.

And above all, maybe the walls of her mansion kept her from recognizing the danger her father was in for doing the stuff he did.

I haven’t seen my uncle Javier in ten years. One day, years before he disappeared, he sold the Toyota and bought himself a Nissan. As you’d expect, the windows were tinted even darker.

Photograph by Mario Carvajal

Translated from the Spanish by Kelley D. Salas