Colombia…its more than just good coffee”
Written By Morgan Harlan
Before I begin, I just wanted to point out that there is a touch of irony in the fact that I am writing anything about culture. For those who know me, they will see it. I am about as untraveled as they come. It is slightly embarrassing now that I mention this fact out loud (ok, in writing). Having said that, I had a wonderful experience living vicariously through my Colombian friend, Marcela Vanegas today and hope to paint the same picture for you as I received.
Marcela was born in Cúcuta, Colombia, a town just 5 minutes from Venezuela. She refers to this as a “small town” with only around a million people. Hmm, small huh? “Everybody knew everybody so I was ready to leave when I was like 14.” One of the luxuries she recalls of being in a small town was being able to play in the streets, which seems impossible almost anywhere now a days. She says she was also very blessed to be one of those families who were not rich, but not poor either. She was able to go to a good school, which was more than some other people could say. Women in Cúcuta are famous for being “tough”. “Men should be afraid of us [laughing], which I know is true for me.” This came to be because in the 1500’s when the Spaniards came to Colombia the Indian Tribes (Motilones) who lived in the area were warriors and very tough and that is who they descended from. When they [the Spaniards] came, everyone mixed together. They came on their ships with their slaves along with some pretty interesting people (pirates, convicts, not the greatest of individuals). “The people who came to discover us were not the ‘blue bloods’; they were more like the craziest. So since we are so mixed, we have ‘black blood’, which I love. It makes Colombia a very cool place to live.” The people in Cúcuta are also known for being very straight forward, to the point which is not always so well received in other areas. “In the Spanish language when you use the term “tú” (you) it feels close. In Cúcuta we use ‘usted’ which also means ‘you’, but with some distance. That’s the way you talk to people you don’t know, or older people you respect. The way we talk is very dry.”
Just because they [Hispanic people] speak the same language, does not make them the same. “We do many things differently” she said. “For example, we name things differently. One word for me might be a different word if you are from Mexico. But that ‘formal way’ of living and being, and the importance of appearances are common, really common.” She laughed about it as she describes this common attribute. She said that she thought it was just a “Colombian” thing, but then she realized it goes across many Hispanic communities. “We are all victims, victims of formality”, she says with a chuckle. When she pointed this out to me, I took a second to think about it and I laughed to myself, recognizing that I too can notice that amongst my Hispanic friends. Normally, this formality might not be an issue for her, but she has lived in the United States now for 7 years and she is about to move back home to Colombia with her husband and two children. With regards to appearances, she has admittedly enjoyed the luxury of not worrying about it every two seconds. “It shouldn’t be that difficult, really.” Actually, when I interviewed her she looked quite comfy in her tee shirt and sweatpants. However, when she goes back, it will be fancy clothes and lipstick at all time, otherwise her family may disown her <wink>.
Before doing this interview, the first things that came to my mind when I thought of Colombia was coffee and violence. I was right on the coffee thing, but outdated on the violence. When I think about it though, I learned about Colombia when I was in grade school, which was the time the violence took place. I guess I never had a reason to get up to date on my Colombian facts. I mentioned this to Marcela and she had a great reaction. “Media is such a big power isn’t it? That was a small part of Colombia, but sometimes it looks bigger if you are not there.”
I was curious how Americans looked to Colombians. We are obviously generalizing here (which Marcela points out is not always a good thing), but still I was curious. She starts out talking about the physical appearance of how Colombians tend to see us as. “Gringos (which I have to admit, made me laugh when she referred to Americans as that) have blond hair, blue eyes. (I wanted to note here that even though it is thought of as impolite, the term “gringo” really just means “foreigner”, typically from the US). Colombians have a hard time with the word “American”. “For me it is difficult to say; I mean, why call yourselves American?” They don’t understand how we can call ourselves that when we live in North America. “What about Canadians?” she says. There is North, Central and South America. The title “American” is just not well received by those outside of the United States. “Words are powerful and hate can unfortunately come from that.” Because she doesn’t like to say the word American, she uses the term Estadounidenses, which literally means “citizen of the US”. There isn’t an English translation for that word, but that is what she uses when she is speaking about an American to her fellow Colombians. She feels that we are all building borders between us based on our perceptions, which are typically fed to us by the media. “They [the media] manage information and show things, but at the end of the day we are so, so alike. We can fulfill each other in huge and awesome ways, but it is just those preconceptions that make us different in the end. These perceptions can create so much hate towards Americans based on nothing. And there is so much fear towards Colombia based on nothing. Yes there is history, but that is just part of it.” Bogotá, for example, is the biggest city in Colombia, inhabiting more than 9 million people. You should think of the city Bogotá like you would any big city in America; there are areas that are safer than others. You have to just be smart about what you do and where you go. “These things make me a little sad, but they also give me clever ideas on what I am going to do when I return to Colombia. I really love the United States and want to share what I have learned with Colombians.” This is why she is trying to create an “open-door” experience in her home when she returns to Colombia. She describes it as the most amazing place and really wants to let people have the “real” experience for themselves. She also plans on returning to the States once a year to travel and visit the friends she met while living here. “We want to change the perspectives.”
One thing that stood out to Marcela, that the US has but Colombia doesn’t seem to, is the sense of “community”. She says they don’t have that there like we do here. “We don’t even use the word community in our language. Here in the States, the church is a community, the school, even your neighborhood is a community. There is a sense of ownership in community. I love that about you guys.”
One of Marcela’s favorite things about Colombia is the peoples’ passion and way of living. She really misses the people; the talking and the sense of humor. Colombians have a very dark and sharp sense of humor. Everything they say has a double meaning and they know it. She also loves the way they interact when they are together. “In Colombia, a morning tea can turn into talking and then salsa dancing. People come knocking on your door without a formal invitation. We are warm and loud and we love to party. Music is a huge part of our daily lives too.” She also goes on about the Colombian coffee and how it’s the best in the world. “It is not what it is though; it is what it means [the coffee]. When I say coffee, it’s my way to say let’s get together. We could end up just having water, but we are together, sharing something. I miss that.” She explains that in Colombia if you are a friend of a friend, you are my friend. “I will invite them over and introduce them to everyone and make them feel like one of us. Here, in the US, I can go to a common friend’s party and be there for three hours and not know who was there. I go and talk to the two people I know and say hi, but not really know anyone. We are different that way.”
Family is very important to Colombians. I was initially confused when she described what she loved about Colombia, because I felt like she was describing that “community feel” to me. But she corrected me saying this is the way they are with family, not other people around them. I found this very interesting. She went on to explain by giving me the example of religion in Colombia. She said the main religion is Catholicism, but Christianity is rising as well. She said the difference there, versus in the US is you don’t “belong” to one church. You go to many different churches. You go in, listen to the service and leave. There is no coffee for everyone after the service. You don’t know if anyone needs help. It is just different. “I love that about the US though. It is an awesome concept. You just have it [sense of community]. It is in your chip. We don’t and I really admire that about you guys.”
In her family, they have a tradition with Sunday lunch. It could start at noon and by 5pm you are moving the furniture so that you can dance. There is always drinking involved too. “Beer, wine, whiskey, it doesn’t matter everyone has to have at least one drink.” It always becomes a party with her family. You know better than to make plans after a family event. In the US, if you have a party that starts at 7pm, it will probably be over at 9pm. In Colombia, the party can go from 1pm to 1am, you just never know.
Colombia has many of the same customs that the US does, but certain things they don’t have, Marcela will be taking with her when she goes back. Easter eggs for one. She starts laughing and says “we will be the only crazy family you will see in the park looking for Easter eggs, but that’s ok, my kids love it.” Christmas for them is a little different than ours in the US. Traditionally in Colombia, they celebrate Christmas Eve together as a family, but there is nothing on the 25th like we have here. They pretty much just eat the leftovers from the night before. She does love Christmas morning in the US. They don’t have Christmas morning like we do and she plans on keeping that tradition for her kids too. They plan on building their new life based in both cultures. “We have to keep the traditions alive. They [her two children, both born in US] are Colombians, because we [she and her husband] are Colombians, but they will be more Colombian because we will now live there. But they were born here [the US] and this is what they know.”
Many countries operate essentially the same way. Think of the United States and how the accents and food are different based on what state you are in. It’s exactly the same in other places. Different areas of the country have different fares. There are a lot of potatoes in Colombia. She thought there were at least 30-35 different varieties. There is a lot of meat, beans and grains. Fruit, you name it, they have it there. Colombia has a very interesting diverse palate. Just like their dialect, you travel to different places and they will have completely different cuisine. They love their dessert too. Bocadillo is popular. It is made from guava. They love to eat it for energy and often pair it with a white salty cheese. There is also Arequipe which is similar to a Dulce de Leche, but a little bit thicker and darker. What was funny though was Marcela said cooking is not her forte and that most of her food has no taste. She says every time they went back to Colombia to visit, her kids would never eat the food. “They say it is too spicy.” She is worried that this might be the hardest part about moving there. She always had a maid when she lived in Colombia so she never had a need to cook. Maids are a big part of the Colombian economy. Almost everyone has one. Even maids have maids! It is an inexpensive luxury there (maybe I should consider moving there because that sounds amazing). So when it comes to cooking, many people, Marcela included, depend on their maids to do it.
It was an eye opening day with Marcela that left me with an immediate desire to explore this incredible country rich with culture. I will end this amazing tale of Colombia with an old saying…When God was designing the world he said “this place is going to be called Colombia. We will give them all the resources. I will give them oil, 2 oceans, rivers and lakes and mountains and snow. Then an angel came down and said ‘hey God you are giving everything to Colombia’. Then God said, wait, just wait to see the people I am going to put there.” Maybe one day I will end my non-travels and be one of those people who knocks on Marcela’s door un-announced and ready to dance. Buenas!