The lazaret | Translation
► Lupa is our app for Spanish learners who want to study with Radio Ambulante’s stories. More info at lupa.app.
► You can read “The lazaret” Spanish transcript here.
Translated by MC Editorial
[Daniel Alarcón]: This is Radio Ambulante, from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón.
[Claudia Platarrueda]: My uncle was a thin, tall man. I always thought he was tall.
[Daniel]: This is Claudia Platarrueda. She’s Colombian and she’s talking about her uncle Peter—Pedro Pablo Vanegas, her mother’s older brother.
Peter was a carpenter. He was missing a hand due to a work accident and he had a prosthetic leg, but that’s the last image that comes to Claudia’s mind when she thinks of him.
[Claudia]: The way I remember him, he was an attractive man. He held himself in a way that made him look very elegant.
[Daniel]: Claudia grew up in the 1970s in a city in northeastern Colombia called Bucaramanga, and one of the most vivid memories she has of her childhood is her uncle Peter’s visits. He died in 2013, but his entire life was spent in a town far from there. Claudia never visited when she was a child because getting there was not easy. He was the one who traveled from time to time to see the family, and they always received him with a great deal of affection.
[Claudia]: I see him coming home, hugging us all. A compulsive hugger, my uncle was very, very, very affectionate, he was like a character with his own charisma . . . intelligent and skillful, let’s say . . . in his conversation.
[Daniel]: In 1988, Claudia began studying anthropology in Bogotá. Five years later, when she was close to finishing her degree, she went with her family on a trip to Suaita, the town where her parents are from. Peter went with them.
One afternoon after lunch, they all gathered by a river to swim and spend some time. Claudia’s older brothers started asking Peter about his life. At that time, he was 66 years old.
Claudia had a camera she carried everywhere, so she began to take photos and focus the lens on Peter. What she was hearing surprised her.
[Claudia]: And in my memory I have a very nice image of him. I took a picture while he was speaking; they had asked him about Contratación and what it was like.
[Daniel]: Contratación, the place where Peter had lived since 1947. That was when Claudia learned that he had not just gone there because he liked the weather, or because he had job opportunities, or because a friend had invited him. No, Peter was compelled by law to move to that town . . .
The issue is that Peter had something that is technically known as Hansen’s disease. Most of you may not be familiar with that term, but you surely know about it. It’s also known as leprosy. His missing hand and leg were consequences of that disease.
The government had decided since 1835 that Contratación would be one of the places where people with leprosy had to live. Those places, not only in Colombia, are called lazarettos. The reason is religious: in the Bible, Jesus tells the story of a beggar who was a leper, named Lazarus. Not Saint Lazarus who was resurrected, but a different one—one who died and went straight to heaven.
Leprosy may sound like something very old, something long gone. But that’s not true. It still exists. However, to be infected you need to be in direct and prolonged contact with the droplets that come from the mouth or nose of an infected person. Today that’s are very difficult, thanks to advances in medicine and public health. In fact, by the time Claudia was born, Peter had the effects of the disease but he was no longer contagious.
Maybe that’s why she never saw her uncle as someone who was sick . . . also because at home they didn’t talk much about the subject.
[Claudia]: I am not aware of having a fear of contagion. I had heard of leprosy for sure, but I didn’t . . . I didn’t have a very clear association between . . . between my uncle’s life and the presence of leprosy. I never really looked at my uncle with any fear, I think.
[Daniel]: Claudia doesn’t really know why either, but until that moment, when they were on the family outing on the river, she had never heard her uncle’s story in such detail. Maybe she had never asked or paid enough attention.
[Claudia Platarrueda]: So in the middle, let’s say, of that conversation, my uncle spoke openly about . . . about the history of the leper colony, and I found that captivating.
[Daniel]: Contratación was designed almost like a concentration camp to isolate and contain people. But Peter spoke with such affection and nostalgia about this place that Claudia had to see with her own eyes what was happening there.
We’ll be back after a short break.
[Daniel]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante.
Colombian anthropologist Juan Andrés Rodríguez continues the story.
[Juan Andrés Rodríguez]: Claudia became so interested in the subject of her uncle’s life in Contratación that she decided to do an academic study on it. But—as is usually the case with that kind of formal investigation—before going to Contratación she had to learn about the disease and its history. In 1997 she started collecting documents.
[Claudia]: And, let’s say, I came up against the National Library, where there was such an abundance of bibliographic material that I almost . . . it made me anxious, because there was so much information and I couldn’t understand what it all was.
[Juan Andrés]: She was overwhelmed. There were hundreds of years of history written in laws, reports, investigations, chronicles, novels, poems, plays, movies, and even songs. As well as photos of sick, anonymous people, with no expressions on their faces that would give any indication of their emotions. They were only intended to show the physical damage of the disease as illustration for some medical review article.
Claudia was struck by a scene from a movie she had seen as a child.
(ARCHIVE SOUND BITE)
Judah: You told me they had died.
Esther: They asked me to do that. You must look no further, Judah. Do it for them.
[Claudia]: I do remember the leper in the cave that appeared in the biblical movie during the Holy Week. I mean, that is the best reference that I . . . that I can recall.
(ARCHIVE SOUND BITE)
Esther: They are coming. Judah, love them the way they need to be loved. Don’t look at them, do it as if you’ve never seen them. Please, Judah.
[Juan Andrés]: What Claudia remembers, what marked her, is the image of these characters at the entrance to a cave, with the little skin you can see on them looking red, irritated.
[Claudia]: Men in rags, covering their faces, with their stumps covered, and you don’t even see the sores, but you assume there are sores swarming below.
[Juan Andrés]: And the photos she was now looking at were pretty close to that memory. At that moment, Claudia began to see the severity of the disease her uncle never showed. It was like another history of leprosy, a parallel and terrible history of discrimination and segregation. And that increased her curiosity to understand her uncle and what was happening in Contratación.
So, she decided to start by trying to understand the basics: what leprosy is, how it spreads and what its effects are. To begin with, leprosy is transmitted by a bacillus, that is, a type of bacterium. We have already said that contagion occurs through direct and prolonged contact with droplets from the nose or mouth of an infected person.
[Claudia]: The bacillus prefers nerve endings, especially in cold places of the body: feet, nose, ears, hands . . .
[Juan Andrés]: The nerve endings are damaged by the bacterium to the point where sensitivity is lost.
[Claudia]: Then a person cannot feel if they are touching something, and very often, let’s say, they grab hot things or they get poked or pricked, or they cut themselves.
[Juan Andrés]: And that ends up causing wounds that are difficult to heal. The sick person delays treating them in time because they simply don’t feel them, and they become infected. In addition, the affected skin loses the moisture necessary to heal.
Now there is a treatment and a cure that, if applied in time, helps avoid complications. But the bacillus was unknown until 1871, when it could finally be seen under a microscope, and then the first study was published on it. But for many years, it was thought that leprosy was caused by all kinds of things, from divine punishment to witchcraft, or even hereditary reasons.
[Claudia]: But there was really no clear cause. There were theories that were, let’s say, in permanent contradiction.
[Juan Andrés]: Neither was there a safe and standard treatment. Much less a cure. And as the physical damage in some cases was quite evident, and the fear of contagion was great, societies often began to isolate people suffering from leprosy. Over time, they ended up confining them in what would become known as leprosariums, leper colonies, or lazarettos.
These places were especially common in various parts of the world in the 19th and 20th centuries. Because the discovery of the bacillus didn’t really put an end to this practice. In fact, it strengthened the fear that any contact with an infected person, however minimal, was very risky. It would be several years until people got a better understanding of the disease.
Claudia also investigated how leprosy had been managed in Colombia. This is how she learned, for example, that the disease and the image of the lazarettos came from Europe. She found records from the early seventeenth century, in the middle of the colonial era, saying that residents of a hospital in Cartagena, on the Caribbean coast, asked to have the leprosy patients who were confined there expelled. The decision of the local government was to take them all to an island far from the city. That was the first leper colony registered in the country, and it was called Caño de Loro.
Over the years, similar places were formed in different regions. Starting in 1835, leper colonies were made official by the State as a strategy to control leprosy. Anyone diagnosed with the disease had to go live in one of the leper colonies that were established: Caño de Loro, in Cartagena; Agua de Dios, closer to Bogotá; and Contratación, in the department of Santander, which was where Peter, Claudia’s uncle, lived.
The most important thing was to ensure isolation. And to achieve that, extreme measures were taken: barbed wire fences around the perimeter, police checkpoints at the entrances, and even a special currency, called Coscoja, that circulated only in these places. But the sick had permanent medical attention, they could work, earn a salary, and do any activity as long as they did not leave the leper colony. They had everything they needed there.
[Claudia]: It is stated that there has to be a market, there has to be a priest, there has to be a place where the seriously ill can be separated, there have to be procedures in place to ensure provisions and the care of the sick.
[Juan Andrés]: All with public money or charitable donations. The only healthy people who could enter were doctors, religious caregivers, and sometimes a family member who helped take care of a sick person . . .
[Claudia]: All public servants, including nurses, hospital cooks, personnel in nursing homes, markets, the notary, the post office, the telegraph office, all those people, by law, had to be sick, because there were supposed to be no healthy people inside.
[Juan Andrés]: Even the policemen inside the leper colonies had the disease. And yes, the number of people with leprosy was enough to carry out that amount of work. Although there were no official and rigorous statistics, at the beginning of the twentieth century it is estimated that there were between thirty and fifty thousand infected people in the country. That even led to the rumor that Colombia was the country with the most cases in the world.
As the years went by, governments were adapting laws and creating others, trying to improve the public strategy to control leprosy. At that time, confinement seemed to be the only thing that worked, so they focused on not leaving out any sick person and enforcing isolation.
Claudia was amazed. What she was discovering was astounding: they put a great many people in the same space, and also tried to offer them a life more or less similar to what they had outside.
[Claudia]: The story of the leper colony seemed an impressive thing to me, in terms of what a small society means, an isolated society, and that’s how I imagined it, let’s say, a . . . a micro society there.
[Juan Andrés]: When she began her investigation, in the late 1990s, over 30 years had passed since the leper colonies had ceased to exist. Scientific advances in the treatment of leprosy made them practically useless, and by 1961 they became regular towns, like the rest. Of course, with a very particular story that Claudia was intrigued by. What was life like in a leper colony? What was it like now? The next step was to visit her uncle Peter, who was still living in Contratación. There she had a valuable source of information.
[Claudia]: Having read what leprosy was all about—having, we might say, a good understanding of contagion and all these things, in December 1997 I went to Contratación, without even my uncle knowing that I was interested in working on that subject.
[Juan Andrés]: Getting to Contratación today is more than a five-hour journey from Bucaramanga, where Claudia grew up. But in 1997, when she went for the first time, there were hardly any roads, and the trip could take much longer . . . of course, provided weather conditions were optimal.
[Claudia]: Travelling to Contratación involved taking several cars to the main road, then getting off, continuing on your own, because this is a humid, rainy region and it is very common to find that the road won’t let you proceed so easily.
[Juan Andrés]: The first time Claudia went, it took her 18 hours because the bus stopped halfway there. But in the end, no stress, discomfort or inconvenience caused by the trip could ruin that first impression she had.
[Claudia]: It was a very beautiful town; the streets were cobblestone and that made it picturesque. The houses had clay roofs and overhangs. There were murals painted on the houses.
[Juan Andrés]: It had been almost four years since the last time she had seen Peter, but he greeted her with the same warmth and familiarity that he showed when he came to visit them. Although there was something else that surprised her.
[Claudia]: He welcomed me in, showed me his home. That got my attention. Wasn’t he living in a hospital?
[Daniel]: No, he did not live in a hospital. That was just one of the many surprises that awaited Claudia in Contratación.
We’ll be back.
[Daniel]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante. I’m Daniel Alarcón.
Before the break, Claudia Platarrueda imagined Contratación, the place where her uncle Peter lived, as a hospital full of disease, death and desolation . . . but in reality, although leprosy was present, and it was the reason why this place existed, people worked, moved around everywhere; there were bars, cafés, schools—in other words, there was life.
[Claudia]: From the very first day, that ambiguity was very revealing to me. I mean, how is it possible that leprosy—which brings us feelings of such overwhelming fear, and set ideas like putrefaction, contamination—but I got to Contratación only to realize that life there, contaminated with leprosy everywhere, just goes on.
[Daniel]: Now she had many more questions to ask her uncle Peter.
Juan Andrés picks up the story.
[Juan Andrés]: Although Claudia was most interested in the history of Contratación, Peter, like all people with leprosy, had a life before his illness. And he was eager to tell it.
He was born in the late 1920s and arrived very young at a farm in Suaita, in the department of Santander. His mother, that is, Claudia’s grandmother, was called Dolores Vanegas, and she worked there as a cook for the employees. Dolores had a secret relationship with the owner of that farm and they had four children. Peter was the second.
He also told Claudia about his childhood and the difficult conditions in which his family lived. Dolores spent most of her time at work, and Peter and his siblings felt that their wellbeing was their mother’s last priority.
As for the father . . . well, he didn’t even give them his name. In the early 1930s, he kicked Dolores and her children out of the farm because he had married another woman.
Not knowing where to go, the only option Dolores had was to move in with her sister, who had been diagnosed with leprosy some time earlier and lived in Contratación.
Even though on paper the leper colony was exclusively for people with leprosy, in practice that was difficult to control. Yes, there were fences around it, but it was not an impenetrable wall, and although surveillance was strict, it could sometimes be circumvented. It could be assumed that the reason few people went there, in addition to the difficulties in just getting there, was the fear of contagion.
Some of the patients moved in with their relatives, even if the relatives were healthy, because they were the ones who helped financially. In addition, because food had to be provided, people came from other places to sell their products.
In the case of Dolores . . . she went there for survival.
[Claudia]: It was a very painful trip for my grandmother, because she came to Contratación with very few resources, with no money for the return trip, and she realized that my great-aunt was living even further away, in a remote place called San Pablo.
[Juan Andrés]: San Pablo, an agricultural community that is part of Contratación, but was not exactly within the town. Good or bad, the important thing was that Dolores and her four children found a place to stay, and at least, there it was easier to go unnoticed.
The issue with the symptoms of leprosy is that they take approximately five years to appear, but sometimes it can take up to 20 years, and the disease is only visible when there are wounds. In addition, to confirm the diagnosis, several examinations of the affected tissue must be performed, and the presence of the bacterium confirmed.
Dolores started working in a restaurant to support her children. She eventually met another man with whom she had three more children. But according to the policies of the leper colony, all the children living there had to be separated from their families.
If the children were sick, they were taken to a shelter run by Catholic religious personnel intended solely for them, within the leper colony. There they were cared for, fed, and educated until they reached adulthood.
With healthy children it was different.
[Claudia]: The idea is to safeguard the children from leprosy, take care of their childhood, so everything possible is done so that the children are sent to their relatives outside, to be adopted by . . . by people outside and they are guaranteed a pension.
[Juan Andrés]: In other words, money to support them. If the healthy children did not have anyone to receive them, they were taken to a nursing home that was also set up for them but located outside the leper colony.
Because of this policy, many families did not meet again until many years later. Some weren’t able to see each other ever again.
After five years living there, the Contratación authorities eventually learned that neither Dolores nor her children were ill. They were required to leave the leper colony. But because of her financial difficulties, Dolores could not take care of them all. So they decided that Peter, the eldest, who was eight years old at the time, would stay with his aunt. There was a risk they would find out and send him to the nursing home, but it was either that or not having enough to eat.
[Claudia]: Peter stayed to work with his aunt. I understand that she was very moody and, well, staying there was not rewarding for my uncle; it was a rather terrible memory of Contratación.
[Juan Andrés]: Three years later, in 1938, Peter was able to travel to Suaita, the town where his mother and siblings lived. There he finished elementary school and began to work in carpentry. Around 1945, when he was 18 years old, he decided to travel to Bogotá to work in a textile and yarn factory.
Claudia recorded some of those talks with Peter. The result is hours and hours of audio in which they talk about many topics in his life. The quality is not very good, but the one who is going to speak here is Peter.
[Peter]: My greatest wish as soon as I entered that factory was to be able to operate a machine by myself. But with such bad luck that after two months, I began to lose the plasticity of my fingers and couldn’t hold the yarn in order to thread it.
[Juan Andrés]: He was losing sensitivity. After waiting for it for several years, what he knew could happen at any moment had just happened: he was developing leprosy. That was the clearest symptom. He knew it perfectly. And that was precisely what, years later, caused the accident in which he lost his right hand.
When he stopped feeling, all he could do was go to the factory doctor. He immediately sent him to a hospital in Bogotá that treated skin diseases.
There they confirmed the diagnosis. But Peter wasn’t really afraid of leprosy. He had seen it head-on since he was a child, and although neither his mother nor his siblings had it, it was a possibility that always followed them. What worried him was not being able to work and help his family.
[Peter]: I had gone to look for work, and it turned out that I could not work there because my health wasn’t helping me. So that was very sad for me.
[Juan Andrés]: The next step, as the law said, was to wait in Bogotá while all the paperwork was done to take him to the nearest leper colony, which, in this case, was Agua de Dios. That shocked him.
[Claudia]: What he repeated to me over and over was that he was very afraid of being sent to Agua de Dios when he learned he had leprosy.
[Juan Andrés]: Because, of course, he already knew Contratación. He knew how to get around. Whereas Agua de Dios was an unknown place, and with a certain reputation . . . It was the largest and most populated leper colony in the country. Also, it was infernally hot.
Fortunately, there was a man who worked in the administrative office of the hospital who came from the same region. Peter felt confident enough to tell him what worried him and asked if they would let him go to Contratación.
This is Peter telling what the man said:
[Peter]: Well, look, I was wanting to suggest the same thing to you. You are from Suaita and I am from Suaita, and we Suaitans are men of our word. When we give our word, we keep it. And I want to help you, but then we’d have to make a gentlemen’s agreement.
[Juan Andrés]: The gentlemen’s agreement was that he would help him escape, but on the condition that he should leave immediately for Contratación.
The problem was that that hospital was guarded all the time, even by police officers, so that the sick would not escape. If they caught him, they would send him straight to Agua de Dios and the man at the hospital would be fired or he would get in trouble with the law.
Peter accepted immediately. He wanted to leave at once. But the man asked for patience. He told him that he would return the following Sunday very early and, once there, he would send one of the policemen who was keeping an eye on that room to go get some cigarettes. Peter would do the same with the other cop.
[Peter]: And at that moment, when one of them is gone and so is the other, you grab the box of clothes and get out, and don’t let anyone find you in Bogotá.
[Juan Andrés]: And they did precisely that. That day, everything went as planned. Peter ran out as fast as he could and got on the first train leaving for his region. But instead of going to Contratación, he went to see his mother in Suaita. Since he had no visible wounds, perhaps he could go unnoticed and continue his life as if nothing had happened.
His mother received him, aware of the leprosy, but supported his idea of staying there. Peter decided to go back to doing carpentry and, to control the disease, the man at the hospital had given him some injections of chaulmoogra, which was used at that time as a treatment.
[Claudia]: It is an oil taken from a plant native to India that was administered as an injection that was very painful to apply.
[Juan Andrés]: But those doses of chaulmoogra weren’t going to last forever. So, Peter had to make sure he didn’t waste a drop. The problem was that he had gotten them clandestinely. It was a medicine used only in hospitals that treated leprosy. So, to apply it, Peter sought out the town pharmacist and they agreed on a payment without anyone noticing.
Although at the time chaulmoogra was the only thing that seemed to control leprosy, it was not a definitive treatment, and it had serious side effects. Yes, it directly attacked the bacterium, which was the priority for the doctors, but the wounds on the skin became more serious. This was a contradiction because it could cure the disease, but at a very high cost.
[Claudia]: During all this process of doctors learning how to cure leprosy, people were deformed to a great extent. The cure was interpreted as a deterioration.
[Juan Andrés]: Still, it was all there was at the time, and Peter believed in medical treatment.
[Peter]: They gave me plenty of chaulmoogra and all I wanted was to get rid of the disease. And I was happy to take it, and I took it willingly. And no one can tell me that I was wrong in doing that.
[Juan Andrés]: After a while, the consequences of the chaulmoogra began to appear.
[Peter]: I began to feel that . . . my eyesight was . . . diminishing, that my body felt bad. I took it on a daily basis, I took it consistently, but the leprosy did not go away.
[Juan Andrés]: The leprosy did not go away but became more visible, and working as a carpenter, wounds were frequent.
He spent almost two years this way, rationing the doses of chaulmoogra they had given him in Bogotá. When he finished that, he sought out the pharmacist and asked for help to get more, but the man did not react as Peter expected.
[Peter]: And he went to the mayor immediately, denounced me, claiming I was ill with leprosy. The mayor called me, he asked, “What is your name?” I replied: “Pedro Pablo Vanegas.” “You are sick with leprosy.” “How do you know?” He said, “I was told. Next Tuesday I will send you to Contratación with two policemen”.
[Juan Andrés]: Continuing to run didn’t make much sense. Even if he wanted to, he no longer had a place to go. So Peter came to his mother’s house and told her about the situation. She started crying.
[Peter]: I said to her, “Look, let’s not cry or get sad because what has to be done has to be done.”
[Juan Andrés]: It was best to leave before the police came to get him out of the house in handcuffs. This way, they would avoid a scandal and an investigation that would surely affect the man at the hospital who had helped him escape.
[Claudia]: My grandmother made up her mind to let him go alone, she packed him a lunch bag, and he ran off to Contratación.
[Juan Andrés]: Peter went to Contratación for the second time in his life, but not to the suburbs where he’d lived as a child. He did not want to see his aunt again, because for one thing, she lived far away, and for another, his experience when he stayed with her had not been the best. Now that he was 20 years old, they followed the procedure that was done with all sick people who came to the leper colony.
[Peter]: They took away my national document here, my ID card. They took it from me here in the sanatorium and they gave me the sick card.
[Juan Andrés]: The sick card, which was like a fold-out. That document showed the person’s basic information: name, place and year of birth, and photo. It also made it clear that the person had leprosy and how long it had been in treatment. This made it possible, according to the legislation of the time, to monitor the evolution of each person’s disease. But beyond that, with such a document they were not allowed to vote. Nor could they carry out legal procedures outside the leper colony. Basically, it stripped these people of their civil rights.
Peter was taken to the men’s shelter at the hospital. They examined him and did all kinds of clinical tests. Then they took pictures of him . . . pictures very similar to the many that Claudia saw in the archives when she began her investigation. These images went into the medical history of each patient and helped in the studies that were conducted to find a cure.
Well, those were the doctors’ justifications. But they never really asked these people if they agreed. Nor was it a legal obligation to have such ethical considerations.
As soon as they set foot in the leper colony, the sick ceased to be ordinary citizens and became objects of permanent care, risk and study. Years later, Claudia would ask her uncle Peter what those officials of the leper colony perhaps never even thought of.
[Claudia]: How did you feel as a person when those photos of you were taken? Did you feel anything in particular?
[Peter]: You feel like . . . Like a weird animal. You feel weird precisely because they are pointing at abnormalities on your own body, something that is not right in your own body.
[Juan Andrés]: The sound is not very good, so I will repeat what Peter said: “You feel like a weird animal. You feel weird because they are pointing at abnormalities on your own body, something that is not right in your own body”.
Peter was left at the shelter. He had to live there. Let’s remember that, according to the law, all leprosy patients had the right to housing, food, and medical care. They were even given a monthly allowance.
[Claudia]: What is called the guayaba there, which is a disability salary, a minimum aid for food, for washing clothes, and for rent.
[Juan Andrés]: It wasn’t a full salary, but it helped cover the basic needs. Even so, Peter, who was 20 years old and felt full of life, did not want to stay still, much less there . . .
[Claudia]: The shelter has the characteristic of being a place for people who are handicapped in terms of their ability to move, work and so on, but he is a man used to working.
[Juan Andrés]: Peter thought of job options. He knew, for example, that in the nursing home for sick children they taught carpentry. So he spoke with the authorities of the leper colony. Since they controlled everything, they had to authorize him to work with the machines. In 1950 he managed to move out altogether.
[Claudia]: That asylum, let’s say, is inside the leper colony, so he is inside the leper colony but living with the children and working regularly as an unofficial carpentry teacher.
[Juan Andrés]: Now he had a job and a more comfortable place to live . . . Although that didn’t stop him from feeling isolated. He had already lived in Contratación, and even though he was kind of hiding then, he had felt freer than he did now. Three years had passed, but he couldn’t get fully used to what it meant to be in a leper colony as a sick person. It seemed more and more like being condemned to a life sentence.
[Peter]: I was very desperate and lonely because I had no family around me.
[Juan Andrés]: Missing his mother and his brothers . . . The only thing that helped him clear his mind a bit was walking and walking, through the town.
[Peter]: I used to walk around all . . . all the . . . all the perimeters, that’s why I remember them perfectly.
[Juan Andrés]: And during those walks, the option of escaping crossed his mind. Speaking in confidence with other patients at the leper colony, he realized that it wasn’t that difficult and that, in fact, many did it.
The important thing was to know precisely where the police checkpoints were. Then wait for rain or for shift changes. That way it would be more difficult for them to see you.
Sure, it’s not like they were definitive runaways because, after all, they had no documents and in those conditions it was almost impossible to find work. If they were caught outside, they had to pay bail and they could even lose their subsidy for a while. But it was worth the risk—it was certainly a relief to have a change. Peter did it a few times . . . but he was still cautious.
[Peter]: And you knew, you prepared in advance which way you were going to go out and the difficulties you had to overcome during the night to mislead the police. This was planned according to the checkpoint through which you were going to leave.
[Juan Andrés]: And so, due to circumstances and forced to do it, he got used to that life. In 1955, the children’s home was converted into a public school. This made it possible for him to take the official teaching position, receive a better salary, and get employment benefits. The prison gradually became a home.
[Claudia]: He built a very active life there. He was a recognized person, he had many activities. He was very religious, so he attended all religious activities on a daily basis.
[Juan Andrés]: Between the late 1940s and early 1950s, science managed to find a cure for leprosy: antibiotics known as sulfones. The story of how that was achieved is curious . . .
[Claudia]: In Venezuela, sulfones were used in the treatment of tuberculosis inside a leper colony and demonstrated curative effects in leprosy.
[Juan Andrés]: In other words, the cure was found by accident. The sulfone treatment began to be replicated around the world, with very good results. Little by little, the concept of “socially cured” became more common in Colombian legislation.
[Claudia]: They could have all the effects on their bodies due to the deformations caused by leprosy, but they were no longer contaminants, so they were called socially cured, they were given a socially cured card, and they were allowed to leave the leper colony.
[Juan Andrés]: The State began a plan to gradually dismantle the leper colonies in the country. There were no longer so many patients to contain, and expenses could be curtailed. They started with the oldest, Caño de Loro, which was in Cartagena.
In 1950 they took people out and bombed the place. Some say it was to prevent the spread of the disease, but the spread is from person to person, not by contact with surfaces. But the fear was such that they preferred to avoid any kind of risk. That is why they didn’t let the people of Caño de Loro go free. They wanted to be completely sure that the sulfones worked in the long term, so in the meantime, they sent them to Agua de Dios, the leper colony near Bogotá.
The plan was to do the same thing in Contratación.
[Claudia]: What happens, paradoxically, is that the people of Contratación don’t want to end the leper colony, or have it disappear.
[Juan Andrés]: The thing is that, through the years, the inhabitants of the town managed to own the place. Outside, they were stigmatized, rejected, feared—they had been denied the possibility of living. In Contratación, in a way, living conditions were similar to what they were outside.
[Claudia]: There is a sense of belonging and roots that is strengthened in Contratación, and also because a very dynamic and vital society has been created around religious and social matters—very deeply rooted.
[Juan Andrés]: The resistance of the inhabitants allowed Contratación to remain as it was until 1961, when the government finally decreed the end of leper colonies in Colombia. A year later, Contratación officially became a town, and the same thing happened with Agua de Dios in 1963.
Because many of the sick didn’t have the tools to support themselves, the government decided to keep on giving them the monthly allowance. It also restored their civil and political rights. That included the ability to move freely around the country.
Although many people decided to leave Contratación, some never left and others ended up returning and staying for good.
[Claudia]: The socially cured returned to the leper colony because they had relapsed into the disease or had not been accepted at their places of origin and had to return to the leper colony where they enjoyed better living conditions.
[Juan Andrés]: Peter, for example, never left. He had his life more than made in Contratación. He eventually moved to a rented house and now his family could visit him without restrictions. Even his mother went to live with him.
[Claudia]: My uncle always had the intention of taking care of my grandmother, and he brought his younger brother to live there because it was his responsibility as well.
[Juan Andrés]: Claudia was born a few years later, in 1969. By that time, Peter visited her home frequently and that image that she remembers so well began to take shape in her mind: her uncle hugging her and her siblings, and sitting down to talk about all kinds of things.
He didn’t speak ill of Contratación. In fact, when Peter got his new ID card, the functional one, the real one, the one that validated him as a citizen, he insisted on doing it right there.
[Peter]: I wanted it to be from Contratación, because Contratación opened many doors for me, and I need to keep that.
[Juan Andrés]: In 1977, he retired from his teaching position, but he did not completely give up carpentry, nor his activities in the town. He continued with his personal project of helping in the social rehabilitation of leprosy patients and getting them job opportunities.
For Claudia, knowing her uncle’s story and travelling to Contratación made her change the wrong impressions she had about leprosy. But beyond that, everything she had understood by health and disease, abnormality and normality, for so many years was turned on its head . . .
[Claudia]: That was what leprosy gave me, the idea that disease is part of life. All things that are seen as anomalous are actually part of life.
[Juan Andrés]: In 2013, at age 86, Peter died of stomach cancer. Claudia suspects that the chaulmoogra and so many sulfones he took caused him to develop cancer.
Many people from the town attended the funeral and there, with great affection, they recalled different moments in Peter’s life.
[Claudia]: I think we didn’t feel sadness, but quite the opposite, as if the experience of having lived with him, together with a full life . . . and that’s what I remember about him, of having lived an accomplished and full life.
[Juan Andrés]: Yes, full, because the truth is that Contratación had become his safe place. The only place where he and the other patients were not going to be rejected. For Peter, it had been over 60 years of a life of isolation and confinement, but that doesn’t mean it was wasted.
[Daniel Alarcón]: In 1997, activists succeeded in getting the Colombian State to recognize the violation of the human rights of people with leprosy. It had not been something recent, but a mistreatment of centuries. By way of reparation, the subsidy they were already receiving was matched to the minimum wage, and this was guaranteed to all people who had been diagnosed with the disease.
In 2019, Claudia published a book that compiles her research of more than 20 years on leprosy. It is titled La voz del proscrito: Experiencia de la lepra y el devenir de los lazaretos en Colombia [The Voice of the Banished: The Experience of Leprosy and the History of Lazarettos in Colombia].
A special thanks to Claudia for allowing us to use audios from her interviews with Peter.
This episode was produced by Juan Andrés Rodríguez and David Trujillo. Juan is an anthropologist and David is a producer for Radio Ambulante. They both live in Bogotá.
This story was edited by Camila Segura, Luis Fernando Vargas and me. Desirée Yépez did the fact-checking. The music and sound design are by Andrés Azpiri.
The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Paola Alean, Nicolás Alonso, Lisette Arévalo, Aneris Casassus, Xochitl Fabián, Fernanda Guzmán, Camilo Jiménez Santofimio, Rémy Lozano, Ana Pais, Laura Rojas Aponte, Barbara Sawhill and Elsa Liliana Ulloa.
Emilia Erbetta is our editorial intern.
Carolina Guerrero is the CEO.
Radio Ambulante is a podcast by Radio Ambulante Estudios, produced and mixed on the Hindenburg PRO program.
Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.