On Genes and Survival

Issue 02/15

Here is my acknowledgement to some of the icons of the resistance, heroes and villains who, thanks to the rural gene, managed to forge—or destroy, the term ‘citizen.’

Life evolves and perpetuates its dignity thanks to the natural binomial formed by heroes and villains. Some people, like Da Vinci, Che Guevara, Fleming, Gandhi and Napoleon were born into wealthy families and nobody can question their legacy. Many others, on the contrary, were raised on small farms, in vast fields of crops or by tribes. The latter symbolise survival, they contain the rural gene and are the genuine creators—or destroyers, of the term ‘citizen.’


Mandela in his cell where he had been incarcerated for 27 years for opposition to the Apartheid regime, 1994. Photography: David Turnley

Suffice it to think of Nelson Mandela (1918–2013), whose twenty-seven years in prison after being convicted of treason, his subsequent victory in the general elections of 1994, and the wisdom with which he processed sport as an infallible tool for reconciling enemies enabled him to become one of the most influential personalities of our day and age. And it all began in the village of Mvezo, in the bosom of a family that had never set foot in a school, in the midst of a tribe rooted in ancient customs and sterile surroundings that wasn’t going to give him any opportunity to survive. Rolihahla, as he had been christened—he didn’t receive his name until it was given to him by a teacher, fought for a ‘democratic city in which everyone would live in peace and have the same opportunities.’ Those lifeless lands saw the birth of one of the greatest architects of peace in history, Madiba, who would inspire the definitive abolition of Apartheid.

Walt Dinesy announcement for Disney World in Orlando, 1965. Photography: Orlando Sentinel

We could also think of Walt Disney (1901–1966), who was born on one of the many farms that proliferated around Chicago during the grimmest period of its industrialisation. At the age of ten, the great genius of animated dreams realised that the work his father carried out on the country house wouldn’t necessarily assure him a prosperous future, and so he began to juggle his studies with a job delivering local newspapers and pamphlets. His rise was filled with failures until he arrived in Hollywood with Alice in Wonderland and just over forty dollars in his pocket. His popularity spiralled and soon gave rise to Mickey Mouse and the Disneyland empire. Nevertheless, that farmer’s son who ended up becoming a great tycoon would never forget his roots and in each sketch, in each film he left traces, nods to animals and trees, those great friends of his childhood days in the country.


Pablo Escobar with his son in Medellín, 1980

We could also think of Pablo Escobar (1949–1993), yes, the man himself, ‘El Patrón.’ The son of a peasant and a rural school teacher, he had worked since his childhood days at different farm jobs, from the raising of cows to the cultivation of vegetables, and his humble origin would condition the rest of his life. Determined to provide a better future for his people, he soon began a criminal career that ended up converting him into the leader of the Medellín cartel. In the eighties, taking advantage of the street violence between the revolutionary guerrillas and the paramilitary forces, he founded a ‘drug empire’ tainted with blood and with charity works: just as he murdered his most direct rivals he built houses for the underprivileged and football pitches for the children from slum areas. Forgotten by the armed forces, a shot in the heart killed him on his rooftop, which had a view of the vegetable garden the criminal had planted as a tribute to his roots.