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© 2018 | Jaime Gómez

The first day at the Indian boarding school.

July 29, 2018

Luis remembers how his legs were “almost shaking” the day he was sent to Nazareth’s Indian boarding school in 1963. He was thirteen or fourteen; he doesn´t remember well. He had seen the new building from the distance while in its early stages of construction, but had never been inside. He also had seen the Capuchin monks when his mother would send him to Nazareth, the small town that grew around the school, to exchange goat’s meat and leather for coffee beans and panela (1). The bearded men, as people called the monks, were strange. Their whole body was covered save for their hands and the small area on their faces not hidden by beard. Some children had been told that the huge pots the monks had in the school´s kitchen were meant to cook children. There were many reasons to be scared.


When Luis entered the building for the first time, many things were new to him. Language was one of those things. The monks yelled at the newcomers –some of them children, others, grownups who were treated as children— in Spanish, but most of them didn´t understand. The only Indians who could understand Spanish in the region were those who had already been Christianized or who were used to trade with mestizos or arijunas (2). Luis not only remembers the monks´ loud voices, but also his first impressions on the new environment. He was amazed at the perfectly straight walls softened by plaster; something he had never seen before. He was puzzled by the hardness of the floor and tried to figure out how he would find lizards to hunt in such a hard surface. When the sun went down, a new component would add more strangeness to the environment: electric light. The reader might get surprised to know that in 1963 many people in Colombia had never seen electric light. This was true for people living in very remote areas of the country. Luis was one of them.


When Luis saw the lit lamps, his first reaction was to hide in the corners the light didn´t reach. He was scared. He thought that the light coming from these novel devices was going to burn him. Along with the light there came the noise of the power generator. He had heard this noise from the distance before, but had never been so close to it. It was scary. He tells me this, making sure that I understand how perturbing machines’ sounds were to him. He adds that when the elders at home heard an airplane, children were asked to hide because it was thought that the airplane was going to abduct them.


Getting to know how to operate in the new environment required learning new things, and the monks were there to offer an explanation. However, because of the language barrier, a shortcut to learn how to operate in the school was to imitate more experienced classmates. In this way, Luis learned not to be afraid of the toilet, to use a faucet, and, in general, to behave according to what the school´s spatial settings and activities demanded. Some operations, such as crossing every time a doorway was passed through as a sign of respect for the images of Christ hanging from the lintels, were symbolic. Other operations, such as mopping the floor, were practical. Rules and spatial settings worked together to promote certain behaviors, but what were the values the monks transmitted through each operation the students were asked to perform? Did the monks consider each operation a pedagogical tool to transmit values? If so, were the students aware of the values behind the operations? Finally (and perhaps more importantly), did operations and values give shape to a domesticity that was close to the one the Colombian government wanted Indian children to learn and replicate?



1. Raw sugar cane melted into solid blocks.

2. Arijuna is the word used by Wayúu Indians to refer to people who does not have Wayúu ancestry.

3. This text is based on interviews. The interviewee´s real name has been changed to protect his privacy. 



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