And like a child from a broken home, I have felt divided most of my existence. Shuttled back and forth. Los Estados Unidos my primary guardian. Colombia relegated to extended visits, but never allowed to become home. And like the aftermath of a contentious divorce both parents vie for my love, both jealous of one another and insistent of my complete devotion. This, the price of growing up in two countries you want to be home.
My sister called me this past summer after a soccer post I put on Facebook.
“Hey, you put something on Facebook the other day that annoyed me,” Joann started the conversation.
“Oh yeah?” I sat back on the sofa with an eyebrow cocked. Joann was the eldest by two and a half-year, but she toted those fifty-four months over my head like the Wimbledon grand slam trophy. A trademark not unique to my sister.
“Why did you put Patria Querida as a hashtag when Colombia won its last two games?” She demanded. “You were born here,” she was quick to add.
“I know that,” I rolled my eyes.
“So, why did you call Colombia your Patria Querida then?” Her voice softer.
“I was channeling Edgar Perea,” I laughed. And this was part of the truth. Edgar Perea had died a few months earlier in April. His voice as familiar to me as that of a tio or primo. My father, a sports writer for El Diaro de La Prensa was a soccer junkie. Colombian soccer games were broadcasted loud on television alongside with RCN transistor radio that screeched from the kitchen. And Edgar’s commentary after a goal was scored was wild with excitement and filled with pride. He would scream as if he were on both knees and hands balled into fists. The words Goooooaaaaaaaal belted from deep within his gut as if he had an endless supply of air. And he would top it all off with the words: Colombia mi patria querida. His words wrapped tight with love and passion and bound by great admiration. The only thing better than Edgar’s reaction was the score flashed on the screen. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K2pj0KbG8uY
“Oh well… that’s ok then.” My sister said, satisfied with my answer.
But I wasn’t. Since underneath my love for soccer and Edgar’s narrations of Colombian games more remained to be unearthed.
Mami would remind us often that we were not like Americanos. “Uds nacerion aqui por accidente,” she would narrow her eyes at my sister and I, her hands on her hips. “Don’t forget,” she warned. And it’s true I always had a keen awareness that I could’ve been born in Colombia very much like my cousins. I was born in Brooklyn, New York– Lutheran Medical Center in Sunset Park to be exact. A fact that was never allowed to be just that, a fact; but instead made to sound like some divine intervention. A debt I owed the universe from the moment I took my first breath.
And so we would never forget that were not Americanas Mami planned many childhood summers spent in Colombia. She would put a deposit on her plane ticket, Joann’s and mine months before the date of departure. And every other week until it was paid off she would walk to Delgado Travel en la Quinta and pay off her balance. A small roll of bills buried in the pockets of her long skirt.
It was an unspoken rule between Joann and I, that once we landed in Enesto Cortissoz Aeropuerto Internacional in Barranquilla we would cease to speak English once the airplane door opened. And we would return to English only when we would see the skyline of New York City as we approached JFK. It was our feeble attempt to safe guard ourselves from the snarled comments: Las Gringas, Esas Gringas, Ellas no son de aqui, Son Gringas, Que Gringas. And if their mouths remained silent their eyes traced the words Gringas around us like crime tape.
Those native to mi patria querida made it clear that I was a visitor and not to get comfortable en casa ajena. But like a child desperate to be made part of schoolyard games I forged ahead. I learned to eat mojarra despite the fried fish head that rested on the edge of the plate. I looked at the fish eyes crunchy from the fried oil as it stared at me. I ignored the bristled tail that rested on my bed of arroz blanco. I discovered a taste for fresh fruit juices like: sapote, maracuya, and guava. I grew to like pizza sold in stands similar to NYC hotdog stands, and salsa rosada became my favorite dipping sauce. I’d run to the tienda alta on the corner and get yupi queso and chocolatina Jet, and think it tasted better than cheese doodles and Hershey chocolate bars.
During my last visit, after an eighth month stay in Colombia, on the heels of graduation from Hunter College, I grew to love more than just the food. I fell in love with vallenato music, popular folk music of Colombia’s Caribbean region. The word vallenato means born of the valley, which spans from the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and the Serrania de Perija. The romantic verses of jilted men forced to succumb to the horror of heartbreak spilled out of the taxis, homes, and stores. https://sombra+perdida&rlz=1C5CHFA The accordion forced to compete only with the smooth sounds of salsa and the fervor of partidos de futbol.
It was during this stay that I aquired a taste for cerveza that still presents itself to this day. The need to learn how to dance salsa became urgent. Words like: tenaz, rumbear, guacala, juemadre, ni modo, nada que ver, listo, ni loca, and the infamous hijueputa all rolled off my tongue as easily as the American English counterparts. So, great was my need to prove to myself and others that I was Colombiana that after a few weeks I gave up bottled water. I drank from the tap fearless of the stomach pain and runs that would overtake me. As I raced to the bathroom I reassured myself that it was a matter of time before I got use to it.
But I was reminded that I was a visitor despite my new list of favorite food, my recently acquired skill of chugging beer, which rivaled los hombre Barranquilleros. The fact that I could belt out a song by Diomedes Diaz or Rafael Orozco and that I learned the basic front and back salsa step alongside with the side to side. It was meaningless to El DAS, El Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad. The Security Department Agency of Colombia who after three months asked me to either pay a heavy fine or to go back to your pais Gringa.
“But, I’m Colombiana. Mis padres son de aqui,” I countered to the official in an olive-green military short sleeve uniform. He maned Colombia’s security from a front desk of a mango colored building. The letters DAS written in block letters in the front.
“Aqui dice,” he pointed to my blue passport American,”you are from Nueva York.”
“Mi mama y mi papa son de aqui,” I insisted.
“You will have to pay or book a flight by the end of the week,” his face set in a permanent frown.
“I will pay,” I said through tight lips. And reached into my moral, my handmade black and white tribal designed Colombian backpack. I pulled out the equivalent of hundred and fifty dollars in pesos and placed it in el agente’s hands.
“Your country makes it hard for us to go there. We have to go through visas, medical records, and affidavits.” His eyes bitter.
“I didn’t make the rules for Los Estados Unidos,” I turned to walk away, a receipt in my hand and my passport stamped.
“Mira Gringa, you said your two parents are Colombian?” He called after me.
“Si, mi papa de Barranquilla y mi mama de Chalan.” My mouth filled with pride.
“Then do yourself a favor and get yourself a Colombian passport. You are entitled to one because of your parent’s nationality. It will be cheaper in the long run and you won’t have to come here every month and pay a fine.” After he spoke he pursed his lips as if he had revealed some great secret to a sworn enemy. “You can have dual citizenship.”
“Como hago? I now faced him.
“I need a copy of your parent’s passports and your birth certificate. It will be done within a few hours,” He took a long breath. And I wondered if he hated me more for being born in Los Estados Unidos or for having the choice to stay in Colombia.
“I will be back,” I assured him. “Y gracias,” I called from my shoulder as I headed out of the office.
“Senorita,” he called again.
“Los Gringos love Barranquilla. And I mean the real gringos. They say this country and this city especially is one big party. But it’s not a party for those that live here and work here.”
“Yo entiendo,” I shook my head and noticed the sweat that rolled from under his cap. How he had tugged his tight collar a dozen times as he spoke.
And while I have a romanized version of Colombia I know this much to be true. I’m aware that there is a different version or versions. My husband born and raised there does not long for a trip to Colombia like I have for years. It was as if the day he set off to America he slammed the door on Colombia’s face unafraid of hard feelings by his patria.
“Narcos second season is on Netflix,” I reminded my husband in the summer. “We gotta sit down and binge watch,” I wiggled my eyebrows.
“Nah, watch it without me.” He said.
“Porque?” I looked into his eyes.
“Connie, why do I have to watch that? I lived it.” He rested his face on his fist.
“But it’s about Colombia,” I persisted.
“That was not a good time for Colombia.” My husband looked up. “It makes me sad,” he said his eyes clouded with a swirl of emotions.
“Oh,” I let out in one long-winded breath. My husband keeps his emotions tucked and shelved away from him, and his admission was no easy feat. This I knew. And later I watched the season without him, but I tried to see from his eyes. At the end of the season I was left with overwhelming gratitude to not have lived through those dark times in Colombia. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nkOKkS7mKfY I was there during many of those summers, but was shielded from the horrors that unfolded in Colombia at the time. And for a few years, we did not go to Colombia. Mami instead opted for excursions to Canada and there was one to Florida. We also spent a week in Virginia Beach, far away from Colombia.
And while my Colombia is different for my husband and myself, the difference is greater for my Mami and I.
As soon as Mami had secured the deposit on the plane tickets she set out on armando las maletas. We were allowed at the time two pieces of luggage per passenger and a carry on each. So, that was what we would take. A total of six suitcases each topped off at sixty pounds and three carry ons. Mami would begin to collect hand me downs from friends and neighbors for our next trip as soon as we were back from Colombia. She would spend hours while her novella played in the background with neat piles of clothes in front of her. She would fold neat squares of ropa until the maleta was filled to capacity. She would then hoist it on a scale that she kept under her bed. And with a few pounds shy of maximum weight she stuffed flip-flops she purchased by the dozen at Mini Max. There were plenty of Avon antiperspirants roll-ons and Colgate toothpaste tubes. In between the cracks she fitted countless cheap plastic rosaries and boxes of inexpensive perfumes. The carry on bags she would pack the night before with frozen juice boxes, packages of Kraft cheese, Oscar Meyer bologna, cans of tuna, boxes of jello, and containers of Kool-Aid powdered mix. This was years before a bottle of mouth wash was seen as a national security threat.
Once in Colombia Mami would hand out old t-shirts and jeans to her endless line of family members that would visit. She sat on a rocking chair in a bata and in chanclas with her smile spread wide as she handed out item after item. She would offer slices of cheese to her family members and ask them to taste what America is like. It took me years to figure that our trips to Colombia were more than just to keep Joann and I bound to Colombia. So, that when we are asked where are you from we would answer without hesitation, “Colombian, but born here.” I think the trips were her way to atone. Atone for being the only one of her family to leave Colombia.
My relationship with Colombia is not like that of Mami or my husband’s. No it’s layered under things not said. How Colombia has forced me to prove my Colombianess, while America reflects my Colombianess back to me in response to my lack of assimilation.
It would be cliche and innacurate to say that Colombia is like a long lost lover. No, I miss Colombia like the way you little kids sit on their parent’s lap or slip their head under the crook of their arm and smile at them. And in turn America is the face of the parent that you search for approval, afraid to dissapoint. This essay does not end with neat resolution that I have found both countries to be home. No, the fact remains I love Colombia and I love America differently, but I do love them both. They are both Mi Patria Queridas.