“Ya no eres ‘Maestro,’ eres ‘Don’"
by Jeffrey Cappella
San Juan de Pasto is a medium-sized city in the south of Colombia, not far from the Ecuadorian border. I interviewed my neighbor “Jorge” who was born and raised in Pasto and is temporarily residing in Quito to conduct research before returning to his university post in his native country.
“El sonido de la sirena”
It’s something indeed to see a grown man of 38 turn wistful and sentimental recalling his earliest memories of childhood. “Fue un barrio tan chévere,” Jorge begins, “it was such a cool neighborhood. Back then the city wasn’t as ‘construida’ (built-up) as it is today. There was so much green space and open space — parks, soccer fields, basketball courts, a river, even a water fountain. We played so much — biking, climbing trees, sports, everything you could possibly do outdoors.”
But more than anything it’s a sound still etched in his memory that brings the brightest smile to Jorge’s face today — “la sirena de la fábrica de gaseosas” (the soft drink factory siren). It sounded every afternoon at the plant near his neighborhood, and Jorge and his siblings and friends would hurry to watch the workers leaving for the day to head home. “It’s how we knew when it was time for us to stop playing and go inside,” Jorge explains. “It was a fixture in our lives — the soft drink factory and the distillery that were both nearby.”
When he talks about the important people in his early childhood years, Jorge describes a wider circle than his immediate family of 10 brothers and sisters. “We all knew each other in the neighborhood. Cousins, friends, and neighbors all took care of each other. Just on our street there were three other houses with relatives of ours, aunts and uncles.”
To illustrate, Jorge tells me about a day when some older kids stole his “buso” — his warm-up jacket — from the side of the field where he and his friends were playing. “Some older boys who lived next door to me saw it happen and they ran down the thief for me. They would help protect us younger kids.” Of course there were also family squabbles and fights, Jorge admits, but at the end of the day older cousins stood up for younger and “we took care of each other in the barrio.”
“El sabor de la caña”
Jorge’s family moved out of the barrio before he turned 10, but his fond memories of those years are matched, if not exceeded, by those of his family vacations to the nearby town of El Ingenio that continued throughout his adolescence. “El Ingenio” is one of the “pueblos calientes,” the towns outside of Pasto where “it’s always warm, always summer.” Jorge explains that the name “El Ingenio” comes from the town’s “ingenuity” in figuring out how to refine sugar cane into “panela,” a brown sugar that can be used to make liquor or mixed with water for the energy drink used by Colombia’s famed bicyclists.
In much the same way that the sound of the factory siren in Pasto marks Jorge’s memories of his childhood, it’s the taste of sugar cane that pervades his recollections of family vacations to El Ingenio. He beams when recounting how he and his brothers would steal sugar canes from the sacks mules carried from the fields to “el trapiche,” the processing plant. “We’d sneak up behind them, pull canes out, cut them, and then chew on them all day,” Jorge laughs.
The sugar cane wasn’t just for eating either — Jorge’s father used it to teach the kids to swim. After piling rocks in the river to form a little pool, “we’d jump in and my father would hold one end of the cane and we’d hold the other, letting go to tread water and then grabbing back on again. It’s how I learned to swim.”
“Más iglesias que casas”
When Jorge first starts thinking back on the role of the church in his life, it’s an innocent childhood association that comes to mind — of Sundays spent hiding in the attic to avoid going downtown with his father to church, then eagerly awaiting his return with treats for the family from the city center. But the innocence and positive associations quickly fade as Jorge goes on to describe the influence of the Catholic priests in the life of his hometown that he became aware of with age.
“You have to understand,” Jorge begins, “en Pasto, hay casi más iglesias que casas” (nearly more churches than houses). “Back then it was a very religious population, and very conservative. All the holidays, schools — everything — was organized around Catholicism. La enseñanza religiosa (the teaching of the church),” Jorge says, was the “palabra autorizada” (the word of authority) — and it was a teaching of strict hierarchy and defined roles. The father was the head of household. Women did not have jobs, nor did teens. It was the father’s “gran orgullo de sacar a su familia” (great pride to support the family himself) — “para que no faltara nada a su familia” (so his family would be lacking in nothing).
The “palabra autorizada” extended to the home, the workplace, schools, everywhere. Workers were subordinate to and dependent on their bosses. Females were subordinate to and dependent on males. Boys were always more privileged than girls.
“La mayor herencia que nos podía dar”
Jorge recalls how his father considered education to be “la mayor herencia que nos podía dar” (the greatest inheritance he could give to his children). But it was not an inheritance to be shared equally by all children. Out of the 10 siblings, all six boys went on to get university degrees — but only one of the four girls.
“If one of my sisters lost her school supplies,” Jorge explains, “she would be punished much more severely than if I or one of my brothers lost ours. Girls were always punished worse than boys.”
The same was true in dating. While it was considered ok for boys to have “novias” (girlfriends), a girl found to have a “novio” was punished harshly. Jorge remembers having to date largely in secret, not to protect himself, but to protect the girl he was seeing.
Looking back now, one of Jorge’s greatest regrets is the distance such norms put between children and their parents. “It created so many problems with communication,” he explains. “There was so much you just didn’t, you couldn’t, talk about. You had to hide things from your parents, from your teachers, from the priests. It’s a communication problem that you can still see today.”
“Ya no eres ‘Maestro,’ eres ‘Don’”
If Jorge has a distaste in his mouth when talking about the influence of the church on his hometown, he grows even more bitter as he reflects on politics and the economy — aspects he sees as disastrously intertwined. Not that he was always so cynical. In his youth, Jorge recalls the very positive role his father played in their neighborhood as president of the Junta de Acción Comunal del Barrio. It was a time when the neighborhood organization truly served to benefit the residents, working with the religious institutions and schools to improve parks and other services.
But it didn’t last. Jorge remembers the period when Pasto’s political leaders began coopting the neighborhood organizations for political gain. “My dad was an artisan by trade,” Jorge says proudly. “He had a shoe-making business and a store. But influential politicians in town persuaded him to leave his trade and go into politics himself. They did this with many of the neighborhood association presidents and leaders. They told my dad ‘Ya no eres maestro, eres Don.’”
Jorge explains how the term ‘Don,’ from Spain, was used to confer a higher status than that of ‘maestro’ — the term used to describe the master artisan who can teach a trade to their apprentices. “Pasto was always different from other cities in Colombia in the population’s reverence for Spain and the king. Pasto was the only city that fought against independence from Spain, against Bolivar, rather than for it. “So it was all about elevating the status of the politicians,” Jorge continues, “and the neighborhood organizations became all about turning out votes rather than working for the residents.”
It was around the same time that the factory whistles of Jorge’s childhood also fell silent. Both the soft drink plant and the distillery shut down and moved out of Pasto. “If the workers at the plants tried to stand up for themselves, the bosses just closed up shop,” Jorge recalls. “Subservience was the rule. There was never any people’s movement in Pasto.”
So while industry was leaving on the one hand, Jorge says politicians were busy on the other replacing the artisan economy with public sector jobs they could control. “It drained the potential of our city,” Jorge laments. “Now politicians could be corrupt and no one felt they could do anything about it because if you advocated to vote a politician out of office you or your brother or your uncle could lose their job.”
“Ha cambiado mucho, pero tenemos tantos otros problemas”
It’s hard to overstate Jorge’s disappointment with the current state of affairs in Pasto — the political corruption, the draining of the artisan economy, the loss of factory jobs, and most recently the men who’ve preyed on the populace with pyramid schemes that have bankrupted businesses and wiped out life savings. “Today in Pasto we have a city so different from what I remember as a child,” Jorge tells me. “We have crime, robberies, gangs, violence, drugs, and infrastructure falling apart. We have doctors and professors driving taxis. We have a city where a high school diploma that was once so revered now means so little.”
Of course, there has also been sweeping change in the role of the church and the influence of the conservative Catholic teachings of Jorge’s youth. Women now are working. There is more gender equality. Globalization and technology have widened the scope of what’s attainable and imaginable for youth. Yet while describing all of this in positive terms, Jorge also expresses a sadness that with it has not come success or prosperity for the general population as a whole. Instead of working for the people, entrenched politicians continue corrupt practices and priests try antics such as giving sermons while dancing in the hopes of attracting followers once again.
“Un pueblo tan amamble, y tan unido”
If the ruling political and religious classes of Pasto get Jorge’s greatest scorn, it’s the people of his hometown who bring out his greatest pride. He beams when considering how little racial division or discrimination he’s witnessed in Pasto, despite significant diversity in the population and a now increasing in-migration of Colombians from rural areas plagued by drug-related violence.
“In spite of the violence and the crime, our popular fiestas like ‘carnaval’ show the real nature of our people,” Jorge explains. “In the ‘Carnaval de Negros y Blancos,’ everyone paints their faces black on January 5 and celebrates in the city squares — and then the next day everyone paints their faces white and does the same. I don’t know where else they have a fiesta like that. It’s what makes me so proud to be from Pasto.”
Jorge is clearly so critical of so much about the conservative, ‘high power distance’ culture of the Pasto of his youth. He blames it for the exploitation of the residents by politicians, by factory-owners, and by priests. Yet he also appreciates the stability, security, and peace of his childhood, and he relishes how “amable” and “unidos” the people of Pasto have remained despite the difficulties they face. It’s why a ray of hope cuts through his cynicism still — a hope for some day turning that unity into corresponding influence over those who hold Pasto, and Colombia, back.