CONQUERED BY COLOMBIA: AN INTRODUCTION
Updated: Jul 24, 2018
A few years ago, attached to my central London life and the city's bright red buses, I found myself unexpectedly invited to spend a few weeks in Colombia by the family of my friend. The timing seemed utterly wrong, but my wise and generous prospective hosts wouldn't take 'no', for an answer. An hour or so after talking to them from their home in Bogotá via a telephone line which crossed not only the Andes but oceans, I found an air ticket in my inbox and so had no choice other than to graciously accept. Recalling my flight into Bogotá's El Dorado airport, I remember the promotional videos of the Colombian government's tourism ministry, and a slogan that I was yet to understand the meaning of: "El riesgo es que te quieras quedar". 'What ever does that mean?' I must have thought to myself, but now I know.
Colombia is a land of sacred mists. These mists have been her blankety nightcap since she came into being, and though to foreign eyes at first they might seem like fog or clouds, they are something far more symbolic and protective than either of those. As they move after the blessings of rain which anoints, they reveal mountains of the kind which never ceases to leave you trembling in awe.
'The risk is that you want to stay', had said the video advertising on the plane - and so it was with me. I simply couldn't contemplate a day without that kind of mist after having experienced what it was like to find myself bewitched by it, and so, only about eighteen months later, I found myself once again in the subtly-lit immigration hall at the airport, this time with an altogether different pretty stamp in my British (and at that time European Union) passport and Colombia's kind offer of a new home.
I put it like that because that is how I feel everyday in Colombia: grateful to her. When a lizard runs under my desk as I type these words, I also feel grateful to that lizard. It's a strange kind of feeling that I have only ever felt in this country and never felt back in England. It is well discussed at the moment that some people feel that they were born in the wrong gender - but what if you were born in the wrong country?! Imagine if you could claim citizenship in a land on the basis that you just feel more able to understand your own being in that place? It's an odd but interesting thought.
Colombia is the land of the Buñuelo. Colombia is the land of pottery from the Antioquian village of El Carmen de Viboral. The former is a kind of mild cheese doughnut the texture of molten sponge, and the latter is a traditional dinner service which reminds you of the importance of family without you ever having asked it the topic. In many Antioquia homes, the Saturday lunch is served on this very platter, and it may well have served as the platter of their grandparents, and great grandparents before. The traditional blue and yellow floral design has transcended generations and changes in Antioquian and Colombian society, and simply the sight of it gives you the feeling that grandmother will always take care of you.
“Colombia is a land of sacred mists. These mists have been her blankety nightcap since she came into being, and though to foreign eyes at first they might seem like fog or clouds, they are something far more symbolic and protective than either of those.”
Colombia is the land of hermetic inner patios. They hold the family secrets of the ancestors of all Colombians, and will never reveal them, for they are gold-plated into the tapia walls of the rooms which flank them. Fountains and well-curated gardens betray the Moorish origins of these kinds of Colombian houses and their gardens, transplanted to Latin America by the Spanish and their presence for the architecture which reminded them of what had been home.
Why this blog?
Quite simply I want to offer another perspective about Colombia. That's why I chose the photograph of mist as my first image in this essay: it's not the image a foreigner typically associates with this land. They might think instead of banana trees, or even some narco-pornographic scene. They assume Colombia is hot all the time and everywhere! (Not so...)
Colombia has suffered at the hands of various perpetuating forms of exploitation. She has come out the other side of colonization, and arguably continues her fight against neo-colonization in various forms. She pays the price on a daily basis for the rest of the world's drug problems, and resolving that truth seems to have no easy answer. And perhaps worst of all, a very false and distinctly foreign image of Colombia has been depicted, and is constantly redepicted, of her. Since I have had a relationship with Colombia, I have been saddened by the 'image' of Colombia often propagated abroad. I notice also that this 'image' - or representation - has even been introjected by the Colombian people themselves, so that they often tend to assume that life is better in other countries, or that Colombia is inferior in various ways, thereby participating in the same racist game without ever having been invited to play in the first place.
Using large abstract ways of describing 'The Other' is nothing new. In his book Orientalism (Said, E.W. 1978), scholar Edward Said described the 'project' of what he termed 'orientalism' whereby the 'West' orchestrated a distorted, cliched and politically motivated view of the 'East'. He asked the question as to why most people who had never been to the Middle East had the idea that all Middle Eastern people were evoking genies out of lamps, belly dancing in provocative sheer belowy trousers and always smoking shisha, which, given that he was Palestinian (and so Middle Eastern) himself, he knew to be absolute poppycock. His answer was the conclusion that this stereotyped and strangely simultaneously racist and romantic idea of the East was driven by two things: firstly (1) a salient imperialist drives to enforce the idea that people from other lands are other in ways that not only make them inferior in some way, but fundamentally dangerous, and secondly (2), deep ignorance and lack of meaningful direct experience with the place itself.
In a similar way can't we use Edward Said's thesis to begin to understand why foreigners who have never been to Colombia (and worse still, some that have) perpetuate the notion that the majority of Colombians are involved in drug trafficking, always dancing salsa twenty-four hours a day, and essentially violent? That "Colombia is dangerous". Period. This isn't the Colombia I know, and I think that his work goes a long way to helping us understand this process. Could we argue that Colombia is the victim of what I want to call 'Caribbeanism'?
What is important for you to know about me? I am an English woman in the process of becoming Anglo-Colombian; a Philosopher and Psychologist by training, and a Writer by inclination. I work as post-doctoral researcher at a wonderful and progressive university in Medellín, Colombia. SO, I hope that you enjoy this blog whoever you are and wherever you come from. What I want is for all of us to keep trying to understand, to question, and to ultimately get closer to what it really is that constitutes the sophisticated complexities of Colombia, and her people.
Thank you for reading!
La Colegiatura Colombiana, Medellín published an article about the background to my blog which you can read here: http://www.colegiatura.edu.co/component/content/article/26-institucional/1218-conquered-by-colombia-conquistada-por-colombia
Coming next: The first in a series of interviews I will be sharing with Colombians who shape Medellín's artistic and cultural life.