The Complexities of Mourning

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

During my visit to the Casa Arana building, I could witness the sadness with which the young men that guided me through this site regarded the failed project of a cabinet-making workshop that I described in my last post. The other sign that I interpreted as a gesture of solemn sadness, was their attitude as we visited the cepo. A cepo is a yoke for humans -that is the exact meaning of the word-, but people in La Chorrera actually use it to speak about a small room next to the stairs of Casa Arana, were indigenous people were tortured and murdered during the rubber boom. It is now a warehouse that the school administration uses to keep musical instruments (trumpets and drums), as well as supplies for the school activities (stationary materials, for instance). The three young men told me that this was the place where the overseers punished those who did not fulfilled the amount of rubber requested from them by the Casa Arana Company. One of the punishments, they added, was to leave the person hanging from the columns for an entire day. They also mentioned that the overseers would bring dogs and make them lick the wounds of those punished. One of them sighed as he mentioned how thousands of people died inside that small room. They explained how, afterwards, all the bodies were put on top of each other in a rectangular space on the ground limited by stone divisions, right between the cepo and the stairs.

They didn’t give me more details about the tortures that took place there and I didn’t want to ask them more about it, since what they told me was part of public reports. However, I kept thinking about the fact that their demeanor in this specific spot only repeated when we were at the “cabinet-making cemetery.” It’s not that one situation is more or less important than the other, or even comparable in terms of what could be more significant for the people of La Chorrera. But they have at least one element in common: a feeling of failure, related to a project of modernization that brought violence and death -in the case of the Casa Arana rubber exploitation- or  disappointment for a promise of progress in which the indigenous people would receive all the benefits.

This kind of mourning towards progress repeated in many instances of my stay at La Chorrera. It was the feeling most similar that I found to pain for the past as it is traditionally portrayed in western contexts, as well as promoted by the Colombian state through its policies of memorialization. To my surprise, in the case of the project of building a museum at the site were the Casa Arana Company built its emporium of slavery and death, what seems to be more relevant to the inhabitants of La Chorrera is not to give the space an atmosphere of solemnity or sacredness; this is not a place where they would go to mourn and remember those who died there. Instead, the project represents the possibility to reclaim and reaffirm a status that was historically denied to them: that of Colombian citizens in full rights. Proof of this that what is most important to them in terms of building the museum is what it would represent in terms of their relationship with the Colombian state. Being this my final post, I would like to include a brief reflection on my perspective as a researcher in La Chorrera, which connects with this demand. Getting authorization to go there was not easy. I met an indigenous abuela from a neighboring village (Araracuara), whose son lives in La Chorrera. My relationship with her was not new. I met her six years ago, when I started being interested in the Uitoto traditions and worldview. Always as a personal fascination for their culture and a private learning process, it became now my entrance to La Chorrera. A personal interest and an academic approach were suddenly mixed, without planning it. I appealed to my relationship with the abuela without knowing that her support would let me see some things, but would prevent me from establishing a direct relationship with the political authorities of La Chorrera.

I was troubled by entering to the field this way, specifically about the ethical implications of this position. I discovered however that ‘research’ and ‘researcher’ are two very problematic words in La Chorrera. I realized later what the abuela was trying to explain to me when she asked me to never use those words in La Chorrera. These two words rise economic interests that would place me in a very vulnerable position while doing my research. Explaining sincerely the meaning of what I wanted to do was essential, but the abuela insisted that the use of those words would not help me at all in my purpose. She strongly stated that the best way to be in La Chorrera was to stay with her son and be guided by him at all moments. This is how my entrance to the fieldwork was sealed. I learned that this moment cannot be planned beforehand but it is defined by the relationships that are established with the community one intends to approach.

I then redefined ‘research’ and ‘researcher’. I created another definition for me, but also in order to express my purpose to the abuela’s son in an honest way but without the problematic weight of this terms. I explained research to the abuela’s son in terms of an overview, an exploration that would allowed me to answer some questions that I had about the space of the house know as Casa Arana. That this was the reason why I needed to see the space. He immediately gave this a secondary importance and focused on my process of learning the culture. It seems that, to him, I needed first to learn and understand the origin of his culture before doing anything else. The moment of seeing the house was constantly postponed and I would say that my stay in the village was a long process of approval to finally see the house.

The economic interests that rise when a research project arrives to their village have to do with the perception that the non-indigenous people who are in charge of the project might make a profit by using their culture and their history.  The relationship between the Colombian state and the indigenous peoples of this village is long and complex, and research projects or state sponsored projects like the one that intends to build a museum where the old Casa Arana stands, are mediated by it. Specifically, by the historical weight of rights that have not been guaranteed, as well as economic and cultural exploitation.

An afternoon at La Chorrera




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