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La Isabela: History and heritage or old foundations?

Dr. Virginia Flores Sasso visited Leiden University on occasion of Pauline Kulstad's defense and gave a talk about La Isabela and her efforts of getting this important historical site on the UNESCO World Heritage list. RMA student Anika Hellemons met with Dr. Flores to talk about her work.

La Isabela, the first European city of the America’s, is currently crumbling and even falling off the seaside cliff it is located on. Clearly, this is not what you want for the location of many of the firsts in the America’s. This is why it is important that the problem of deterioration is recognised and that the site is added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage.

Dr. Virginia Flores Sasso is one of the people who wants to see La Isabela added to the list. Having received her masters degree in Conservation and Restauration in Santo Domingo, which was followed by a PhD. in Architecture from la Universidad Michoacana de San Nicolás de Hidalgo in Mexico. On top of that, she has many more academic merits. She stresses the importance of preservation, and doing this in a traditional manner. To mark the PhD defence of Pauline Kulstad, Dr. Flores Sasso came to Leiden to both be in the committee of the defense, but also to talk about La Isabela and the efforts being made to put the site on the UNESCO World Heritage site. Her visit to Leiden was a great opportunity to talk about her research, La Isabela and the importance of community engagement.

According to Dr. Flores Sasso, one needs to know the material and the structure of the building well in order to successfully reconstruct or preserve this. She mentions that architecture often only works with the appearance of a building, but to get that appearance it is needed to understand the materials that were used. To do this, she works in a laboratory where she researches the composition of the material, but also the colours used to paint the outer walls and the woods within the structure. When knowing the material, it gets easier to conserve historical buildings as you now know what (similar) materials can be used to reconstruct the outer appearance a building has.

During her lecture, Dr. Flores Sasso stated that excavations were carried out in 1995 by Prof. dr. Kathleen Deagan. She also talked a bit about the indigenous part of the site, which has gotten far less attention in the national park La Isabela has become. When asked if she aims to include the indigenous part of the site on the UNESCO World Heritage list as well, she immediately said yes. Dr. Flores Sasso thinks it is very important to include all parts of the site as it tells the story of many of the first things in the America’s. One example she gives is the real contact between the Spaniards and the Indigenous People at the site. In La Navidad, contact was had, but not in the way it manifested in La Isabella, where there were not only soldiers, but also families, and the people were getting in contact through normal things in their everyday lives. However, it was also the site for one of the first cases of injustice done to the Indigenous Peoples. For example, it is known that some people were punished by cutting of their ears in the middle of the square of La Isabela. When asked about this, and why they would do that, Dr. Flores Sasso responded that these are things we do not understand now, but were then probably done to show power and dominance.

When talking about what things should and will be done to get La Isabela on the UNESCO World Heritage list, Dr. Flores Sasso mentions a paper that is currently being written with Prof. dr. Keagan about the findings done during the 1995 excavation. She says this is important since science is always changing and things that might have been classified as one artefact, should have been classified as another.

To conclude our talk, we discussed the inclusion of the local community and their feelings towards the site. Dr. Flores Sasso agreed that it is important to include the community and that they have to feel that the park is theirs, it is their home and their heritage. Currently, the local community is getting involved with the site through the help of Dr. Flores Sasso and others. They are teaching them to be guides, to sell art and to do other things within the site. They need to get a connection with the site so that they also feel it is worth preserving. This is something that is currently not there. Dr. Flores Sasso tells that they go to the site and community and talk to the people, but they make it clear that they do not know what happened here and what the importance of the site is. This is a big problem in terms of historical awareness, but also the preservation of the site as it is now being seen as meaningless ruins by some. The local people also do not see the importance as they think there is nothing to see. There is no castle, no big fort to mark the location, it is an archaeological site. However, dr. Flores Sasso mentions that some people would be interested in seeing the house of Columbus reconstructed to better illustrate the site, but this is both a time consuming and costly effort, even though there are many ways to do this. First, the site should be recognised for the World Heritage it is and the lives that were altered as an indirect result of the settlement there.

I thank Dr. Flores Sasso for taking the time to talk with me.

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