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Colombian artifact collection holds culture-rich stories

UNF is exhibiting a Colombian artifact collection on loan from a former Peace Corps deputy director, who chatted Nov. 5 with UNF students, faculty and staff during the exhibit’s reception.

Wilfredo Gonzalez bought some of the artifacts – like the gold replicas from the Gold Museum of Bogota – and was given others – like an ocelot, which is a small cat – during his assignment as Peace Corps director in Colombia from 1978 to 1980.

“The pieces that I like are the pieces that have stories,” Gonzalez said.

A warrior gave him a one-of-a-kind tree bark mask after he was introduced to the village’s elders, he said. It is made from the wood villagers used to make their canoes.

Gonzalez referred to three other masks as the “nicest of the grotesque masks” from a village whose people sought to create masks with strangely-placed eyeballs and hung-out tongues.

Gonzalez told a story of Panamanian women, who, when they were tired of their old clothes, would cut out the designed portions and sell them, as evidenced by a framed piece of cloth Gonzalez said was probably part of a blouse or a skirt.

A couple of elaborate wooden card boxes – one portraying the king of hearts and the other portraying the queen of hearts – exemplify the Peace Corps’ success in training the villagers to make commercial products, Gonzalez said.

The boxes are tricky to open until one knows “it’s all in the heart,” referring to the heart that opens the box when pushed.  The villagers had been making small wooden boxes, but the Peace Corps taught them to turn their boxes into salable products, he said.

To anyone considering entering the Peace Corps, Gonzalez said it’s a great experience a person will never get anywhere else.

“Nurses would tell me in the second year of their volunteer experience that they would be a ward supervisor in a hospital,” Gonzalez said.  “It takes you about seven years to do that here in the states.”

For those in fields like anthropology and marine biology, the Peace Corps is an excellent opportunity to gain exposure to their fields in underdeveloped countries, he said.

Also, volunteers learn a foreign country’s language and culture, and through their volunteerism, teach other people about America, Gonzalez said.

“I’ll tell you the biggest frustration for any Peace Corps volunteer is when they come back to the states,” he said.  “They freak out, I mean they really freak out, [because of the wastefulness that occurs in America.]”

Less than 20 people showed up to chat with Gonzalez about the exhibit.  Gonzalez, who is a UNF Board Trustee, said the university needs to do more to inform students and those unassociated with UNF about the university’s events.

Gonzalez regretted not being able to share larger pieces like furniture due to security concerns caused by previously stolen items from the Special Collections Reading Room. He has also found some African artifacts he did not bring to a previous exhibit, and plans to loan them to UNF for a second exhibit.

The artifacts will be on display in the special collections room on the ground floor of the UNF Library until Dec. 12.

E-mail Ramon Walle at [email protected].

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