Border crossing practices of memory, cultural activism and community engagement.
In Colombia’s current transitional conjuncture, the practices of memorialization and the cultural activism promoted by grassroots organizations are emerging as fields of symbolic contestation in the reconfiguration of notions of citizenship through participation in post-conflict civic engagement. These practices reveal new articulations of agency for demanding and practicing inclusion and civic transformations in rural areas historically abandoned by the institutions of the state. Increasingly, these practices are also transgressing national and symbolic borders and engaging with displaced population living in exile.
Hacia el Litoral is a cultural and artistic collective based in the city of Cali that between January 2015 and July 2017 developed a platform of artistic residencies and cultural exchanges between the north Pacific coast region, and the town of Jaqué, Panama. Jaqué is the first municipality across the Colombian border, and a receptor of victims of the armed conflict that fled the escalation of violence in the region between the early 1990s and the late 2000s. The leaders and collaborators of this Collective are young graduates from art and communication programs at public state universities, sharing an interest in social and environmental justice. A particular point of contact between their experiences has been also difficulties in finding stable jobs and sources of income in their early professional stage. However, their digital media literacies, and the wide range of opportunities taken up through their digital practices, have enabled them to connect with a network of grants provided to institutions and organizations, and with other cultural collectives interested in cultural activism.
Their online social networking practices also allow them to establish creative forms of collaboration among their peers, and with other organizations with which they share interests across national borders. As observed by Ito et al (2010), new digital media can enable “active participation of a distributed social network in the production and circulation of culture and knowledge” (p. 19). This in turn allows for the distribution and maintenance of social capital within particular cultural and creative circuits, and to the actual exertion of agency and citizenship through cultural practices, which in the case of Hacia el Litoral is shared and distributed with the local communities with which they work.
What started as a series of itinerant interventions in towns across Colombia’s north Pacific region, with actions that included mural painting, creative video and photography documentation, as well as radio performances, converge in a process of community engagement in the village of Jaqué after the majority of the group crossed the border between Panama and Colombia by boat in early 2015. There were already seeds of cross-border environmental and cultural activism initiatives as well as an incipient infrastructure that made the site fertile for the project. In the early 2000’s, a Colombian woman anthropologist and social activist fled the town of Juradó after the attack by FARC of 1999. In a few years after establishing in Jaqué, she had promoted several initiatives that included the founding of a kindergarten she called “the little school for peace”, built with a grant by USAID, a program for the conservation of sea turtles, a yearly cultural and environmental event and a program of volunteers for conservation efforts, for which a house was built. This made possible both the material and cultural conditions for the program of residencies proposed by Hacia el Litoral.
Gardens in Canoes – Jardines en Balsa
A series of loose directives that grew out of improvisation and dialogue with members of the village were given to participants to dwell in the community for periods of 4 to 12 weeks and work around a few main themes during their residencies, namely the social, economic, cultural and environmental conflicts along the Colombia-Panama border and how this affects displaced populations. Topics to stimulate creative actions included violence, the weak presence of institutions, and issues of food sovereignty affecting displaced populations, among other problems. The approach developed by the Collective to these problems through cultural practices of memory focused on promotion of civic participation and activation of agency and resilience within the community. The central project developed with locals residents of Jaqué and a group of displaced Colombian victims was entitled “Jardines en Balsa” founded by a small grant offered by a program of the office of United Nations in Panama.
In response to the lack of small scale agricultural and other productive projects in the area, and the severe issues of food autonomy and security faced by vulnerable families such as those belonging to displaced populations, the project aimed at reactivating or bringing back to life an ancestral tradition among black coastal communities to cultivate herbs, fruits and vegetables in canoes no longer used or in small wooden structures that resemble canoes. For the cultural activists in residence the conflicts at the border were factors that had contributed to the decline of this small-scale agricultural practice, with material effects in the daily lives of hundreds of families. Reactivating and fostering “Jardines en Balsa” promoted the notion of memory as a material practice of resilience, as a tool for peaceful coexistence, and as a process of engagement with the past to face concrete problems in the present, a vision in clear contrast to that promoted by state institutions. Aware of the digital divide between their own urban context and the rural communities of this border region, they resorted to agency and focalized action by recovering a traditional practice in response to local needs.
By reactivating this specific form of cultural memory, Jardines en Balsa is bringing back to life an important tradition of local food autonomy and sovereignty, and promoting resilience and the strengthening of social capital within a community in vulnerable conditions. Following Simich and Andermann (2014), I understand resilience not as the outcome of an inherent quality or capacity among individuals, but rather as a dynamic process of social interactions among members of a community in response to external adverse circumstances. Memory as material practice of resilience, in the way proposed in this project, allows not only new opportunities to engage with the past beyond national frameworks and discourses. It also promotes a generative approach through the reorganization of social relationships and the production of new ties among social groups that are not founded exclusively by their belonging to a specific territory. Through their cultural practices, the members of Hacia el Litoral are fostering links of solidarity and civic engagement within the local populations, as well as promoting webs of support for the displaced Colombian community. As a dynamic process of social interactions around local empowerment and peaceful coexistence, these practices reactivate autonomous processes to counteract state abandonment and marginalization.
Other cultural practices that emerged out of this project included environment conservational efforts such as the reforestation of the mangrove to prevent erosion, and also to deal with the local plastic waste problem. This process emerged in dialogue with the anthropologist who had pioneered conservation efforts in the area. These efforts contribute to create collective engagements and to promote the inclusion of the displaced Colombian community among the local population, therefore fostering links of solidarity and peaceful communal coexistence. The families of the victims find in these activities ways to contribute to the local community and environment, and to regain their social agency and adaptability in the process.
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Memory recovery and cultural identity strengthening with indigenous children.
Another memory initiative I documented was developed with indigenous girls whose families have been forcefully displaced from river communities of the Darien Jungle, in the border region between Panama and Colombia. The activity was a narrative workshop in which they were taught a series of narrative tools and then asked to create a story of how they remembered their communities, complementing these narratives with drawings and other graphic activities. The goal was to use memory to strengthen ethnic identity among the young girls and promote a sense of pride in their cultural heritage and ways of living.
The cultural activities promoted by Hacia el Litoral in their work with displaced communities are documented with video and edited for communication purposes. When they have access to internet connections at the Colombian consulate in Jaqué, or when some of the participants travel to Panama City or return to any urban center in Colombia, they share edited material through social network sites, to make it accessible to their followers, other members of the collective and the larger network of organizations and cultural activists in the city of Cali, Panama City and other urban centers. This audiovisual documentation made accessible online, can allow other cultural activist to replicate similar initiatives or promote these forms of cultural and art activism in other marginal communities across the country. Their work is promoted to other agents in their network, who in turn are able to exert their agency and contribute to the larger collaborative efforts of civic engagement and participation with displaced populations. The flow of information and cultural capital is not restricted by the structure of cultural production, as in the institutional logic discussed before, but instead is shared and promoted among participants in the network at large.
This logic of cultural production and dissemination constitutes a form of “network agency” by which individual and collective civic action and participation is exerted in coordination with a complex transnational flow of actors, information, resources, dispositions and particular articulations of cultural and social capital. It is in this way that Hacia el Litoral is leveraging their media literacies to promote the inclusion of marginal communities and to contribute to the process of reconciliation beyond national borders, empowering displaced communities to confront and overcome some of their immediate problems. Their activism, cultural practices of memory, and media literacies become platforms by which the members of the collective construct social ties through what Robert Putman (2000) calls “bridging social capital”, which creates links or bridges across diverse social cleavages, connecting people with differences of class, ethnicity, race or nationality. Their practices promote strong links of solidarity and resilience and motivate other youth creative groups to contribute to society by their social interventions in marginalized communities at a crucial historical and political conjuncture for Colombia and for displaced communities living in exile.