On the Road – Colombia: Blockades, Assassinations & Judas Iscariot

I.

A recurring theme in this journey through Colombia (my tenth since 1992), has been blockades. This past week has seen news of torrential rains turning roadways into raging rivers in Valledupar, Cali and other cities, making travel difficult.

Colombians fear this may be another year that La Niña will devastate the country. Though this weather phenomenon typically follows an El Niño, scientists were concerned by the quickness last year’s La Niña came, and the severity of it. Low waters in the Amazon River made  it impossible for boats to depart from Yurimaguas and Iquitos, Peru. Heavy rains caused uncountable landslides in Colombia, damaging roads (especially in the Caribbean region).

As this rainy season begins, we shall see if Colombian’s La Niña nightmare continues. Meanwhile, this V!VA Colombia writer will just have to throw the rain poncho over her ole Rocinante, rolled the jeans up and be prepared to wade wherever she next goes.

II.

This past April 9th was the 63rd anniversary of the assassination of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, a popular Liberal Party candidate who was gunned down at Calle 7, near Avenida Jiménez, in downtown Bogotá. Placards there commemorate his memory.

Gaitán was one of  modern Colombia’s most important social leaders. Shortly after graduating from law school in the 1920s, he was elected to Congress as Partido Liberal (Liberal Party) member. Before the legislature, Gaitán presented testimony he compiled from survivors of the 1928 Ciénaga banana massacre. This stunning documentation, 1928 La masacre en las bananeras (Editorial Cometa de Papel, 1997), is still widely available.

His entire career was focused on improving Colombians’ social rights, thus making him a tremendously popular presidential candidate in 1948. His killing sparked the Bogotazo riot, in which much of Bogotá was destroyed, as well as demonstrations in Cartagena and other Colombian cities. Gaitán’s assassination also spiraled the country into a horrid Civil War, beginning with La Violencia in which Conservadores and Liberales hunted each other down, and continuing to this present-day with a civil war pitting guerrilla factions, paramilitaries and government forces against one another.

Herbert Braun’s The Assassination of Gaitan: Public Life and Urban Violence in Colombia examines how Jorge Eliecer Gaitán’s assassination affected the course of Colombian history (University of Wisconsin Press, 1986). To learn more about this social leader’s life, visitors to Bogotá might want to stop by Casa Museo Jorge Eliecer Gaitán, which preserves Gaitán’s home and office.

III.

Semana Santa is nigh upon us. This Sunday (April 17) is Palm Sunday—and the beginning of one of Colombia’s biggest vacation seasons. As I mentioned a few weeks ago in On the Road – Colombia: Sacred Times, the big Easter Week celebrations in this country are in Popayán, which UNESCO-designated an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, and Mompós. Valledupar also has noteworthy processions, which this year will be followed by the Vallenato Musical Festival.

Not all Colombians, however, mark Semana Santa with solemn processions. In San Antero (Departamento de Córdoba), locals host the Festival del Burro, ranked as one of the World’s 12 Craziest Festivals. During this feast, donkeys are decked out as women, complete with makeup, skirts and bras. A burro King and burro queen are elected. The festival also features traditional costeño dancing, and music.

How is such an insane ritual associated with Easter? The custom is rooted in the burning of Judas Iscariot, who was represented by an effigy mounted on a donkey that was paraded through San Antero’s streets. The rest, it can be said, is history.

Editor’s note: Lorraine Caputo is one of V!VA’s longest-tenured writers. These days, she’s back on the road in Colombia, updating our 2011 edition of the book. Check the blog for more of her updates from the road.

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