Had Candelario Obeso (b.1849) been raised north of his coastal Colombia, chances are, he would have been the son of slaves, and as a young man sent to fight in the American Civil War. But around the time of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, Obeso was heading to military school in Bogotá, son of a laundress and a teacher, and far from his hometown of Mompós on the Magdalena River.
On the occasion of the coup of 1867, the school was closed and he went to the National University where he studied language, literature and law, and, chiefly, began his writing career. His impressive resumé went on to include positions as a translator of English, French and German, an engineer and a politician. It was within the realm of literature, however, that Candelario Obeso developed his notoriety. In spite of the color prejudice that existed during his time, Candelario managed to develop “the authentic values of Colombian literature.”
According to Laurence Prescott, an associate professor in Spanish and bilingual studies at Penn State University, “as a man of color and learning, living in nineteenth century Colombia, where the national literature and culture were largely considered to be the province and patrimony of the citizens of Hispanic or European descent, Obeso was not merely a rarity but an anomaly.”
As a member of both the black literati and the first generation of post-emancipation, Candelario Obeso found himself in a tenuous position; in his early years, Obeso attempted to reconcile his proud provincial background and his identity as a humble yet intelligent, black costeño with the Euro-ethnocentric culture of the privileged, white-mestizo elite of Bogotá. Over time, however, Obeso “succeeded in coming to terms with his black identity and rejected the cult of whiteness so prevalent in his country.” In doing so, Candelario Obeso wrote the groundbreaking Cantos Populares de mi Tierra (1877), the first book of poetry by an Afro-Colombian author that focuses directly and primarily on the black people of Colombia.
Written in the first person, using “authentic black talk,” Obeso saw popular literature as the way to build a true literature instead of imitating European letters as his Creole peers were doing. In his view, “The cultivation [of popular literature] is the only road to the founding of a true and positive literature…I hope that our younger generations, lovers of our country’s progress, will work in the building of a civilized country. And by doing so, will end the sadness of imitation, which delayed the growth of Hispanic-American letters.”
Candelario Obeso’s brief life ended in suicide, in 1884, but his words remain a testament to the negrismo of a class-conscious Republic and the emergence of the poetic black muse which influences much of contemporary Colombian culture.