It’s a strange thing, but as a traveler through Latin America, upon visiting a place for the first time, I would often head out to a nearby cemetery to take a look at the old tombstones, and reflect a little on my own cultural heritage as I read out the names recorded there.
Maybe it’s because I am far from the place of my birth and that there remains a great deal regarding my family history which is unknown and finally perhaps it’s because I feel that here in Colombia there is a real failure to recognize, understand and respect the past as a viable and important piece of cultural heritage.
When I found myself en route to Montreal recently, I remembered to scour my files and locate two old photographs which had previously been in my father’s possession. One was a photograph of a small chapel and the second a McColl gravestone in the church’s well-kept graveyard to one side near to a village called St Joseph du Lac. These photos had been taken many years before and represent a small piece of the puzzle of the McColl heritage in Canada dating back to the early 19th century.
You’ll know, if you are regular visitors to this page, that I have published various pieces based around a literary platform constructed upon visits to different cemeteries. I have made mentions of Bogotá’s British Cemetery and the Cementerio de los Gringos in Barrancabermeja. But, this Presbyterian one here in St Joseph du Lac, Quebec is of course different. For here lie my direct ancestors, expelled from Scotland in the clearances and settlers to Canada.
The church, known to locals as “The Church of the McColl’s” was destroyed almost in its entirety in a twister which ripped through the region in 2012. I never had the chance to see the church standing. The gravestones were shorn from the ground but now, with love and donations from the local community, have been carefully restored and placed as respectfully as possible, close to their original locations.
Bricks lie stacked as rubble to one side. What hasn’t been donated or shipped elsewhere for scrap remains close by providing a reminder of what took place here.
There’s a bleakness here in Quebec in late April. And it makes me reflect on Colombia. I reflect on the complexities of the relationship between post-conflict scenarios, heritage and identity. While the relationships are increasingly recognised, does this recognition bring an awareness of how little we actually understand about their nature? What role does cultural heritage play during post-conflict reconstruction? What is the impact of reclaiming and rebuilding on people’s sense of identity?
I would be repeating the oft-spoken phrase if I were to say: “Colombia is at a crossroads”. I suspect that Colombia has been at a four-way crossroads for a great many of her years since independence from Spain. Maybe during 2017/2018 and the following years could represent some of the most important and fractured intersections along a lengthy period of precarious choices.
But, I feel now that the struggle for an identity in Colombia is stronger and more pertinent than ever. And reflecting on this, I find myself thinking about these first settlers here in this region of Canada. They were exiled Scots. It took generations for them to become actual Canadians (I realise that this is a digression and redundant in parts since Canada became the country we know today in 1867). What and where is the imagined identity of these people and in turn who and what and what represents Colombians today?
There needs to be more of an understanding and appreciation of memory and the past, contemporary and further back, here in Colombia. The real history needs to be taught in schools because if there’s no memory, collective or individual, and the denial of history continues, a negative strength is then transferred over to the banal and the circumstantial. This, in turn, alters the transcendentally important and confirms it as ephemeral.
And we forget.