Monday, August 3, 2015

Reconnecting with Colombia

Memorial Day Weekend 1983
Arriving from Barranquilla,
Colombia to Salt Lake City, USA
I vividly remember this moment.  This is the moment I stepped off the plane with my new little sister from Colombia at the Salt Lake City Airport.  My Dad and I had gone to Barranquilla to pick-up her and her two brothers, who my parents were adopting.  My sister was around four year’s old. Her brothers were around five years old and around six or seven. The rest of our family was there waiting to meet them for the first time.

They didn’t come with official birthday information and so my parents just chose dates and spread them across the months. Mostly I only remember three things from this trip; the hotel swimming pool and going to a beach with black volcanic sand and my brother Carlos taking off all of his clothes at the airport.

After years of talking about going back, my sister and I finally bought tickets and got back on a plane to return to Colombia for the first time since she was adopted. 

Can you imagine being trapped on a trip with a brother who is a therapist and a psychology professor who never gets tired of "processing events" all day? As if video blogging were not enough, he might also think that writing exercises were fun! Below are some examples of both. To start, here are some thoughts from before our flight about returning to Colombia:

Our first stop was in the breathtaking city of Medellín, Colombia and here are some first impressions:

After Medellín, we first visited Cartagena and finally Barranquilla, the city where she was actually born. Using all five senses is an important part of immersing in a culture and both places provided a flood of sounds, tastes, smells and sights to see. Colombian music and Dance were a particularly powerful part of the experience. After trying and failing for hours to try and use music from Checo Acosta, I gave up and went with the slightly Caribbean music available from iMovies. If you have Colombian music recommendations beyond Juanes and Shakira (who we do love) we would be happy to hear them.

Jason: What do you want to remember about your experience in returning to Colombia and specifically Barranquilla? 

I don’ t think that there is anything in particular that I want to remember, but I won’t forget how it made me feel and how it has changed me as a person and how I feel about myself and my own environment. 

Jason: It seems like there is something spiritual for people that happens when they are born in one place and return to it later in life. Maybe spiritual isn’t the right word though. I also hear from others that returning to their origins is part of a process of finding themselves. What do you think people should understand about that process? 

Sis: It is a VERY personal experience and will be different for each person. There are things that I did not expect to have happen and other things that I anticipated and that never happened. I think the most important thing is to have an open mind and an open heart to the things you will see, hear, taste, and TOUCH. It is crazy how certain things will set off an explosion of memories or just feelings. It is spiritual, but not in the way one would think. It is more about connecting with yourself in a way that is indescribable until it happens.

Jason: What was your experience in going to Puerto Colombia and down to the river? 

Sis:  I was moved. I had a very strong emotional pull to the area and the surroundings. I looked near the water and saw a village of people and felt that the area was where I was from. It brought me to tears and I felt at peace and at home. Although Carmen and Manuel said that the area was scary, I was not frightened or felt fear for my safety. I wanted to walk closer to the homes.

Jason: My friend told me that people who live outside their home country always have their hearts in two places. It kind of sounds like you have lived, in some ways, with a sense of homelessness. Do you think that feeling will change for you now or be stronger? 

Sis: I have never felt like I belonged in Utah. I have always wanted something else and longed for something more. Something that just “fit.” This trip has given me a clearer understanding of my self and where I came from. It allowed me to see that I am not alone in this world, but it also gave me purpose to search for the truth in my story. 

Colombian food is diverse and delicious! Oh my! We had the fortunate opportunity to be hosted by an incredible couple who served us meals in their home and took us to great places to eat. We ate so much but we would still welcome recommendations of other Colombian foods that we should try! We documented some of our many food adventures and the first time my sister tried some popular Colombian foods and drinks:

Jason: What meaning did the food have for you that you ate in Barranquilla?

Sis: The food was DELICIOUS! There were a few things that we ate that I recall having tasted before. Anything with bananas was very good! The Bollo and the arrepa were my favorite dishes.

Jason: You have said that you now now want to learn to cook Colombian style food. Which one will you attempt to master first?

Sis: That is easy…  I will try the “mashed 'potato' bananas” LOL

What is a Colombian? What we learned is that there clearly is no single story and that whatever answers exist are immensely complex. Lots of groups arrived from other parts of the world and mixed with the diverse indigenous groups of Colombia and this has influenced the makeup of Colombian people and the culture. While we shouldn’t have been surprised, Colombian people are very diverse. Still, for my sister, who has always stood out in the United States, it was refreshing to experience being able to blend into a crowd.

We had a lot of conversations about skin tones, hair, body issues and her experience of being Colombian growing up in a primarily white community.

 Locals did tell us that racism exists in Colombia but we didn’t have enough time to learn what that looks like there. We’d enjoy hearing from other Colombians about their experiences either in Colombia or abroad. Here are a few examples of the topics related to skin tone, hair and race that we discussed:

Jason: What did you learn about the different groups that immigrated or came as slaves to Colombia? How does that change how you think about yourself? 

Sis: I always thought that being Colombian was more influenced by Hispanics and I never truly understood what it meant to be “Colombian”. It is amazing to the see the variety of people and the diversity even amongst the Colombians. We are black, brown, light skinned, tall, medium built, and the women have curves and own them. There is no shame in how they look and my whole life I have felt out of place and like I always stood out and not in a good way. I found a place where I blend in and still look slightly different. It was refreshing!

Jason: I have always loved you and I have always thought you were beautiful. I remember you taking diet pills, but before this trip I don’t think I realized how much looking different has been a challenge. I have really appreciated and learned a lot hearing about your thoughts comparing skin tones, hair and body types while on this trip and your experience of being Colombian in the United States. 

Sis: My weight has always been a challenge for me. I felt the expectation was to be a size 2 at a young age because all the girls around me were.  I would NEVER be a size two and I need to own my shape and my curves, but be healthy. My hair has always been a challenge and for most of my life I was ashamed of it. I thought it was ugly and I didn’t want to stand out I wanted to hide. 

Jason: So how does seeing people who look similar to you effect you? I can’t imagine what it would be like for you to feel like you could just blend in after so many years. 

Sis: It is heartbreaking. I wish I had known this when I was my ten year old self on diet pills and not wanting to eat food in front of other people. My size was NORMAL. As an adult I have taken on the role of being the person to set other people straight because I now know that Latinas have curves. I want my own daughter, who is twelve and struggles with this, not to have the same struggles that I did. 

Jason: What will you remember from Interactions with local people from Barranquilla?  

Sis: They LOVE their country and their heritage. They are proud and they are strong. They are truly good people and passionate. I think those are qualities that most Colombians possess. They wanted me to be knowledgeable about my roots and to OWN it and LOVE it and to just be filled by all the many great things that come with being a Colombian.

Jason: Do you think Colombian pride is different that US pride?

Sis: YES! It is passionate and affectionate and done in a loving way. There is HONOR in being Colombian, not because you OWN materialistic things… but because you have a heritage like nothing else. I saw the children and adults loving life even when they had little to nothing. It is a different kind of pride.
Okay okay, that is probably enough "processing" for now. I am so grateful for my sister and for the opportunity to have this experience with her.