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Popayan, Cradle of Colombia

ISSUE:  Winter 1944

Popayan, a small Spanish colonial city in the southwestern part of Colombia, with 407 years of recorded history behind it, is a legendary place which is continually being re-discovered. What follows here is one more attempt at re-discovery, prompted by affectionate admiration and more than a little wonderment. Popayan has 25,000 inhabitants and has probably never had any more, although it certainly had this many 200 years ago. It has been the birthplace of nine presidents, seven of them duly elected, and of a number of distinguished aspirants to this office, of most of the nation’s noted poets, of distinguished priests and prelates, of statesmen and scientists, and of warriors.

Camilo Torres, who shared with Antonio Narifto the honors of beginning the struggle for Colombian independence, and who wrote the “Memorial of Grievances” which touched off the powder barrel, was born in Popayan, although his patriotic services are more directly associated with Bogota. Francisco Jose de Caldas, Colombia’s first scientific genius, and a pure eighteenth-century type, was a native of Popayan, as was Miguel de Pombo, companion of Torres and Narifto. Torres and Caldas both died martyrs’ deaths at the hands of the Spaniards, but their memories are perpetuated in bronze for future generations of Payaneses, and ornament public places in their native town.

The eyes of the Latin-American world, and of other countries where Spanish poetry is known and appreciated, were only recently turned upon Popayan, because Colombia’s most famous poet of modern times was dying there in a great house on the street that has produced more famous men than all the other streets of all the other towns in the country. The name of this historical street is La Pamba. By number, it is Third Street; and it is also known as the Street of the Markers, because of the many plaques that adorn its houses; and it is sometimes referred to, fittingly, as the Street of the Founding Fathers (de los Proceres).

When Maestro Valencia died after forty days of suffering, during which Colombia forgot the war to hang upon every word of the bulletins from his bedside, Rafael Maya, the next best-known poet in the country, pronounced the funeral oration. He, too, is a native of Popayan. The rising young playwright of Colombia at the moment, also a well-established poet, is named Gerardo Valencia, and while he is not closely related to the Maestro, he, too is Payanes. Rafael Pombo, who wrote immortal verses for children, was engendered in Popayan, of Popayan stock on both sides, although he was actually born in Bogota. And the romantic and tragic Jose Asuncion Silva, any good Payanes will tell you, would have been much less of a poet if his mother’s family had not lived long in Popayan.

The founder of this remarkable place, “small but great, like Goethe’s Weimar,” as someone has said, was one of the most incredible of all the incredible conquistadores, those men of tempered steel. He has come down to us as Sebastian de Belalcazar, or simply Belalcazar, thus perpetuating the name of the village in Estremadura where he was born of a soldier-father. His real name of Montoya has been discarded entirely. Some say he came first to the New World when it was very new indeed, or in 1498, with Christopher Columbus. Others put the date of his arrival at 1495 as a companion to Pedrarias Davila. It is clear that he was in Panama a little later, and that he went from Panama to Nicaragua, where he became the mayor of Leon, and took a Mayan woman to wife, begetting by her sons who figured in the early history of Popayan.

After he had reached the age of fifty or thereabouts, the Pizarros, fellow Estremadurans of Don Sebastian, sent him word that they needed his help in exploring and settling the western part of the new continent, bordering on Balboa’s Pacific. The conquistadores were restless folk, ever ready to be off and away in search of gold and adventure, and the middle-aged warrior headed southward. From Lima, he started northward again on Pizarro’s instructions, founding the cities of San Francisco de Quito, Riobamba, and Guayaquil in what is now Ecuador. Then he moved on into present-day Colombian territory, and in July, 1536, founded Santiago de Cali, one of the nation’s most prosperous and progressive cities, metropolis of the rich Cauca Valley, and now a noted crossroads of airlines. When Belalcazar arrived in 1536, there were only two other settlements in what is now Colombia: the coast town of Santa Marta, founded in 1524, where Bolivar’s stormy life had its tragic ending, and Cartagena de las Indias, established ten years later.

In December of the same year, he continued his journey of exploration and settlement as far as the Valley of Pubenza, the seat of Popayan. The most famous epic poem in Colombian literature, Julio Arboleda’s account of the revolt of Gonzalo Oyon against the crown authorities, has a verse which begins “There is a happy valley”; this is a perfect brief description of the scene that met the tired eyes of Belalcazar. Arboleda, the nineteenth century soldier-poet, another one of the principal jewels in the country’s crown of letters, was pure Payane’s, the family having arrived with the first settlers. Exactly what Don Sebastian thought and felt when he first gazed upon the fair land of rolling hills and fertile fields, green, sunny, and with the “climate of perpetual May,” as an early priest described it, nobody knows. After all, Belalcazar was a soldier, not a poet.

Probably at that moment he was thinking of how best to dispose of the Indians whose straw huts had long occupied the future site of Popayan, and who loved the place, as might have been expected, well enough to be willing to fight bravely and stubbornly for it. But if Don Sebastian did not feel lyric stirrings inside his manly bosom, he missed an experience that has been common to all subsequent discoverers. Many travelers, among them the ubiquitous German scientist Baron Humboldt, have exhausted their stock of adjectives trying to describe valley and town, and today’s newspapers still carry unrestrained panegyrics.

The name of the town, which legend has it Belalcazar liked the best of any he founded, is an etymological mystery not yet completely solved; obviously of Indian rather than Spanish origin. The mystery is deepened by the presence in Colombia of a large family named Payan, originally from Po-payan, an odd coincidence. Some have thought the name to be derived from Puben-yasguen, yasguen being the local word for chieftain, which would translate into something like the capital of Puben; and the Indian town was actually the metropolis of a large indigenous population when Don Sebastian arrived on the scene. But a more likely derivation, discovered among many other facts and legends set down here, in a marvelous grab-bag of history and anecdote, Arcesio Aragon’s “Fastos Payaneses,” is that the Quechua word pampa, meaning flat place, plain or valley, and yan, meaning river, were combined to make Pampayan, “the valley with a river.” The Valley of Pubenza has several rivers, principal among them the Cauca, which runs noisily and precipitously through this, part of the country before calming down into one of the nation’s important watercourses, second only to the Magdalena in importance.

Having made, in spite of his increasing years and the hardships he had undergone, one impossible journey after another over terrain that today looks difficult enough even to fly over, Don Sebastian might have been expected to drop anchor in the safe haven of his favorite town, where he had a house built on the public square. But he kept moving, like the other conquistadores, a restless crew. Once back in Quito, he continued to hear tales of the mythical El Dorado, the Gilded Man, an Indian chief who dusted himself with gold dust at intervals and then took a bath in a sacred lake. El Dorado, people said, lived in the Colombian uplands, and so once again Don Sebastian set off with a small band of hardy followers in search, as usual, of gold and adventure.

He made his way up the Cauca and Magdalena Valleys and thence to the high savannah, a vast old lake bed 8,660 feet in the air and rimmed with mountains, where the capital of the country is now situated. There he found already on the ground two other conquistadores who had moved inland separately from the coast. One was a lawyer from Granada named Gonzalo Jimenez de Quesada; the other a German, Herr Federmann, representative of certain Austrian bankers who were always lending money to that great and perpetually broke Emperor, Charles V, and keeping an eye on the possible sources of payment afterward. There is no stranger or more dramatic moment in all the tremendously colorful story of the conquest of South America than this meeting of three Europeans on a lofty plateau which was still difficult of access a mere twenty years ago and even now is reached easily and quickly only by air. It was a meeting which might reasonably have been expected to result in immediate civil war, but for some reason it did not.

The year of this odd and wholly unexpected convention of conquistadores was 1539, or more or less a twelvemonth after Jimenez de Quesada had founded Santa Fe de Bogota on land taken away from the Chibcha Indians, borrowing as well the name of a distinguished chief for his new city. The chief was called Bacata, but in this period of uncertain orthography, even among the educated, phonetic changes were easily made. The next year, Don Sebastian sailed for Spain, probably to present his side of the case, and also to have his rights to the territory patented. Between the founding of Asuncion de Popayan and the little jaunt over the mountains to Bogota, he had taken colonists and supplies to Popayan, and on his return from Spain, he brought more.

These later years of his were unusually stormy. He fought civil wars with anyone in sight, including the powerful Gon-zalo Pizarro. The Government (Gobernaci6n) of Popayan of this period was an empire, stretching all the way from Otavalo, a famous Indian center not far below Quito toward the Colombian border, all the way to Santa Fe de Antioquia, the site of which is near the present thriving city of Medellin. Medellin preserves in Colombia the name of the obscure Es-tremaduran village which was the birthplace of Hernando Cortes. The harsh, dour Estremaduran countryside bred conquistadores of quality. One of Don Sebastian’s followers, another of the lesser conquistadores who left behind still another unbelievable life-story, Don Jorge Robledo, founder of the Colombian cities of Cartago, Anserma, and Antioquia, and explorer of what are now the progressive provinces of Caldas and Antioquia, rebelled against Don Sebastian, and was at once captured and summarily executed.

This sort of procedure was a commonplace among the conquistadores, hard men who had a fine disregard for human life, whether it belonged to them or to someone else, and the execution might ordinarily have gone unnoticed. But Don Jorge’s widow, Dona Maria Carvajal de Robledo, set out at once to avenge her husband’s death, and kept to her purpose with sufficient determination to cause Don Sebastian to be placed under arrest and ordered to Spain to stand trial. Belalcazar was upward of seventy when he reached Cartagena, perhaps even seventy-five, but a fever put an end to his eventful life before he could be forced to fade royal justice. He had nothing in his pockets to show for the thousands of miles he had walked and ridden, nor for the cities he had founded, not a real to show for the riches that had passed through his fingers; so he was buried by charity, nobody knows where. This was in the year 1551, as nearly as it can be fixed, and Don Sebastian had therefore spent half a century in the New World, the last two decades of the period hair-raising in their excitement, and not a day of the fifty years free from danger of some sort.

Today upon a hill that dominates the Valley of Pubenza, Belalcazar rides his noble bronze charger against the sky, usually a soft blue, or flecked with white clouds. His is a heroic figure, strikingly reminiscent, as has often been remarked, of the statues of the Italian condottieri, although he is more dramatically placed than any of those. He is a perpetual reminder to the people of the town he founded of their Spanish origin. From the eminence he occupies, one may look down upon the little city, laid out in squares as regularly as a checkerboard, with wide streets that were most unusual during the colonial period, and with church towers and roofs of grey tile. In Cali, too, there is an equestrian statue to Belalcazar, also on a commanding hilltop, but in Popayan the figure may be seen from all directions, and even from a great distance, where it looks like a toy conqueror mounted on a toy horse, it gives the impression of tremendous strength and virility.

One is always conscious of three things against the sky in Popayan: the bronze Belalcazar, Adelantado par excellence, the towering near-by volcano of Purace, usually wearing a wreath of smoke or white cloud, and the Hill of the Three Crosses. Conqueror and Cross, opposed to the forces of Nature, a perfect symbol of the conquest of Central and South America . . . The Hill of the Three Crosses has raised its reminder of the Crucifixion for time out of mind, and is famous for another reason. The early chroniclers always referred to it as the Hill of the Erne, because of its fancied resemblance to the letter M. Popayan was usually described as lying at the foot of the Hill Erne, although to be wholly truthful about it, the hill does not look much like the letter; and this puzzles visitors who have read the chronicles.

If this legendary town of Popayan had nothing else except its natural situation and its climate, it would be a place where anyone sensitive to weather could be perfectly happy. It has an elevation of five thousand feet, which in the tropics means warm days and cool nights, or eternal spring. The months of July and August are drier than the others and are called “summer,” perhaps to preserve the myth that Popayan has seasons, and during these two months all the good Payaneses who can, go to the country, a custom almost as old as the town. The other most striking feature of Popayan weather is the spectacular electrical storms for which the Valley has always been famous. These storms roll up suddenly, accompanied by terrific claps of thunder and startlingly vivid flashes of lightning. Rains sweep the country in torrents, swelling the swift streams in minutes. Then peace and the sun come back as suddenly as they had disappeared. Popayan has also had earthquakes, which explains why the typical house of the town is one-story, covering a large area; and Purace occasionally sprinkles ashes about, enriching the soil, and breaking the monotony of bright, calm days and still, peaceful nights.

After one of the notable thunderstorms, which impressed even the early chroniclers, the town looks fresher and cleaner than ever. The air is so bland and the sun so hot that even if one should be caught in a downpour, it would not much matter. The place always looks clean and fresh, just as it is always filled with flowers. On the days of these electrical disturbances, there are usually sunsets that are invariably subjects of arguments among people who have seen one. For anybody who has seen one of these displays of celestial beauty is willing to argue the rest of his life that he was present at the most beautiful sunset since the world began,

Of course, the most beautiful sunset of all time was one this writer saw during the time Maestro Valencia was dying, when everything about the town was infinitely more poignant than it would have been normally, infinitely lovelier, more peaceful and sadder. We walked through the town and up Belalcazar’s hill, a poet named Ismael Lopez, who calls himself Cornelio Hispano, and I. Don Cornelio was a lifelong friend of Maestro Valencia’s, and has been Greek consul in Bogota for many years, managing to keep his fellow-Colombians well aware that there was a Greece, and still is. He remarked, as we climbed, that Thuycidides had said the Athenians kept the custom of returning to the country at intervals, but that in Popayan the country lay at the end of every street, giving its blessing to the town.

To undertake to describe that cool, late, infinitely fresh afternoon and the kaleidoscope of colors in the western sky, when cloud and mountain were often indistinguishable, and to try at the same time to recapture the elegiac quality of the dying day and the dying Maestro, would be useless. Everyone in Popayan, no matter of what color or class, was thinking of the Maestro. . . . Greece was there that afternoon in its glory, and the greatness and tragedy of Spain, and the spirit of the Indians who loved the Valley and fought to keep it. All things lovely and of good report were present, and all sad and beautiful things.

Popayan, for all its present peace, has known many sad and bloody times. In its early period, it was a rich and happy place, because of the gold and platinum, the latter despised at the time, from the near-by Choco, which poured into the town. And when the English buccaneers made the waters of Panama unsafe for the “plate ships” of the period, Cartagena, the best fortified harbor in South America, became a port of first importance. Commerce flowed through Popayan both ways. The Magdalena was used from the coast as far inland as was possible and after that the roads, which were very good in the Inca country. The town was one of the principal links in the chain which began at Cartagena, which included Quito, and which ended only in the City of the Kings, Lima.

But when Colombia began her fight for independence, Popayan, at first royalist to the core, quickly became involved and was repeatedly fought over and looted. The sons of the place, from Camilo Torres and Miguel de Pombo to General and President Jose Hilario Lopez, who freed the slaves, and Tomas Cipriano de Mosquera, who was called the “Gran General,” and who was four times President, with dozens of other leading citizens, took important parts in the struggle and paid heavily for their participation. General Mosquera, as Spanish as a paella, was not only a dramatic figure himself, but belonged to one of the First Families of Popayan which has given many noted men to the nation. Then, during the rest of the nineteenth century, when what is now Colombia was called in turn the Republic of New Granada, the Granadine Confederation and the United States of Colombia, one civil war and revolution followed another in rapid succession, and Popayan suffered from all. History records nine of these fratricidal conflicts, and they did not end until 1902, the last year of the War of the Thousand Days, one of the bitterest and most ruinous of all.

The town lost two-thirds of its population in this period, hundreds of its citizens finding it necessary to go into exile, or to move to other parts of the country. This exodus gave rise to the saying, long familiar in Northern South America, “Todo el mundo es de Popayan,” or “Everybody is from Popayan.” Incidentally, this saying was eventually shortened to “Todo el mundo es Popayan,” which has to be translated, “All the world is Popayan,” and given an ironic twist, as if the proud Payancses were saying that Popayan had everything, so why look farther? The first version is not only better Spanish; it is also better sense. Not that the Payaneses do not say in their hearts every day,” Todo el mundo es Popayan”; because they do . . . .

After 1902, Popayan and the rest of Colombia entered upon a peaceful era, which continues. In 1926, when the railroad was first extended into the Valley of Pubenza from Cali, Popayan became accessible to the softer type of traveler, and found itself more or less open to the invasion of the outside world, at least superficially. Spiritually it is intact. Until the railroad came, the town was still a matter of weeks from Bogota, and even now the rail and highway journey from the capital to Cali takes a hard fourteen hours. Then one spends the night in Cali, and uses five more hours to complete the trip. The airplane, which reached Colombia commercially first in all of South America, more than twenty years ago, makes it possible to fly to Cali from Bogota in an hour and a half and then on to Popayan in thirty-five minutes, or two hours for the entire journey. But the overland trip is worth making, for the railroad runs an hour up the flat and fertile Cauca Valley and then begins to wind itself around mountains in fantastic loops, reversing the process when the Valley of Pubenza is reached.

Popayan also has one of the most famous celebrations of Holy Week in the world, usually mentioned with those of Sevilla and Santiago de Chile. But where Sevilla’s Semana Santa is a pagan orgy to delight the soul of the student of comparative religion who knows that Isis was once fervently worshipped on the banks of the Guadalquivir and lives on as the Virgin Mary, Popayan’s celebration of the Passion is deeply and movingly pious, a serious and sincere manifestation of the Christian faith. People flock from the outside to see it, but it is not a tourist spectacle; every Pay ante loves every image that is carried in the procession, and will run across town half a dozen times to see the pasos go by again, no matter how many times he has seen them before. The processions are held at night and are lighted by men and women carrying candles. An orchestra playing sad music, with the organ mounted on rollers, is a part of every procession, and the long, long lines of candles moving through the Colonial streets under the clear, still sky of the Valley is an unforgettable sight. Prominent citizens carry the heavy pasos; in Sevilla this is the work of laborers, called scornfully Gallegos.

Popayan is very proud of its Holy Week celebration, and there is a story, which si non e vero e ben trovato, that once when Bolivar passed through Popaydn, a town he knew and loved very much, although he saw it only in his rapid passages back and forth during the War of Independence, the population, striving to pay the highest possible honor to the Liberator, decided to have out the pasos and to put on the processions, although it was October! Cooler ecclesiastical counsel prevailed and the celebration was not held, but to have had the Virgins of the city greet the Conqueror would not have been too much out of place when it was the common custom during the War of Independence to make favorite Virgins Generalissimos of the troops.

In recent years, the pilgrimage place of the community has been the huge house of Maestro Valencia, in the Colonial style, which is called Belalcazar. Violets grow freely among the flagstones of the patio, and hummingbirds nest there, although the jewel-like tropical species are usually very shy about their housekeeping. For some months before Maestro Valencia died, his friend of half a century, Maestro Baldomero Sanin Cano, also lived at Belalcazar, and the conversation there ranged the world and history in its topics, for both these unusual men had lived in many countries and knew many literatures as well as their own. In addition to being a distinguished poet, Maestro Valencia also had a noteworthy career as a diplomat and public official. Maestro Sanin, some twelve years the senior of his poet friend, who was nearly seventy when he died, is hale and hearty, and writes as vigorously as ever. He is not a Payanes by origin, but an Antioqueno from the old and famous town of Rionegro, who went to Popayan to become rector of the University at the suggestion of Maestro Valencia and remained there to become one of the fixtures and honors of the community.

Popayan is famous for many things other than those that have been mentioned already, although its particular product has always been, and still is, distinguished human beings. On the public square there is a plaque in honor of “la mujer payanesa” who has mothered the great men of the vicinity, and the women of the place have long been noted for their beauty and distinction. This applies alike to the exotic-looking napangas, the women of the clases bajas mixtures of Indian, Negro, and Spanish blood, and to the daughters of the hidalgos who settled the town four hundred years ago. It has fine colonial churches such as San Francisco, San Agustin, and Santo Domingo, all rich in baroque decorations of gold, silver, red, and blue. It has a lovely little colonial chapel called La Hermita, perfectly situated at the end of a rising street that goes past the neat, peaceful, flower-filled Plaza de Caldas, which honors a great scientist who died for liberty, and past the Cathedral; and it has Belen, a pilgrimage church, also on an eminence, and so bad architecturally as to be almost fascinating.

It also has a University which, like most of the schools in Colombia of upward of one hundred years in age, was founded by Francisco de Paula Santander, first president of Colombia and its great “Man of Laws.” The University is “the University of the Cauca,” Popayan now being the seat of government of the Department of the Cauca, as Cali is of the Valley, thus cutting in two the old Cauca, which often tried to win its independence. The University has in its auditorium a titanic mural of all the history of the town, painted by Maestro Efrain Martinez, a native son of Indian stock who studied and worked abroad and then came back to live and to perpetuate the story of his home. Engraved in the wall at the side of the mural is Maestro Valencia’s famous poem to Popayan, one of his best and most evocative. The University has inherited the rich intellectual tradition of the old Royal Seminary, in whose halls most of the distinguished men of the past were educated.

Caldas, who was, after all, a scientist, remarked that the Valley of Pubenza looked as if it had been created by poets, and nearly every visitor since has said that the place was a paradise for makers or lovers of poetry. It is recorded that some years ago the local newspaper carried this note: “J—— D——, the well known poet, arrived in Popayan this morning. Twelve thousand poets salute him.” The number in question probably represented the total literate population, men, women, and children, if it did not exaggerate it. In Spain there used to be a saying that Andalusia always has three thousand poets, but this is a much smaller percentage of the population, as may be seen, than is reputed to follow the Muse in the Vale of Puben.

“Cielo, suelo y pan, los de Popayan,” runs another familiar saying from the colonial period, a slight paraphrase, perhaps, of Cervantes’s comment on Madrid and Valladolid, “Para Madrid, cielo y suelo, para Valladolid, entresuelo.” The first saying means that heaven, earth, and bread are better in Popayan, because the skies are so beautiful, the soil is so rich, and the bread, made of the special wheat grown in the Valley, so delicious. The praise is not exaggerated at any point.

In this troubled world, the “little but great” city at the foot of the Hill called M raises its eyes eternally to Belalcazar, Purace, and the Three Crosses, a place of peace and poetry, an unspoiled paradise, with layer on layer of history and legend to provoke the curious and the studious, with people who are outwardly reserved and dignified, but warmhearted in the Spanish manner once one is inside their homes, with handsome colored people, and an abundance of fruit, flowers, and sunshine for those who care to live only in their bodies and in the present. There are few places like it in the world, one may be perfectly sure.

Popayan, they say, is really Colombia distilled and redistilled, a nation’s cradle and microcosm. To study it with the care and love it deserves would be perhaps to come close to understanding one of our nearest South American neighbors and most charming friends. And what a pleasant task this could be to anyone who did not mind sloughing off, at least temporarily, most of the noisy evidences of modern progress !


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