Colombia on my mind

Tertulia, vol. 16

Hola. This is Barbara. This week I have three Colombian topics for you: the commemoration of the abolition of slavery, Memo Anjel’s podcast La otra historia (the other history), and an essay about eating in Macondo. ¿Me regalas tu atención por unos minutos?

Colombia commemorates 170 years of the abolition of slavery

When surfing the event calendar of Bogota’s famous book fair FIL, I came across a compelling anniversary that I hadn’t been aware of. This year, Colombia commemorates the 170th anniversary of the abolition of slavery. For that reason, the Ministry of Culture organised a conversation between Luis Alberto Sevillano, the director of populations in the Ministry and historian and lecturer María Isabel Mena. José Pimiento, a consultant at the Ministry of Culture, facilitated the conversation.

The slavery abolition law was passed on May 21 1851. The law only took effect on January 1st, 1852. The liberal José Hilario López was president of Colombia at that time. Colombia, however, celebrates the national «Día de la Afrocolombianidad» (day of Afro-Colombianity) on May 21 each year. Today, Colombia has one of the largest populations of African origin in Latin America.

Well, the video is an official one, and sometimes courtesy seems to be more important than an open and controversial debate about the significance and consequences of this day. Anyway, the conversation reveals some thoughts about what the Ministry of Culture plans to do to promote the Afrocolombian contributions to Colombian nation-building. My essential learnings are the following:

  1. Colombia has some well-known places that are part of the continent’s African heritage: Cartagena, known as main entry point for the slave trade, and San Basilio de Palenque, Southeast of Cartagena, which is said to be the first free town in what is now Colombia. Palenque is the place where slaves who had run away from Cartagena in the early 17th century, found refuge under the leadership of Benkos Biohó. From both a cultural and a touristic point of view, these two places are widely known and cherished for their African heritage. Yet, the Ministry of Culture plans to mark more sites that have played a big role in the history of Colombia. Apart from Cartagena and San Basilio de Palenque, five new places have been identified as potential territories for historical markers («placas») identifying historical events of relevance to black, Afro, Raizal and Palenquero populations. Below is a map of all the sites. It shows that these populations did not only live on the Caribbean coast, as many tourists think, but were spread across the country and contributed to the cultural development of these regions:

    Well, plaques won’t suffice. Together with the indigenous population, Afro-descendants are more vulnerable to poverty and violation. More economic possibilities are needed. More education materials are needed. The Ministry of Culture knows this pretty well, too, but thinks that they are a beginning for a better education and some kind of cultural tourism. As Mena says, the markers are important for the local school kids so that they learn about their histories, which were often forgotten in the official history books of the past decades. She puts it in a nutshell: «narrar desde los territorios» (narrating from the territories) may be a valuable educational means of building cultural self-confidence.

  2. Many Colombians are proud of the country’s Afro heritage when it comes to music, dancing and poetry. However, sometimes the elite does not give these contributions the social status they deserve. They are considered folklore and often displayed in a stereotypical form where music is a subconscious, collective act, and the accomplishments of the artists themselves seem to disappear. I’d even say this happens in the video (maybe a wrong impression because the music is muted in the short clips that are shown during the conversation). In reality, some Afrocolombian musicians have built up enormous reputation and deserve a recognition for speaking up on critical topics. ChocQuibTown is probably the group best known outside of Colombia for their music and sharp lyrics. They are proud of the musical heritage they continue to develop and do not shy away from talking about the harsh reality of their home department, Chocó, asking for social change:

    They won a Latin Grammy Award for this song in 2010.

  3. I learned about medical doctor, anthropologist and writer Manuel Zapatas Olivella (1920-2004). He wrote about the history and culture of the Colombian Caribbean. In his novel Changó he narrates the history of the African diaspora in the Americas. Interestingly, I have only found an English translation that is available, not the Spanish original. It is titeled: Changó, Decolonizing the African Diaspora. If you find a Spanish edition, let me know.

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La otra historia: El reconocimiento del otro

After talking about Adela Cortina’s concept of aporophobia in my last newsletter, today I’d like to point you to Memo Anjel’s podcast about recoginising the other. It’s a short series from his podcast La otra historia. He alludes to Cortina’s concept when he talks about the different ways societies develop to exclude those who are not considered part of them. Aporophobia is a specific form of xenophobia.

In his conversation with Alejanda Lopera he talks about different literary, historical and philosophical works to show how the cultural other is constructed, ranging from Tacitus and his definition of the Germanic as other to Ernesto Sábato’s essay «Antes del fin» and June Jordan’s poem calling on all silent minorities.

If I haven’t done so before, I’d like to recommend Memo’s podcast. In his own words, Memo Anjel is a «professor for his livelihood and a writer for his soul». As a professor, he teaches social communication at the Pontifical Bolivian University in Medellín. He has published numerous novels, stories and essays. Memo is extremely well read. He is a dear friend of mine. His podcast is very popular in his hometown Medellín and when you sit down in a café with him, people approach him and love to talk to him to get his opinion on all kinds of topics. Tune in to listen to a great narrator.

Eating in Macondo

To finish this volume of the Tertulia, I’d like to point you to Larissa Hernández’s essay about the cooking and eating habits in García Márquez’s novel 100 years of solitude. It’s titled «Comer en Macondo: del banano al caldo de cabezas de gallo» (Eating in Macondo: From the Banana Tree to Chicken-Head Soup). Hernández is a candidate for a master's degree in literature at the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Bogotá, Colombia. She renarrates the novel to quite some detail by focusing on what the extended Buendía family eats and how these culinary habits change in the course of the novel. She states:

Some have their origins in the pre-Hispanic, others were brought by the Spanish, and many are a product of the culinary crossovers resulting from the mediation between two cultures, signaling the cultural hybridity of the Caribbean. 

I have quoted here from Will Morningstar’s English translation of the essay. The original version in Spanish is also available online.

Among all the different readings of the novel, I have always considered the food to be a rather decorative and exotic ingredient of the cultural setting. It’s interesting to follow Hernández’s thesis that «what is eaten, in what context, and in what way is used to demonstrate social inequality in Colombia».

The essay certainly makes appetite to reread 100 years of solitude to find these details and understand the stories behind each food mentioned. Maybe the screenwriters at Netflix should read this essay, too, to get inspired for the adaptation of the novel that is being planned.

Listo. This is all for today. I’ll be back with more cultural news and thoughts in about two weeks. If you haven’t done so, consider subscribing to never miss a Tertulia.