21 February 2008

Colonia Tovar

When I was little, my mom told me a crazy story. This is the way I remember it, twenty or so years later (I actually called her just now to make sure I didn't get it completely wrong):

A looooooong time ago, a congressman in Venezuela invited a small community from Germany to come across the ocean. They promised Germany land, and said they were free to integrate themselves into the population if they wanted to.

It apparently took the Germans a while to get organized, gather a group together and travel all the way to South America. By the time they got there, the congressman was no longer around. Venezuela didn't quite know what to do with this group of Germans who seemingly appeared out of nowhere, so they said, "Well, just go figure out where you want to be and let us know and that's fine." They did some exploring and found an area in the mountains that reminded them of the Black Forest.

The Germans established themselves there and seemed to disappear; nobody ever heard from them again. Many, many years later, a Venezuelan was wandering around and found this German village in the middle of nowhere. Imagine a Venezuelan's surprise at stumbling upon a perfectly preserved Bavarian village, full of blonde and blue-eyed people, caring for their own crops and animals, etc.

Roads started being built between this village and Caracas (the nearest city in Venezuela), and now it's a tourist destination. Before this, they all spoke in a German dialect; now, most of them don't speak it at all. Dad and I went once and he started speaking to a girl in German (she was in full Bavarian style clothing), and received a blank stare in return.

I remembered this a couple of years ago, when my parents were telling someone else about this Colonia Tovar (the village's name). It was at this point that I realized that this actually happened and wasn't just some nice bedtime story that my mother had made up. I told MT about this in an airplane somewhere between Brazil and Colombia last year. When we got back to New York, she did some investigating and found some more information for me. It turns out that I remembered the story fairly accurately:
Founded in 1843 by German settlers, the city remained isolated from the rest of the country for decades, a factor that permitted the inhabitants to keep their culture and traditions. The majority of its residents are descendants of Germans and have a Northern European appearance. The Alemannic dialect of German, known as Alemán Coloniero ("colony German"), is nearly extinct.

It also mentioned that one would be "unlikely to find anyone who understands German fluently," which explains the blank stare my father got when he visited.

I clicked on the official site link in the Wikipedia entry, looked at some photos, and WOW. This place looks just like the village my father grew up in in Germany!

This is incredible. I love stuff like this. If anyone has a similarly mind-blowing story like this, please please share.

EDIT [13 August 2008] For anybody who stumbled upon this, apparently my parents' information and most of the stuff on the web is a bit off. Here are some edits, thanks to Ed.
The colonists were not forgotten, nor did a long time pass between the government agreements and the arrival of the Germans. In fact, it took less than two years to get everything set up (including the arrival of the Germans). They did not wander aimlessly; the land was actually donated and chosen specifically by the government who took into account cultural differences and geographical specifications in order to properly accommodate the arrivals. Regarding their isolation, part of the agreement between the governments and the new settlers was to allow the colonists to remain as a closed society until they felt the desire to integrate to the rest of the country, which they finally did in the mid 20th century. By this time the colonists were fully able to marry whomever they wanted outside of the colony as well. Lastly, regarding their language, their German dialect wouldn't be understood by most Germans nowadays since it is either extinct in Germany and/or spoken by a small minority on some rural areas of the previous Baden Duchy. Just thought I'd set the record straight, as I was born in Venezuela and spent a great part of my childhood in Tovar.
Thanks again for clearing those things up, Ed.
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