Colombia’s misplaced patriotism?

colombia’s tricolor flag

Are Colombians passionate and patriotic? Yes. Undoubtedly so, Colombians need little excuse to show their colours on any occasion, but in particular when the tricolor march out on to the field in an international football match. They wear their yellow shirts to work – I dare you as a boss to prohibit this practice – but, on the flipside, Colombians can be the most disparaging about their flag, their nation, the politics and the stagnant and tired reality of the unending violence here. Once again, it’s a question of exploring what makes a national identity. It is a deeply unfashionable thing to ask, but might a nation’s history be affected by the character of its people? Try to grapple with the complexities of Colombia’s situation and there is something so uniquely insane about the politics and the on-going conflict, that national character may be the only way of understanding Colombia’s eccentric development. There may be something to it all, just take a look at the hymn for example and the flag and the crest.

The hymn

This pride seems to manifest itself at 6am and 6pm every day when radio stations are obliged to play the Colombian national anthem, even the Radioaktiva station obeys, and at once confirms that there’s no more rebellion in rock, by sounding out mild-thing Juanes’ version of the anthem. Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock, this is not. However, each time you hear the anthem, do you feel a twang of pride at being a Colombian, or in my case, an adopted Colombian? 

Oh unfading glory

The anthem, “O Gloria Inmarcesible (Oh unfading glory)”, was originally edited from a poem by former Colombian president Rafael Nuñez and put to music by Italian opera singer Oreste Sindici. Over the years, many different versions and adaptations were made but the current 11-verse anthem (usually only the chorus and one verse are sung) was first presented to the public in 1887. It quickly became popular and was officially adopted as Colombia’s national anthem in 1920.

Throughout the anthem, there are numerous references to the various parts of Colombia, with Boyacá, Cartagena, the Caribbean and the Andes all becoming a focus for mentions. Pride at being Colombian and at past victories and battles for independence run through the whole song and the lyrics speak passionately about sorrow, pain and struggles but also optimistically about overcoming difficulties and the bright future of Colombia. It’s positively concupiscent.

The lyrics and significance of the song seem to awaken feelings of national pride and foster a true sense of Colombian-ness. And why shouldn’t people feel proud to be Colombian? The spectacular beauty of the country, the rich culture, the phenomenal ability of Colombians to see the positives in a negative situation are just some of the reasons why we should sing the anthem proudly, hand on heart and with the unfaltering Colombian spirit that typifies Colombian people. All, overwhelmingly positive, but this leads us to the paradox.

“And thus, the motherland is formed”.

But!

If we take a moment to look at the three main symbols of Colombia, the flag, the crest and the hymn, nothing comes close to the hymn In terms of its significance and indeed its mystique for Colombians. So, we need to unravel and question a few facets to all of these three items if we are going to deep dive into the national anthem itself.  

Let’s begin with the tricolor flag, the resplendent yellow is there representing the wealth of gold in the country. Herein we can find two major problems; the first is that Colombia’s gold was obviously sacked and removed by the Spanish empire at the height of their colonial aspirations, and the second, what little gold actually remains here, is in the hands of Colombia’s elites and well beyond the reach of most ordinary Colombians.

Colombia’s national coat of arms or crest

If this wasn’t enough, let’s take a look at Colombia’s crest, a tragicomedy of symbols which no longer exist or are in the process of disappearing in this country. Amongst these symbols, perhaps the most striking is the image which adorns the base of the crest. Panama! Is it a lament that Panama remains on the crest or has the fact that it is there been overlooked all these years? And what should we say about the country’s national bird, the majestic condor? According to recent statistics, only 40 or 50 condors remain in Colombia today, an infinitesimally small number for the animal which is one of the principle symbols of our country.  

So, based on what we have just explored, perhaps it’s clear that there’s but one national symbol which can resonate – although not free from its defects – with the national identity: the Colombian National Anthem, la Marcha Triunfal, set to music by the Italian composer, Oreste Sindici, using verses written by Rafael Nuñez, a former president. 

Out of the three national symbols, the anthem is the one which we probably know least about and which has been feted in popular beliefs and half-truths over the years. 

Cesó la horrible noche

What is certain is that the anthem is interpreted, and its significance alters, according to the ideological bent of the government in power. This of course has created some confusion with respect to the original intentions of the authors and their text. What did Nunez mean when he wrote: “cesó la horrible noche?” One response to this would be that it’s a celebration of the end of Spanish colonization, and more contemporary times it has been used to celebrate the fall of liberal and conservative governments, and most recently, it was used to celebrate the signing of the peace accord with the FARC. 

The hymn itself is made up of eleven verses which not only refer to battles for the freedom of Colombia but also others which have defined Latin America. 

To some critics, the text of the national anthem reflects the parochial mentality of Nuñez and for others it could be a rallying cry to a never-ending glory, popular jubilation and something which cannot be eclipsed. Whatever the case, it is clear that the incongruity of the anthem goes far beyond the issue of it being an over-lengthy and rather boring song. 

The chorus of the national anthem, written in 1850, to celebrate the independence of Cartagena de Indias (1811), remarks at the infinite glory of having expelled the Spanish from Colombian lands. What we are expected to see and believe throughout the lyrics of the anthem is that the horror of Spanish colonialism has ended and that we are now living in a new, independent territory, made up of free individuals. And, that humanity, still suffering and tied up with chains, understands that this freedom is at the whim of a love for Jesus Christ who taught this from up on the cross. 

And rather than solely focusing on the trumpets of war which play a sombre if triumphant tune throughout the anthem, perhaps it’s better to look at the penultimate verse, verse No10. Within these poignant lines, it is made clear to us that the true freedom of a people does not solely depend on wars of independence but on a socio-political system which is truly inclusive for each and every inhabitant in this new country. The sun, as it says, has to shine upon us all, and not just upon a special few. 

And in conclusion, well, perhaps those out there marching in protest of tax reforms, police brutality, pension reforms, for peace in Cauca, more funds for education, peace, against killings and more on 21 November, can tell us a bit more about this new country which they are marching for? Think of the hymn, the flag and the crest.

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