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, “$$$.”