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© 2018 | Jaime Gómez

The seed of a town.

April 28, 2018

Originally an intrepid attempt by Capuchin monks to plant the seed for the "civilization" of Wayúu Indians, the Internado Indígena de Nazareth (Nazareth´s Indian Residential School), located in the northern part of La Guajira region, would become a central piece in the development of its surrounding area (see image 1). The humble buildings that held the school when it was founded were built on a piece of land owned by the Indians, which the Capuchin monks got in exchange for food (1) (see image 2). In the mid-twentieth century a new structure built on a nearby location replaced the original buildings and still hosts the school. Unlike the extremely arid soils typical of La Guajira region, the area where the school is located remains green thanks to the nearby mountain system, La Macuira. Indeed, according to accounts by Capuchin monks published in the periodical Ecos de la Misión, the close presence of La Macuira and of a creek renamed by the Capuchins as Nazareth (the creek originally had a Wayúu name) was the main criterion informing the location of the school. 


Image 1: The Indian residential school (bottom center) and the town that emerged around it, 2003. (source: Instituto Geográfico Agustín Codazzi - IGAC)


Image 2: First buildings of Nazareth´s Indian Residential School, c. 1918 (source: AAVV, Informes que Rinden el Vicario Apostólico de La Goajira y el Prefecto Apostólico del Caquetá y Putumayo a Ilustrísimo y Reverendísimo Señor Arzobispo Primado, Bogotá: Imprenta Nacional, 1918.)


Getting to the place where the school would be built was hard in 1913, when the school was founded. Letters written by the first monks and nuns visiting the place describe a three-to-seven day trip by sea on board of a schooner from the city of Riohacha, and then a trip of a couple of hours on mule.(2) Even today, people must travel between 7 to 9 hours by car on an unpaved road to get to the school from the nearest municipality (see image 3). Notwithstanding its remoteness, the school gave origin to a small town, Nazareth, whose urban area is currently inhabited by around 700 people not including those living in the school. Nazareth´s main street, which extends barely one block, is the core of the town´s activity. People coming from the nearby Colombian and Venezuelan rancherias and towns on motorbike, the preferred vehicle, flood Nazareth everyday to buy and sell products, see the doctor at the local hospital, or visit relatives, some of them living in the school.(3) Nowadays, as in the early twentieth century, there is no control in the area to cross the border between Colombia and Venezuela. This lack of control occurs in spite of the government´s recent announcements on national media describing the tight controls officials are supposedly exercising to regulate the increasing migration of people from Venezuela. 


Image 3: Current conditions of road to Nazareth. (source: author)


Apparently, the first inhabitants of the town were the school´s first alumni. The emergence of a town came as no surprise to the Capuchins. One of the first articles published in Ecos de la Misión on the foundation of the school suggests that the Capuchins expected a town to grow around the school.(4) In fact, they participated directly in the construction of houses. In a letter addressed to the regions´s apostolic vicar (the head of the mission), the school´s director reminds him of the houses for those wanting to marry, adding that those houses would encourage young people to form Catholic homes. (5) A more telling evidence is a picture from the 1910s where a group of Wayúu natives pose in front of a house they received from the school (see image 4). Houses like the one in the image would be described by father Francisco Pichón after visiting the area in 1934, noting that they were inhabited by the school´s alumni who have married.(6)


Image 4: Indians and priest in front of one of the houses provided by the school to former students who got married, c. 1918. (source: Capuchin nuns´ archive in Nazareth, La Guajira).


The fact that the school built houses for its former students to encourage Catholic marriages could also be read as an attempt to extend the influence of the institution beyond its walls. Four or five years spent at the school might have not been enough to guarantee that former students now living by themselves followed the customs they had learned from the Capuchins. Instead, a house including all the "proper" areas and equipment, and located near the school, might have been seen as a guide to remind students how to behave. Yet, many questions remain. Did Capuchins visit former students frequently to check if they were living as expected? did former students living in the houses built by the school actually behave following the lessons learned at the school? Did the Capuchins exercise any influence in the functioning of the town? 



1. AAVV. Crónica 1914-1979. Unpublished manuscript., p.11.

2. "En Exploración. A la Lucha," Ecos de la Misión (Riohacha), July 30, 1913; "De Viaje a Nazaret. Carta de Una Hermana," Ecos de la Misión (Riohacha), Feb. 2, 1917, p.818.

3. Rancherias are groups of buildings where Wayuu natives live. They are scattered through the territory and their location is based on the availability of resources, particularly water.

4. "En Exploración. A la Lucha," Ecos de la Misión (Riohacha), July 30, 1913.

5. "De Nuestro Orfelinato 'La Sagrada Familia'," Ecos de la Misión (Riohacha), March 15, 1915, p.496.

6. Pichón, Francisco, "Andando por La Guajira II," Ecos de la Misión (Riohacha), Sept. 27, 1934, p.6.

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