Material Remains of a Modern Project

Posted by Angela Arias Zapata – PhD student.  Media, Culture, and Communication. NYU

A conversation that lingered in the background during most of my fieldwork period in La Chorrera was a traditional dance that was going to take place in one of the malocas located in the nearby communities. The particular characteristic of this event was that it was going to be a “pisada” dance (literally, a “step-over” dance). Uitoto communities celebrate this kind of dance as a way to inaugurate a new maloca (a religious and communal place of gathering). A maloca’s inauguration is always linked to the passing down of the tradition of building and taking care of this kind of construction. In this case, however, the “pisada” dance was planned for a new maloca built by an old abuelo that, instead of passing down the tradition to one of his heirs, decided to start all over with his own quest for knowledge and leadership. The reactions to this unorthodox proposal had varied tones, but amidst all the different critiques or expressions of support, a very important fact stood out to me about the requirements and implications of building a maloca: it is a heavy load for the leader in charge. And, contrary to the common place, that load is linked in a more meaningful way to practical rather than spiritual responsibilities. To be more clear, the religious practices depended in this case on the social ability and the economic capacity of the “maloquero” to actually bring together the community around the construction project and the constant maintenance duties that having a maloca entails.

The practice of building malocas and houses is very similar when it comes to this constant need of maintenance. They both are made of the same materials: wood for the structure (and walls in the case of the houses) and puy leaves (Lepidocaryum tenue) for the roof. This means that, every five or six years, the roof needs to be changed entirely, because leaves start to fall or they break, leading to rainwater leaks. The structure needs to be renovated too in case it rots. Malocas and houses are inevitably built and rebuilt once and again, which means that they are not thought as long-lasting places for generations to come (like it might happen in the case of Western structures such as museums or other places of social interaction). In spite of the great significance of malocas as centers of cultural, political and religious activities, material structure is fleeting and it is not thought in terms of temporal permanence.

traditional house (front) and small size maloca (back)




This contrasts with Casa Arana’s construction. Its structure is made of stone and the roof beams have metal jointures. In my view, this fact would have promoted the use of the place as an institutional site, because for many years it was the strongest construction in the region. On the other hand, it means that its practical use is more important than the genocide that took place there a century ago, or that, at least, it competes with what a site of memory could be understood in a Western society.

In 1939, only six years after the end of the Colombo-Peruvian conflict and the rubber boom, the Colombian state begun the process of purchasing the land where the house is located to the Arana family. This acquisition was interrupted by the transformation of the public entity that started the process, the Agricultural Mortgages Bank [Banco Agrícola Hipotecario], in the National Bank for Agrarian Development [Caja Agraria], which finished the purchasing process in 1964 and declared the house as its property in 1980. In 1983, the National Bank for Agrarian Development started an agricultural project of development for the region. In order to use the Casa Arana building as the center of its operations, the institution preserved the original structure but modified it to make it modern and functional (see Juan Álvaro Echeverri, “The People of the Center of the World”). It only became a school in 1993, when the Solidarity Fund of the Presidency of Colombia bought the house and the land, officially surrendered its possession to the indigenous communities of La Chorrera, and transformed it into the village’s school.

inside Casa Arana

It is not a coincidence that the very location where the genocide took place is now used as the center of an institutional crusade for progress. Neither it is that, as a form of reparation, the Colombian State gave back to the indigenous communities of La Chorrera the ownership of this land and transformed it in a school. Between 1993 and 1996, Salesian monks ran the school (named after Saint Juan Bosco) and were replaced by the local indigenous authorities, which created what today is known as the Indigenous School “House of Knowledge”. 

This construction then went from being a site of torture and control over the lives and bodies of the indigenous communities of the region, to be a place controlled by the indigenous communities, who decide what kind of education is imparted there by whom and how. All these changes left material traces that make up the present physical aspect of the site and the objects that, besides the house itself, connect it with a past of failed modernization projects and forced evangelization.

Next to the house, there is an abandoned wood workshop with machines brought by the Salesian monks who taught students the craft of cabinet-making. Several years ago, the rising of the river flooded the place and most of the machines were declared useless. The workshop was abandoned and it is known now as the “cabinetmaking graveyard.” It was also here that a defective tractor from the times of the Caja Agraria was placed. Finally, this “cemetery” is located right next to a group of abandoned houses where Casa Arana’s overseers used to live, from which only one is still standing in good condition. The other two are mere remains (one of them serves now as pigpen).

Old tractor from the times of Caja Agraria
work table at the cabinet-making graveyard

The sadness with which the young men that guided me through Casa Arana referred to the “cabinet-making graveyard” caught my attention. It made me realize how this place, associated with the failure of an initiative that they actually liked when they were students, was regarded with the sadness that I was expecting to see in the case of the Casa Arana itself, where the genocide took place. This last remark was the beginning of a new series of reflections that I will explore in my next post.


3 thoughts on “Material Remains of a Modern Project

  1. This is very interesting — Can you provide any references to the historical background of this area, including the genocide that you mention? I am new to the study of Latin American history and would like to learn more about this? Thank you.

    1. Dear Amy – Thank you for your comment. I’m glad to know that you enjoyed the post. If you read in Spanish, it would be very useful if you get the two volumes of Putumayo: La Vorágine de Las Caucherías. Memoria y Testimonio, written by a group of Colombian researchers from the Center for Historical Memory. It was released to circulate freely, so you can download it from the Center’s website. – Also, you may want to read Ricardo Camacho’s Holocausto en el Amazonas. I hope this helps!

    2. Dear Amy – Actually, It’s Roberto Pineda Camacho, not Ricardo Camacho. Sorry about that!

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