In the mid-nineteenth century, the Chorographic Commission of Colombia, an ambitious geographical expedition, set out to define and map a nascent and still unstable republic. The commission’s purpose was to survey the land, its resources and people, and portray Colombia as a nation prone to the “wonders” of modernization.
In Mapping the Country of Regions: The Chorographic Commission of Nineteenth-Century Colombia (University of North Carolina Press, 2016), Nancy P. Appelbaum reconstructs how elites, through visual and textual methodologies, envisioned the nation and its component parts. In particular, the books focuses on a dilemma that has characterized modern nation formation in Latin America and the world: how is it possible to build and represent a unified nation while simultaneously showcasing regional diversity and particularity? In the case of Colombia, how did Commissioners solved the tension between aspirational homogeneity and the regional heterogeneity found on the ground? As this fascinating interview tells us, racial and gendered stereotypes were used to solve this paradox. Unsuccessful in their quest for unity, the commissioners represented the highland regions as white and civilized, while the lowlands were allegedly black, backward, and savage. This in turn created a dichotomy that still haunts the way in which we, Colombians, understand our country today.
Lisette Varón-Carvajal is a PhD student at Rutgers University-New Brunswick. You can tweet her and suggest books at @LisetteVaron.
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