History Lessons in Bogotá

By 10 January, 2012

Spending a week in this country’s beautiful capital, Bogotá, was quite an experience. Housed by a “typical” (in their words) middle-class Colombian family in a neighborhood called América Occidental, I couldn’t help but take note of the sheer friendliness, hospitality, and willingness to accommodate that each bogotano I encountered showed me throughout my stay. During the days, Alberto (un viejito with whom I lived) and I journeyed through the busy bogotana streets observing the numerous fruit stands and shoeshiners while we chatted about Colombian and North American music, food, movies, public transportation, and national history, amongst other topics. Listening to him was how I learned the most this week.

He talked plenty about the political wars and the guerrilla groups in the mid twentieth century, the rise of narcotráfico (drug trafficking) in the 70s and 80s run by powerful families and landowners, the appearance of paramilitary groups in the 70s and 80s, the dissemination of drug trade power into smaller groups in the 90s and 2000s, President (2002-2010) Álvaro Uribe’s política de seguridad democrática initiative against insurgents, paramilitaries, and drug traffickers in the 2000s, the recent rise of bandas criminales (previous paramilitaries turned into criminal groups who commit acts of violence against those who denounce them), and la parapolítica (a government campaign against drug trafficking corruption by members of Congress, many of whom were serving terms during Uribe’s presidency, that were funded by paramilitary groups). These are all significant issues and events in Colombian history, however I don’t wish to discuss them in detail at this moment. I will say, however, that listening to Rafael vocally express his understanding of the country’s history further contextualised contemporary Colombian society and politics for me in an immensely personal way. By describing constantly how these historical events and transformation influenced his own life, as well as the lives of his family, he opened himself up and gave me the opportunity to actually see how large historical processses affect subjective experience.

Although he discussed plenty about a variety of issues, throughout our discussions he kept coming back to one main point, or rather the root problem that plagues Colombian society today: el narcotráfico. “El combustible de toda la violencia en Colombia hoy es el narcotráfico” (The fuel for all the violence in Colombia today is drug trafficking). In other words, you cannot be a Colombian living here and not be affected by the narcotráfico problem; its effects spread to all corners of the country in both conspicuous and subtle ways. It is the country’s disease, a disease that many Colombians are attempting to cure day by day.

So what does all this have to do with Afro-Colombian música callejera?

Well…we shall soon see.

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