Mark Sametz takes an irreverent look at Colombia’s history as depicted by the statues of Bogotá.

BOGOTÁ SEEMS AS UNLIKELY a place as any to explore the semiotics of cement. But the city’s historic monuments help me sort out the culture on display, one historic figure at a time.

How often have I strolled by the bust of a dead guy on a pedestal and wondered, “What did he do to win the lottery?” In familiar haunts it’s easy to forget such thoughts, but when I’m a traveler, the destination is my puzzle and the artifacts are pieces of the jigsaw.

Historical monuments of notables or events can serve like informers from the past, whispering — sometimes hammering — a story into my ear. As an amateur archaeologist I’m free to speculate (with extreme prejudice) on the meaning of my cultural excavation.

Bogotá’s public statues often seem linked to the ancient world, with their flowing, toga-like garb. But in fact they reveal the city’s relationship to a comparatively more modern history, following the Spanish colonization of the 16th century.

1

Laureano Gómez

In June 2011 the marble pedestal supporting the massive 12x12 foot head of the former president and despot was fragged by a bomb. No surprise there, Laureano Gómez is the go-to-guy when political malcontents want to underscore their grievances with an explosive exclamation point! The attack most likely had something to do with the Gómez family blood feud with the extreme right wing. This was the second time Gómez suffered a strafing. A mobile police van is now stationed next to the statue.

2

Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada

The statue of the conquistador who founded Bogotá 475 years ago resides in Rosario Plaza in a dicey barrio known as Egipto, just north of the old-quarter of Candaleria. Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada hailed from a wealthy Marano family in Spain and stripped a fortune in gold and emeralds from the Spanish colony of New Granada. The 83-year-old conquistador died penniless north of Bogotá after an expeditionary fiasco. Some literati believe Cervantes based Don Quixote on Quesada. Spain gifted the statue to Bogotá in 1960, and he hangs out in a dreary plazaleta with the tag "Rude Boy" spray-painted on his base.

3

Francisco de Paula Santander

A wooden sign asks Bogotanos to respect Santander Park by keeping it tidy. A few blocks away is this very well cared for statue of Francisco de Paula Santander, one of Colombia's founding fathers. Compare this to Quesada, who's been dumped in a plaza surrounded by a hodgepodge of vendors, layabouts, and porta-johns.

4

La Pola

La Pola was a martyr in the War of Independence. Beloved by Colombians, she sits high upon a platform at an entryway to Los Andes University, one of the country's top schools. La Pola's plazaleta is neat and tidy and her pedestal unmarked, as she looks reverentially toward the heavens, hands bound behind her back. Her serialized TV biopic last year ran the length of a Nubian goat's gestation period.

5

Camilo Torres

In a similar vein, the statue of Camilo Torres - another martyr to Independencia - is shielded behind a wrought-iron fence in Bolivar Plaza, his memory protected against potential defacers.

6

Simon Bolivar

Nearby Camilo Torres is the statue of the iconic Simon Bolivar, standing bullseye in his namesake plaza in front of the Capitolio Nacional. Surprisingly, his figure is allowed to serve as a lightening-rod for populist protest. Perhaps Bolivar was too much the liberal idealist and revolutionary to win the heartfelt affection and protection of the modern status quo, who have to deal with an interminable civil war. A sign on the base of Bolivar's statue borrows the outcry of today's Spanish youth: "Indignado!" Which can also be translated as, "Boy, are we pissed!"