Jordan Salama ’19, PLAS Certificate Student
“I’ve gotten used to having poor vision,” Simon told me as he put on his glasses. The oldest jeweler in town has been perfecting his craft for seventy-seven years, and has largely learned to work with just his hands at this point—an ability that has served him well as his vision has faded with age. He’s eighty-nine, but looks twenty years younger. Still, he is able to twist and plait fine strands of silver to produce the looping, intricate designs of his imagination: little fish earrings, a bracelet with a flower pendant, a necklace carrying a small sombrero vueltiao (the signature hat of Colombia). No two pieces are the same, and he keeps hundreds of his glittering, unsold ornaments in a glass case on shelves laden with red velvet padding.
Over the course of four weeks this summer, I travelled the length of the Magdalena, the most important river in Colombia, from near its source high in the Andes to its mouth in the port city of Barranquilla on the Caribbean Sea—over 900 miles in total. I interviewed Colombians like Simon whose lives are tied to the river in all sorts of ways, and who are carrying out extraordinary projects along the its banks.
Such interactions involve an elderly man who has been building artisanal wooden canoes on the banks of the river for over 70 years, men who work before dawn to harvest sand and sediment from the riverbed for the country’s cement factories, biologists who are studying the river’s wild hippopotamuses (the only members of the species living in the wild outside of Africa) and the overall ecological deterioration of the river, the manager of a once-grand but now-closing riverside hotel, the man behind Colombia’s famous traveling library on donkeys, the kite-fishermen of Bocas de Ceniza, and of course Simon Villanueva, who is widely considered to be the filigree master of Mompox.
“You don’t think about time when you’re doing this,” Simon said to me as he put together the small silver flower, not larger than a quarter. His area consists of only a rocking chair and his jeweler’s table on the covered front porch of his red-and-green house, where he works seven days a week, from six in the morning until he can’t anymore for lack of light.
It’s a loud, social block—street vendors pass by at all hours hawking fresh cheeses and meat, and motorcycles rumble by on their way to the main town square. An elderly woman sits in her own rocking chair on the porch across the street, beneath hanging wicker baskets for sale, gazing off into the distance and not really interacting with anyone but for the occasional smile she sends Simon’s way. Simon remembered when a group of gypsies sold horses from tents on a nearby corner in the 1950s, and when Arabs delivered textiles door-to-door. All of this has, for years, easily distracted him from his work, but that’s part of the fun. As focused as he may have been on completing a particular, delicate design, he never failed to look up with a smile to return someone’s greeting from across the way. Yet he is as prolific and revered a jeweler as any in town and throughout Colombia, and from his chair he has seen his town evolve from dawn to dusk over the course of three quarters of a century.
“I didn’t imagine it this way,” he said, slightly surprised with his newest creation as he finished it. He held up the six-petaled flower with his thick fingers and turned to me, a glimmer in his eye. “But, looking at it now, I like it.”
Jordan Salama is a senior in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese from Pelham, NY. His areas of interest include nonfiction writing and broadcast journalism, with a focus on Latin America. With certificates in Journalism, Creative Writing, and Latin American Studies he has done fieldwork in Argentina, Colombia, Cuba, and Bolivia. His first Junior Paper was a nonfiction travelogue chronicling a journey to retrace the 1920s-era trade route of his great-grandfather, who was a Syrian textile merchant in the Argentine Andes. His senior thesis will be a series of nonfiction stories collected from along the banks of the Magdalena River, Colombia's most important waterway. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Research funded by PLAS. For PLAS undergraduate funding opportunities, visit: https://plas.princeton.edu/funding/undergraduate