This collection of 50 articles covers almost every conceivable aspect of Antioqueño history. It not only demonstrates the recent burst of scholarship on one of Colombia’s most important regions, but also the impact of a new generation of Colombian historians willing to interpret the past critically for a general audience.
To begin with, Historia de Antioquia embodies the latest fruit of scholarly interest in a region made famous by U.S. geographer James Parsons. In his classic Antioqueño Colonization in Western Colombia (1949) Parsons brought attention to the fact that the Antioqueños acted differently from what most North Americans considered the Latin American norm, that is, they excelled at business enterprise. He attributed this seemingly “deviant” behavior—exemplified by traditional Antioqueño achievements in gold mining, trade, coffee cultivation, and twentieth-century success in textile manufacturing and other modern industries—to regional conditions and cultural values that rewarded hard work and entrepreneurial skill. Parsons paved the way for subsequent research into the roots of an Antioqueño entrepreneurship that continues to show its vitality in the successes of Medellín’s notorious drug cartel. He also sparked a desire among Colombian and Antioqueño-born historians to learn more about their past, and, more importantly, to explore the dialectic between region and nation that has shaped Colombia since its separation from Spain. Historia de Antioquia reflects this desire for a meaningful past.
After a thoughtful, introductory essay by former President Belisario Betancur, the book presents an overview of regional history from pre-Columbian times through the Violencia (1946-53). Consisting of about one dozen articles by different authors, this overview incorporates some of the newest scholarship on the region’s history. Besides the well-known work of Jorge Orlando Melo, it introduces the work of younger scholars such as Luis Javier Ortiz on the nineteenth century and Mary Roldán on politics in the midtwentieth century.
Yet, aside from these valuable contributions, the book proves rather disappointing. Designed mainly for a general audience (the various articles were originally published as part of a series presented three years ago by the Medellín newspaper, El Colombiano), it has no footnotes, relying instead on short bibliographies to indicate the sources of information for each article. Furthermore, its contents are of uneven quality. Historiographically significant contributions share space with rather superficial accounts on a potpourri of subjects including popular customs, diet, medicine, engineering, painting, sculpture, cinema, music, etc. While some of these are interesting, it would have been better to organize them within a thematic or chronological framework that would lend coherence to the whole. Instead, one is left wondering how the development of cinema in the 1950s relates to the history of a society long marked by conservative, puritanical social mores as well as entrepreneurial initiative.
Yet, I suppose one cannot fault Melo and his collaborators for addressing themselves to a general audience curious about the past. Indeed, Historia de Antioquia’s greatest significance may be in its effort to show that history belongs to everyone, not just to members of an academic guild who have traditionally neglected broad social and political concerns as well as anything having to do with cultura popular. Thus, the history of Antioquia and the Antioqueños is for all Colombians to leam from and take pride in. The fact that copies of Historia were distributed freely to libraries and schools throughout Antioquia confirms that this philosophy indeed motivated the book’s sponsors (which included Suramericana de Seguros and several other major corporate interests from the region). Historia de Antioquia thus seeks to reaffirm a collective identity weakened by what one of the book’s distinguished sponsors, Nicanor Restrepo Santamaría, has termed “the challenges presented by [Colombia’s] accelerating social, cultural, and economic transformation.”