Life, etc

Waiting for ashes: The solitude of Gabriel García Marquez’s hometown

By Santiago Villa Chiappe 26 May 2014

In the town of Aracataca, where Gabriel Garcia Marquez was born, he remains a somewhat contentious symbol for the people he leaves behind. And with his death, a recurring debate about its history – and its future – was reawakened. By SANTIAGO VILLA CHIAPPE, with photography by ALEJANDRA ARIZA.

“I came up to him and asked: ‘Gabo, why don’t you donate a school to us here in Aracataca?’ It was 1983. I think it was the first time he visited this town since he won the Nobel Prize for Literature. He turned to me and answered harshly: ‘Do you see me carrying five or six schools in my hand in order to hand them out? Ask the state to build the school, its their obligation.’ People around us heard this answer, and I believe that it sparked a kind of resentment towards him here in town.”

Robinson Mulford paused and leaned against the back of the wooden bench. His short, curly white hair gives him a solemn demeanor that he complements with the precision of his words. Those who live from literature, writing it or in Mulford’s case, teaching it, are usually mindful of their choice of words. “I believe I didn’t know how to put forth my question to him.” As Mulford looked up into the regal pivijay fig tree and its bearded branches that dominated the backyard of the house where Colombia’s most prestigious author was born, he added: “At that moment he lost the sympathy I had for him. Later on, though, he gradually recovered it, as I began to understand the meaning behind his answer.”

Mulford explained he decided to turn the author’s rejection into a teaching exercise. During the following years, he and his students filed judicial claims in order to force the state to replace their old school, which had ceilings made of carcinogenic asbestos. They were successful after nearly seven years of efforts. The new school is called Gabriel García Márquez.

While Robinson Mulford and his students engaged in a legal battle to change the school, in Colombia a certain animosity towards Gabriel García Márquez became noticeable. The first friction was a result of his self-imposed exile of 1981, which was motivated by the suspicions of an anticommunist persecution by the government of president Julio César Turbay (1978-1982), and by a Colombian national army that has criminally assumed the role of detective, prosecutor, judge and executioner for more than 50 years. After 33 years of living abroad, these frictions became more evident.

The ever-growing stature of his international prestige and presence in a country with so few world-known figures, also motivated a contradictory reaction: a mix of nationalistic pride and an abandonment complex.

*                      *                      *

Forty-five minutes before the symbolic funeral of its most famous son was supposed to begin, nobody knew if it would actually take place. It hadn’t rained for months in Aracataca, a town of 25,000 people located on the eastern side of the two-lane national road connecting Colombia’s Caribbean coast with the larger inner cities like Bogotá, the country’s capital. The downpour of rain, which had just started, was knocking fruits and branches off of the mango tree planted in front of the Gabriel García Márquez Museum, the house where the author was born in 1927. The pavement of the street where the ceremony was supposed to begin was now full of puddles, leaves, and small yellow mangoes.

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Photo: Aracataca is a Colombian town in the province of Magdalena. Its name is famous worldwide for being the birthplace of Gabriel García Márquez, Nobel Prize in Literature for the year 1982.

“It practically hasn’t rained here since November, and now look at this,” said Carlos Eduardo Manrique, a young journalist with Aracatacan family who was the last person to whom García Márquez gave an interview. A few journalists were waiting beneath the roof of a neighboring coffee shop called La Hojarasca (Leaf Storm), after the author’s first novel. Manrique was the only journalist, out of the handful who covered the event, who had an ironed shirt and linen trousers. For him it was a personal matter. He was saying goodbye to an illustrious acquaintance. He looked around and punned: “In some window of this town must be Isabel watching it rain in Macondo.”

In 2006, a referendum was conducted to change Aracataca’s name to Aracataca-Macondo. The YES vote won, but there wasn’t a large enough quorum for the proposal to pass. The change only manifested in large signs that the mayor placed at the entrance of town: “Aracataca-Macondo, Nobel land: Welcome to the magical world of Macondo!” In this town it’s inevitable to run into names that allude to the life and work of the Colombian writer: “Macondo Residences”; “The Shop of Amaranta”; “Luisa Santiaga Márquez Hospital”. Kids know about the characters of One Hundred Years of Solitude as if they were the main characters of children’s stories. Without having read the novel, they know by heart the story of Colonel Aureliano Buendia or Remedios the Beauty.

Since the early morning of April the 21st, hours before the symbolic funeral was due to begin, a group of women dressed in white walked the streets of Aracataca hanging yellow paper butterflies on the outer walls of houses. Other butterflies, made of foam and from an uncertain origin, were scattered on the sidewalks. Some hung the flag of Colombia from their living room windows. Tourist guides sold historical photographs of García Márquez, the front pages of newspaper editions that had announced his death, and T-shirts of Colombia’s football team with the face of “Gabo” (as the writer is affectionately called in Latin America), stamped on front.

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Photo: A woman in the San José church of Aracataca is on the lookout for the arrival of the procession honoring Gabriel García Márquez’s memory.

International television stations broadcast scenes of the thousands of fans and readers arriving at the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City, where the government of Mexico was paying posthumous homage to a writer who had lived for more than 30 years in that country, and where he ultimately died in his house of Pedregal de San Ángel, México City. In Aracataca, Colombia, the rain finally stopped falling over the house where he was born. The bad weather had blocked all wireless signals, and although the Mexican event was seen in several countries, only a small part of Aracataca’s homage was aired on national television.

Aracataca’s allegorical funeral began in front of the Gabriel García Márquez Museum. Twenty policemen cordoned off both sides of the street and escorted the perfumed guests of honor that arrived from Santa Marta, the provincial capital. Amongst them were the secretary of culture of Magdalena province, where the town of Aracataca is located; the governor’s mother, who came in her son’s place; an army colonel whose wife seemed intent on always occupying a centre-spot in journalists’ viewfinders. Some wore guayaberas, the formal attire in the Caribbean region; others chose Hugo Boss shirts. Included were emergent singers of vallenato – García Marquez’s favorite Colombian music genre. Both styles of vallenato were represented: a traditional one of accordionists and vagrant troubadours; and a bling one, with paramilitary and drug trafficking influences, whose greatest exponent, Diomedes Díaz, strangled his lover.

It wasn’t easy for the organisers, who were the administrators and friends of the museum, to maintain visibility and receive due credit for the event. The recent arrivals, for example, did not want the school’s literature teacher, Robinson Mulford, to deliver the elegy he had been fine-tuning for days.

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Photo: As in the works of García Márquez, the symbolism of solitude is present in the house previously owned by García Márquez’s childhood doctor, Alfredo Barboza. It is now the home of his grandson, Alfredo Barboza Areyano.

The procession carried a glass urn with a few good-bye messages written by local organisers and the guests from Santa Marta. It circled the town before ending in a funeral mass conducted in the central plaza’s San José church. The procession was led by the students of the Gabriel García Márquez School who, besides photographs of the writer and yellow flowers, held aloft placards alluding to the two sharpest controversies that García Márquez’s life and death stirred: his communist ideology and not having built public works in Aracataca.

A placard carried by a young boy proclaimed, “Those who demand public works from ‘Gabo’ for Aracataca lose sight, intentionally, of the fact that the Master wasn’t a public servant.”

Another sign was a direct response to a tweet published by the recently elected Colombian senator, María Fernanda Cabal, a fellow party member of the far-right former president, Álvaro Uribe Vélez. She tweeted a photograph of García Márquez smiling with Fidel Castro, and commented, “They will soon be together in hell.”

The schoolgirl’s answering sign said, “Senator María Fernanda Cabal doesn’t know who Gabo was, but the president of the United States did, and he’s not Colombian… it’s a shame.”

*                      *                      *

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Photo: Several rivers flow through and around Aracataca, which makes the land ideal for growing banana, mangos and African palm trees.

“No, I didn’t go to that event. I didn’t like it. I’m not a hypocrite,” said María Palomino (La Santa, to her friends) from where she sat on her bed. The light was low in her room with blue colored walls because the curtains were closed to protect us from the midday sun. A small cathode tube TV was placed atop a cupboard with drawers, where La Santa kept her clothes: “People are supposed to receive homages when they’re alive. After that it’s just too late. It’s no good.”

La Santa is a mixed-raced woman who smiles easily, and talks quickly and frankly. She’s well into her forties, but cycles her bike from morning till late afternoon, from one corner of town to the other, giving away the mangoes she picks up in this place where the fruit falls off the branches like Biblical manna; and she earns a living selling plastic bags of water, a business that wouldn’t be so profitable in a town which had an aqueduct.

With Gabriel García Márquez’s death, a recurring debate about Aracataca’s history was reawakened: although a budget has been approved several times for the construction of the aqueduct, it has never been finished. On October 2013, Colombia’s president, Juan Manuel Santos, was supposed to inaugurate it, but the ceremony had to be cancelled because 30% of the work was still missing. On 23 April, his Housing Secretary, Luis Felipe Henao, announced that he was delivering on the government’s promise because water arrived every day in between for 24 hours straight. Nonetheless, during the five days we stayed in Aracataca, the journalists who did this piece were able to verify that although there was running water at most during five hours every other day, it never was available for 24 hours straight.

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Photo: Yerleina Fonseca, 31, and Michell Fonseca, 11. Aracataca, Colombia.

“Tim Buendía, a Dutch artist, used to live here. He opened a guesthouse for tourists around the corner,” said La Santa. “One day he was interviewed for TV and he said that because of the lack of running water, he had to wash his daughter with the water bags I sell. Because of this the provincial government cancelled the financial support it was giving the guesthouse, as a tourism enterprise, and he had to leave. I was hurt when he left. Politicians are this town’s plague.”

The Indigenous Home of Aracataca was arranged to house the Arhuaco and Kogi tribe members that inhabit the Snowy Sierra mountains of Santa Marta, about 40 kilometers away from town. Dozens of them come down from the highest coastal mountainous formation in the world, which is the axis of the Earth for their cultures, to sell handcrafts and coffee in Aracataca. “But this house is run down, just look at it,” said Leida Lizcano, the person that watches over the house. Leida had a piece of land in the Snowy Sierra of Santa Marta, but she was displaced after paramilitary units commanded by Rodrigo Tovar Pupo, aka “Jorge 40”, killed her brother-in-law in an improvised checkpoint. She sold all of her belongings and moved to Aracataca.

We toured the empty rooms of the house while she pointed at the peeled paint from the walls and at the fragile ceilings. “The house was supposed to be painted in December, but we’ve never seen the results of the budget assigned for it,” she said, looking at me with indignant eyes. “This is no decent place for indigenous people.”

“Has there ever been a good mayor in Aracataca?” I asked. She laughed.

“The problem here is the buying of votes,” she said. “I believe at least half of the people in this town sell their vote during elections. A vote here costs around thirty and fifty thousand pesos [between 15 and 25 American dollars].”

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Photo: The students of Aracataca’s “Gabriel García Márquez School” pay homage to the writer with a procession that goes through some of the town’s main streets.

I remembered an anecdote Gonzalo Guillén, a journalist who was Miami’s Nuevo Herald former correspondent in Colombia, told me: “During electoral coverage we did some years ago, we found out that the Conservative Senator Roberto Gerlein had bought votes in Aracataca for his re-election to Congress. When people tried to buy something with that money, the bills turned out to be false. They were furious. For the following elections, he started giving away brand new ceilings and toilet seats, but the people were predisposed against him and he didn’t win in Aracataca. At the end he sent some of his people to retrieve all of the ceilings and toilet seats they had given away in Aracataca”.

“I hadn’t heard that story but yes, it’s possible. It could have happened before I arrived,” said Leida. “The guy who owns this town is a politician called Jaime Serrano, who has African palm tree plantations in all of this region. He decides who will be mayor.”

But some still lay the blame on Gabriel García Márquez, “He died and he didn’t even give Aracataca an aqueduct,” someone tweeted soon after the death of the writer was announced. It wasn’t the only one of the sort.

“It’s been strange to see such exacerbated passion in Colombia because of his death,” said Piedad Bonnett, Colombian poet and novelist who has received, amongst other awards, the IX House of American Poetry Prize. “There are a lot of people in this country who felt aggrieved by him instead of feeling affection. But us writers don’t have to do the same kind of social projects as singers like Shakira or Juanes. What then, I wonder, could be the drive behind these displays of emotion? I can’t tell if it’s something patriotic, related to national pride, or a sentimental response. It isn’t something to which we have the answer. We must pose it as a question. It’s very paradoxical.”

*                      *                      *

“You are a journalist, what have you heard? Will they send at least a little of his ashes?” the people of Aracataca asked me insistently. It was an unavoidable topic in town during the days we were there. Ever since the TV talk-show presenter José Gabriel Ortiz, who is the current ambassador of Colombia in Mexico, publicly announced that the ashes might be divided between Colombia and Mexico (something to which García Márquez’s family was opposed to from very early on), the Aracatacans have tasted the hope of building a mausoleum with the writer’s human remains.

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Photo: The accordion, which is the essential instrument of vallenato music, accompanied the singing done during García Márquez’s symbolic funeral, in Aracataca.

The province of Magdalena, in which Aracataca is located, had in 2012 a poverty index of 52,3%, and 17,4% of extreme poverty, according to the provincial government. The expectation of having greater tourism is for many Aracatacans their “second opportunity on earth”. Pretty much the only cultural landmark in Aracataca, a town with no beaches, and no ecological, historic or architectural attractions, is the image of Gabriel García Márquez, materialised in a funerary monument.

On Monday, 21 April, at 6pm, when in Aracataca the symbolic funeral was ending, in Mexico City the homage with which the presidents of Colombia and Mexico were honouring García Márquez was just beginning. The Aracatacans who watched the event on the Leaf Storm coffee shop’s flat TV wore a bitter mix of hope and resentment. Once more the eyes of the world were fixed on another land. The remains of its most celebrated citizen were 3,600 kilometres away.

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Aracataca was founded in 1885 and the town’s first economic boom was due to its banana plantations, which were planted at the turn of the 20th century. In Gabriel García Marquez’s memoirs, Living to Tell the Tale, the author describes the decay of the region when the United Fruit Company shut down its operations. Since then, rice and commerce have supported a fragile economy. It wasn’t until now, almost a century later, that the controversial African palm tree plantations rekindled the labour market.

Since the 1990s, African palms have been planted in many regions of Colombia by large agro-industrial estates, on former land parcels owned by local farmers displaced by right-wing paramilitary armies during the civil war.  The province of Magdalena, which was terrorised by the Northern Block of the self-proclaimed United Self Defence Units of Colombia, isn’t an exception in this logic of dispossession. Nonetheless the palm tree is the main source of employment for young people in Aracataca. It is, like bananas were in the past, a mixed blessing, or a mixed curse.

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Efrén Rodríguez, 26, is the partner of Juliet Palomino, La Santa’s daughter. He received us at the entrance of his home, his muscular and tanned torso proof of his long hours labouring in the palm tree plantations, under the Caribbean sun. “Most of us live off those palm trees.” I asked if he had read any book written by García Márquez. Efrén smiled as he shook his head, “Here, as the saying goes, all we do is work.”

“No, I didn’t go to that procession either,” he answered when I asked the next question. “The thing is that we had another funeral in the morning.”

Indeed, at around 11am, five hours before the symbolic funeral began, we heard an urgent roar of honking motorcycles. After that we saw them pass by the restaurant where we were drinking a cup of coffee. There were at least a dozen vehicles leading a long line of people in mourning. At first we thought it was a spontaneous homage to the writer by the common Aracatacans, but their demonstrations of grief were just too authentic. Then we saw the coffin being carried by six solemn young men.

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We later found out that the deceased was Leonardo Fernández, a 19-year-old neighbour of Efrén who had a motorcycle accident at 4am the day before, returning from visiting his girlfriend in a nearby town.

“His family wanted to bury him in the afternoon,” La Santa explained to us the following day, “but they couldn’t because the other event was already scheduled. Then they asked if they could do the same ceremony for both, Leonardo and García Márquez, but the priest said no. The family had to pay the seventy thousand pesos for the mass [35 US dollars].” It’s a large sum for a family of scarce resources.

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None of those who went to the burial of Leonardo Rodríguez were part of the symbolic one that later honoured Gabriel García Márquez. During the event organised by the Museum, many Aracatacans remained on the sidewalk, watching the procession of school students and their musical band. Few walked with the outsiders from Santa Marta and their police. The spectacle seemed quite distant from the daily life of Aracataca. It fits the relationship most of the town has with the image of the most important writer in Colombia’s history: his importance is acknowledged, but he remains somewhat distant. DM

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"A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason." ~ Thomas Paine

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