Posted by Angela Arias Zapata – PhD student. Media, Culture, and Communication. NYU
It was a rainy Friday morning in San José del Guaviare when I boarded the old Douglas DC-3 that would take me to La Chorrera, in the Colombian Amazon region. The DC-3 is an American made cargo airplane, famous for its role during the Second World War. A member of the aircrew inaugurated our flight with the words “let’s go back in time, ladies and gentlemen!”, in a gesture of complicity with nervous passengers like me. He was clearly referring to the old aircraft we were in, but, looking at them in retrospective, his words also spoke about the nature of my fieldwork in La Chorrera.
As a first year doctoral student at the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication at NYU, my research interests include state violence, official discourses and counter-discourses of memory in the context of endemic violence and war, as well as community based practices of memorialization and resilience. This Summer, I will be doing fieldwork in Colombia, with the intention of exploring the tensions between local and national discourses and projects of memorialization. Reflecting on collective memory goes beyond the historical reconstruction of violent events. It is, indeed, revisiting the past, but it is also understanding how that past is defined by its social functions in the present. In that sense, the old airplane was taking me in a journey to the past but also to a quest to understand the meaning of said past for the present inhabitants of La Chorrera.
I’m interested in the site known as Casa Arana, the center of the rubber boom expansion that took place between the 1900s and the 1930s in the Amazon. As a place where a genocide was coordinated and carried out —approximately 40,000 Uitoto, Bora and Andoque natives were enslaved and murdered there—, this construction has a particular history and, after the genocide ended, it has played many unexpected social roles. After the rubber boom, the place was used as an orphanage run by Capuchin monks, as the regional headquarters for the National Bank for Agrarian Development [Caja Agraria], and as a High School by the Salesian monks. Today is a public school run by the indigenous local population, known as House of Knowledge [Casa del Conocimiento].
Currently, there is a project created by the National Center for Historical Memory [Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica] and the political organizations of the region. The idea is to transform this place into a museum. I find extremely interesting the fact that the house has been, for more than thirty years, the location of the village school. The relevance that this place has for the present inhabitants of La Chorrera, in their daily lives, seems to be precisely that of the educational institution from which most of them graduated. I see, in the project of transforming the house into a museum, in a site of commemoration of the human tragedy associated with the rubber boom, a point of interaction between local and national discourses of memory. Moreover, the fact that the museum is still a project and not a reality, that its final form is still being negotiated, makes it even more interesting. From my view, creating this museum involves, on the side of the state sponsored institution in charge of the project (the National Center for Historical Memory), a background of academic and institutional discourses on memory. On the side of the inhabitants of La Chorrera, it involves matters of political organization and recognition of their rights, as well as their capacity to negotiate with a State that did not protect their rights and now attempts to repair that damage. I will be exploring the interactions between these two kind of discourses during the following weeks.