Letter from Santa Marta, Magdalena

My new location is on the Caribbean, one of Colombia’s oldest continuously settled colonial cities, founded in 1525 as a port for shipping out gold, silver and other precious metals and for bringing in enslaved people. Santa Marta—named for Martha, the sister of Lazarus (John 11:1-43)—became a key planting for Spain and the Roman Catholic Church, in the region that would come to be known as the Republic of Nueva Granada. To the 320-year-old edifice that now contains the Museo del Oro Tairona, once a customs house and private residence, Simón Bolívar arrived ill in December 1830 and, several days later, lay at rest as a vigil and visitation were held for the person regarded as the continent’s liberator from Spain. On one of the walls of the museum hangs a bas-relief of Bolívar, sword in left hand and proclamation in the right, granting manumission in Cúcuta to the children of slaves born from that day in 1821. One of the enslaved kneels and pleadingly grasps the general’s right knee, as Bolívar looks off into the distance. Signs around the city proclaim, “Bolívar was here!” in the manner that cities and hamlets in the United States hang markers where George Washington is rumored to have slept.

Gabriel García Márquez, in The General in His Labyrinth, imagines the days of Bolívar’s demise, when attendants had prepared Bolívar a second-floor room with balcony and view of the Santa Marta bay. But Bolívar preferred the living room, where he could hang his hammock. García Márquez continues:

And there, too, was the rough mahogany table on which, sixteen days later, his embalmed body dressed in the blue coat distinctive of his rank, would be laid out in what had become his funeral chamber.

To offer something of an understatement, my daily routine is not quite as active as Bolívar’s. The routine, in fact, is not unlike that in northern Illinois: arise at 5:30-6 a.m., walk, breakfast; by 8:30, I am in the library (here the Biblioteca Luis Ángel Arango), which, with daily temperatures in Santa Marta consistently between 90 and 92 degrees, is blessedly air-conditioned. At 2-2:30 p.m., a late lunch, and back to the hotel to read. In the library I send out teaching dossiers, both to institutions in Colombia and the United States, and work on a book on spiritual practice that I’m designing and editing for the publishing arm of the Episcopal Church in New York.

Another task is preparing for a conference on peace, nonviolence, and reconciliation that starts August 22 in Barranquilla. It is the third time this has happened to me in Colombia. Twice in 2011, I was asked at the last minute to present at educator conferences when I felt like the least-qualified person in the room. Impostor syndrome strikes me hardest at such events. For this coming seminar I am especially worried, because I truly don’t know what I’m talking about. Thanks to the liturgy at Christ Presbyterian Church in Hanover Park, IL, however, I have access to the soft echo of “wherever I am … has a purpose in my being there.” Repetition in liturgy is incredibly useful, for just such disorienting moments.

Contrary to previous trips to Colombia, I arrived this time without association, meaning there were no teachers or church people to receive me. Minus these associations, I become more solitary and don’t have as many stories to tell. Reading outdoors, at this moment, in shady Simón Bolívar Park, on the holiday commemorating the Battle of Boyacá of August 7, 1819, I picture myself like Jonah, decamped from Nineveh, grateful for any shade yet underwhelmed by the impact of his deeds (Jonah 4:6). The shade has a large role (“save[s] him from his discomfort” [NRSV]) and should not be overlooked. Electrical power in this part of Santa Marta went out at 8 a.m., so we’re left to be cooled by G*d’s blowing spirit, the west winds steady across the bay.

Gratefully my capacities in Spanish are adequate to construct some narrative about the surroundings. For one, I read El Heraldo of Barranquilla each day, and there I have been captivated by stories of a local women’s soccer team (Las Tiburonas), the ongoing Colombian bicentennial, corruption in the shipping and construction industries, and a long-running tale that started in July of last year.

The handshake staged, according to court order, to try to bring reconciliation between a liquor-store owner in Barranquilla, a patron, and the city’s LGBTI community. © 2019 EL HERALDO S.A.
The handshake staged, according to court order, to try to bring reconciliation between a liquor-store owner in Barranquilla, a patron, and the city’s LGBTI community. © 2019 EL HERALDO S.A.

From what the story describes (see the image above from the Herald of Sunday, August 4), one year ago, in July 2018, a woman named Luz Nelly went with her girlfriend to a liquor store, which also has a patio area for patrons. They bought drinks and enjoyed each other’s company. Between lovers, family members, and close friends, displays of public affection in Colombia are quite common. Sometimes I must step into the street, off a narrow sidewalk, when girls in checkered skirts and white socks, released from school, present an impenetrable wall of arms linked in intimacy. According to Nelly, the owner of the establishment, Rafael Brochero, did not like what he was seeing: “In my liquor store,” he said on that July night, approaching the two women, “I don’t accept this kind of conduct. Because first I see that you are taking each other by the hand, and then I notice after that you are kissing and caressing. And that I don’t accept. That’s why I maintain the right of admission [of clients].”

In court proceedings, after Nelly and her attorney sued, claiming discrimination, Brochero said he was merely looking out for the others drinking that evening, concerned that they would be uncomfortable with a show of same-sex attraction. Leaving the details of the jurisprudence aside, the Sixth Chamber of the Constitutional Court did not buy his reasoning. In its ruling, it offered the Solomonic judgment that Brochero must publicly petition Nelly with his apology. And, last week, on another Barranquilla night, some twenty unsuspecting witnesses, according to the Herald, watched as Nelly, Brochero, attorneys, photographers and reporters carried out the court order. Nelly, who is an LGBTI advocate, had brought a white placard that proclaimed the store “a discrimination-free zone.” The two shook hands and signed the pledge.

Although I am ignorant of much of the context, it seemed to me like the interposition of G*d’s desire to break down barriers. Seeing public reconciliation, a profession to change, and this beautiful headline of reversal—“My apologies, here [we are] at your service”—made me feel lighter somehow, like the world offers more surprises than I imagine.

I think I will call my talk at the upcoming conference “The Importance of Hidden Stories.”

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