People don’t tend to visit Barrancabermeja, Colombia’s urban petroleum refinery, but, in spite of the drawbacks and negativity surrounding the city, there are histories that need telling here, principally that of the “Nuestroamericanos”.
Who were these “nuestroamericanos”?
For some reason or another, relatively forgotten periods of Colombian history continue to fascinate me and Barrancabermeja – also my wife’s hometown – harbors secrets even Barramejos (as locals are known) are unlikely to know.
There is a little visited “gringo cemetery”. No stranger to cemeteries here in Colombia, I was keen to check out this one.
Dating back to the turn of the 20th century, oil prospectors for Standard Oil, had Colombia in their sights and were keen to exploit Barrancabermeja’s subsoil wealth. Around 1917/18 the first drills were installed and the Infantas II well was tapped. Today this well is still producing oil. Nodding donkeys dip continually as if opposed to the humid lethargy that spreads across the countryside here.
Standard Oil, under the name Tropical Oil Company, referred to locally as la Troco, was headquartered in an area 22km outside of today’s Barrancabermeja on the road leading to the highway to Bogota, known as and still called El Centro.
Visit El Centro and you’ll see low slung houses that resemble colombianized versions of suburban US homes. Many of these constructions were built to house the engineers and oil workers from the US. Apparently at the height of the oil producing years in the 1940s El Centro was apparently awash with saloons, casinos, a cinema and other luxuries brought in to cater to the oil worker’s needs. Just read Colombian author Laura Restrepo’s novel The Dark Bride for an insight into a fictional town of Tora, clearly based on Barrancabermeja, in which she suggests that the growth of the city has been spawned by prostitutes servicing the engineers.
What of the Cementerio de Los Gringos?
Finding and visiting the Gringo Cemetery was always something I had wanted to do ever since I had first heard the throwaway comment made about its existence by my wife on one visit to the city. Finally, this last trip, I was able to take some time before departing for Bogota.
Reading up on the history of la Troco in Barranca in the Ecopetrol records, there is a great deal of affection towards the North Americans. This being an Ecopetrol archive, one must read this carefully, but it is suggested within that the Colombian laborers were content with the punctuality of their pay cheques arriving religious every 15 days and that their healthcare was almost certainly superior to that of the rest of Colombia.
Despite all of this, as you can well imagine, given Barranca’s stifling heat, tropical lowland forest and swampy environs along the Magdalena River, the Americans suffered. Dengue, tuberculosis, malaria and yellow fever were all very real possibilities. Many workers died, hence, the existence of the Gringo Cemetery.
On a knoll just a stone’s throw from the road to El Centro is the cemetery. Lines upon lines of carefully placed white-painted iron head “stones” are placed. Alba’s first reaction was: “This has to be the cemetery; this is not a Colombian cemetery.”
And she was right; the attention to detail with the alignment of the iron bar headstones, the tended grass and the setting all resembled the carefully manicured military cemeteries of northern France. Just without the elegant white stone. There were no names, in fact, there was precious little information and I wonder how I can gather more on this subject short of asking for permission from Ecopetrol to browse their archives dating back to the era when this cemetery was in use by the gringos here.
But, it’s here, and it’s yet another reminder of a past in Colombia that must be appreciated and reconciled. La Troco was a fixture, the houses should be listed buildings for their historical importance and the Cementerio de los Gringos should probably become a protected area.