Toward Peace

People living in exile around the world understand that their forced displacement does not merely uproot them geographically, but also leaves them suddenly bereft of the expressions, customs, and forms of communication that used to define their identities. This is what has been poetically dubbed exile of the spirit. The Center for Memory, Peace, and Reconciliation in Bogotá (Colombia) is a newly-opened space where victims of displacement, the end result of a very long war and centuries of violence, can move from tragedy toward healthy creativity. One of the most vibrant components is Crafted by Memory, used by men and women from many places to preserve their dreams.

By: Iván Beltrán Castillo
Photos: Lisa Palomino


When she arrived in Bogotá, fleeing events unpleasant enough to pepper her sleep with nightmares, Ángela Juango was not yet aware of the small, subtle, and unexpected details that would soon mark her new status as a displaced person. She does not want to forget those days, because even though they were harsh, they opened the door to a rebirth; on the other hand, she hates to go into the specific and likely horrible details of the purge inflicted on herself, her family, and her region.

She walked through the unfamiliar, vast, deafening city, attracting a certain amount of attention and admiration from those who are drawn to the exotic, striking, or unusual. She looks like a feminine, rosy-cheeked African version of the Buddha. Something in her bearing evokes the nurses and nannies of ancestral fables, the brilliance of Bantu sorceresses, the miracles of the wise women of Mozambique or Kenya.

She is actually a native of Tumaco, a town in southwestern Nariño, and descended from a joyful line of traditional cooks. Her entire life has been centered around food traditions, and soon after her arrival in Colombia’s capital, she came to understand that nostalgia can be felt in the absence of certain smells, tastes, and food customs.

“My grandmother, mother, and aunts were all cooks and keepers of a tremendous archive of recipes, passed down from person to person like a code or secret of love. I missed the spices of my province, I missed savoring lunches and breakfasts with my loved ones, the feeling of happiness that accompanied each bite, and the indescribable flavors our dishes magically acquire after cooking; none of the food I found here could fill this sense of culinary emptiness,” she relates, walking through a market, concentrating on choosing the ingredients she and her fellow cooks will use to create gastronomic experiences for the next celebration, where coconut rice, fried fish, and enormous crispy fried plantains will be prominently featured.

“Small aromatic plants with unforgettable flavors, like cimarrón, are noticeably difficult to find in this large city. Their absence makes everything else more complicated, since the dishes can’t achieve their peak flavor. I go to every last market and search every last stall to find them, which is why our feasts are a success and represent the flavor memory of a wise culture.”

“You travel through this world carrying the weight of your heritage, and no violence can uproot that. Others walking this same road soon appear. I connected with the Center for Memory, Peace, and Reconciliation when things seemed really difficult in Bogotá. It was a way of exorcising the ghosts and demons created by violence and war. Each person carried the burden of yearning to recover the details and customs of their everyday lives: some sighed for lost landscapes, others for the music and songs of their childhood; some missed the stories and tales told by elders, and some girls wanted to retain their hairstyles, since traditional hairstyles are a way of expressing inventiveness and a poetic cheekiness. Despite their obvious status as victims, these people harbor no resentment, but they are pained by the thought of losing their precious heritage of domestic habits,” notes Ángela.

We Were all Children

Ángela Juango is just one of the artists of daily life who unite around the Center for Memory, Peace, and Reconciliation; these artists remember their childhoods completely, almost photographically, with blinding clarity. The weight of their memories propels them to work hard to recover their ceremonies and customs; they have all found the key to redemption in soulful activities.

This is understood by Marcela Ospina, who fled Caldas to escape the reign of terror imposed by dark emissaries of death; she is currently one of the most eloquent artists at the Center for Memory, as well as a serious analyst of the unspeakable truth about her country. This truth is also understood by actress and singer Olimpia Barrero, who uses the stage to invoke the memory of those who disappeared or were captured by the forces of hate, injustice, and infamy. The truth is understood by Juan Rolando Paz, a short, copper-skinned man from San Agustín, who is fond of telling stories and legends from the land of his birth, uplifting listeners with his melodious Spanish. It is understood by Istmina (Chocó) native Daniel Arias Gil, whose countenance recalls certain figures of the Antillean literature of Alejo Carpentier or José Lezama Lima, and who is an ardent defender of the rights of Afro-descendants. It equally understood by Luis Felipe Peinado, a coastal native who deftly wields the ingredients of Colombia’s Atlantic coast cuisine with the skill of an illusionist, and who has never stopped dreaming of returning to the region from which he was expelled and once again walking the beach where he caught giant fish as a young schoolboy.

In short, it is understood by everyone who has participated in this project, and in an effort to go beyond listing injuries or seeking redress, finds the positive aspects of tragic experiences.

A Metamorphosis of Memory

“Crafted by Memory,” says Daniel Arias Gil, with the polished manners of a master of ceremonies, “shows that memory is not merely tragic. The ideal would be to turn memory into a triumphal, joyous celebration, a celebration of memories and customs that extend across time, as a symbol of the grandeur of the people who formed them.”

“The artists and participants in Crafted by Memory,” relates Marcela Ospina, “fall into four groups, each of which redefines the reality and roles of tradition and memories. “Tastes of Wisdom” is a cornucopia of traditional Colombian cuisine, as diverse and wide-ranging as an atlas. We also have “Stitches in Time,” where the wounds left by the rumbling skirmishes of centuries are sewn into works of art by diligent and patient hands. The cold facts and the vigils are purified by beauty and poetry. Then there is the “Theater of Memory,” in which groups and works encourage us to look at ourselves in the mirror, and see both the road from our past and a signpost toward future fulfillment. The last group, “Memory in Print,” is comprised of many people who are compiling a collection of books of honest remembrances. These books take us to the painful landscapes of memory, but also give us a legacy of the textures, sounds, tastes, knowledge, and emotions that seemed lost forever when, thrown upon different shores, we ambled like specters through a cold, distant city.”

Like the chorus in a play, everyone assents: “This work helps us understand the right of people to write their own history. The purpose is to give dignity to victims, who were often treated as trash or bearers of an inconvenient truth. Every time we paint, weave, act on stage, or write, we gain stature and presence in this difficult land.”



The Center of All Memories

• The Center for Memory, Peace, and Reconciliation is an organization dedicated to the task of recovering the hard historical truths of Colombia and providing a welcoming space for analysis and community that throws light on the questions left unanswered by our perpetual national discord.

• The Center was built in a section of Bogotá’s Central Cemetery, very near the work Anonymous Auras by Bucaramanga-born artist Beatriz González, who covered 9,000 former gravesites with images. The building was designed by the firm Juan Pablo Ortiz Arquitectos, chosen in a competition run by the Bogotá Ministry of Education to commemorate two hundred years of independence.

• The Center is very active, drawing many students, scholars, and researchers. The structure is partly subterranean, built around symbolic sheets of water.

• Center director Camilo González Posso is a professor, ex-Minister, and researcher of Colombian conflicts.






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