When my mother and I arrived at the Bogotá airport recently, Mami struck up a conversation with an old man. The carrousel of suitcases hadn’t begun and we were standing idly, staring down the little metal hatch to the floor beneath, waiting to spot something exciting—a worker’s hand maybe, or a flash of the little car with our suitcases. “In the times of my abuelos,” the old man said, “Bogotá was so cold, snow fell to the ground—can you imagine?”
I have heard this tale at least fifty times in my life. I love the idea of a snowy Bogotá, but I have scoured weather databases and have never found any supporting evidence. I tell the man in the airport that the story of snow probably isn’t true, but Mami speaks over me: “Yes! My abuelos say that too.”
Mami shoots me a look. I could share the fact that Mami’s abuelos never told stories of snow, that they didn’t even grow up in the city, but I don’t. The old man is smiling at Mami now, and he goes on to describe a place that seems more like a European town. He speaks of horses and carriages that kick up snow, he describes the long furs of citizens that track confused patterns on the white dust, and in every house a fireplace.
Bogotá is a fast-moving place, but the myth of the city is immured in each generation’s view of the past and even the present is up for grabs and who can tell about the future?
Nobody agrees about when the war began. The government insists it was fifty-two years ago, when it started its war against communist-allied people, but some other people maintain war began sixty-eight years ago—with the civil war previous to the current one and the magnicide that caused it. Still others believe war began 100 years ago—with the violent skirmishes between dispossessed farmers and landowners in the coffee-growing regions of Colombia that led to the magnicide, that led to the civil war previous to the current one, that led to the current war. I am with those who say there has been war since colonization—that the conflicts between farmers and landowners of the 1920s have echoed since the founding of the New World. The agricultural system of the ’20s (as well as its inspiration, the colonial encomienda) kept (in colonial times, enslaved) a peasant workforce (read: indigenous) in a highly destructive and orchestrated oppression while lifting up landowners (read: persons of European descent).
When I go back to Bogotá, I like to share my knowledge of the car bombs that went off in the city in the ’80s and ’90s. I helpfully point out the gory details to cab drivers and friends. I press my finger on the window and point at corners, “That’s the spot where an ATM blew up, seven dead.” “A truck bomb was left here by Pablo Escobar but he didn’t detonate it because he wanted to make a point.”
Cab drivers smirk at me. “You a violentóloga, or what?”
Friends roll their eyes. “That’s the old Bogotá, those things don’t happen here anymore.”
Mami has a habit of making friends wherever she goes. She loves to be adored and during our most recent trip she targets the women army of concierges who run our hotel. She brings each of them small things from the street. Flowers she picks, small containers of lotions, knickknacks she haggles out of store owners. We are staying in the cheapest room in the hotel, but the women army of concierges refer to us as VIP, pronounced veep.
When we come back from being out—me doing research, Mami seeing friends—the women army of concierges abandon their posts and we crowd together in a type of welcoming office that has a view of the foggy cityscape. They telephone the kitchen. “We have two veeps here, could you send hot chocolate, cheese, fruit, coffee—” the head concierge covers the mouthpiece of the phone. “Do you want champagne?”
We sit and hear stories about their lovers. Mami is excellent in love matters and soon the women start to see her as a kind of love guru. Every so often someone has to run away on a hotel errand, and I take the opportunity to compare the newspaper’s assessment of the Situation with that of the locals—the “Situation” being a catch-all word for violence, terrorism, the economy, corruption, the paramilitary, the guerrillas. Like any Bogotano the concierges begin with the warnings—I wouldn’t take a cab, my friend was taken on one of those paseos millonarios and poor girl wasn’t raped but between you and me she’s not as pretty as we all are. I am among Colombians, so our conversation only gets darker and darker. We talk about burundanga, which is an indigenous concoction that subverts the intoxicated person’s will and presence of mind while leaving all motor skills intact. It is known as a zombie drug that modern criminals use to take unsuspecting people on joyrides, from ATM to ATM, until all their accounts are empty.
“I don’t know where you can get a map, maybe a bookstore, but I’m still trying to get information on where the body is so I can dig it out.”
The voice of the city dwellers matches the voice of the main city newspapers, telling me we are a country on the verge of peace now, reminding me that even tomorrow the largest guerrilla organization, FARC, could sign the peace treaty, that violence is a thing of our past.
But when I travel to the villages I hear stories. One woman tells me about her pretty daughter making her way through the village square, how she responded to a catcall by cursing, and later the man she had cursed entrapped her with four other men, all of them, it turned out, paramilitary. The woman assumed her daughter was raped, but what she knows for sure is that they dumped her body on the wet foundation of a road, and over her body cold cement, and this woman to whom I speak, she tells all of this in passing, as I am waiting for an appointment, and asking her where she thinks I might buy a city map. She tells me she is still trying to find out where the body was dumped so she can go dig it out, and then, remembering why I am standing before her in the first place, she says, “I don’t know where you can get a map, maybe a bookstore, but I’m still trying to get information on where the body is so I can dig it out.”
“Is anybody helping you?” I ask.
“A journalist,” she says, opening then closing a drawer. “He’s talking to paramilitary in jail. Maybe they saw. Maybe they participated.”
Just some hours later I am on the crest of a hill, and I want a picture of the village panorama. The adobe houses with their clay roofs, the palm trees, and the sun take my breath away. I begin to climb, then a man I don’t know comes running over and urges me not to wander up the mountain (some ten feet away) because the paramilitary has been known to come down just at the crest. “A few people have disappeared,” he says. When I ask the people in the villages about the Situation, they tell me it is the same as before. Just as dangerous.
It occurs to me that the people in the city who think there is no more violence are the same people for whom, because of social or economic stations, this present is hidden. I remember now a white American woman, living in the coastal tourist city of Cartagena, to whom I was describing some recent violence of one type or another. I remember how she was silent and then told me I was out of touch—that was not the Colombia she knew.
For as long as I can remember there have been peace talks. Something always seems to foil them, the refusal of the government to give over land, for example, or the requirement of the government that all demobilized members be tried for acts of war and terror. Now that the left-wing guerilla FARC is close to decommissioning, it has got me thinking of 2006, when the largest paramilitary organization, the far-right AUC, demobilized—how it was only a few months in the vacuum of power when nearly identical neo-paramilitary groups sprung up.
When I was a girl, my mother was friends with someone who later became a guerrilla. I remember him as a jovial man, then he was thinner and thinner. His becoming a guerrilla seemed like a joke to Mami. I guess they had met in high school, and they were close friends. He was dark and tall and muscular. He smiled like someone at the crest of a rollercoaster, with feverish intensity. When he came to visit, Mami gave him whiskey and they laughed into the night. Every once in a while, I overheard something—him telling Mami, for example, that there was a guerrilla presence everywhere, normal people you didn’t suspect, that the plan was to be ready at any time for a spontaneous attack.
One year he told us he had seen Papi’s name on a list. It was a list of bourgeois offenders to which any guerrillero could add. Mami’s friend didn’t know why Papi was on the list, but he scratched the name out. Tell him to be nice to everyone, Mami’s friend advised.
The last time we saw him, he showed up at our doorstep demanding to be fed. We had not seen him for many years, but Mami pretended this was normal. She welcomed him in, served him whiskey, took his coat. We sat together around our dining table, then spooning soup. I was fourteen, but I could feel the danger. I sat on the edge of my seat. I noticed how he sat with all his muscles engaged, like he was at every second getting ready to spring up. I saw him clutch his knife.
Because there was nothing to say, Mami began to talk about the weather. She said, Just another cloudy day in Bogotá. What I wouldn’t do for some sun.
Her words seemed to keep an impending doom at bay. My sister and I continued spooning soup.
Mami retold the old story of snow in Bogotá, of horses and boots and fur. She added details of her own, too. She said women wore hats, children built snowmen, restaurants fed log after log into their fireplaces.
The second I was done with my soup, Mami told me to go to my room. My sister and I ran upstairs. At first, I locked myself in the bedroom. Then I lay down by the stairs and tried to overhear what was being said down below. A long time passed and I fell asleep in my vigilance. Mami was standing over me and shook me awake. When I asked if he was gone, she said yes. All he had wanted was some money. Mami told me she collected all the cash she could find in our house, and all the while she talked to him about what she imagined snow to be like.
It must be light and cool to the touch, she told him. Like flour.
She hadn’t experienced snow back then.
Neither had he.
Neither had I.
Ingrid Rojas Contreras is a recent Bread Loaf Bakeless Fellow and recipient of the San Francisco Foundation’s Mary Tanenbaum literary award. Her writing has been published in the Los Angeles Review of Books, and has been anthologized in Wise Latinas and American Odysseys: Writings by New Americans. Currently, she is working on a nonfiction book about her grandfather, a medicine man who could move clouds. She lives in San Francisco with her books.
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