Colombia: One of the Places I Call Home
By Luis Calero, S.J. (Anthropology/Ignatian Center)
Visiting my native Colombia during the last decades leaves me with mixed emotions. While I experience the joy of seeing family and friends, I also feel bewildered by the painful reality of a society long afflicted by armed conflict and lingering social tensions. Legendarily known for the beauty of its contrasting highland and lowland tropical landscapes, Colombia became in the 1980s a central stage for drug trafficking and ruthless guerrilla wars fueled by an uncontrollable global appetite for narcotics. The traditional and family-oriented society that I loved as a child suddenly exploded into relentless violence triggered by drug cartels, vigilante armies, and corrupt governments. Like a thief in the night, these damaging developments shook the foundation of an insulated culture where change, any kind of change, was regarded with suspicion. The last two decades of the 20th century witnessed unthinkable national tragedies as drug fortunes rose and fell, prominent political figures were assassinated, and the sacred Supreme Court Justice building was torched by guerrillas. It seemed, for a while, that Colombia was bleeding to death.
For a land that prided itself in its democratic institutions, the 1980s and 1990s proved to be a nightmare—some people fled, others resigned to live surrounded by fear, while a few stubbornly believed that things would eventually turn around. Today, after much of this crisis has subsided, my yearly visits encounter both signs of a land returning to the rule of law and a legacy of psychological trauma exhibited by victims of years of political turmoil. Not a day goes by without encountering the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder as well as the fortitude of the human spirit capable of turning death into life. I feel privileged to be part of a long-term healing process and the triumph of the human spirit over the forces of destruction.
Colombia is gradually emerging out of this crisis while still combating poverty and political turmoil. Civil society experiences rebirth as its citizens gain long-awaited confidence in a system that brings them security and protection under the law. Roads are again safe for travel, families venture into vacation spots, there is an uplifting sense that the land—no longer held hostage by outlaws—is returning to its people. In the last few years city dwellers have been able to visit their fincas or recreational family farms— places at one point largely abandoned because of pillage and fear of kidnapping. Children have returned to their playgrounds and local food dishes like ajiaco and sancocho are prepared everywhere. Major cities are creating effective mass transit systems to avoid urban chaos and pollution, making Colombia a showcase for other Latin American nations.
Although the country seems to be awakening from what feels like a bad dream, serious problems remain. In some remote areas anti-government guerrilla fighting still goes on, causing local inhabitants to flee for protection into larger towns or major cities. In a country of nearly 45 million people that is twice the size of France, it is estimated that more than 2 million have been internally displaced by conflict; many of them remain homeless. The combined efforts of the national government and the international community are tackling such problems. At the end of the day Colombians remain united in their determination never to return to the decades of lawlessness and despair.
This past year I had the opportunity to teach for a semester at Universidad Javeriana in Cali, a Jesuit university located in the verdant Cauca Valley in southwest Colombia. Lecturing on such topics as conflict resolution in the “Cultura de Paz” Program, I deepened my conviction that the country is turning a page from violence to peace. Students explore complex societal issues and express their commitment to promote the common good even if it means self-sacrifice. Not unlike SCU, Universidad Javeriana offers me a chance to connect to Jesuit teachings and to pursue critical thinking that enables students to compassionately discover their personal and communal vocation. I find many similarities between the two institutions: Students work with underserved members of the community, they acquire a global outlook in their education, and there are plenty of opportunities for them to develop spiritually. These all are hallmarks of Jesuit education today. Upon returning to Santa Clara, I feel grateful to participate in a worldwide Jesuit educational venture. It insists that the measure of effectiveness in Jesuit higher education, either in my native Colombia or in my adopted United States, is who our students become as they use their learning to help create a more just and reflective world.
Luis Calero, S.J., is a Bannan Senior Fellow at Ignation Center for Jesuit Education and associate professor of anthropology at SCU.