These two books, self-consciously Marxist in perspective, are reservoirs of basic historical and geographic information and insight about one of the lesser known parts of South America, the seasonally flooded plains of the lower Magdalena, Cauca, César, and San Jorge river valleys and the adjacent Sabanas de Bolívar.
In Mompox y Loba, well-known sociologist Orlando Fals Borda returns to his “roots,” his native village of San Martín de Loba on the Magdalena near the old colonial city of Mompox. As the title suggests, this is a “double history,” made up of two parallel accounts. On one side of each page is an informed and profusely detailed description of the land and the amphibious society it has supported, while the opposite sides contain an interpretive analysis and the appropriate documentation (canal A and canal B). The volume covers the social history of the period to the end of the revolution of 1810-21. A second, in preparation, will bring it through the convulsions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Fals’s technique is as novel as his organization. He is the reporter for a group of five compatriots who are brought together in the course of a chalupa trip on the Magdalena from Magangué to San Martín de Loba. During the journey they reflect on their patria chica, on why it is what it is, and how it happens that what was once a prosperous, relatively egalitarian society has come to its present state. The world of the rianos, it is suggested, is but a reflection of modern Colombian society and its problems. On arrival at Loba, it is decided to involve the larger community in a kind of folk seminar on the past and present conditions of the town and its region, focusing on the historical processes that have left it an economic and cultural backwater. It appears that this is no literary ploy, but that these study sessions have been realities and are continuing.
The book is an important one for anyone interested in the colonial background of the Caribbean lowlands of Colombia. A deftly constructed combination of local history, cultural geography, and social commentary, it gave the reviewer, at least, the excitement of discovery. It is a mine of material from generally inaccessible municipal and family archives and from the testimony of local riverfront sabios. Genealogical reconstructions of the elite families are especially instructive, revealing the complex interlocking relationships among them.
The author says that he has not written for historians or for government officials, but for the common folk of Loba and the entire Mompox region, “to open their eyes to the importance of knowing their past and to link it with their present actions and hopes.” Shining through the sometimes revolutionary matrix is a deep personal commitment and concern for social reform and the future welfare of the people.
The Reyes Posada volume, like that of Fals Borda, carries a political message and is rich in regional historical background. It focuses on the agrarian history of the neighboring Sabanas de Bolívar, separated from Bolívar in 1968 to form the department of Sucre, with its capital Sincelejo.
It is a story of land monopoly and widening class conflicts, and of how they have contributed to making this area the heartland of livestock latifundia on the northwest coast of Colombia. The concentration of regional political power in the hands of an increasingly entrenched land-owning elite and the evolution of political clientelismo are the overriding themes. The recent social unrest in the area and the rash of “invasions,” reflecting the excesses of latifundismo and the ineffectiveness of agrarian reform, have been the yeast that has given rise to a realistic new historical and social-science literature in Colombia, of which these two works are noteworthy representatives.