Author Archives: angelaariasz

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.  Continue reading

Advertisements

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.

House

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

 

 

 

Continue reading

“Let’s Go Back in Time, Ladies and Gentlemen!”

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

SAM_1261

Douglas DC-3

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]. Continue reading