A friend of mine runs a pretty cool local-based travel company here in Colombia, and about a month ago I got to hitch a ride with one of his trips. Our group spent a few days in the Altiplano — learning how to make pottery in Ráquira, shearing sheep on a farm outside of Villa de Leyva, wearing silly hats, and even finding time in between to play a little tejo and eat a bunch of empanadas. And then I wrote about it for their blog. A bit of a different perspective, or at least a different blog background, to change things up a little.
You had to know this conversation was coming eventually. Yes, I spend a lot of time talking about how Colombia isn’t the country it was 20 or even 10 years ago, how there’s so so SO much more to this amazing place than “machine guns and murders,” as my father so aptly put it in a recent conversation about how apparently nobody we know has seen any news since 1985. Colombia is no longer Pablo Escobar’s Colombia, but it’s also not paradise, despite what the tourism ads tell you. As much as I’ve fallen in love with this place, my love isn’t blind: this is still very much a country at war, and it’s a war that extends far beyond the geographic borders. It’s a war that probably touches you.
If you know anything about anything, you’re aware that Colombia has been mired in a civil conflict for decades. A quick and dirty primer for those of you who failed Endless Civil Wars in Latin America 201: The modern conflict began in 1948, with a decade-long political civil war known as La Violencia, which killed more than 300,000 people, most of them farmers or rural residents. In the meantime, the number of people affiliated with the Communist party had been slowly growing since the years following WWI; by the early 1960s, many rural regions had formed their own leagues based on communist principles, calling for increased rights to land ownership, services and access to resources that were controlled by the land-owning class. Because god forbid the threat of Communism be allowed to flourish near our own continent, the U.S. of course had to get involved: in 1962, our proud nation created a paramilitary intervention, known as “Plan Lazo,” which trained and encouraged the Colombian military (as well as the paramilitary civil defense groups they created, which of course don’t conveniently vanish when the plan ends) to attack these leagues and their adjacent communities, many of whom were generally unarmed. Such good neighbors, we are. In response to a 1964 raid on a small town, when 16,000 U.S.-sponsored Colombian troops attacked a group of 1000 villagers, a group of 48 men who had been involved in the battle created the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, known as the FARC by their nearest and dearest friends, and everyone else.
The group quickly grew to include hundreds of guerrillas, with the ostensible purpose of defending their territory and land from these imposed, colonialist attacks. However, somewhere along the way (sometime in the early ’80s, to be more precise), the FARC lost most of their revolutionary political ideals, and turned into something closer to the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Cocaína. Cocaine is a hell of a
drug fast way to make a profit, and when you’re spending all your time hiding in the jungles and fighting the paramilitares/army/police/idiot lost tourists/capybaras/anyone who crosses your path, you need all the fast money you can get. Current statistics estimate that the FARC brings in anywhere from $60 to $100 million dollars annually just from taxing the drug trade, so it’s no surprise that the guerrilla groups saw that they could leverage this system to their advantage, nor that they turned rural farms with little oversight into a production system for their new export, therefore placing the farmers directly into the lose-lose middle of this impossible situation: work with the FARC, and stand a chance of losing their farms or being sent to jail under the latest anti-drug initiative; refuse to work with the FARC, and stand a chance of losing their lives. As usual, the little guy is the one who gets screwed.
But you know what, kids? Most of us, even unwilling journalism majors, have learned a little bit about economics by this point in our lives. We certainly understand the capitalist holy grail of supply and demand — we live it. So if the supply is here, hiding in the overgrown corners of jungle-bordered Colombia, shielding themselves from the occasional pesticide-laced flyover or big military initiative — then where is the demand?
Take a look around you, dear friends and countrymen (and, I suppose, some of you non-countryfolk). Because that’s where it is. Colombia may be one of the world’s biggest producers of cocaine, but the U.S. is by far the biggest consumer. It’s no accident that in the last few years, northern Mexico has turned into a roiling nightmare of narcotraficantes and horrific cartel-sanctioned violence — someone has to protect that coke and make sure it’s getting safely to the noses of rich kids in American cities.
I have friends (not good friends, obviously) back at home who do or at least have done cocaine. I’ve seen friends or acquaintances snorting that stuff up their noses, and while it never seems like the time to give them a lecture about supporting traffickers and essentially signing off on death, both in other countries and in the U.S., being here by the source makes this just so much clearer. I see the poorest neighborhoods of Bogotá, perched up on the hills and without electricity or running water, filled with people who fled the conflict in their native towns, trying to salvage at least their lives and families, if nothing else. I teach kids who lost family members in the ’80s and early ’90s, the unstable era when Bogotá was a city filled with narcos and bombs, when Medellín was the murder capital of the world. I sense the hope, the need to break free of this past, this narrative of Colombia as eternal battleground. The scars here are still so, so visible, and no amount of smiles or makeup or plastic surgery, that Colombian specialty, can cover them up.
Maybe you can’t see them from where you are. Maybe you think it’s not you perpetuating this cycle of violence and exploitation. Maybe you just really don’t care where your toys come from, like people who buy diamond engagement rings without investigating the history of those sparkling gems. If you do care, though — if you give a shit about people, about the ability of human beings to live their lives without the risk of being killed or injured or forced to leave their entire livelihoods behind to flee from an unsafe situation to a far-away city or country — then think. Think about the implications of your actions, think about what these habits say about you or your friends as human beings, think about what you can do to distance yourself from the kind of people who, through their action or inaction, implicitly condone drug violence and the exploitation of thousands of innocent people.
At the least, think before you inhale.
It’s often hard to know how much progress you’re making with a language, since the incremental daily changes are near-impossible to measure as they happen. We don’t walk around going, “hey, my vowels sound just a little better today than they did on Tuesday!” Language development is a long-term process, something that happens over months rather than hours. Still, there are times when I manage to do something or make some point in a conversation that I know would have been absolutely impossible for me a year or even three months ago. These are the moments when I realize that I am still progressing, that my Spanish hasn’t stagnated at good-enough-to-buy-bus-tickets-but-not-good-enough-to-win-an-argument-about-homophobia (which, for the record, is right about where it is right now. But onwards! And upwards!). It’s important to acknowledge these little victories, if only for the fact that it keeps me motivated and hopeful that I can keep improving, every day.
A few of the things I can now accomplish in Spanish:
- Get something notarized without ruining any important paperwork (I am most self-impressed by this one. It’s a very confusing process, even in English!)
- Translate answers to questions as someone is speaking — again, without ruining anything important.
- Get from Bogotá to Manizales using three taxis, a plane and a bus without getting lost or ripped off.
- FedEx a document (to be fair, at this point I could probably fill out a shipping label in my sleep. Or in Mandarin).
- Get a haircut and actually have it turn out pretty much exactly as I want it.
- Explain why I’m a vegetarian and have people actually understand it. Insofar as most Colombians understand the concept of vegetarianism (anything more than “So you don’t like meat?” is progress).
- Give directions that are at least intended to be helpful and accurate.
- Take a yoga class without looking like a confused fool.
A few things I still can’t do:
- Make good jokes.
- Win the aforementioned argument about homophobia.
- Correctly write dates without double-checking the order of the days and months.
- Convince my attractive co-worker that I am obviously the perfect woman. Then again, I couldn’t do this in English, either.
- Explain American football.
This is me:
I’m 5’4″, 23 1/2 years old, brown/brown. I’m totally blind without my contacts, my face gets covered with freckles when it’s sunny and I’m engaged in a lifelong battle against my eyebrows, which repeatedly attempt to annex the entire upper half of my face. I get told sometimes that I look Italian, or maybe Spanish, but my family heritage is straight-up German-Hungarian Jewish (and 1/8th mystery. That’s the fun part of me). The idea of whether or not I “looked American,” though, had never really occurred to me until I moved to Colombia, where I am told at least once a week that I don’t.
I realize, of course, that this mindset comes from a position of privilege. The U.S. is certainly not a perfect racial and ethnic melting pot of equality or “colorblindness” or whatever your chosen nomenclature for that impossible ideal may be. I’ve never been stopped in traffic for no good reason, nor had someone speak to me slowly and loudly because they assume by looking at me that English is not my first language. People don’t ask me where I’m from, or where my parents are from, and expect to hear me say the name of another country. At home, at least, I obviously do look American** enough that nobody gives my citizenship a second thought. I recognize that this is a privilege that many other citizens don’t have, and that’s a whole different and far more important battle — but it’s not the one I’m involved in right here, right now. Right here, right now, I’m trying to explain to people (and kind of to myself) why exactly I get so offended when people insist that I don’t look like an American.
Being told I don’t sound like an American is a compliment — it means my Spanish is good enough that people mistake me for a foreigner from another, less verbally-embarrassing country. Argentina, sometimes, because of the accent I picked up there, or Brazil, because I don’t sound like a native Spanish speaker. I’m more than fine with this. Not having people know right off the bat when I speak that I’m a gringa is both a testament to the fact that my Spanish isn’t filled with horrible flat vowels and overpronounced h’s, and it makes my life a bit easier in terms of not standing out or getting ripped off. Go ahead and think I’m from Portugal when I’m speaking, but once you know I’m from the States, please don’t tell me I look wrong.
My issue with this has little to do with any sort of desire to assert my American-ness all over the place. After all, I am not exactly the world’s most “hoo-rah!” patriotic Yankee. For starters, I’m from the People’s Republic of Eastern Massachusetts. I was raised on skepticism, grew up under the idealism-crushing Bush administration, have never watched NASCAR or “American Idol” and I don’t even eat burgers. But there are legitimate reasons I’m proud of where I’m from, and it will always be an inherent part of my identity. I certainly wouldn’t choose to identify otherwise unless it were for my own safety (there are some countries where it’s just better to be Canadian).
But more than the slight to my ego, it’s upsetting to me that the idea of what an American looks like is so narrowly defined as the “gringo” look: tall, white, with blond hair and blue eyes (apparently, they think we’re all Nordic). Because the thing is, very few Americans actually look like this. We (or at least I) take pride in the fact that there is no distinct American look, except for maybe wearing t-shirts all the time, and it saddens me that the entire, amazing cultural/ethnic/racial range of what an American might be is almost immediately negated when you travel to another country. You don’t look like this; therefore, you can’t possibly be this.
Obviously, people’s understanding or concept of a foreign culture they’ve never experienced is based entirely on the information available to them — or rather, the information they choose to absorb. I encountered this plenty of times last year while trying to explain to people at home that it was in fact highly unlikely that I would be kidnapped by the FARC, or listened to the tenth person in a row make the same stupid joke about drug dealers. But considering how tuned in many Colombians are to American pop culture, it’s kind of astonishing that their image of the North American is strictly limited to the gringo. Movies have their own bucket of issues with minority representation, but it’s not like every single person present in U.S. pop culture or media looks like that. The president doesn’t. Angelina Jolie doesn’t. Selena Gomez certainly doesn’t (I know, I know. I’ve been spending too much time with middle-schoolers). There are tons of high-profile Americans who don’t remotely fit into that mold — and yet, it’s still assumed here that that’s what we all look like.
I don’t think for a second that this image of the blond American gringo exists only in Colombia. It’s definitely present in a lot of countries — it’s just that I happen to be living here, so here is where I’m encountering it. There’s not much that can be done, really, to change it — when people have an image or stereotype fixed in their minds, it’s a hell of an uphill battle to change it (hi, all my parents’ friends who are still convinced I’m going to die here!). All I can do at the moment is keep looking like this, and hope that some people notice.
** for the purpose of this post, I’m using “American” to mean ” a person from the U.S.” I realize that isn’t technically accurate, and I’m sorry for the nationalcentrism, but there isn’t an English word for “estadounidense” and I refuse to write “person from the U.S.” every time because efficiency. It’s a problem, but it’s not a battle I’m prepared to take on right now. Please forward your complaints to the people in charge of the English language.
People here are really into holidays. As in, we celebrate something pretty much every week — holidays I never even knew existed in a formal sense, like Teacher’s Day, Children’s Day, International Water Day, and so on. Basically every holiday is an excuse for us to have an iza bandera (this translates more or less to “flag-raising” but is essentially a school-wide assembly. There is no actual raising of any flags) and for all the kids and teachers to miss class for an hour or two. I typically use it as an opportunity to tan my arms in the courtyard and whisper threatening things at 10th-graders who are hitting each other instead of paying attention.
However, some holidays merit even more than just an assembly with various patriotic songs and people talking. When they get serious about celebrations here, they go all out. A recent example at school — probably the best one so far — was Día del Idioma (Language Day, more or less). Día del Idioma is celebrated throughout the Spanish-speaking world as a day to recognize the global importance of the Spanish language, and has been a national holiday here in Colombia since 1938. It officially falls on April 23rd, as an homage to “Don Quixote” author Miguel de Cervantes, one of the most important writers in the history of Spanish literature, who died on that day in 1616. Even though the holiday has an official date, all of the schools where we volunteers are working seemed to celebrate it on different days. Ours was April 25th, and boy, was it a party.
Día del Idioma, although it seems like it should just be people talking about how awesome Spanish is all day (which would’ve been fine with me, too), turned out to be really more of a celebration of Colombian culture in general, or at least that’s how it played out here. Classes were suspended for essentially the entire day, since the festivities took up almost six hours. Every classroom was decorated according to some kind of theme — a different geographic region of the country, different kinds of food, different cultural myths, literature, and so on. Pretty much anything that contributes to culture had its own space, and some of the students from that class did a presentation on their specific topic. The rest of the students rotated around the school in groups, acting as the audience for the presentations.
It was pretty cute watching the students take a turn teaching each other, and we teachers got to more or less take a back seat for the day and just hang out with the kids and see the results of all their hard work. This was especially nice for the Spanish teachers, who had been driving themselves pretty much crazy with preparations during the week before Día del Idioma — I was legitimately concerned about the relative sanity of a few of them.
In the end, though, everything seemed to go fairly smoothly. The kids had a great time, all of the classrooms looked great, it miraculously didn’t rain for the whole six hours — plus, I got some great pictures.
I’ve got a new La Vida Idealist post up today about my recent journey to some Bogotá public schools and the thoughts it inspired about educational systems and the whole idea of volunteering — noble or ultimately fruitless? Read it here to find out!
Working as a teacher is filled with joys, challenges, lesson planning — and answering the same questions 9000 times a day. It’s even more extreme when you’re the only foreigner in a school filled with curious children, in a country where it’s socially acceptable to ask incredibly personal questions within about two minutes of meeting someone. Over the last few weeks, I’ve had enough time to adjust to the constant barrage of questions directed my way, but sometimes I can’t help but laugh at the frequency with which I get asked the exact same things, every day. At the least, I can say that if I ever end up on the wrong side of a press conference, I’m going to be totally prepared for any and all weird questions that people want to throw at me.
In the meantime, I’ve been perfecting my responses to these particular gems: