The dawn of the 20th century marks a pivotal point in Colombia's history. As the "Thousand Day War" reached its bloody end in 1902, the Conservative Party realized political dominion of the nation, united forces with the Catholic church, and subordinated the Liberal Party to a peripheral role in the formation of a modern national consciousness (Sharpless 11). Constructing a one-sided history as a means of empowerment, the Conservative Party administered an authoritarian model of rule, while speaking of "democracy" and "modernization" in Colombia. Infrastructures such as railroads and communication began to web across the topography, and the cultivation of café suave, oil, bananas, and rubber became the material supply of their modern import/export economy (the indigenous population was recruited as a labor class).
Reaching an apex of importance in the 20th century, issues of territory, geography, and memory, or as Edward Said has recently called it, "a study of human space," has become the crucial factor in creating a modern national consciousness (Said 175). I aim to lay out how conceptions of history and memory in Europe were reaching a peak of importance, and how these ideologies were interpreted and manifested in Colombian society, as the nineteenth century approached its crepuscular years.
In his inclusive Myths and Memories of the Nation, Anthony Smith illuminates the budding importance of cultural myths of origin, ethnic descent, golden ages, and location essential to the nation building process (Smith 63). Smith defines the nation as "a named human population sharing a historic territory, common myths and historical memories, a mass, public culture, a common economy and common legal rights and duties for all members" (Smith 11). Using this definition, I am interested in looking at some of the historic territory and common myths of Colombia, and in making an attempt to unpack some of the differences as well as similarities between the 'official' history of Colombia and the indigenous version.
Using Smith's nation types, I will try to demonstrate how the Colombian nation straddles two opposed yet nevertheless incomplete "nations" within one nation. In light of Smith's study, Colombia's official nationalism seems to fit into the category of the "modernist," "socio-economic type," indebted largely to authoritarian, military power (Smith 6). In direct response to this, Colombia's indigenous communities, despite many tribes' long history of violent disputes, have begun to utilize radio and print technology to join forces politically, and protect their land rights and culture from the control of the dominant society. Together these indigenous ethnic communities are beginning to form their own "primordial," "natural," and "ethnic" nationalism that, while "forgotten and silent perhaps," are "continuing to exist beneath the debris of history" (Smith 4). My interest is ultimately to probe into how a nation can create and uphold a single national consciousness despite vast cultural diversity.
Smith describes "ethnoscapes" as "poetic and historic landscapes," in which a community links a collective memory with an ancestral territory or "homeland," "thereby binding their descendents to a distinct landscape endowed with ethno-historic significance" (Smith 151). We now will take an excursion through the Colombian ethnoscape at the entrance of the twentieth century, from the high peaks of the capital's Andes, through the dusty mestizo plains, and into the thick uncharted and indigenous Amazon, in order to better understand the complexities that Colombia faces in the creation of a single national consciousness.
The Highland (Los Andes)
Nestled between the granite peaks of the Andes, by 1957 the city of Bogotá held 98% of Colombia's inhabitants (Fluharty 7). This figure makes me wonder if it includes the inhabitants of the Amazon. Both the capital of the nation as well as the topographic locus of the official national consciousness, this "Little Athens" prides itself on its European intellectuality and modernization. "The old folklore says that it is so sophisticated that even the bootblacks read Proust" (Gunther 432). History books pay homage to this majestic landscape as the "high heartland of the nation," where "in these great intermountain basins large cities have grown up, and commerce and industry, the arts and crafts, science and learning, have flourished" (Fluharty 6). High in these mountains lie the nation's "sights of memory," as Smith expounds: "the fields of battle, the monuments to the fallen, the places of peace treaties" (Smith 152).
Atop four nearby peaks in the familiar South American manner stand four monuments illuminated at night, including the celebrated church (Monserate), a cross, and a figure of Christ somewhat like the one in Rio (Gunther 466).
The antiquity of these granite peaks as well as their soaring altitude above the capital gives these national symbols a sense of age-old wisdom as well as a daunting authority. Religious, political, and national monuments, like the Monserate, the Museo del Oro (Museum of Gold), and the Bank of the Republic, were being constructed feverishly around the turn of the century in an attempt to link themselves through collective memory to this colonized land. In his essay "Invention, Memory, and Place," Edward Said examines geography as "a socially constructed and maintained sense of place," and further cites this as the foundational ingredient on which national consciousness can be built (180). The process of linking collective myths, memories, and histories to this particular landscape was an age-old endeavor for the highland indigenous populations (such as the Páez, Vintonco, Pitayo, and the Gumbiano), but has become much more complex in the post-colonial epoch.
At the twentieth centennial dawn, the political system of this grand capital had recently been classified as a "sectarian democracy" in which "the rule of one party," in this case the conservatives, "has meant the almost total exclusion of the other form of government" (Kline 15). The patrimonial division of power was, at this point, distributed down from the federal government to the "natural-chiefs" or gamonales, and further down to the plantation or hacienda owners who controlled the commerce of the land's natural resources (Kline 19). Excluded from the picture altogether is the indigenous population, who were used as mass labor for the plantations. The Páez customarily cultivated cocoa, manioc, maize, and potatoes, but were forced to work as tenant farmers on coffee and sugar plantations from the 17th century on (Rappaport 8).
A socio-economic official nationalism forms at this point in place and time, in the footsteps of European modern nations where "the economic and political cores continually exploit the resources of the periphery, breeding a nationalist reaction to imperialism or internal colonialism" (Smith 6). This "uneven spread of capitalism" must be backed up by national myths, memories, and monuments that are linked to a new "homeland" (Smith 6).
Indigenous to Colombia's highlands, the Páez people have, in the last century, adapted their age-old oral history technique in direct response to dominant, official society. Throughout time, Páez history has been transmitted through oral stories, which called on mythic accounts of the past in order to spark social mobility in the present. Páez history, which "makes allusions to topographic sights which would only be understood by other Indians," and furthermore, their oral transmission, kept them within their tribes in order to create a tribal consciousness (Rappaport 2). Beginning at the end of the nineteenth century, the Páez have been linked to the capital by commerce, transportation, and technology. Páez intellectuals have, in the last century, put their historic accounts into writing, both in the Páez language as well as Spanish, using their past as a means of empowerment in the present, in their various confrontations with the "Crown and State" (Rappaport 2).
Eighteenth century resguardo titles were written by caciques, or the tribal chiefs of the Páez. A combination of information from the pre-colonial and post-colonial eras has served as a public account of their mythic history, both linking them to the land and serving as a political base for their community. The resguardos served as legal land titles, delineating their borders as well as claiming a "historic right" to the land (Smith 69). As Smith concludes, "ethnic myths are vital 'evidence' for territorial 'title deeds'; a quest for a recognized homeland" (Smith 69). Páez historians used the resguardos to continue their age-old tradition of telling history "how it should have happened" (Rappaport 71). Don Juan Tama, one of the Páez' most celebrated caciques, claimed to have had a "supernatural birth," calling himself "the son of the Star of the Tama Stream" (Rappaport 72). By adopting the surname of Estrella or Star, he labelled himself as a messianic figure. Furthermore, in his resguardo, he claims to have killed the rival Guambiano cacique, Cálambas (Rappaport 72). Although this account is contradicted in the Guambiano resguardo, it continues to serve, like the looming monuments in Bogotá, as a means of empowerment for the Páez people, fueling political action in the present.
Hasty to disregard Páez collective memory as "myth" rather than "history" because they "do not conform to their preconceived standards of historical expertise," Western historians have tended only to classify Páez historic accounts as "myth," rather than incorporating them into the nation's official history (Rappaport 14). Anthropologists have made the distinction between "structure" and "event," in which myths are classified as structures, while history deals with "true events" (Rappaport 14). Western chronological historical discourse may be able to defend the validity of each "event," but what about the empty, unrecorded space between these grand events? Can history be determined to be "true" if it leaves out whatever does not glorify the official national image?
First we must take a look at the conceptions of memory and history in Europe during this time. As Richard Terdiman informs us in his essay "Deconstructing Memory," Hegel was considered the main consecrated philosopher of history in the nineteenth century (Terdiman 14). Hegel's Philosophy of History shaped the models of nineteenth century European historians and extended into all of Europe's colonies, including this "Little Athens" in the Colombian Andes. With this philosophy, Hegel strove to create a "Christian World" where the spirit of the nation was no longer "immersed in nature" and was therefore "self-sufficient," and finally "free" (Hegel 131). This Eurocentric model aimed to "discover what is essential in world history and disregard what is inessential" (Hegel 31). Throughout the century Europe was obsessed with memory. Terdiman describes a "memory-crisis" in which the past became fundamental in constructing "structures and cultural 'discourses' produced out of the past to regulate the present" (Terdiman 19). Let us now look at some of the official memories of Colombia as well as some of the Páez myths in hopes of discovering a "Colombian" historical consciousness.
Myths of origin in Bogotá undoubtedly received special attention at the end of the nineteenth century, as Colombia strove to build a national consciousness that mirrored the European examples, as well as being uniquely Colombian. As Smith illuminates, "every nationalist movement will produce myths of descent that are in some respects, unique" (Smith 19). The origins of the Colombian people extend on the one hand to Spain, and on the other to this new land that marks a "new beginning." Bogotá's national monuments, such as the statue-topped mountains, the football stadium, and the Museo del Oro, use both the physical topography of the land as well as indigenous symbols to create a unique national consciousness with roots in two lands. Describing the Museo del Oro, John Gunther states,
This national museum both uses these indigenous ornaments as unique national emblems and ceaselessly regards the indigenous culture as something that exists only in the past. Commonly referred to as "Nueva Granada" (New Granada) at the time, this new nation could not use the traditional "tree" metaphor to trace its cultural origins solely into the new landscape it inhabited. As Smith points out, the metaphor of a tree, with its organic intimations, may prove problematic, especially for communities marked by temporal or spatial discontinuities: it is not easy to accommodate revolution and dispersion within this schema, let alone immigration and intermarriage (Smith 65). Colombia's cultural descent is more like an immense Banyan tree, whose branches grow out horizontally, across seas, and drop down new roots into the ground. Spain served as an ancestral homeland, marked by Bogotá's religious statues, football stadium, and museum. Attempting to connect these myths and memories to this new ethnoscape is Colombia's most challenging obstacle in its nation building process. In a North American historical essay, Vernon Fluharty claims there is no homogeny in the Colombian population. The Indian as such is disappearing. There are few pure white descendants... still and all, it is the white element which is effective, which runs the nation and makes the important decisions (Fluharty 20).
Throughout 'official' history found in these consecrated texts, the indigenous communities are left out of the picture. The "pure white" descendants that Fluharty describes were never considered "pure white" in Spain, but a mix of ethnicities that formed the modern Spanish nation. This Colombian 'new origin' allows new constructions to be made in order to insure political dominance.
Páez history, like many indigenous communities in the Americas, passes on myths of beginning that hold a sacred link to the topography of land. Páez historians "are fully conscious of the lessons they must draw from the memories of pre-Columbian battles with aboriginal enemies" (Rappaprt 14). The Páez have encoded their history of land struggles in both pre-colonial as well as post-colonial time. Orally transmitted myths, 18th century resguardos, and modern Páez history (both written as well as oral), serve a similar role as Bogotá's 'official' history and national monuments to historically claim their territory. Rappaport tells us of the Páez history: the oral tradition is encoded in the geography of the Tierradentro, surfacing in the form of myths and with references to sacred sites. The oral accounts also serve as mnemonic devices for remembering resguardo boundaries, since most of the mythological events occur along frontiers (Rappaport 24).
Twentieth century Páez historians utilize electronic recording devices as well as the printing press to transmit their history, in Spanish, to both the people of Colombia and the international "pan-Indian" activist community.
Smith also points to the "Myth of the Heroic Age" as essential in the formation of a national consciousness. "The future of the ethnic community can only derive meaning and achieve its form from the pristine 'golden age' when men were heroes" (Smith 65). Páez incorporate warrior figures from a pre-Columbian 'golden age' and those who defended their territory during the Spanish invasion of 1572, as well as the 18th century caciques who established the resguardos through judicial battles (Rappaport 9). As national heroes are celebrated in the Colombian capital, the Páez also recognized the importance in paying homage to their heroes. "Of all the fighters of the yesteryear, those who occupy the center of the historical memory are the eighteenth century chiefs, or caciques, who created resguardos and left behind land titles" (Rappaport 9). These "fighters" are both warriors and intellectuals, defending Páez territory and history monuments and myths from the threat of the dominant society, as well as producing new myths that reinterpret the memories of the official history.
Like Páez heroes, modern Colombian national heroes are generally figures that either defend colonized territory, or produce history. It is in the hands of artists and intellectuals to bridge the tremendous cultural gap between the indigenous population and the dominant society in order to create the "mass public culture" that is a crucial ingredient in Smith's definition of a nation. The populist politician Jorge Eliecer Gaitán (1898-1948) dedicated his life to this pursuit. "What he wanted was not an aggressive European nationalism, but an integral nationalist orientation that would defend Colombia's interests" (Sharpless 55). Bogotá lawyer and poet José Eustácio Rivera traveled into the Colombian plains and jungle in 1910 in response to a plea for legal services (Rausch 319). Feeling morally indebted to document the horrific exploitation he witnessed, he wrote the novel La Vorágine (The Vortex) which not only challenged Colombia's official history that neglected to mention indigenous exploitation, but also created a "Colombian" persona, caught between two worlds. In the latter half of the 20th century, Gabriel Garcia Márquez has drawn on both the indigenous historical tradition and European literary models to create a unified national consciousness. He has combined non-chronological time with mythic images in order, like the Páez storytellers, to reinterpret history.
Let's look back at Smith's definition of a nation. Although the Páez have extensive myths and histories, they lack a "mass public culture." Forced to work as sharecroppers on coffee and sugar plantations, the Páez have neither the public size nor the military power to foster a "common economy" and "common legal rights." So we see that nationalism in 1900 Colombia, like all European colonies, relies on force, backed up by a strong military that helps claim territory and defend official history. We also see now that Colombia's "common myths and histories" rely heavily on the adoption of indigenous cultural traditions (such as the gold ornaments in the Museo del Oro) for the "territorialization of memory," as Smith puts it, and link themselves to this new landscape (1).
The Plains (Los Llanos)
Descending the rocky walls of the Andes into the vast grasslands, or llanos, we are immediately taken in by their spacious expanses. "The landscape presented by the true Llanos is grassland and sky" (Rausch 8). Floods in the winter and paralyzing heat in the summer give the plains fertile soil. As the Spaniards introduced horses and cattle to the plains in the 16th century, a distinct llanero or plainsperson culture had become consecrated by the 19th century. The llanero cowboys were, by this time, predominantly mestizo, or of Spanish and indigenous mix. This mestizaje or mix has produced a regional subculture or "ethnoscape," to use Smith's term where European and native American culture have been fused (Rausch 11). The formerly nomadic hunting and gathering tribe of the Guahibos cultivated crops and then moved on, leaving the land to regenerate. They taught the Spanish to grow "yuca, plátanos [bananas], and corn," as well as to hunt "deer, tigers, and tapirs," and to "build houses out of palm leaves, fashion tree-trunk boats," and so on (Rausch 11). The mestizo culture fused Catholic religious beliefs with native myths to produce a truly "Colombian" ethnoscape. The llanero has been continuously glorified by writers all over Latin America, from Rómulo Gallegos in Venezuela to Juan Rulfo in Mexico. The Colombian llanos at the beginning of the 20th century had little civil presence or national control. When modernization, propelled by export booms in tobacco, quinine, and coffee, transformed western Colombia into the economic heartland of the nation, Casanare shared the catastrophic decline of Boyacá, which by 1870 had become the poorest state in the Colombian federation (Rausch 13-14).
A period of "administrative chaos" at the turn of the century, with five reconfigurations of territory in the Llanos, has been remembered by the llaneros as a period of especially spiteful neglect. As the nation focused its attention on the construction of the provincial capital of Casanare, the fundamental problems of violence and poverty were utterly ignored. The capital of the Casanare province was moved from Nunchía to tame to Orocué between 1889 and 1895 (Rausch 144).
The designation of the provincial capital brought with it enhanced political status, a train of officials and their salaries, construction of public buildings, and expanded economic opportunities (Rausch 144).
This was the case for the few. The natives of the area either joined this new Colombian agrarian workforce, or withdrew into remote sections of their territory, where they lived unnoticed by the growing economy of the western llanos. An "estimated three thousand to thirty-five hundred Guahibos... nourished a passionate hatred of the whites that was fully reciprocated" (Rausch 281). The nomadic Guahibos continued to raid plantations and villages and drown cattle during the flooding season.
The Jesuit missionaries were the main European contingent in the llanos at this time. Most of the missions, like those of the previous century, "suffered from isolation, a chronic lack of material resources, and attacks by Guahibos" (Rausch 15). Between 1840 and 1900, the Colombian government, aided by the European Jesuit order, began to form "colegios de misiones" and "casas de escuelas" in order to "integrate the Indians into New Granadian life" (Rausch 47).
In striking contrast to this history of violence, poverty, and lack of political power, writers from Colombia as well as North America at the end of the 19th century produced an "image of the merry, picturesque cowboy" who is "completely independent, at home wherever the setting sun might find him" (Rausch 324). The melancholic, bittersweet llanero saturates the literature, music, paintings, and travel accounts of the time, often playing the "tiple" (a traditional stringed instrument), and singing romantic "coplas" (the llanero ballad) (Rausch 323). As Smith expounds on his theoretical ethnoscape, it is "a particular historical landscape, commemorated in monuments and chronicles and celebrated in the epic and the ballad" (Smith 151). The early 20th century accounts of the llanero, from Colombian writers such as Jose Maria, Sampler, Francisco Javier Vergára and Velasco, to "yankee" writers such as H.J. Mozáns, painted an exceedingly romantic image of the llanero's plight against "savage nature" (Rausch 324).
While more or less accurately delineating the religious background of the mestizo llanero, early 20th century writers created a romantically mythic figure, whose ethnic descent as well as independent character has come to represent the true "Colombian."
The Jungle (El Amazon)
As we enter the Amazon, the vast open sky of the llanos becomes closed in by the thick canopies of the trees. We are also entering an ethnoscape that, until today, has remained a truly indigenous cultural landscape. Teeming with poisonous snakes, crocodiles, and swarms of flesh eating fire ants, as well as malaria and beriberi, the lifestyles of the indigenous tribes are as delicately adapted to the landscape as the plants and animals. José Eustacio Rivera contrasts the popular European image of the day, which portrayed the Amazon as a "tropical paradise," with that of an infernal green prison that, at the end of La Vorágine, devours his protagonist.
Pinioned between the Spanish Romantic tradition and the modernist tradition, Colombian writers have designated the term "impressionism" to describe Rivera's poetic style. Like impressionist paintings, the use of light glows warmly from a distance, but a closer look reveals violent and sporadic brush strokes. Rivera's jungle mixes religious images of the pavilions and domes of Spanish cathedrals with a hellish and malignant hardship inside the prisonlike walls of the jungle. As Rivera vigorously portrays, the European culture does not mix with the indigenous culture, except in a power relationship of exploitation: rubber plantations run by whites and mestizos who enslaved indigenous people under brutal conditions, made concubines of young native girls, and killed anyone who stood in their way to economic wealth. Rivera's protagonist, Auturo Cova, cannot help but document the hidden truths of the rubber camps, in hopes of exposing these crimes to the national government. Devoured by the jungle with the protagonist, Cova's historic documents never reach the right hands.
The multi-ethnic Quichua people have historically intermarried between Zaparoán, Canelos Quichua, Achuár, and Quijos Quicua people, and have adopted the common Quichua Runa, or "Runapura" language, translated as "Quichua Speakers Among Ourselves" (Reeve 19). The Quichua refer to this period of their history as Caucho Uras, or "rubber times" (19). Narrations set in rubber times, referred to as callari uras, were contrasted to unai (mythic time-space), the undifferentiated state of primordial beginnings (Reeve 19). A sharp contrast has been made between huiragucha, or "non-forest-dwelling foreigner," and the runapura, which considers the huiragucha potentially marriageable if the foreigner adopts the Runa culture and language. Like the Páez of the Andes, Quichua myths are perpetually told and retold orally among their people.
The Curray Runa language combines the concepts of "time" and "space." Before the arrival of the Spanish, there was no word for "time." The words timpu (derived from Spanish "tiempo" or "time") and ura (derived from Spanish "hora" or "hour") have been adopted by the Quichua to document the rubber times (Reeve 21). The Quichua divide time and space into three concepts: mythic time-space, beginning times, and present times. Quichua non-linear beginning times include experiences from Runa ancestors through characters from the rubber times. A time of incomparable change for the Quichua transformed their historical consciousness by serving as a new beginning time: "At that point beginning times is transformed into present times" (Reeve 25). Combining pre-Columbian ancestral myths with accounts of the rubber merchants, or caucheros, this new beginning serves for the Quichua as a means of empowerment, both by laying claims to their sacred land and using pre-Columbian heroes to set the conduct of the present. Adapted to western conceptions of time, these new "beginning times" narratives serve as historic accounts; whereas "mythic time" was only shared among the Runa, and was where Runa "cultural knowledge" was passed down. Mythic time-space is accessible through dreams and visions induced by datura, a hallucinogenic plant native to their land. Interpreted through songs and stories, the dreams speak of Runa encounters with supai, or non-human animal spirits, which are only visible in the domain of mythic time-space (Reeve 26).
Contemporary Runa speak of "living simultaneously in 'two times,' in beginning times and in present times" (Reeve 27). In her personal accounts of living with the Runa, Mary Reeve documents an oral narrative, spoken by a Runa historian, of the rubber times: "How much were those balls of rubber worth? Because we were in debt they only paid us half and we remained in debt" (Reeve 27). Speaking of the economic exploitations of his land and people, this Runa speaker demonstrates the manner in which his people were enslaved by always remaining in debt to the rubber merchants.
The narrator uses the datura as a symbol of Runa mythic time-space to which the caucheros do not have access. Reeve notes that "mythic narratives attempt to resolve contradictions that exist between social-structural principles within society" (Reeve 32). By reinterpreting history in this fashion, this myth not only challenges Colombia's official history of the time, which falsely documented the work conditions as voluntary, but also serves as a link between the speaker's people and their sacred land. Like Bogotá's monuments, rubber times narrations serve as territorialized cultural artifacts.
In reference to Smith's definition of a nation, we see two things. First, we see that Colombian national consciousness is utterly indebted to indigenous traditions in order to create a uniquely Colombian collective memory, and to link its official history to a homeland. Second, by studying the historic traditions of Colombia's indigenous people, we see that the orality of their myths enables them to keep certain sacred myths, such as the Runa Mythic time-space or the sacred beginning time myths of the Páez, to themselves only, thereby protecting their culture from the exploitation of the dominant society. The most striking factor to me is the observation that the indigenous communities possess all the ingredients of a modern nation, except their own law and economy. Thus the crucial difference between accepted modern nations and peripheral communities, like those of the natives, is really a question of power. Enslaved at gunpoint and robbed of land, gold, and voice, the indigenous people were taken by force. The crucial element in the formation of Colombia's national consciousness, as seen in these especially formative years at the dawn of the 20th century, is military force.
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