Paco Gómez on his experience at the Chocó Base ...”In addition to the beautiful landscape and calm space, we felt cared for and loved. The rain, moreover, allowed me to concentrate. I finished putting together a little book (Diary of Assignments) and I planned my fieldwork for another book (East Pacific Country). I also wrote about the relationship between cultural collectives like ours and communities”.
The following text was commissioned by MaMa.
The fire, the impossible
(or the birthing of memory and creativity)
By Paco Gómez Nadal
We are nothing more than potential embers, a log that has not yet been set on fire, just an imagination of glowing. We are dreamed up out of potentiality, but the passing of time and its realisation are always burdened by the past: by what we have been or, at least, by what we have been allowed to be.
And there are no embers that can endure a gust of wind in solitude. Embers, even before they reach that latent state of their being, retain the heat and, with it, life, because they languish together, piled up, handing each other a bit of breath, building together what, in reality, does not cease to be the utopia of a quiet, dignified death. To live is nothing more than becoming embers. To die is, perhaps, only to cease being them.
Postmodernity and the violently agonising politics of global capitalism –constitutive elements of the painful dystopia we inhabit– do not seem to let us move towards other utopian horizons other than those of a quiet, dignified collective death. However, we human beings – and the communities where the embers find breath-, are stubbornly resistant, we push forward and do not usually consider that it suffices, regardless of how attractive it may seem, to die of old age and without any major wounds in the soul. If it were not for that atavistic drive of human rebellion against the statistics of the present, against denial of the future, and against the ballast of the past, it would not be possible to understand Chocó. Perhaps not even humanity.
The point of departure of most analysis or strong statements on or against Chocó is based on determinism, racism, culturalism, or Adanism. According to this last filter, history begins with us and Choco is only a blend of decadent news made up of corruption, abandonment, misery, and self-denial. Fortunately, we are much more (and so is Chocó). And we come from long ago, we are made up of history, of the traces of our ancestors, of the oblivion that we accumulate thanks to the erasure techniques deployed by the hegemonic media and education (white, urban, western, heteropatriarcal, developmentalist, etc.). This is why one of the newtopian horizons is to unveil, from the collective intelligence, the ignored areas of our memory. Only thus, from a (de)/(re)constructed memory, can an alternative (re)identified “historical project” of their own be imagined. When the Colombian educator Alfonso Torres Carrillo speaks of the collective utopian horizon, he defines it as the monumental task of building, in community, a “historical project” that belongs to the people, a project of their own. At times, -almost always in this particular case– that construction, that process, can only be developed in the midst of a dystopian, brutal, inconceivable, almost unreal reality. In 2016 Chocó, dystopia is all embracing. In Chocó, as Antonio Méndez Rubio would say, “pain is environmental”. The decision is either to languish, without internal heat, in this torrid Chocoano dystopia or to confirm that there is a future in the collective commitment of these peoples –until now devoted to resisting– to undertake the “impossible” task of carrying out an unprecedented project. The second option is the viable one, but to move in that direction we must take along a high dose of collective creativity and a strong alternative archaeology of memory.
The Chocoano laboratory
Until now, the historical project of Chocó has not been utopian because its main task has been preventing the physical disappearance, the extinction of the Chocoanos. Thus, resistance has been the fundamental historical fate of these territories from the moment when the Atrato River became the first fluvial highway into the continent for the Castilian invaders.
Chocó was the first place of continental resistance. The Embera (“Chocoes”, as the bearded barbarians called them) managed to contain the invading onslaught until 1687, when the Spaniards received in Seville the head of the mythical Quirubidá as a hunting trophy and the natives lost all chances of preserving what had been their territory, which has never been their own ever again.
In Choco, enslaved Africans became maroons and became part of this historical logic of resistance-emancipation-defeat-enslavement-resistance-emancipation-defeat-enslavement. Barule or the brothers Antonio and Mateo Mina are slowly fading away in the memory of the black people of Chocó. Certainly, the slave rebellion in Tadó, which led Barule to fight a violent struggle against Spanish militias until he was captured and executed in 1729, took place a long time ago, but echoes of marronage can still detected in the aversion that Afro-descendant communities on the banks of the San Juan, the Atrato, the Arquía, or the Baudó Rivers feel against institutional impositions. This constitutes a kind of river hydrarchy that they combine with concepts such as territorial autonomy or of ethno-development plans.
But resistance, which is both invisible and mystified, is not enough. When reality does not leave any time or provide any conditions to dream and build a common “historical project”, utopias are diluted in the blood of useless heroes erased from the history of the Republic as written by the criollo elites, full of European costumes, of imported principles and “civilisational” principles that both exclude and exterminate
One thing is certain: during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, Chocó was a laboratory of colonialism and resistance to coloniality, and, even today, the permanent harassment the communities and to their ways of life are subjected to makes newtopias hardly viable. Coloniality is more subtle, permanent, and insidious than colonialism (which in theory came to an end with criollo independence) because it rests on a dense network of power relations that were established during the centuries of direct colonial rule and persisted after the metropolitan power abandoned the territory. If “the Conquest delivered a shock to the entire indigenous demographic system: survivorship, unions, reproduction, mobility and migration”, and also provoked such a social dislocation and uprooting in the forced African diaspora that it is impossible even to measure it, coloniality, in turn, forced the ethnic communities of Chocó to live, almost always, as what they are not. Their collective utopias were destroyed with the breakdown of all the communal and personal points of reference necessary for subsistence. It is impossible to have a static snapshot of Embera communities or Afro palenques that would persist without alteration. Footsteps are modifiable, alterable, and communities, despite some presence of essentialism in their resistance, are not – and cannot be – what they were. The key is to figure out what transformed them, what was the network of historical interactions that determine now their potential or latency for the future.
Anibal Quijano, who coined the term “coloniality”, defines some of the elements that determine this network: “power is a space and a net of social relations of exploitation/domination/conflict articulated basically in terms of and cantered around the dispute over the control of the following areas of social existence: 1) work and its products; 2) […] nature and its resources for production; 3) sex, its products, and the reproduction of the species; 4) subjectivity and its products, both material and intersubjective, including knowledge; 5) authority and its instruments, in particular, those of coercion in order to secure the reproduction of this pattern of social relations and regulate its changes”. That is to say, this remnant endures in the way power is exercised and transmitted (coloniality of power), in the education system, in intellectual life, and in the construction of media and cultural narratives (coloniality of knowledge), in the ways of dealing with the body, with health, and with sexuality (coloniality of being), in artistic, handcraft, and manufacturing practices (coloniality of doing), and in economicist development policies that overdetermine any institutional utopia (an oxymoron impossible to solve).
Chocó was a colonial laboratory (mining, enslavement, remote control of property, arbitrary violence, imposed subalternity …) and today it is a laboratory for coloniality. The process of intentionally erasing the traces of the long-standing oppression and of the sustained resistance, and, in particular, of the consequences of these phenomena, only alters the traces, as they are (re)interpreted from the sense of estrangement with which the Chocoanos themselves live a reality that they find just as difficult to grasp and that stuns them to the point of self-absorption in the present and, above all, of historical paralysis.
Memory and creativity
The question is whether it is precisely from the confinement of such colonial laboratory, from living in permanent crisis mode (regarding food, security, mobility, affection, death…), that an engine of creativity and change can emerge which can put this invisible area of Colombia in the path of new utopias born out of collective memory and integrated into one or multiple common historical projects. Méndez Rubio explains that “utopian power, as well as its roots in today’s helplessness and desperation, can only be conceived as a process, a certain willingness to move forward, to devise new paths to be shared, regardless of how provisional or paradoxical they may be”.
Willingness, potential in the embers that remain, despite the high winds and the torrential rains of pain, in a latent state, always able to rekindle the fire, always on the verge of birthing. For potential to translate into “willingness to move forward”, the subtle tissue of living memory is fundamental. In dozens of interviews, many leaders in Chocó have insisted on the need for the visible Colombia to remember what it has erased, what they refer to as “the historical debt”. It is not only a matter of the Other’s memory – perhaps only in hibernation -, but also about the memory we have of that “other”, what we have become with/against/despite them.
Chocoanos recognise their own traces and those of many who have trampled on their territory. And they want to settle scores. Not as revenge, but as means to reach a point of departure from which, for the first time, the construction of their own utopian “historical project” can be realised. The Caribbean has a similar project of settling scores with the former metropolis, demanding that the debt that left the islands tied to an anchor of oblivion be settled, as it has prevented them from dreaming their destiny in a different way from the one determined by their colonizers.
The historical debt is a required memory for the embers; it ceases to be longing, embodied pain, when it is settled, when the layers of coloniality that make it impossible to dream collectively (this is what utopia is about) can be eliminated. It also enables a greater framework of reference than Adanism, and this can helps us realize that the genetic code of dystopia has to do with a lot more than war or economic poverty. Chocó is what it is because of many more elements, and understanding this would require an analysis combining all the forms of coloniality that define, in addition, the Chocoanos’ own imaginary, which has been manipulated and perverted by their own oppressors.
Leyner Palacios is an Afro leader from the Bojayá River and he survived the massacre that made the region of the Middle Atrato suddenly visible in 2002 at the expense of almost eighty dismembered bodies and a collective paralysis caused by the eruption of a physical and symbolic violence so brutal that it eradicated any capacity to dream. Leyner, however, believes that those who managed to survive the church-scaffold of this village on the banks of the Atrato have a mission: “If we are alive it is because we are destined for something special. Our role is to make sure that nowhere in the world, nowhere in Colombia, these dreadful realities are forgotten, and that they can never be repeated”. And Leyner insists on two tasks: the truth that is hidden in the denied memories and reconciliation –instead of the empire of death imposed by the colonial, warmongering, and racist dystopia, a life based on the truth of the traces. “Death is the erasure [éffacement] of the marks, of the traces that life produces, that occur in life and with life. Death is the effacing of life from the ‘subject’”, as Fernando Garcia Masip notes. Therefore, to even think about newtopias that have to do with life in Chocó, one of the first tasks would have be to reverse the erasure, to unveil, and that challenge is not incompatible with forgiveness or reconciliation.
Thus, I would like to argue that remembrance and forgiveness will be the first utopias that will move Chocó towards a creative dreaming, towards a (re)birthing of their castrated imagination. I have already seen in the communities how “the impossible” (which, in some sense, would be the utopian moment) happens, how victims and victimisers are able to sit face to face not to take up the injuries again but to put their traces in order and allow the embers to regain their besieged humanity. Jacques Derrida explains “that to forgive is not to forget. On the contrary, forgiving requires the absolutely living memory of the ineradicable, beyond any work of mourning, reconciliation, or restoration, beyond any ecology of memory. Forgiveness is possible only in recalling, and even in reproducing, without mitigation, the wrong that has been done, what it is that has to be forgiven. If I only forgive what is forgivable and venial, the non-mortal sin, I am not doing anything that deserves the name of forgiveness. What is forgivable is forgiven in advance. Whence the aporia: it is only the unforgivable that ever has to be forgiven”.
To do everything possible, as the realists decrying naïve “utopias” recommend, would be equivalent to simply surviving in order to die in the stillness of the present. That would be lingering in nothingness, forsaking the future, forgetting the traces that have brought us this far. Derrida notes that “when I only do what is possible for me, I am not doing anything, I am not deciding, I am letting a programme of possibilities develop. When what happens is only what is possible, then nothing does happen [arrive], in the strong sense of the word”. Our task is the impossible, the only really human possibility (i.e., endowed with human potential) within dystopia is utopia.
There are many reasons to withdraw from this endeavour. Even the most peaceful persons appeal to hope (a concept as degraded as paralysing). I hold on strongly to the work of memory and of an imagination that dares to dream, and look forward to the conversion of resistance into construction to defend the potentiality of Chocó as a space for utopias. Perhaps not our utopias (those of outsiders); we may not like them even. They may be “provisional and paradoxical” utopias, but they may unfreeze history, generate this “willingness to move forward” that starts defining a common historical project which will be, above all, their own.
The (re)appropriation of memory and the creative capacity of the women and men of Chocó, is already underway. This proves that utopias have a fertile ground here. The firelight that brightens conversations in the evening becomes stronger with the possibility of a (many) future(s). The embers rub the skin – black, dark, mixed, beautiful- to ascertain that they have been invited to the utopia of the other, and the flame, which has been elusive for so long, returns, with its magical tremor, to dwell in the rivers of their future history.