On April 9, 1948, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, Colombia’s liberal party presidential candidate was assassinated, setting off a series of riots in Bogota that later became known as The Bogotazo. Crowds stormed the streets of the capital city, looting stores, burning down buildings, and destroying the cable car system. Gaitán’s assassination was a watershed moment in Colombian history, and many historians link the contemporary period of violence to his death almost 70 years ago. Oddly, the Colombian government used these riots to justify a new law banning production of an indigenous drink, blaming “chicha” for the behavior of the mobs. To better contextualize this event, along with various other themes discussed during our first two weeks of class at la Universidad de los Andes, Lauder’s Latin America Spanish track participated in a walking tour of Bogota’s historic Candelaria district. Given the history of The Bogotazo and the subsequent prohibition of chicha, it was extremely appropriate that the first stop on our tour was a local “chichería.”
Chicha is an alcoholic beverage derived from the fermentation of corn, a process that was perfected by indigenous groups in South America. To begin the fermentation process, ground corn was traditionally chewed, allowing saliva to break down the corn’s starch content. As a result, chicha was seen as extremely unhygienic by the elite in Colombia and was associated with low class indigenous groups. Following Gaitán’s assassination and the riots that ensued, the Colombian government passed La Ley 34, banning the production of chicha due to its perceived role in helping incite The Bogotazo. While the prohibition is still in place today, local chicha artisans continue to craft their own product. Their efforts remind us of the importance of indigenous culture to Colombia, and the way in which indigenous culture was marginalized during and following the period of colonization.
After celebrating the end of a long week of class with a glass of chicha, our tour continued through the streets of the Candelaria. As you walk through the Candelaria from la Calle de Pueblo Viejo to la Plaza de Bolívar, you find yourself surrounded by artwork. Artists have transformed the outer walls of local buildings into canvases on which they paint colorful murals. The omnipresence of these murals is one of the most unique characteristics of the Candelaria and, as a result, there exist tours that focus solely on showcasing the neighborhood’s graffiti. Artists such as Vera and Guache use these urban canvases to tell the story of Colombia, with murals depicting the cultural and racial diversity of the country. More than anything however, the art provides a visual representation of the violence that has plagued Colombia. These murals act as a constant reminder of the war that has enveloped the country, and beg the citizens of Bogota to never forget the lives affected by years of violence.
The last stop on our tour of the Candelaria was Bogota’s iconic Plaza de Bolívar, which is surrounded by the Palace of Justice, the National Capitol, the Cathedral of Bogota and the office of the city’s Mayor. According to our tour guide, la Plaza de Bolívar has been the site of nearly every important moment in Colombian history, including an event in 1985 that, in my opinion, is highly representative of Colombia’s violent struggle over the last half century. On November 6, 1985, armed members of the guerrilla group M-19 entered the Palace of Justice, holding the Supreme Court hostage with the goal of removing President Belisario Betancur. In response, the Colombian army staged a 28 hour counter siege during which the building was destroyed and 98 people died. For me, the image of the Colombian national army entering by force, and subsequently destroying, the Palace of Justice is highly representative of the complex nature of Colombia’s history of violence. As a result of M-19’s occupation of the Palace of Justice, the national army destroyed a symbol of its own state’s democracy, an image that, for me, symbolizes the intricacies of Colombia’s social struggle.
After spending a few weeks in Bogota you quickly learn that the city’s climate is unique. In a valley surrounded by the Andes, Colombia’s capital is home to cool temperatures and the constant mix of sun and rain. Given the unpredictability of the weather, the people of Bogota have developed a saying: “Lloviendo y haciendo sol son las gracias del Señor,” which roughly translated means, “a mix of rain and sun is a blessing.” While a history of violence and marginalization of indigenous groups has hung over the country like a cloud for more than a century, the signing of a new accord between the government and guerilla forces has sparked hope for peace. As the sun rises on a new era in Colombia, it was only fitting that our tour of the capital’s historic district took place in the rain, with the sun emerging at the end.
By: Ian Stewart, Lauder Class of ’18, Spanish Program
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