Thursday, February 12, 2009

Colombia Mía

I've been in Colombia for almost four years now, since the summer of 2005, when I took a job as an eager and idealistic (yeah, right) English teacher at the Universidad del Norte. I was initially drawn to the country as I was nearing the end of my masters program in DC; I wanted to move to a Latin American country for a few years to improve my Spanish, before moving to Spain and obtaining a doctoral degree there. The main pre-requisites were (1) that the country have a strong African cultural element to its society (particularly the music and dance) and (2) that I could find a decent-paying university teaching job. Pre-req #1 limited the choices to Colombia, Venezuela, Panama, and the Dominican Republic. Pre-req #2 narrowed the field down to...well...Colombia. I visited the country over Spring Break, at the behest of another black American living and working in Medellín, who'd fallen in love with the place. After a few days, I was all set to set myself up in Colombia's second city when my prospective boss at the language institute informed me of the salary: barely US $700 a month at the time ("No thanks, player," I demurred...I might want to be able to see my mama at least once a year). But I heard about Uninorte and hopped a cheap flight up to Barranquilla, where I landed a job in Shakira's hometown, thinking I had found a mini-Santo Domingo (seabreezes blowing in from the Caribbean, attractive people ranging from coal to cream, the booty-moving tinkle of salsa and merengue). Wrong.

Long story short, we've had a rocky relationship in these last four years, me and Colombia.* I'm one of a handful of professional blacks in a country with around 40% of its population being of African descent (compared to 13% in the US); most of the people who look like me are maids, security guards, or driving Miss Margarita (that's Daisy in Spanish); and I'm pretty much a political leftist (belief in quality gubment-sponsored education and health care and all that jazz), in a relatively staunch right-wing society. There's serious denial about the racism here, or colorism if you will, because people like to say that everyone's mixed and they don't even see race, though they're quick to call the mango seller outside the school, "Negro." Some days, I'm like a one-man Civil Rights Movement.

Still, I'm aware that these are issues that occur in all post-colonial societies in one form or another, even in my beloved Brazil. And even though my time in Colombia hasn't been the endless vacation that I wasn't even naive enough to believe it would be, there are some wonderful aspects of the country that are unknown to most people outside of it. Because of incredible topography, Colombia's climate goes from tropical to Alpine in the span of a one-hour flight. Every city has a distinct flavor, from the quiet bustle of chilly Bogotá to the sizzle of Cali's salsa-splashed streets, and every geographic region has a corresponding cultural variation reflected in the people. "Colombia Mía" (My Colombia) is the title of a recurring series of images and text here on Fly Brother that will offer you guys a glimpse of the beauty, complexity, and poignance of what has been, for better or worse, my temporary home. Who knows...maybe as I post, we might rekindle our romance.

*One might ask, "Well, why are you still there, Fly Brother?" And Fly Brother might answer, "$$$."


Nikita said...

Nice post!!! Now tell me more about Barranquilla!!!

And definitely hit me up when you get to HK!

Black and (a)Broad said...

Dear Fly Brother,

I feel your reaction to Colombia with respect to the color thang. I concentrated on the black presence in Latin American literature while in grad school, and discovered Latinos can be just as racist as their American counterparts, except they tend to deny it more vehemently. On the other hand, their culture is so fascinating and warm; it's what I miss the most living in Holland. Have you been to Cuba or Brazil? If not, you've got to.

kwerekwere said...

um, okay, this is where i say hmmm...

i mean, reading your posts about your travels and experiences makes me feel a little bit jaded about my latin american experiences -- if you think it's hard for the adults you see, try being *the* black kid in your grade at school. i got to be that kid on four different continents. [and remember, i'm a lot darker than you are, too. picture me in that school where you're teaching now. would you do that to a kid? i can't.]

it's a major reason i'm stuck here until my son finishes high school; if i were to move again, it would be to either panama or brazil, and there is no way i would subject my child to latin american schools -- maybe if i had the cash to send him to the american school, i'd be okay. but otherwise, no.

i always got to speak english with the police though. this was necessary for me throughout latin america, while i was still a lot less fat than i am now. in more than one occasion, if i had spoken in spanish or portuguese to the policeman causing me trouble, i wouldn't have lived to tell the tale. turning into the lost gringo saved my life.

long story short, if you want to live around a large number of professional blacks and you don't want to live in the united states or the *anglophone* caribbean, then you need to live in sub-saharan africa [but unless you have government or IT connections, don't expect much from cape town].

if that's what you want, you'll have to come this side. otherwise, four years from now you will be writing an amazingly similar blog post about sampa. [i'm sure you already know that the business community in rio, recife, fortaleza and even salvador are whiter than stockholm's.]

you can either absorb diasporan black culture or you can be around professional black people. you can't have both. the jaded person inside of me says, "duh" but another part of me is like "shit ain't changed in the last 20 years".

kelly jo said...

so looks like we outed our professional selves on the same day. i feel exposed, but DAMN, you got be feeling something of the same? here i am in dc, staying with my girl brandie (outandaboutafrica), grateful for your posts and insight, ready for the next thing coming. keep rockin'.

Fly Brother said...

Nikita: Thanks for the compliment. Will do!

B&AB: I did some grad-level work on the same subject myself. One of my papers, "Negro Smell: Negative Depictions of Black Characters in the Novels of 'The Boom'" was used as a supplemental text in that course for a while. And like you said, despite the more widespread class- and color-oppression that exists in Latin America, I do love this place.

Kwere:'s only one or the other, huh? I don't know if I'm ready to give up on having both just yet. Or maybe I'm just being quixotic (to throw an SAT word out on ya). What about Europe?

Kelly Jo: Gawd, I miss DC! The good ol days, before I had to deal with these Latin Children of the Corn. Understand that I feel enlightened and motivated by you (and Brandie and my fellow Fly Folk) as much as I hope I enlighten and motivate. Thanks for reading!

Brandie said...

LMAO "Latin Children of the Corn"!!!! Great post! So are you still planning on hitting up Spain for your PhD? If so I hope you are prepared. When I lived there, I was literally *the* black person in the entire country. Talk about feeling like I was in a fish bowl! But I'm sure things have improved since then and once you get past people staring at you like you are the first black person they have seen, it's a great place.

kwerekwere said...

SAT? heh. i was using quixotic while playing scrabble in 8th grade [depending on placement and the tiles in your hand, you can get up to 150 points for it.]

the jaded parts of me say that, sometimes, it is quixotic, even europe. i've toyed with moving back to europe for a bit; i *could*, i think, fast-talk a school in taking my son and giving him some discounts, but honestly, i think i would be limited to living in the uk.

given the problems that my cousin's children are having in italy and that my first born had in france, i'm just not that hopeful.

when i lived in europe full-time a decade ago, i was the only black male working at my law firm who wasn't cleaning it -- and there were only two black women, and only one asian. [the last thing was really odd, considering i lived in birmingham. the asian as an attorney, one black woman was in credit control, and the other one and i were secretaries.]

every time i've been back since, it's improved, it seems, on the surface, but scratching on the surface a bit, you see that, again, shit hasn't changed.

CRAN [france's equivalent to the NAACP] has been flying an "obama" double around europe ever since the election, and the consensus among people on the street has been "it's some shit to be black in [insert european country here]."

peep jade's entry on the day for the video clip and the overview. the first time i saw this video. i went to the post that you said "no matter where you are in the world, there is someone who speaks a little bit of english."

you would, i think, have a slightly easier time; unless and until you opened your mouth, people would just assume that your father was from [insert caribbean or african country here] and your mother was [white local, probably working-class or lower]. you would be considered local enough not to have to worry about one of the situations outlined in the clip [where are your papers?] but then you'd open your mouth, be seen as american and a lot of your problems go away.

but looking for large black professional community? even in london, the answer is a resounding no. no, wait, i'll put it like this. london would be on a level with... hm... dallas or boston, from that point of view. if you go looking for/expecting atlanta or the ny/dc i-95 corridor, you will be gravely disappointed.

you have to remember that the african/west indian middle classes did not emigrate to europe during the independence era; the almost but not quite poor people did. and because there is hardly any social mobility in europe, their kids got stuck in the rut of lower expectations in school, followed by going straight to work instead of university -- which is much harder to even get into than in the usa [in part because it's largely free].