Bogotá’s Los Mártires finds cultural revival with creative industries


Los Mártires is the common (but not administrative*) name for the very inner city district between Calles 9 and 10 and Carreras 15 and 15A, which abuts on and is sometimes confused with San Victorino and roughly runs from the landmark plaza and church of El Voto Nacional (near the Jiménez station of Transmilenio) down to the Plaza de España. After buying hardware and bulk grains there for many years, your guide thought he knew Los Mártires fairly well, until he was accompanied by a real guide, John Bernal, the asesor cultural of the district, recommended by the architect Alberto Escóvar, Director of Patrimony of the Ministry of Culture.

A long-time resident, photographer and owner of a used clothes stall in the Centro Comercial Plaza España, he is the founder of the Arcupa (Art, Culture, Patrimony) Foundation, which organizes activities like theater, art and walks (with mapmaking) for poor (sometimes street) kids in the district. His mission is not only to awaken them and the general public to its historical and cultural importance, but also save it from the gentrification (his word, not mine) by which private-sector developers are using its reputation for street crime and the illegal sale of arms and drugs as a pretext for kicking out what he estimates are the 80% of its inhabitants, who are the respectable owners of the stores which, in addition to their trademark ironmongery (complemented by street stalls of very cheap second hand tools), sell everything from wood-burning stoves and natural-fiber sacks to blankets and sheets, to chemicals and building materials, to heavy-duty industrial products, like giant rollers of cables.

The obligatory start of our tour are two symbols of the perpetually troubled state of the nation. First, the Victorian-era obelisk in the plaza (temporarily screened off for its remodeling into a park, but with too much paving and too few trees, John thinks), which commemorates the site where a number of the leaders of the Independence movement were executed by a Spanish firing squad, including a Neogrenadine revolutionary Policarpa Salavarrieta and renowned scientist Francisco José de Caldas – both present on Colombian banknotes. The four corners of its base, which were originally graced by female figures representing peace, glory, justice and peace, now feature pairs of strange birds which John (not I) says are vultures!

The Voto Nacional (literally, “National Vow”) is not just any old church, but by Papal decree, a Basilica which is second in importance to the Cathedral of Bogotá. Also known as the Sacred Heart of Jesus (and the reason for the ubiquity of that image in the country), its origin was the anguish caused by the devastating conflict between the Conservatives and Liberals known as the War of a Thousand Days (October, 1899 – November, 1902), which resulted in 100,000 fatalities (2.5% of the population at the time). So that it would never happen again, the then Archbishop of Bogotá, Bernardo Herrera, made an agreement with the then President, José Manuel Marroquín, to erect a grand temple on the site of its modest predecessor and consecrate it to the Sacred Heart.

Or so the story goes, until John got me thinking. Why did the initiative occur seven months before the end of the war, which in any case was won by the Conservatives, which both the government and the clergy supported? As I understood John (poorly, I confess), it was some kind of power-sharing agreement, symbolized by the placement of the plaque with the seal of the Church above the plaque with the seal of the State (the only church in the city which bears it) at the top of the façade, where he also drew my attention to a niche for what he calls a cuckoo clock where Christ emerges to announce midday and retires a few seconds later, but which, like the interior, is not visible just now due to the current $7,000 million pesos restoration of the gravely deteriorated temple.

Just as well perhaps, because, as John told me, it saves us from seeing evidences of the penny-pinching which drove the priest who oversaw its construction crazy, Padre Pueyo of Pasto. The original plan was to clothe the whole of the inside in marble, but possibly because of the five costly altar pieces ordered from Spain,the marble gave way to cement in the middle of the interior, and cement to painted wood at the far end; though his spirit, we hope, is now consoled by the 200 inscriptions of Pax on its walls.

Architecturally speaking, the Basilica struck me as a fairly attractive specimen of the Jesuit/Gesú/ Baroque, airlifted from Rome and nearly intact but for the ghastly cupola at the back, a squashed half of a peeled orange (once the highest point in the city) and the commercial buildings which flank it (as in many a village church here), one the former h.q. of the F-2 (secret police). For those who object to its excessive ornamentation (blank arches, pediments, Corinthian columns, statues of saints), I say “live a little.” Its appearance is striking, its design integral and the whole church a passion of John Dew, British Ambassador to Colombia (2008-2012), who championed its restoration.

In colonial times, the plaza, known as the “garden of Jaimes” (with cherry and peach trees) was the frontier between Santa Fe (i.e. the Candelaria) and pasturelands virtually uninhab- ited but for the religious orders which owned them (Claretians, Salesians, Byzantines, Presentationists, Capuchins, etc.), some of which are still there, hence John’s claim that the Bogotá we know really started there, not in the Chorro de Quevedo.*

Once it was settled, the Mártires naturally became the depot for produce and raw materials from the countryside, like timber, honey, coal and animal skins, as evidenced by the grain, timber and packaging merchants who are still around, including a miniature, cobblestoned and practically hidden version of the Pasaje de Rivas handcrafts market.

Meanwhile, the spacious Plaza de Espan?a (significantly, the Plaza de Maderas to start with), served as the city’s main terminus, where the campesinos arrived with their merchandise, first on foot or mule, then in trams and buses. It was also the site of a Thomas Hardy-like hiring fair of farm laborers.

They, in turn, were followed by institutions, as seen in the building on the southeast corner of the plaza (which extends along the Caracas quite a ways), which, once the site of a bull ring, afterwards housed the Ministry of Agriculture, the Medical Faculty of the Universidad Nacional and the Army’s Recruitment Battalion. Currently the seat of the 13th Military Police Battalion, it is about to be transferred to a cultural foundation. Designed by Gastón LeLarge, the French architect also responsible for the Capitol building, the Marroquín Castle and other Bogotá landmarks, it and the San José Hospital at the Plaza España are typical examples of early 20th century public architecture: brick walls with stone facings and columns, (in the former), arched windows, broad stairways, inner courtyards and external corridors on each of the three or four stories.

As listed buildings, those two are safe, along with others, like the building with a gaudy Gothic entranceway which is now the Liceo Agustín Nieto Caballero (high school) near the Plaza de España. Before that, it was, successively, a convent, known as El Sindicato de la Aguja, which taught embroidery and sewing to poor women; a marketplace and the office of the Secretary of Transport.

However, as John points out, the real threat is urban renewal, in this case a plan to bulldoze a major artery through the district and install a center for the “Orange Economy”* that, as with the Royal Albert Dock, London, or Bed-Stuy, New York, will raze the homes, modest businesses and corner stores that make traditional downtown neighborhoods convenient, picturesque, neighborly and nota bene, safe to live in on the whole, as I can attest to myself. Years before my colleagues in the foreign press sensationalized Los Ma?rtires as a choice example of Third World sordidness, I frequently bought materials for the leatherwork I then did there, without the slightest hazard, because, then as now (by day at least), a gringo can blend in with the thousands of ordinary bogotanos for whom it is an essential supply center, so long, that is, as he or she does not go “ooh” at the whores and vagrants or brandish a pricey necklace, handbag or cell phone. According to John, their real enemies are cops and journalists, not me, but the camera-carrying kind, though at one building, some locals warned us not to take notes or even be seen talking about it.

Nevertheless, with the demolition of El Bronx, the world-famous vice den unfairly named after my home town, getting mugged is no longer a problem (though the above rules still hold). What is, is the pending eviction of the nice guys. “With the compulsory purchase order, the city gives those residents $2.5 million pesos per square meter, and expects them to re- locate above the Caracas, where property prices are far beyond their reach,” remarked John.

P.S. I strongly urge anyone who is interested in touring or learning more about Los Mártires to contact John Bernal: Cell: 311-2115905

* The district referred is not to be confused with the “Locality” of los Mártires, which runs from the Avenida 26 to the Calle 1 and from the Caracas to the Treinta.

* The natural spring, later fountain, in the Candelaria, which is thought to be the place where the conquistadores built the twelve thatched huts which later evolved into Santa Fe.

* According to the UNESCO, the Orange (or Creative) Economy, brings together sectors of the economy “whose main purpose is the production, promotion, dissemination and/or the marketing of goods, services and ac- tivities that have cultural, artistic or patrimonial content.”


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