Colombians struggle to describe their nation in ways that will be true to
a kaleidoscopic reality. Multiple generations have despaired of fratricidal
cycles of violence. Criminal impunity and corruption are endemic. Deep di-
visions persist. Yet the country is modern, with a well-functioning financial
sector, a good urban infrastructure, and a sophisticated, if unequal, health
system. Colombian jurists have a reputation for thoughtfulness and innova-
tion. The nation’s libraries and museums are beacons of culture and of op-
timism about the nation’s future. Through recent decades marked by war,
Colombian artists, musicians, and writers have produced enduring works
and gained an international audience.
This emphasis on multiplicity and contradiction will be familiar to many
who know Colombia. The country is very regionally distinct, and our aim
in part I is to introduce readers to the mental map Colombians have in their
minds when they project their own lives onto the canvas of nationhood.
Just as educated New Yorkers imagine themselves as living within a nation
that includes the history of New England’s fisheries, Mark Twain’s stories
about the Mississippi River, and Wyoming’s wide expanses, so residents of
Bogotá look eastward and know that on the other side of the mountains lie
broad plains, home to a tradition analogous to that of the Argentine pampa,
or the ranching land of northern Mexico, and similarly described in song
and story. Bogotanos also think themselves westward, across Andean peaks
sometimes visible from the city itself, still snow-topped in the present but
likely to lose their snow in coming generations. Their “West” extends first
toward the ports of the Magdalena River, the country’s transport artery and
a symbol of layered cultural forms in music and dance, and second to the
Cauca River Valley and the rainforest regions of the country’s Pacific low-
lands. Well-read city dwellers have in their minds images created by famous
writers such as José Eustacio Rivera, Jorge Isaacs, and Candelario Obeso.
Similarly, families in cities such as Medellín and Cali understand their na-
tion as including Caribbean traditions that they might experience by taking
a long bus trip northward, or perhaps by reading a novel by Gabriel García
Márquez, as well as an Amazonian expanse that they are more likely to see
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