Muro de las Lágrimas: Historical Conservation in the Galapagos



Isla Isabela: Paradise with a dark history

I am currently on study abroad in Ecuador, which has provided me with a mountain of experiences to post about when my homework will allow. I recently had the good fortune to go to the Galapagos, a dream I’ve had since I realized they existed. I am still so struck by everything I saw. In this post, I’ll just highlight one of the places on Isla Isabela that started some good conversations among my classmates about historical conservation of sites of trauma. Also, I will share a poem I wrote about the location.

Former President Ibarra of Ecuador used the island of Isabela as a penal colony (1946-1956), where prisoners were forced to do agricultural labor. They had to carry lava rocks from all over the island to construct the walls of their own prison. There are stories that they would cry as they carried the rocks. I was told that bodies are inside the walls from the rocks falling down while they were building them. The saying that accompanies the island’s history is: Los valientes lloran y los cobardes mueren, which means “The brave cry and the cowards die.” After ten years, the prisoners escaped by creating a play for the guards about prisoners escaping. They got the guards drunk, and actually escaped during the play.

Despite the story of escape, it couldn’t feel like a happy ending. My friends and I were talking about how it felt to visit this site of trauma as tourists. What is the role of historians and purpose of preserving places exactly as they were in the past? Is it to empower us with memories that in our normal lives we couldn’t have access to? Who are these memories for? For some people, this type of oppression is not of the past. They don’t need external reminders because the struggle for survival is part of their daily lives. There was conversation in the group about how preserving sites of trauma allows many of us to experience a sense of empathy before moving on to our daily, more privileged lives. This is how the set-up of touring through the site of trauma left us feeling.

The Isla Isabela prison isn’t an isolated example of tourism intersecting with painful history. The infamous Île de Gorée, the starting point of the Atlantic Slave Trade off the coast of Senegal, is another case where a site of trauma is preserved for visitors, as is. There’s a long history of sites, from battlefields, to Concentration Camp locations, to 9/11 “Ground Zero” that people visit to honor the memories and the associated emotions locked into those particular square meters of land.

Our conversation continued as we wondered if there is a way to preserve a painful piece of history while also healing it? I remember when I worked at Raxa, one of the things I learned is that there is a way to honor history while acknowledging the present, moving forward in a way that includes and respects the history of a place.

Is it necessary to keep these sites exactly as they were? Or can we grow something new that acknowledges history in a deeper way?  I don’t know exactly what that would look like, perhaps some sort of transformative art. To some degree a profound transformation already exists on Isla Isabela: directly after the penal colony was closed the Galapagos National Park and the Charles Darwin Research Center were founded. My friends and I were left with many conflicting thoughts and feelings about the experience.

I had to write a ballad for my poetry class. A ballad is a song or poem that narrates a story and its structure includes a refrain to mimic the feeling of returning to a memory. Since we left Isla Isabela wanting to create something new while acknowledging the past, I thought it was a fitting to tell its story in this way.

Balada de Muro de las Lágrimas

Porte su propio encierro.

Los turistas toman fotos

como si las piedras no

hicieron eco de las lágrimas

de la gente que aún lleva

su propio encierro.

Cuando fui a las Galápagos,

la gente me dijo esto

sobre la colonia penal:

“Los valientes lloran

y los cobardes mueren.”

Los presos llevaron

piedras volcánicas

para construir su propia cárcel.

Las islas son una diadema

esculpidas por el fuego

llevado por la reina del océano.

Las piedras golpearon

por el calor del sol.

El calor es pesado y violento.

Las piedras interiorizan

este calor y la gente las porte.

Las piedras saben de la dureza

y la dulzura de agua.

Durante diez años,

cada día llevaban

su cárcel y lloraban.

Construir tu propia prisión

es aceptar que no eres libre.

Cuando me puse cerca

de la pared de piedra,

el aire se hizo denso

con ecos de lágrimas,

cuando ando más cerca,

oigo los niños que todavía

llevan su propio prisión

en sus espaldas que me dicen:

“Los valientes lloran

y los cobardes mueren.”

Los turistas toman fotos

como si las rocas no

hicieron eco de las lágrimas

de la gente que aún lleva

su propio encierro.

Los presos se liberaron

con una obra teatral

y licor para la policía.

Destruyeron su propia prisión.

Las piedras volcánicas me dicen:

“Los valientes lloran

y los cobardes mueren.”

Las piedras aún lloran porque

las personas siguen construyendo

su propia prisión, pensando

que no son libres.

Las piedras que han ido dejando

el peso de ellos en el polvo.

One thought on “Muro de las Lágrimas: Historical Conservation in the Galapagos

  1. Pingback: Recognizing the Gift of the Galapagos | Raxa Collective

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