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  • Writer's pictureMike Entner

My Heart Lives in Colombia

By Michael Entner-Gómez | Digital Transformation Officer | Entner Consulting Group, LLC.

A Short History of Bucaramanga and My Family's Place in It.

I was born in the United States to a Colombian mother. She had come to America to work as a nanny and study, with no plans to stay permanently. However, fate had other plans when she met a dashing young man from New York City who swept her off her feet. Not long after, I came into the picture. Growing up, my connection to Colombia was shaped through the stories and traditions she shared, offering me a glimpse into a culture and language from which I was far removed. My aunt, who also lived in the U.S., along with their circle of Colombian friends, provided additional insights into the vibrant heritage to which I was only tangentially connected. Despite these cultural snippets, I largely lived a life isolated from my Colombian roots.

My first visit to Colombia was when I was just one year old. My parents took me there to introduce me to an eagerly awaiting family. I returned again as a young child, but it wasn’t until adulthood, with a family of my own, that I revisited. That trip marked a significant turning point for me. I realized then that I was a man of two worlds: living in America but with a heart irrevocably tied to Colombia.

Looking a little overwhelmed at my one year Colombian birthday party.

Driven by this realization, I embarked on a journey to reclaim my heritage. After navigating a lengthy and complex process (a nod to Colombian bureaucracy), I finally obtained my Colombian citizenship and embraced my Spanish surname, Gómez. My subsequent visits to Colombia, though interrupted by the COVID pandemic and the ensuing lockdown, have only deepened my connection to the country and to Bucaramanga, the “City of Parks.” In writing this, I hope to share with you a bit about the place that birthed the Latino side of my family.

Bucaramanga’s Beginnings

As I present this short history of Bucaramanga to you, I am inspired by the legacy of my grandfather, Gustavo Gómez Mejía. A distinguished historian and journalist, he intricately wove the city's spirit into the design of its flag, officially adopted in 1958. His tenure as president of the History Academy of Santander in the 1960s, coupled with his extensive chronicles about the region, made him a revered figure in Bucaramanga. His contributions, particularly the flag symbolizing hope, wealth, and the sacrifices for independence, reflect a deep understanding and love for the city. It's in his footsteps that I tread, hoping to capture the essence of Bucaramanga's past and present, so here we go!

In the verdant northeast of Colombia, cradled by Andean foothills and the Magdalena River valley, sits Bucaramanga. Its story began on December 22, 1622, with founders Andrés Páez de Sotomayor and Miguel de Trujillo in a land once nurtured by the Guane people. This indigenous group, deeply interwoven with their environment, encountered irrevocable change with the 16th-century arrival of Spanish colonizers. Their quest for new territories dimmed the cultural vibrancy of the Guane, a poignant chapter in the larger narrative of European expansion, marking the dawn of a new era for Bucaramanga.

As Bucaramanga transitioned into the colonial era, it began to evolve significantly. The city, initially shaped by the Guane, started to grow under Spanish influence, developing new architectural styles, social structures, and cultural norms. This period marked a significant shift from its indigenous roots, as the city expanded and flourished. Despite the fading presence of the Guane, their legacy subtly remained within the city's essence, a testament to its rich and layered history. This transformation laid the foundation for Bucaramanga's future development and identity.

A pastoral scene near Bucaramanga as seen through the eyes of a close family friend, Segundo Agelvis, who frequently captured the beauty of Santander.

As the 19th century dawned, Bucaramanga, like much of Colombia, was swept up in the winds of change, a period characterized by the country's fierce struggle for independence from Spain. This era, marked by upheaval and aspiration, saw the city becoming an active participant in the historical events that would redefine the nation's future. Bucaramanga's streets and homes echoed with the fervor of liberation, as it became a backdrop for the discussions, debates, and conflicts that were part of Colombia's journey towards sovereignty.

Colombia achieved its independence from Spanish colonial rule on July 20, 1810, primarily led by figures like Simón Bolívar and Francisco de Paula Santander. On this road to fully realized independence, Bucaramanga began to step out of the shadows of its colonial past, looking towards a future filled with possibility. In 1857, a pivotal moment arrived when the city was designated the capital of the Socorro Province, a recognition that brought with it both prestige and responsibility. This new status propelled Bucaramanga into a period of significant development. Infrastructure, governance, and societal structures started evolving rapidly, reflecting the city's newfound importance. Educational institutions, cultural centers, and public works began to emerge, laying the groundwork for the modern city Bucaramanga was destined to become.

Moving forward some years, in the 19th century, Bucaramanga underwent significant changes. The arrival of German merchants, including Geo von Lengerke in the 1860s and 1870s, brought new dynamics and tensions with local artisans. These tensions peaked in the event known as “La Culebra Pico de Oro” in 1879, set against the backdrop of rising liberal political influence in Colombia. This period was marked by class struggles between artisans, influenced by radical liberal ideas, and European merchants. The conflicts intensified during the 1879 municipal elections, leading to violent confrontations and substantial unrest in the city. This period also marked a significant transition for Bucaramanga, as it began to overtake Girón in both population and economic importance​​.

As the 19th century concluded, Bucaramanga underwent notable changes. The political reorganization in 1886, where Bucaramanga replaced Socorro as the departmental capital, marked a significant shift, enhancing its administrative and political prominence in the Santander region. This set the stage for its future growth. Concurrently, the end of the century saw the impact of the Thousand Days War (1899–1902), a turbulent period in Colombia. While Bucaramanga wasn't directly affected by the war, its regional influence meant that the conflict slowed the city's growth as it moved into the 20th century.

Bucaramanga in the 20th Century: Industrial Growth and Educational Renaissance

Bucaramanga at the end of the 1920’s.

In the early 20th century, Bucaramanga built upon the late 19th-century changes, growing into a prominent commercial center known for its tobacco and textile industries. A significant milestone in its educational and cultural development was the establishment of the Industrial University of Santander (UIS) in 1947, in support of these business pursuits. The UIS was created by municipal ordinance No. 83 of June 22, 1944, in response to the industrial boom in Colombia after World War II, including the burgeoning oil industry catalyzed by the 1918 discovery of the La Cira-Infantas oil field. Officially starting its educational activities on March 1, 1948, with an initial batch of 20 students, the university began by offering degrees in Electronics, Mechanical, and Chemical Engineering. The institution expanded its academic programs in the 1950s and 1960s, adding petroleum and metallurgical engineering and health sciences programs, including medicine, nursing, and social work, to meet the growing demands of Colombia's expanding industries. This expansion led to significant changes, including student protests and social discomfort influenced by the Cuban Revolution in 1959. By the 1970s, UIS further diversified its curriculum with degrees in systems engineering, languages, biology, mathematics, and, in 1994, its first law program, making it a leading multidisciplinary research university in Colombia​.

The city's progress in the 20th century was significantly accelerated by the development of robust transportation networks. Improved roadways, rail connections, and later air travel facilitated Bucaramanga's integration with other major cities across Colombia and even into neighboring Venezuela. This enhanced connectivity not only boosted commerce and trade but also facilitated cultural and intellectual exchange. It allowed for easier movement of goods, ideas, and people, which was essential for the city's burgeoning industries and growing population.

This period of infrastructural development coincided with the rise of the Industrial University of Santander (UIS), which further propelled Bucaramanga's status as an educational and cultural hub. The university became a magnet for talent, drawing students and academics from various regions and contributing to a vibrant intellectual climate in the city. Its focus on industrial, technological, and health sciences education aligned perfectly with the city's industrial aspirations, ensuring a steady supply of skilled professionals to drive economic growth.

The symbiosis between the city's industrial expansion and the university's academic excellence was pivotal in transforming Bucaramanga. It evolved from a regional trading post into a crucial urban center with significant industrial and educational clout. The growth of UIS, reflective of Bucaramanga's commitment to education and innovation, played a central role in this transformation. The city's evolution into an important hub in Colombia's national development narrative was marked by this period of rapid growth and modernization, firmly establishing Bucaramanga as a key player in the broader economic and cultural landscape of the country.

Legacy and Influence of My Bucaramangués Grandparents

My grandfather, Gustavo Gómez Mejía, was a renowned historian and journalist whose work significantly shaped the history of Bucaramanga. His deep love for the city led him to play a pivotal role in its development. In 1958, he was honored with the task of designing Bucaramanga's flag, a symbol that encapsulates the city's spirit and values. This achievement reflects our family’s enduring connection and commitment to Bucaramanga's history. His words, captured in the flag, resonate deeply with me: “Below the azure of its sky and defended by the generous blood of its sons, Bucaramanga is opened to the four horizons of the motherland.”

In the 1960s, he further cemented his legacy by serving as president of the Santander History Academy. Founded in 1928, the academy has been instrumental in preserving the cultural heritage of the region. Under his leadership, it established a museum in the residence where Simón Bolívar stayed in 1828, a site now revered as a national monument. His efforts in chronicling and preserving our regional history have left an indelible mark that continues to be felt today.

“Below the azure of its sky and defended by the generous blood of its sons,Bucaramanga is opened to the four horizons of the motherland.”—Gustavo Gómez Mejía

My grandmother, Carmen Ortiz González de Gómez Mejía, was an extraordinary Colombian poet and journalist. She left an indelible mark with her seven published poetry books, including the award-winning “Estación del Ritmo.” Her work, imbued with modernist and existentialist themes, established her as one of Colombia's most esteemed poetesses; her contributions to female Colombian poetry are notably celebrated in various anthologies. In journalism, she steered the El Frente newspaper in Bucaramanga, where she was honored with the prestigious “Bagatela de Oro” award for her impactful reporting. Her versatile career also spanned radio; she hosted popular programs like “Iris,” “Nuevos Rumbos,” and “Mundo Femenino.” Her talent in this arena was internationally recognized, culminating in a Golden Microphone award in 1973. Of her many works, my personal favorite is the poem “Crece Michael” from her book “Los Rostros de los Niños” (1981). This piece holds a special place in my heart, as it beautifully encapsulates hope for the future and my role within it, reflecting her unique ability to intertwine the personal with the universal, as I tend to do myself.

“The earth, the people, the cities will all grow with you,how far will it grow? I'm just finding out...”— Carmen Ortiz González de Gómez Mejía

My grandparents, like many other citizens of Bucaramanga, not only called this place their home but made it their home with their hands, hearts, and minds. Their profound contributions and unwavering love for this city will forever echo in its history, shaping its past, present, and future.

The Future is Unwritten

Bucaramanga, though not as well-known or populous as its Colombian siblings—Bogotá, Medellín, Cali, or Barranquilla—has gathered nearly 600,000 inhabitants as we rolled into 2023. As Colombia's significance in the nearshoring of IT services escalates, and its prowess in various industries remains robust, Bucaramanga's trajectory is unmistakably one of growth. Already, future expatriates are plotting their retirements here, lured by the promise of year-round perfect weather, affordable living costs, and a rich tapestry of social and cultural experiences. And let's not overlook the millions of displaced Venezuelans who now find solace in Colombia, Bucaramanga included. Yet, with this surge of hopeful immigrants, one wonders if Bucaramanga can retain its enchanting charm, its small-town ambiance, its societal elegance. What will be its contribution to Colombia's economy as time unfolds? As my grandmother mused, “how far will it grow?”

For now, I observe from a distance as time strides forward. But I have made a vow: when retirement dawns, I will fulfill my longing to rotate frequently between these two worlds, edging closer to what has been absent for too long. The only puzzle remains: how will I manage to fit my turkeys in the suitcase for these back-and-forth journeys?

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