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.