The Beautiful and Bizarre Memory Labs of Colombia - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Beautiful and Bizarre Memory Labs of Colombia

The Beautiful and Bizarre Memory Labs of Colombia

By Matthew Stein


Because there’s a new and creative way to share stories across generations.

By Matthew Stein

Part of a weeklong series on aging boomers, or what we like to call the golden oldies.

In various corners of Colombia, young souls such as Inés Elvira Rivas Patiño nearly bounce off their chairs, wild with new thoughts and stories to share. One person has detailed an elderly father’s fatal revenge on two children who spent years abusing him, while another has recounted a mystical tradition where gourds fitted with burning candles were used to locate drowned bodies. Then there’s the poet who recited the seductive words he has used on women, “when poetry was the way to talk to them.”

As for Patiño, the 62-year-old’s tale of a young Colombian girl trying to escape the country’s civil war by joining a circus garnered first place in a major competition last year. The achievement, which emboldened her to begin a new chapter in her life as a writer, began with a visit to a so-called memory laboratory. 

These memory labs, hatched in Bogotá three and a half years ago by the local foundations Fahrenheit 451 and Saldarriaga Concha, seek to empower elderly individuals who possess indispensable knowledge but lack the platform to share it. The labs focus on creating either written or oral accounts and have since spread to seven regions across Colombia. While the labs welcome people of all ages, the vast majority of its 250 or so participants are over 60. “We’re trying to guard Colombia’s heritage in a creative way and show older people that their lives still have value,” explains Javier Osuna, the journalist who founded Fahrenheit 451. “Too often they’re abandoned by their families and the state.”

Joining the lab gave me a new sense of life.

Inés Elvira Rivas Patiño, memory lab participant 

That feeling of isolation is a familiar one for many seniors, which is why more Colombians are being drawn to the memory labs’ social component. After living in San Salvador for three decades, Patiño returned to her hometown of Cali, Colombia, to discover she hadn’t been all that missed. Local schools shunned her foreign teaching experience and social opportunities seemed nonexistent. “I felt like a zero,” she recalls.


Patiño spent her days alone in a local library until she encountered a group of people around her age who met there every week as part of a memory lab. They discussed literature, and their lives, and how to channel their experiences into writing. “Joining the lab gave me a new sense of life,” Patiño told OZY after class one morning. Eventually, she applied to an annual contest for the over-60 crowd, “Historias en Yo Mayor” (Stories in I Major), which has received more than 6,000 entries since it launched a few years ago. It’s part of the same effort that has driven the expansion of memory labs, to encourage a generation of vulnerable voices to use what they remember from their lives as a creative motor to keep moving forward.  

Oftentimes, the labs integrate an issue or practice endemic to the community holding a discussion. In the rural setting of Versalles, for instance, stories about traditional medicine and cultivating coffee are traded. In Palenque de San Basilio, a remote region on the Caribbean coast with a rich musical history, participants contribute poems and songs, and learn about voice intonation and body language. Certain labs, especially those in areas besieged by the country’s decades-long civil war, are more focused on recording chronicles of hardship.

But in Cali, Carolina Trujillo, the lab’s ebullient 38-year-old leader, encourages participants to experiment with magical realism, a genre of fiction pioneered by literary legend Gabriel García Márquez. Trujillo utilizes a mix of texts, songs and games to stimulate the minds of her students — a retired engineer, a comedian, an academic, a police officer and an athlete, among others — while including lessons on narrative structure and character development. Most attendees here today have gray hair, and some walk with canes, but in class they act like giddy adolescents: Every time another member arrives, they greet them with jokes and hugs. 

For me it’s about leaving something permanent behind.

Aristides Cifuentes, memory lab participant

That sense of camaraderie, explains Osuna, is critical to the long-term viability of the program. Each lab lasts for about 10 months the first year, three months the second; by the third year, the group is expected to run itself. “There needs to be a point where they learn to be autonomous,” he explains. “The participants need to want to meet and share and protect their culture.”

Sometimes, a lack of leadership or interest — or logistical challenges — has led to the disintegration of memory labs (two have shuttered since the program began). “In the end it’s the decision of the community,” Osuna acknowledges. Efforts are being made to include an annual feedback session, as well as recording and organizing lab discussions to inform future classes.

For many participants, though, the program has made an impact. “I feel like my words will benefit future generations,” says Julian Varela, a former forensic psychiatrist. “For me it’s about leaving something permanent behind,” adds Aristides Cifuentes, a retired academic who participates in one of Bogotá’s two labs. “I want to make an exorcism — to get out the questions in my mind, heart and soul and leave them for other people to answer in the future.”

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