Finding Herstory at the San Pedro Cemetery Museum

Here at A Bitch in Time, we love a good cemetery and think they can be an awesome way to learn about HERstory – after all they can be one of the few places you see evidence that women actually existed in the past! Back in October, I visited the San Pedro Cemetery Museum in Medellín, Colombia. It is unsurprisingly a cemetery, but one that has since become a National Monument of Colombia due to its artistic and historical significance. And now I’m about to do my best to give an accurate account of a place I went to 6 months ago…

Medellín is an incredible city but it has been at the centre of the Colombian conflict – the longest-running civil war in history. It’s a really complex topic that I don’t feel qualified to explain but if you want to read more about it, Conciliation Resources has a pretty in-depth historical analysis of it, or the BBC website has a simpler, but slightly outdated, synopsis.

A lot of people don’t like speaking about the past in Medellín – to the point where the local government launched a recent media campaign with the slogan “Adelante y Sin Reversa”, which translates as “moving ahead without looking back”. However, there are places that memorialise and discuss the city’s history, and the San Pedro Cemetery Museum is definitely one of them. Founded in 1842, it is the oldest cemetery in the city and is sort of a physical manifestation of Medellín’s story.

Guided tours of the cemetery run most weekends and can be arranged in advance on weekdays and are excellent – our guide was a super friendly and knowledgeable university student from Antioquia (the department of Colombia of which Medellin is the capital). The entrance is really grand and everywhere you look are huge marble crypts belonging to the wealthy families who profited off Medellín’s position as a bustling commercial hub in the 19th and early 20th Century. As you get to the public mausoleums, however, the impact of the conflict becomes apparent. In 1991, 6,349 people were murdered in the city, and many more ‘disappeared’. The murder rate was so high, and the demand for burial space so great, that poorer citizens could only rent a place in the public mausoleums for 6 years, before having to reclaim their loved ones’ ashes.

It can be difficult to comprehend death on that scale and I know that I sometimes tend to see the dead as ‘the dead’ – like a collective rather than individual people with individual stories. My favourite part of the tour offered a more personalised narrative of the history – it was at the very end, when our guide showed us the graves and told us the stories of two amazing Colombian women who just happened to be interned in the same mausoleum; María Cano and Ana Fabricia Córdoba.

María Cano was a poet who was raised by radical socialist parents. She became known as the ‘Flor del Trabajo’ (flower of labour) due to her efforts fighting for the rights of workers and she co-founded the Colombian Socialist Revolutionary Party in 1926. Cano also spoke out against the death penalty and was a harsh critic of US business interests in the country. She became a symbol of rebellious women in Colombia and parents in Antioquia apparently sought to prevent their daughters from becoming ‘mariacanos’ (literally what an achievement). Despite leaving politics due to an ideological split in the Socialist Party, she continued to speak out on social issues and was appointed speaker for the Democratic Organisation of Antioquia Women. She died in 1967 aged 79.

Ana Fabricia Córdoba was born over 70 years after María Cano and had a very different life. In 2001, she was forced to flee her home in Chocó after her husband and one of her sons were murdered by paramilitary groups. She settled in Medellín, where she became involved in women’s rights work and campaigned for compensation for land stolen from people displaced by the conflict. In December 2014, well over 5 and a half million Colombians were registered as being displaced, of which a disproportionate amount were black or indigenous. Ana Fabricia Córdoba was determined to use her voice on behalf of the victims of the conflict who had little public platform and was fearless in raising awareness to the cause, continuing to speak at public events despite increasing risks to her safety. Her second son was killed in 2010 – by the police she claimed – and Ana Fabricia Córdoba herself was killed by a gunman on a bus in Medellín in 2011. Shortly after her death, the Colombian government implemented the ‘Victims Law’, which aimed to restore millions of acres of land to people who have been driven from their homes by violence. As of 2016 more than 590,000 people had received compensation.

Ana Fabricia Córdoba and María Cano were both remarkable women who dedicated their lives to helping their fellow Colombians and fighting against injustice and corruption. Born a couple of generations apart, and raised under very different circumstances, they would never have met in life, which sort of makes it all the more poignant that they just happen to be buried so close to each other. Their graves demonstrate the individual stories you can find in cemeteries and hopefully their stories will continue to be remembered as Medellín recovers from its past.

If you want to learn more about the history of Medellín, the Discover Colombia website has a really nice, succinct overview.

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