Jhon Narváez has made it his life’s work to re-center the history of his native Cartagena, Colombia around the Black population that defined its centuries-long history as Spanish America’s largest slave port.
Through working in the film industry, as well as through activism and grassroots organizing, Narváez has worked tirelessly to subvert historical narratives. Yesterday night in Kresge Auditorium, he shared that work with the Bowdoin community in a lecture that left attendees with a renewed sense of the importance of exposing historical context.
The event was hosted by the Latin American Student Organization (LASO) and sponsored by the Center for Multicultural Student Life, the Program of Latin American, Caribbean and Latinx Studies, Romance Languages and Literatures and the Office of Inclusion and Diversity as part of Latinx Heritage Month.
Narváez told his story in his native Spanish with translation and commentary provided by Associate Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures and Latin American, Caribbean and Latinx Studies Nadia V. Celis. Much of Narváez’s presentation focused on the story behind how he got motivated to look within his own city of Cartagena to expose stories that were right in front of him.
Narváez described how, after growing up in Cartagena and then returning to the city’s central neighborhoods after 35 years, he found that many of the problems he had been plagued by as a young man had barely changed. He took it upon himself to do that work. Narváez began volunteering at local schools, conducting youth outreach and supporting students outside of the classroom.
“After that began the next chapter,” Narváez said. “I realized that there was no hero representing Cartagena. If I wanted there to be that kind of superhero, I had to create one myself.”
Narváez invented his own comic character, Captain Cartagena, who wears a black trash bag as a cape—modeled after the outfit Narváez himself wore when pursuing activism in the city. He put together a number of short films showing Captain Cartagena helping to make the city a better place and showed the audience a sneak peek of a mockup he’s been working on to launch a new anti-bullying campaign with Captain Cartagena as its face.
Narváez’s current project is what brought him to the United States. He is playing the lead role of Joe Arroyo in an upcoming documentary. Arroyo was an iconic Colombian salsa and Caribbean music singer who was an early advocate for amplifying Black historical narratives within the music industry. Narváez has been shooting in New York, which made the trip up to Brunswick much more accessible.
In a brief question-and-answer session after the presentation, the audience focused most on Narváez’s experience navigating the challenges he’s faced in his work. Critically, Narváez doesn’t live in Bogotá, the capital of Colombia and the home of much of the nation’s audiovisual industry.
“Not being from Bogotá, the capital of where much of his work is centered, he’s always been a bit of a source of suspicion,” Celis said.
Celis elaborated on the progress that Narváez and others have made in changing historical narratives, as well as shortcomings that have come as a result of opposition within and outside existing institutions. She said that much of the resistance has come from centralized domestic academic and historical institutions, whereas pressure from those who would typically be considered outsiders—whether they be academics or academics engaging across national borders to study Colombia—has proven fruitful.
“Some things are getting better at the aesthetic level, and also at the level of academic historians trying to retell their stories for their people,” Celis said. “This work has been successful in recent years, but there’s been much more echo and resonance in these sorts of transnational discourses than in the center of the country. Cartagena historians have good grounds to be able to tell the story of Colombia.”
Christine Ramos ’24 said that she came to the event initially expecting it to be a film screening, but she was pleasantly surprised by the form and content of the presentation.
“I hope to see more Afro-Latinx representation, both because it strikes a personal chord with me and because I think it’s really important overall for other events,” Ramos said. “I just want to get to go to more guest lectures, since I’m a sophomore and I didn’t get to do these kinds of things [last year].”
Philip al Mutawaly ’24 said that for him, the presentation’s emphasis on explicitly engaging conversations of cultural context was what made it so important.
“An event like this was really cool because for me, it was kind of irrelevant what issue or part of Latin American culture he wanted to talk about—learning anything about it was very enriching,” al Mutawaly said. “I really appreciated this event because … I feel … gaining cultural and historical knowledge through that cultural context is missing [from] a lot of Bowdoin’s discourse.”
Narváez spoke primarily in Spanish. These quotes were translated by Professor Celis.