This July I had the privilege to serve as an interpreter and presenter at the 2011 Smithsonian Folklife Festival program Colombia: La Naturaleza de la Cultura. It was an incredible experience for me as a Colombian living abroad. What an absolute gift it was to inundate myself with the beautiful energy and the richness of my culture and to have had the opportunity to translate and transmit the knowledge and traditions of my home country to an English-speaking audience in Washington, D.C.
I was born and raised in Colombia, but I left the country twelve years ago. I currently reside in D.C. During the Festival, it was as if a miniature version of my country had traveled and installed itself on the National Mall; I couldn’t believe it! All of a sudden, I was in the city where I live, but I was also in Colombia. What’s more, the exhibitions not only transported me to my native city Bogotá, but to all of Colombia: I was in the highlands; I was in the wet forest of the Pacific; I was in the Amazon; I was in the Llanos… I was suddenly immersed in the geographical and cultural diversity of my country and absorbing it in a very intense way from the true bearers of the traditions and culture who had travelled to the Festival to share their knowledge.
The ‘ecosystem’ that I worked in as an interpreter was the Pacific rainforest, the Chocó region. Before and during the Festival, I went through the process of absorbing and learning about the cultural practices of this region through my own research and by reading the material that the Smithsonian and the Fundación Erigaie in Colombia had produced as preparation for the Festival; but more importantly through active conversations with the participants who came to Washington to teach us about la cultura chocoana (the cultural practices from Chocó). I spent most of my time with the cantadoras de alabaos (singers of alabaos, which are songs sang a cappella during funerals). I served as interpreter during the demonstrations of the balasadas, which are river processions that honor the patron saints of the Chocó, San Francisco and San Antonio. I also helped with other presentations showcasing Pacific ecosystem artists, including those of woodworkers, artisans who create products from palm fiber, and cooks who demonstrated such regional specialities as the “arroz claváo.”
As an interpreter, I was constantly learning, absorbing, observing, listening, and simultaneously translating, transmitting this information to the public. It was intense, it was challenging, but it was incredibly rewarding. One of my most important realizations during the Festival was how the “off-stage” moments could become key experiences of rich cultural connection and dialogue. Some of the strongest and truly engaging moments happened in the “in-betweens” before and after formal performances.
Here’s a descriptions of one of these off-stage moments:
Toward the last days of the Festival, I was resting with Cruz Neyla, one of the funeral singers, after a performance. She had come from Andagoya, Chocó, to perform what she frequently practices in her village during the funerals of family and community members. We were sitting by the empty coffin that was part of the performative demonstrations of the alabaos and the gualíes, which took place twice a day. She began to tell me about how she sang an alabao to her mother the night of her passing. Her expression tightened, and I could tell that this had occurred recently and that she still held a lot of pain and was grieving. I realized at that moment that we were talking about a specific practice in her local culture—the singing of the alabao— but also about something entirely universal, the grief of losing a loved one.
A minute later, a Festival visitor approached us with her young son. She was drawn by the presence of the coffin and of this unusual setting, and she asked us what this space was all about. After we described the regional funeral traditions for her, she asked Cruz Neyla if she could sing a little to her and Cruz Neyla gladly agreed.
Cruz Neyla began to sing in a way that I hadn’t seen during previous alabao presentations for the public. I knew she was singing to her mother. She was singing with her eyes closed and in the middle of the song she stopped; she couldn’t continue. She began to cry. The visitor’s eyes began to water as well, and she told me that her father had just passed away. Cruz Neyla looked at her and told her that she had also recently lost her mother and that she was singing to her. They looked at each other, and I knew that they were connecting without speaking. I translated to each of them what the other was saying but at that moment I knew that translation wasn’t necessary. These two women were communicating in such a genuine and profound way, they were completely connected at that instant by the grief and the beauty of that song that Cruz Neyla sang to her deceased mother. I feel that this moment was a perfect example of how cultural expression and traditions can truly be external and localized manifestations of universal realities of the human condition.
The Smithsonian Folklife Festival achieves, in my opinion, an ideal form of showcasing traditional cultures. The participation of cultural bearers opens up the space for spontaneous and pure expressions of culture. The participants understand that their customs are considered valuable, and so during the Festival they feel proud, and they take this pedagogical exchange extremely seriously. During the ten days of the Festival, I witnessed many meaningful and genuine cultural exchanges. These encounters inspired new questions. And for a brief span of time, new means of connecting arose among all those who interacted. For me, the experience of participating in these exchanges was absolutely unforgettable.
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Catalina Gómez was born in Bogotá, Colombia. She lives in Washington, D.C., where she works as a program assistant in the Hispanic Division of the Library of Congress. She earned her bachelor’s degree in visual arts and Latin American literature from the University of California, San Diego; and she holds a master’s degree in visual culture from the University of Barcelona (Barcelona, Spain). She has a strong passion for literature, cultural studies, and the arts –she also works independently as an illustrator.