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Colombia Past and Present: An Interview with Author William Ospina

Colombian writer William Ospina. Screen capture from the program Contravía, available on YouTube.

What are the keys to understanding the history of Colombia and its Latin American neighbours? Perhaps the answers lie in the history itself and the ways in which events have been interpreted from one generation to the next. To that end, the Colombian writer William Ospina revisits scenes from the first years of the newly colonized region, drawing compelling comparisons with contemporary reality. Ospina shares many of his thoughts in interviews that are available online, some of which have been excerpted here.

In one of these discussions, vlogger Lorena Rivas talked to Ospina about the similarities between Colombia's past and the challenges facing the country today. Rivas sees the continuing exploitation of natural resources by multinationals as history repeating itself: a second conquest of the Americas. Rivas asks Ospina if the conflict between the desire to preserve the environment and the urge to transform its resources is a legacy of Western culture. Ospina sees it as a more complex relationship, explaining that what occurred was something more than a mere clash of European and indigenous civilizations:

Sería caricatural pretender que a la Conquista solo llegaron los enfermos, los locos, los demonios… Algo de eso hubo sin duda, pero igual, con la misma elocuencia, alguien menos exasperado podría decir que llegaron los paladines, los valientes y a veces los santos y eso también sería verdad… Sería más justo decir que a la conquista llegó la condición humana. 

To say that the Conquest only unleashed the sick, the mad, and the evil is to caricature it…no doubt there was some of that, but at the same time and, with similar persuasiveness, someone less exasperated could argue that with it came defenders, courageous people and sometimes even saints, and this too would be true…it would be more accurate to say that with the Conquest came the whole of the human condition.  

Ospina also says Colombia's history is the product of two different worlds coming together without any mutual understanding: 

[El encuentro con las Américas] fue en su tiempo un hecho inédito […] nunca había ocurrido que dos mitades del mundo que no habían tenido el menor contacto por milenios se encontraran y que el ser humano se viera frente a frente con otras mitologías, con otras arquitecturas, con otras estéticas, con otras lenguas, con otras memorias… 

[The encounter with the Americas] was in its day an unprecedented event […] never before had two halves of the world, which had not had the slightest contact with one another for millennia, come face to face, nor had human beings had to confront other mythologies, architecture, aesthetics, languages, memories…

Ospina reflects on history's lessons and the challenges that confronted America's early inhabitants in their daily lives:


Yo creo que no hemos aprendido todo lo que teníamos que aprender […] Yo creo que el conflicto prosigue. De alguna manera se podría decir que estamos en plena conquista de América, y que no hemos aprendido todavía las lecciones de esa conquista. Yo escribo estos libros [con el propósito] de aprender algo […]  Si la humanidad podría encontrar otros caminos para relacionarse con otras culturas y con la naturaleza, porque todavía no hemos aprendido ninguna de las dos cosas.  

I don't think we've learned everything we had to learn […] I believe that the conflict persists. In a way one could say that we are still in the midst of the conquest of the Americas and that we have not yet learned the lessons of that conquest. I write these books [in order] to learn something […] If humankind could find better ways of relating to other cultures and to nature—because we still haven't learned either of those things.

Ospina is also known for his controversial essay, “Where Is the Yellow Stripe?” where he alluded to the yellow band of the Colombian flag and its cultural connotations in an attempt to unearth the roots of contemporary social and political issues. In 2005, these ruminations found their fictional voice in the novel Ursúa, part of a trilogy about the conquest of the Amazon. The writer spoke at length about Ursúa on the program Contravía, which is available on YouTube. In the novels, Ospina tries to recreate the history that has consumed him for years, that of a typical Spanish conquistador—a man who has been immortalized in the pages of history as a victor, despite his failure. One of the focal points of these stories is Colombia, a country whose grandeur faded through colonization and the passage of time, and a country which, according to the author, Colombians themselves “have all but forgotten”:

[En] la misma geografía [hay] una gran cantidad de elementos que ahora no podemos encontrar. Por ejemplo, los bosques inmensos, descomunales, que fueron todos talados, destruidos por tantas razones distintas […] En alguna página se hace una enumeración de los pueblos que encontró Jorge Robledo por el Cañón del Cauca, y son casi 40 naciones distintas, con sus distintas costumbres, sus indumentarias, sus tradiciones, y por todas las regiones del país era igual… 

[Within] this same geographical space, [there are] many elements that no longer exist. For example, forests of unprecedented vastness, which were all cut down, ravaged for so many different reasons […] Somewhere in the pages of history, there is a list of the Indigenous peoples the conquistador Jorge Robledo encountered in the Cañón del Cauca, and the 40 or so different nations—each with its own customs, ways of dressing, traditions—and it was the same across the entire country…

As for the stories that circulate about the indigenous people who inhabited the land, Ospina says: 

A uno le asombra que se siga hablando de la barbarie y del salvajismo de pueblos que tenían el refinamiento y la delicadeza para hacer un arte con el oro como el que uno puede ver en el museo del oro. El diseño exquisito de los nariño, el diseño de los tumacos, de los zenúes, de los taironas. La cantidad de objetos distintos, la reproducción de la naturaleza, la manera como hacen saltamontes, como hacen pájaros […] Era una suma de culturas riquísima en su interpretación del mundo, y el hecho de que no hubiera llegado a tener una gran arquitectura, porque el clima no era para hacer grandes fortalezas de piedra, permitió que cundiera, digámoslo así, la calumnia, de que eran pueblos bárbaros, cuando ya la antropología moderna nos ha revelado cuán refinado y cuán exquisito es el tejido de sus artesanías y de sus mitos, y sus símbolos. 

It is astounding to think that people still speak of the barbarism and savagery of cultures who possessed the refinement and skill needed to turn gold into art, as evidenced by the collection in the Museo del Oro. The exquisite designs of the NariñoTumaco, Zenú, and Tairona peoples. The sheer number of different artifacts, the way in which nature is reproduced—in pieces such as the grasshoppers and birds […] These represent the apex of cultures that offered an incredibly rich interpretation of the world around them. And the fact that they did not produce substandtial architecture, because the climate is not suited to great stone fortresses, this enabled them to be, shall we say, slandered, vilified for being barbarians, when in fact modern anthropology has revealed just how delicate and ornate the fabric of their artistry, their myths and their symbols truly is. 

Contemporary Colombian history and continued conflict 
Ospina also comments on the stories and voices of the victims, which are usually left out of the dominant narrative. According to him, this absence is manifested by a lack of proper names, which is a way of erasing individuality and the contributions made by so many. The author sees a fusion of past and present in Colombia, where the fate of displaced persons and the tragedy of internal armed conflict, which has claimed the lives of more than 200,000 people since it began in the late 1950s, has made it difficult to forge a collective social project for the country: 

Las víctimas aquí siempre son […] insignificantes. No tienen nombre propio, como ocurrió también en la historia, que los indios y los negros dejaron de tener nombre propio. […]  El genérico reemplazaba la individualidad, y ahí estaba contenida la semilla de un drama. El drama de un pueblo que es mayoritariamente mestizo, mayoritariamente mulato, y que sigue considerando lo indio y lo negro como taras y como insultos. [Sin embargo] el orgullo de ser indígenas, y el orgullo de ser africanos, yo creo que ha ido creciendo, pues buena parte de lo mejor que tiene Colombia es lo que procede de esa riqueza étnica. Y alguna vez a mi me parecía que siquiera de una manera caricatural […] uno podría decir que un colombiano […] piensa como europeo, habla como indígena y baila como africano.

The victims here are always regarded as […] insignificant. They are nameless, something that also happened throughout our history, in which indigenous people and African-Americans lost their personal identity […] The generic replaced the individual, and therein lie the seeds of the tragedy—the tragedy of a people who are mainly mestizo, mainly mulatto, and yet they perceived what is indigenous and black as a defect and an insult. [However] the pride of being indigenous and the pride of being African is, I believe, beginning to take hold, because a lot of what is best in Colombia stems from that rich ethnic mix. And someday, in our own version of the old cultural joke […] we'll be able to say that a Colombian […] is someone who […] thinks like a European, speaks like an indigenous person, and dances like an African.

Regarding the current situation in the country, Ospina has this to say:

Colombia es una extraña figura de la geometría con el centro afuera […] No nos sentíamos en el centro del mundo y eso es una ilusión necesaria. […]  Pero ahora la modernidad y el siglo XX nos han arrojado a la comprobación terrible de que estamos en el centro del mundo, pero no es un centro amable […] Los grandes dramas de la época atraviesan a Colombia por todas partes, de una manera central. […] La crisis espiritual que produce la drogadicción, el problema del tráfico de drogas, el problema del tráfico de armas, el problema de los inmigrantes la pregunta por el desarrollo, la pregunta por la naturaleza y por el futuro de la naturaleza. Todos los grandes temas de la época moderna, son temas centrales para la sociedad colombiana  […] ya no estamos al margen de nada. […] Ya somos una sociedad que afecta al mundo, no lo ve como un espectáculo desde fuera […] quizás por eso las soluciones deberían empezar a salir desde adentro. 

Looked at as a geometric figure, Colombia is unusual because its center is located outside itself […] We never felt as though we were at the center of the world, and that has been a necessary illusion […] But now modernity and the twentieth century have thrust upon us the stark reality that we are, in fact, at the center of the world, and it is not a friendly place […] The great dramas of our time are unfolding all across Colombia […] The spiritual crisis that causes drug addiction, drug trafficking, arms trafficking, the challenge of immigration, disputes over development, the question of nature and the preservation of the environment—all the major themes of the modern era are central issues for Colombian society […] we are no longer at the margins of history […] We are now a society that has an impact on the outside world. This isn't a spectacle to be observed from the outside […] perhaps that is why the solutions should be sought beginning inside the country.

Ospina is frequently criticized for his political stance, for being sympathetic to the Left and the government of former President of Venezuela Hugo Chávez. He is also accused of exploiting the chronicles of the age of the conquest and giving a too-negative reading of the history of Colombia. Nevertheless, the ideas he explores have fostered a general reflection on the nature of identify in conflict, including beyond the borders of Colombia, as is evidenced in a response to Ospina posted to YouTube by María José Laso de la Vega Olivares, an Internet user from Mexico:

Trabajando la primera novela de Ospina logré dilucidar en ella sugerencias sobre la identidad y la memoria del ser colombiano y, más ampliamente, del ser americano. He escuchado algunas entrevistas y después también de leer “La franja amarilla” me doy cuenta de que no estaba errada en lo absoluto. Soy mexicana y, sin embargo, he entendido por medio de la narrativa de Ospina esta urgencia de apostarnos, los ciudadanos americanos, como los verdaderos agentes de cambio de nuestras sociedades.

Examining Ospina's first novel, I was able to elucidate notions about Colombian identity and memory, but more broadly, about being American. I listened to a few interviews and also after reading The Yellow Stripe, I realized that he was not wrong. I am Mexican; however, I understood from Ospina's narrative this urgency, the need for us to engage as citizens of the Americas, to be the real agents of change in our societies. 

This was followed by a comment from Alejandro Triviño, who wonders about the tendency to view the foreign as superior and how profound the process of forging an identity has been for Colombia and Latin America:

porque tan solo olvidamos lo que fuimos ?? porque vemos a los extranjeros mas altos que nosotros mismo, porque fueron estos los que conquistaron no solo nuestro país… si no nuestra identidad. “ser como otros para ser si mismo” (filosofía) la construcción de nuestra propia filosofía [latinoamericana].

Why do we simply forget who were were? Why do we see outsiders as better than ourselves, because they were the ones who conquered not just our country but also our identity. “to be like others in order to be yourself” (philosophy) the construction of our very own philosophy [a Latin American one].

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