This week this essay yanked and pulled at me. A game of tug of war, my mind, and soul. Something has shifted since I began to write these essays. Already a highly sensitive person, a deeper sensitivity has developed. Perhaps, this deeper sensitivity was always there, behind all the layers of untold stories. A razor to the world. I want to cut along the edges. Where the start of a story begins to whisper. And I suspect it will be ongoing, as long as my fingers race across these keys. Words and sentences will grab me by the hand and refuse to let go until they have been written. At the end when I’ve reached the center of the story, I get closer to the story I’ve always longed to tell. Me.
And week after week I’m compelled to write, though a list of worries plague me:
- Will this essay be well received as was my last?
- Does every essay take a piece of my soul or give me a piece back?
- Every essay feels like a marathon ran in mind. In my soul. Is this what writer’s endurance looks like?
- When I press the publish button and the essay is posted to my blog. A deep sigh rolls over me. And I feel closer to some finish line. Then I realize that another finish line exists. Do writers ever feel finished?
On Friday one of the guidance counselors at my school walked into my classroom. She wanted to discuss a time period in the day to work on the mindfulness curriculum she offers to my students, once a week. But the first thing out of her mouth was: “I’m reading Papi…” She placed her glasses up on the bed of curls that crown her head. “I love what you are doing.” She paused and rested her eyes, the color of Pepsi, on me.”You are healing yourself through storytelling.” Her face flushed with excitement. She beamed at me.
I smiled. The kind that comes with no rehearsal. Broad and wide.
And I think about my past few essays later that day, even now. A love letter to Colombia, the heart-break of Isabella’s death, Mami, and later Papi. Both their essays an acknowledgement that my love of story, and the power of writing came from both my parents. But it also acknowledged something greater that despite their flaws my parents did the best they could. One thing they both did, and did well, was showed their love for Colombia. In their bouquets to Colombia, air kisses, and passionate gazes, I grew to love Colombia. I fell in love fast. And hard.
This last Thursday, my in-laws made their way to my apartment early in the evening. My mother in law carried a small homemade flan. My father in law walked in with the sharp eye of futbol commentator, and an arsenal of FIFA facts. Colombia was to play a critical game. My sister, Joann and Tia Lola, not in Brooklyn both texted me that they would watch the game too. Colombian soccer games had long become a family tradition to watch together, even if apart. Mami would call me the next morning on my way to work so I could go over the highlights.
Colombia vs. Bolivia in the elimination rounds for FIFA 2018. In order for a national team to qualify for FIFA they must earn a set number of points. The 2018 FIFA World Cup qualification process will decide 31 of 32 teams that will play next June. Russia the host country automatically granted the right to play. Colombia with only a few more games to play, started with 19 points on Thursday. In short, Colombia needed to add points to keep a safe ranking among the South American teams. https://FIFA_World_Cup_qualification_(CONMEBOL)
My mother in law and daughter began to cook during the first half. We ate during the second. My son, in between his father and his grandfather, cheered and screamed throughout the game. I took my customary position on the edge of the sofa and proceeded to shake my fist at the television. During the second half when Colombia attacked with one goal attempt after another, I could no longer be confined to the couch. I began to pace the length of my living room floor.
The word hijueputa lashed across my tongue an easy dozen times. If you ever heard a Colombian strike out with an hijueputa; well you know, how we bunch up all the letters real close. We pull the hijue like a strand of gum in our mouth, as if those five letters bring no greater satisfaction than to be tugged across our tongue. Then spit out the puta with sheer disgust. I stamped my feet and shouted at the referee. I joined my father in law as he called out shots and plays.
As the game neared to the end, a foul was called on the Bolivian team, and Colombia would have a clean shot at a goal. There would be a penalty kick at the 83rd minute, to be taken by the team’s captain and star, James Rodriguez. As James made his way to kick at the net. I buried my head in my hands. My husband stood up. I walked over to him. My mother in law and father in law began to pray. I let out a nervous giggle. Their fervor over soccer seemed almost comical.
But as I’ve learned and continue to learn. I’m reminded that underneath their prayers are layers of things unsaid. And like song ballad, sung in duet, their prayers were so much more. Plea. Love song. Call.
“Senor que meta el gol,” my father in law began his voice thick with reverence.
“Que el pueblo Colombiano se alegria cuando gana la seleccion.” My mother in law braided her words with that of her husband’s.
“Ayudanos Senor, nuestro pais es mucho mas que lo que la gente piensa,” My father in law added.
And Colombia is so much more than the list of stereotypes given.
James Rodriguez made the goal that night to win against Bolivia 1-0, and gain the needed three points. We screamed and hugged each other as we celebrated James’ goal. More points are need, but for now we were safe. https://www.youtube.com
And I was thrilled at their win. I even planned to wear my Colombian jersey to work the next day. But my in-laws words lingered in the air. And like the tide of El Rodadero en Santa Marta, I was swept up in memories.
The first time I knew Colombians were treated differently at airports I was ten. Mami, Joann and I were on our way back home from a long summer trip to Colombia. On line to go through customs at JFK.
A Colombian woman with light hair, high heels, and a full face of makeup was the first to speak up. “Aqui traen los perros,” she turned towards the sound of custom agents and barking dogs.
I stared ahead. Her hatred, like fingers laced around my throat filled me with fear. The rage would come later.
“Don’t worry,” Mami glanced down at me. “Uds tienen el passporte azul.”
I looked at the two blue passports she held in one hand. Her mud brown passport with the words Republica de Colombia in the other. I wondered why she didn’t hold them together, and worried Mami needed to keep us separate. As if our places of birth created an invisible wall. Later in college, I would read Richard Rodriguez’s Hunger of Memory, and know that this invisible wall had a name. Assimilation. https://Hunger_of_Memory The more I navigated the world as a Colombian-American the further I stood from my mother. Mami realized long before I did. A combination of her keen sense on how the world works and instinct.
But the world would soon indoctrinate me. This moment in the airport would be one of many.
“A todo los dejan pasar menos nostros. Los Colombianos siempre no hacen esto,” A Colombian man in line muttered aloud. In his hand was sombrero vueltiao. A traditional hat worn by men in La Costa de Colombia. I watched him hide it behind him.
“Tenemos mala fama,” Mami offered.
Her words: Colombians have a bad reputation clung to the air. A few heads nodded in agreement. Other remained silent. Their faces pinched by the effort of their buried emotions.
And some spoke aloud:
“They think we are all narcotraficantes.”
“That we smuggling coke.”
The image of Pablo Escobar came to mind.
“Don’t talk too loud. They hear that word. We will all get locked.”
“This is the part that I hate the most about coming back. They never lets us forget we are Colombian.”
And once again like angry parents, America and Colombia, pulled at my arms.
“Since when is being Colombian a bad thing?”
I looked down at the ground, felt myself grow hot with shame.
Customs never a quick step for Colombians in the 1980’s and the 1990’s too. Every suitcases and carry on were inspected, like parts of a crime scene. But unlike a true crime scene, no crime needed to be committed. But being Colombian during this time period was enough to deem you criminal. And even now the stain remains.
In Harvard Review of Latin America journal ReVista Colombia is discussed for its violence. From the 1970s to 1985, chronic violence, especially in the countryside, kept Colombia’s homicide rate in the range of 20-39 per 100,000 population, high by international standards, but not much above Brazil and Mexico. Then the leaders of the drug cartels began a campaign of terror and assassination, aimed at stopping the extradition of drug trafficking defendants from Colombia to the United States for trial. They also redoubled their efforts to undermine the police and courts through bribery and threats. Colombia’s homicide rate soared to 57 in 1985, 86 in 1990 and 95 in 1993. In the Department (province) of Antioquia, which includes the city of Medellín, the homicide rate oscillated between 245 and 400 per 100,000 in the early 1990s. The high murder rates coincided with rapidly increasing rates of all kinds of crimes against property and people as the criminal justice system nearly collapsed… http://revista.drclas.harvard.edu/book/roots-violence-colombia
It was a dark period for Colombia. Though the country not stranger to strife, past or present, would continue to stand. At times el pueblo Colombiano could barely get off their knees. Juanes lyrics come to mind. His song A Dios Le Pido …que mi pueblo no derame tanta sangre y que se llevante mi gente. https://www.youtube.com
My mind wonders to those many summer trips to Colombia. And like those old movie reels I search for postcard images to share. I want to brag about the tall slender palmeras with its flowing green tresses. The beaches of La Costa, and their sparkling water and smooth carpet of sand. Also the balmy nights, the sky littered with stars. Salsa music del Grupo Niche or Joe Arroyo in the night air.
Saddened by the weight of the truth, I already know that in order to tell a story. A full story. Well, I must tell all the parts. Even the ones I’ve kept tucked away. Afraid my beautiful Colombia would lose its gleam. And only the ugly would be seen.
Unafraid and comforted by the fact that La Costa remained relatively safe during the 1980’s and 1990’s, but violence still unfolded. What is called el interior del pais, the center, of Colombia, were the battlefields of el narcotaffico. Pueblos, like Mami’s Chalan, were invaded by la guerilla. I thought La Costa was left alone because its beauty. Barranquilla often called la puerta de oro, was too beautiful of a city to be treated with anything but love. The last time I was in Colombia I took a charter bus with my cousin from Barranquilla to Cartagena. A two and a half to three-hour ride by road. A long weekend with my cousin and plenty of time to enjoy La Boquilla Beach.
We were halfway between Barranquilla and Cartagena when I was startled out of my book by an abrupt stop of the bus. It was my cousin sharp elbow to my ribs and narrowed eyes, which led me to look up. A group of young men in uniforms climbed onto the bus. Their rifles rested across their chest. I scanned the rest of the bus and noted that everyone was sat straighter and taller.
A baby wailed. I wondered if it was an ominous sign.
I looked over at my cousin. Her face composed, revealed nothing, but her eyes darted with fear.
I tried to think about the differences in uniforms worn by the La Policia de Colombia, Los Paramilitares, and Los guerilleros. They both had acronyms different from one another. FARC and ELN. They wore the same colored army fatigue as La Policia. It was hard in Colombia to know who was the good guy and the bad guy. Lines, long blurred and crossed. http://www.mtholyoke.edu
We were marched outside of the bus. The heat of the noon sun another oppressor. On the side of the road the face in front of me remained set with indifference. Some even dared to look bored. No one showed fear. At the time my heart filled with admiration and how brave Colombians were. And in turn, if they were brave, so was I by some ancestral DNA strand. Later I realized that behind those fearless faces was something else. Colombians had succumbed to a world of constant fear. And I was filled with infinite sadness at the thought.
We were searched and sent back on the bus. The rest of the bus ride was quiet. It was as if everyone had held their breath. Now forgotten to exhale. I didn’t ask questions. Never bothered to ask why we were pulled off the bus, what they looked for, and even if it would happen again on the way back.
Colombia had already claimed mi primo hermano, Francisco a year before. Colombia had already claimed my Tio Julio years before that. Senseless. Violent. Names on the long list of those murdered by la violence that ransacked the country for decades.
So, yes Colombian soccer means so much more than a game between two teams. In many ways La Seleccion Colombia plays for their love of the country, as much as the love of futbol. They are Colombian first. Soccer players second. And with every goal and win, Colombia fights to change their image of what people believe to be Colombia.
It’s common during a big soccer match that the country of Colombia becomes paralyzed. Businesses close down, soccer games are shown during school hours, and police huddle to watch the game, oblivious to the fact they are in uniform. Crime ceases for the duration of the game. And for 90 minutes Colombia is what it was always meant to be. A beautiful country where its people rejoice with pride.