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Muddied Waters: Race, Region, and Local History in Colombia, 1846-1948

Muddied Waters: Race, Region, and Local History in Colombia, 1846-1948

by Nancy P. Appelbaum, Walter D. Mignolo, Irene Silverblatt, Sonia Saldívar-Hull

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Colombia’s western Coffee Region is renowned for the whiteness of its inhabitants, who are often described as respectable pioneer families who domesticated a wild frontier and planted coffee on the forested slopes of the Andes. Some local inhabitants, however, tell a different tale—of white migrants rapaciously usurping the lands of indigenous and black


Colombia’s western Coffee Region is renowned for the whiteness of its inhabitants, who are often described as respectable pioneer families who domesticated a wild frontier and planted coffee on the forested slopes of the Andes. Some local inhabitants, however, tell a different tale—of white migrants rapaciously usurping the lands of indigenous and black communities. Muddied Waters examines both of these legends, showing how local communities, settlers, speculators, and politicians struggled over jurisdictional boundaries and the privatization of communal lands in the creation of the Coffee Region. Viewing the emergence of this region from the perspective of Riosucio, a multiracial town within it, Nancy P. Appelbaum reveals the contingent and contested nature of Colombia’s racialized regional identities.

Nineteenth- and twentieth-century Colombian elite intellectuals, Appelbaum contends, mapped race onto their mountainous topography by defining regions in racial terms. They privileged certain places and inhabitants as white and modern and denigrated others as racially inferior and backward. Inhabitants of Riosucio, however, elaborated local narratives about their mestizo and indigenous identities that contested the white mystique of the Coffee Region. Ongoing violent conflicts over land and politics, Appelbaum finds, continue to shape local debates over history and identity. Drawing on archival and published sources complemented by oral history, Muddied Waters vividly illustrates the relationship of mythmaking and racial inequality to regionalism and frontier colonization in postcolonial Latin America.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Muddied Waters is an outstanding contribution to the history of race and colonization in modern Colombia. It invites revision of current interpretations of Colombian and Latin American regionalism.”—Marco Palacios, coauthor of Colombia: Fragmented Land, Divided Society

”The story of Riosucio illuminates the multiple and complex ways in which discourses of race, region, and nation inform each other. Muddied Waters not only gives us a new way of thinking about postcolonial Colombia, but also offers rich comparative insights into other Latin American societies where race and place have become historically intertwined.”—Barbara Weinstein, author of For Social Peace in Brazil: Industrialists and the Remaking of the Working Class in São Paulo, 1920-1964

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Duke University Press
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Latin America Otherwise
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Race, Region, and Local History in Colombia, 1846-1948
By Nancy P. Appelbaum

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2003 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-3080-6

Chapter One

Beauty and the Beast: Antioquia and Cauca

"As far as family life is concerned, the Caucano must be seen as the polar opposite of the Antioqueño."-Friedrich von Schenck, 1880

Mid-nineteenth-century Riosucio was located on a frontier between two emerging and increasingly antagonistic regional states: Antioquia and Cauca. The sprawling state of Cauca, to which Riosucio officially belonged, extended to the southwest all the way to Ecuador and along the west coast up to Panamá, nominally including the Amazon basin as well (see map 4). Bordering Riosucio district to the north was the state of Antioquia, a smaller and (at that time) landlocked state. As Cristina Rojas de Ferro observes in an insightful essay on violence and national identity, "in nineteenth-century Colombia, political parties, regional identification, and racial distinctions all became relations of antagonism." And yet, paradoxically, the emergence of bitter regional and other divisions occurred in tandem with the process of nation-state formation. As historian Fabio Zambrano has noted, in Colombian history "the emergence of a national identity happenssimultaneously with the appearance of regional identity."

Geographically, early New Granada had been composed of a confusing array of overlapping and constantly changing local provinces, cantons, and parochial districts. A series of new constitutions and laws from 1821 to 1853 repeatedly redrew the national map, fragmenting it into ever-smaller entities. A key moment in the process whereby the fragmented early republic emerged as a "country of regions" was the decade of the 1850s, when the federal system was created at the same time that the Chorographic Commission explored and mapped the national territory. The national legislature imposed order on geographical chaos by consolidating the country's three dozen provinces into nine large "sovereign states." These states would prove relatively stable, even though they were often in conflict. The process of consolidating the nation-state was thus also a process of dividing it. Federalism reflected and reinforced emerging regional identities and animosities, even though the state boundaries did not everywhere coincide with the blurry and unstable borders of emerging regional identities.

This chapter focuses on the prose and politics of region formation in nineteenth-century western Colombia. The first section draws on published descriptions of Antioquia and Cauca, from the 1850s onward, in order to show how nineteenth-century Colombian intellectuals defined regions in racial terms. This prose characterized Antioquia and its inhabitants as prosperous, orderly, peaceful, and moral (the Beauty), while portraying Cauca as impoverished by dissolution, laziness, racial inferiority, violence, and social divisions (the Beast). The racialized discourse of regional differentiation emphasized stark differences between regions and attributed these differences to the inherent characteristics of each regional "race." Recent scholarship, however, points to a more complex set of historical factors that differentiated Cauca and Antioquia. The second part of this chapter draws on this research to discuss nineteenth-century power struggles and alliances that shaped regional identities and gave rise to regional stereotypes. Scholarship suggests that the elite of Antioquia proved relatively successful in allying with rural poor and middling sectors. Antioqueños consolidated a strong collective regional identity-a raza-that integrated key aspects and symbols of popular rural culture. Cauca, on the other hand, was rent by highly visible social, racial, and partisan divisions. The varying extent to which popular sectors overtly resisted, or integrated into, elite regional projects was key. Regional identities at their strongest, as in the case of Antioquia, served to bind members of distinct social class and gender in an imagined community by casting outsiders as the "other." Cauca, we will see below, provided just such an "other" against which Antioqueños unified, and against which Antioqueños measured the superiority of their own race.


The publications of the Chorographic Commission and other texts from the mid-nineteenth century construed Colombia as a heterogeneous nation composed of distinct races inhabiting diverse environmental niches. The authors of these texts assigned certain levels of morality and progress to each climate: blacks and the most "savage" Indians subsisted lazily in the unhealthy tropical lowlands of the coasts and interior valleys. The coldest and highest reaches of the highlands in eastern, central, and southern Colombia were portrayed as the domain of partially "civilized" Indian villagers whose lives were as desolate as their windswept landscape. The climate considered healthiest for whites and most conducive to national progress was to be found in the mid-range altitudes of the highlands, where temperatures approximated a European spring or fall. The challenge facing New Granada was how to achieve progress, given the relative backwardness and diversity of most of the population, the mutual isolation of Colombia's scattered towns and villages, and the lack of infrastructure. Every geographical report and travel memoir from the nineteenth century contained painful descriptions of Colombia's notoriously steep and muddy mountain trails, which elite and foreign travelers plied on foot, on mules, and even on the backs of indigenous human carriers.

In 1852 several exhausted members of the Chorographic Commission crossed paths in the town of Santa Fé de Antioquia with Manuel Pombo, a Liberal politician and "man of letters" originally from Popayán, who was making his way from Medellín back to his home in Bogotá. In Pombo's picturesque account of this trip, he described Antioqueños as rough-hewn and obstinate, but also progressive and respectable. He likened them to yanquis, echoing a similar observation by the Swedish immigrant "Carlos" de Greiff. De Greiff had noted that Antioqueños displayed qualities similar to those for which North American Yankees were already famous: "the industriousness that distinguishes them. A rare intelligence ... the natural propensity for material improvements and for the march of progress; self-love and the most noble egoism; the spirit of independence that stimulates them to obtain for their families as much as for themselves, a property all their own."

Pombo's and de Greiff's descriptions of Yankee-like Antioqueños had antecedents. As early as the 1820s, European Carl August Gosselman had visited a highland Antioquia village and described the light skin and rosy cheeks of some local inhabitants as indicative of their health and beauty, which he attributed to the fresh mountain climate and "lack of mixing with the blood of blacks." He also noted that Antioqueños were famous for their honesty in trade. Clearly, a set of stereotypes regarding Antioquia was emerging by this time. But this early-nineteenth-century regional imagery was not entirely cohesive. Unlike later travelers, Gosselman also emphasized racial and social diversity within what was then the province of Antioquia.

Over the nineteenth century, published descriptions increasingly homogenized Antioqueños and de-emphasized their diversity. The Chorographic Commission noted in 1854 that the inhabitants shared "identical characters, inclinations, and customs, different in all from those of the other Provinces we have visited." Rather than emphasize the differences among Antioqueños from different towns and altitudes, as Gosselman had, writers increasingly referred to "the (male) Antioqueño" as a single "type" (tipo). Such nineteenth-century descriptions of the essential Antioqueño varied in detail and emphasis, but they displayed certain consistencies. Some writers emphasized Antioqueño asceticism and austerity, while others noted the Antioqueño man's propensity for drinking and gambling. In seeking to define Antioqueños racially, some observers emphasized their white appearance, while others noted the early mix of Spanish settlers with indigenous peoples that resulted in a relatively fair-skinned, whitened mestizo, less visibly Indian than the inhabitants of the high altiplanos around Bogotá or southern Cauca, and less visibly black than the inhabitants of the lowlands. The accounts generally lauded the Antioqueños' commercial acumen, but some writers-including some Antioqueño writers-also criticized them as greedy and obsessed with financial gain over all other considerations. The characterizations of Antioqueños as mercantile misers and successful financiers were tied to a myth that the Antioqueños descended from Jewish converts. (Frank Safford, however, has shown that the Jewish myth grew out of rivalries between the elite of Antioquia and that of the national capital of Bogotá.)

Virtually all of these writers-Antioqueños and outsiders alike-agreed that "the Antioqueño" was devoutly Catholic (even if descended from converts), hardworking, and commercially oriented. Observers also emphasized the central role that patriarchal "family life" played in ordering Antioqueño society and in differentiating Antioquia from surrounding regions. De Greiff and Pombo described Antioqueños using the terms "morality" and "customs." Pombo, for example, quoted an Antioqueño writer regarding how "the morality of their customs is due also to the passion for family life and to how popular marriage is among them."

In the national context, the Antioqueño was emerging as one regional and racial type among many. José María Samper compared the "white Antioqueño" to the "primitive" Indian of Pasto in southern Cauca, the "stupid" Indian of the eastern cordillera, the "turbulent" mulatto of the coast, and the "aristocratic" creole of Bogotá, along with other "races" or "types" that "coexisted" in New Granada. The Antioqueño was handsome and industrious, shaped by his environment and his Jewish and Spanish blood. Samper and other mid-nineteenth-century writers thus constructed the nation as heterogeneous while constructing each of the nation's regional and racial components as internally homogeneous. Each type was marked off from his neighbors by a set of essential characteristics that characterized his "race" and located him in a specific place on the national map.

Pombo's travel narrative, likewise, constructed a dichotomy between practical Antioquia highlanders, on the one hand, and passionate lowlanders of the Cauca and Magdalena River valleys, on the other. His contrasting vignettes of customs pertaining to each region were typical of nineteenth-century writing and illustrated the salience of notions of race, sexuality, and gender in the delineation of Colombian regional identities. For example, Pombo described the harmonious home of his Antioqueño friends Alejo and Ana María. Their children were smart and adventurous, "Antioqueños de pura raza." Ana María was "efficient ... methodical; better informed than her husband about his own transactions.... She has given her husband eight children, all male, all healthy, all taught by her to read, pray, do their chores, and behave well." Pombo's description of Ana María included many elements of what is still a common stereotype of Antioquia womanhood. The stereotypical madre antioqueña is fertile, maternal, obedient, and virtuous, yet, at the same time, intellectually and morally equal (if not superior) to her husband.

Pombo's memoir juxtaposed idyllic and orderly Antioqueño family life with images of unbridled and violent sexuality among black inhabitants of the steamy lowlands of the Magdalena and Cauca River valleys. A seductive dance in Cauca between a mulatto woman and black man was interrupted when "another black broke the circle that surrounded the dancers and, agile as a tiger, reached the mulatta in one leap and stuck a knife through her heart." In this scene, Pombo portrayed Afro-Colombians as everything that the Antioqueños were not: overtly sensual, uncontrolled, and dangerous. The Afro-Caucanos were described almost exclusively in terms of their unbridled physicality and sensuality, as if they acted only on the basis of spontaneous animalistic urges rather than out of the self-regulating foresight that Pombo and other writers associated with Antioqueños.

Elite intellectuals at mid-century often attributed racial and cultural differences to climate and topography. Geographers Agustín Codazzi and Felipe Pérez of the Chorographic Commission bemoaned the nudity, lack of love for work, and lack of ambition for material comforts that they perceived among blacks and Indians in the low-lying zones of the Cauca Valley and the Pacific Coast. Codazzi, Pérez, Pombo, Ancízar, and other such writers portrayed the environment as determining the behavior and morality, and even the physical characteristics, of inhabitants. In their writings, topography took on moral qualities, whereby the cool highlands-la tierra fría-demanded a rugged lifestyle and imparted a healthy, rosy glow to its inhabitants. These highlands were contrasted with the torrid, steamy, and unhealthy lowlands-la tierra caliente. The geographers viewed low-lying areas such as the Cauca Valley, the Magdalena Valley, and the Pacific Coast as unhealthy, not only because of endemic diseases, but also because the lowlands were, ironically, too verdant and too fertile; the lowlands provided too easy a life, conducive to laziness. That peasants could subsist on the fruits of their own labors, in their own plots, was inimical to elite visions of progress linked to commercial production, markets, material commodities, and wage labor.

The use of racial and gendered imagery to delineate regional identities continued over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Several accounts by northern European travelers in the 1880s explicitly linked race, family, climate, and social order in defining lo Antioqueño. While other Colombians sometimes described Antioqueños as crass and avaricious, reflecting an ambivalence provoked by regional rivalries, foreign visitors generally professed admiration. Perhaps these late-nineteenth-century Europeans found in the regional "Yankees" a reflection of themselves and their own aspirations. Friedrich von Schenck and his contemporaries portrayed Antioqueños, more than any other Colombians, as approximating late-nineteenth-century Western ideals of moral and physical soundness and entrepreneurialism.

Von Schenck contrasted the "weak mulattos and spent inhabitants of the lowlands" with the "tall and athletic" Antioqueños, including "their pretty women, with their healthy coloring." "Tall" Antioqueño men were implicitly more virile than their "spent" lowland counterparts; Antioquia women made attractive wives and healthy child bearers. Antioqueños, moreover, did not share the moral corruption of other regions. He went on to attribute the orderliness he perceived to Antioquia's family life: "This healthy family life influences the number of crimes and robberies, which in Antioquia must be significantly lower than in the rest of the states." He noted that "family life is exemplary.... Voluntarily the numerous children accept the authority of the father." Men and women reputedly married young, while still in their teens, and free unions were thought to be scarce. In family life, Antioquia and Cauca were "polar opposites." For von Schenck, the only part of Cauca for which there was any hope was the more conservative mountainous northeastern section-the part that included Riosucio and was attracting migrants from Antioquia.


Excerpted from MUDDIED WATERS by Nancy P. Appelbaum Copyright © 2003 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Nancy P. Appelbaum is Assistant Professor of History and Latin American and Caribbean Studies at the State University of New York at Binghamton.

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