When I met Virgelina for a few minutes in early August 2018, I was convinced I needed to return to Colombia the month after to attend and document a collective symbolic gesture she was leading, which consisted in the act of covering the monolith of the Center for Memory, Peace and Reconciliation in Bogota with fabrics elaborated with iconic and poetic mnemonic traces alluding to events of violence, resistance and solidarity.
After having spent 10 weeks doing ethnographic research on grassroots initiatives of memory, sustainability and reconciliation in Jaqué, Panama, and Isla Grande and Filandia, Colombia, Bogotá was scheduled to be my last stop, before returning to the University in Austin for the start of the academic year. The intense chaotic traffic in the city had shortened the time of my visit to the old cemetery downtown that now hosts the Center for Memory, whose main architectural feature, the monolith in honor of the victims of the conflict, stands against the background of the old tombs and contrasts with the irregular, heterogeneous shapes of the cityscape behind.
After finishing my walk through a dramatic photographic exhibition on the Mothers of Soacha, I walked to the adjacent gallery space, where a group of people, the majority of which were women, was sewing. I was welcomed by who evidently was leading the process. This was not a meeting in the traditional sense, but more of an intersection. I felt as yet another vector joining a collaborative sum of forces with a long trajectory of struggles and a vision for collective action. Many things didn’t need to be said to be understood. Virgelina was a black woman, a victim of the armed conflict and of forced displacement by the actions of armed groups in the Pacific coast region, an area that suffered from an unprecedented escalation of violence during the 1990s and early 2000s. Fieldwork experience in this marginalized area covering four departments, as well as sensibilities gained by interviewing victims for documentary production as well as academic inquiry, allowed me to read this in Virgelina’s face and voice. She was now a social and human rights leader and was dwelling, together with a group of women and other collaborators, in one of the gallery spaces of the Center. It would take me a few months to realize that this was actually a space gained through collective agency and the mobilization of particular claims of rights as victims of the conflict. The material and symbolic actions I had just starting to observe were also new forms of appropriating and transforming state institutions and cultural spaces to perform memory activism and activate civic engagement.
The generosity and immediate hospitality of Virgelina and the rest of the people present made a strong impression on me. Dissemination of decolonial thinking can make it difficult to create bonds of trust for researchers, especially if you are coming from a US university. Just after briefly introducing my self and hearing a few things about the project, about the timelines ahead, materials used, habitual dynamics, etc., they took out three of the fabrics, which were about 18 meters long and 1.5 meters wide, to be displayed in the central hallway of the Center. Situated out in the open, between the gallery spaces and the offices and documentation center, and punctuated by a series of trees, the hallway ends in the steps going up to the park and cemetery. The trees that give the hallway its particular rhythm are called by their traditional name, “the don´t forget me” tree, Virgelina pointed out as they started unfolding the fabrics, fighting the wind that had started to pick up. The design of the fabrics was still in development, and I was drawn first by the strong colors and intricate interplay of shapes, but I would have to wait several weeks to start hearing what voices and memories were represented in those shapes and motifs. I left the following day for Austin but accepted an invitation to return and document the covering of the monolith, “el arropamiento”, as they called this symbolic act of plural memories.
When I returned to the Center on September 19th, straight from El Dorado international airport, to document the arropamiento, the process had truly pick up speed. As soon as I made my entry into the center, while passing security and registering the equipment, I could hear the noise and feel the movement of more than a hundred people busy going through the hallways or concentrated between the two main rooms where the final manual work was taking place. There was only sewing machine in the main room were the women leading the initiatives were gathered. A woman I didn’t know was collecting money for food. I walk to the adjacent room and find Virgelina singing, following the structure of an “alabao”, a traditional form of song among black communities from the Pacific region. There was a group of undergraduate university students, between 35 and 40, collaborating with the efforts, intervening some of the fabrics.
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Mobilizing urban youth and students through alliances with local leaders and a few university professors, the initiative was creating a civic engagement process leading to the powerful symbolic act of intervening the central monument at the Center of Memory on September 21st, for the celebration of the International Day of Peace. The following days would be dedicated to performances and other cultural acts, as well as a conference with the participation of state official and representatives from multilateral organizations, victims and ex-combatants. Covering the monolith in honor of the victims with fabrics representing a plurality of voices and poetic memories of the armed conflict is but the first stage of a symbolic claim for justice that is planned to reach its final goal in 2020 with a second intervention at the National Palace of Justice. The monolith not only constitutes the main architectural feature of what is the first public center of memory in Bogota, inaugurated in 2013 in a historic downtown cemetery and park. The monolith has also come to signify the growing responsibility of state institutions with the victims of the conflict and the type of actions taken for their dignification in the context of the second stage of transitional justice that followed the passing of the Law of Victims in 2012. The collective intervention not only interrupts current official initiatives of commemoration and reconciliation. It also proposes new forms of inhabiting public cultural venues and institutions as spaces for civic engagement and memory activism by diverse sectors of the citizenry.
By opening the process to the citizenry and claiming a permanent space for civic action within the Center, a space usually restricted to itinerant exhibitions, the arropamiento as social-material and poetic-symbolic act is in itself a transformation of social mobilization among organizations of victims. Productively maintaining a fundamental tension with local institutions of transitional justice, and refusing to come to an internal consensus among the different organizations that initiated the process, the covering of the monolith symbolizes the challenges of democracy and inclusion in post-conflict Colombia.