Sunday, June 13, 2010

3,480 Miles from Colombia: An Earthling's Call to the Motherland

by tatiana de la tierra

“La madre es lo más sagrado que hay, madre no hay sino una, papá puede ser cualquier hijueputa.” (The mother is most sacred; there is only one mother, any motherfucker could be the father.) –from No nacimos pa’ semilla by Alonso Salazar J.

Colombia is a firefly in my mind’s eye, flickering in phosphorescent magic for a moment before disappearing into total darkness. Colombia is inside of me, yet it is nowhere to be seen. I think of her as mine by birthright—those are my mountains, my vallenatos, my dusty winding roads, my chontaduros, my Shakira. But really, it’s the other way around. I am the one who belongs to her.

Colombia is my motherland, my matria, my entrance into the planet of Earth. That tiny spec of earth where I was born has defined me forever. Forget the fact that I don’t even remember Villavicencio because I went to live in Bogotá when I was a few months old. Forget that I came to Miami with my family when I was 7 and visited Colombia countless times since yet haven’t been there in 9 whole years.

Forget that some things have faded, that I latch on to old memories—eating fresh fried snapper on the beach in Santa Marta, getting nauseous on all those curves while driving through the mountains in Tolima, licking the walls at the Salt Cathedral in Zipaquirá, plopping into a pew inside the church in Villahermosa after being overcome by a drastic change in altitude, taking the long walk to visit my ancestors at the cemetery in El Libano, dealing with that prickly reality of guerillas that came to extort us at my family’s farm in Palmira, hanging out in nightclubs when I was 5 with my Abuelita Blanca in Bogotá, burying my 38 year-old brother in Barranquilla. These memories at my fingertips are just a few of many more that exist in circular time. I am here now and I was there then yet in a way I am here and there simultaneously. Memories of my homeland intercept the reality that I live in Long Beach, California, approximately 3,480 miles from Bogotá.

My brother’s death put my romantic relationship with Colombia on hold. Why go back to the scene of the crime, to the site of indescribable pain of the end of my brother’s life? Yet Gus loved Colombia and lived there in the complexity of our identities. He was born in Bogotá, grew up in Miami, and relocated to Colombia when he was 29. I interviewed him once in Santa Marta and asked how he identified. He said, “You know, I’m here but I don’t feel like I’m Colombian. I feel more like American-Colombian and when I was in the United States I felt like I was a Colombian-American.” When I asked him what he thought about being Colombian and living in the U.S. he said, “I was proud to be Colombian… I love my country.”

A country is an odd thing to love, considering that we are all children of mother earth, which has no delineated territories. Pachamama is the alchemical mixture of soil, seed, ash, rock, water, fire and flower that gives us our bones and our first breath. We are born through our mother’s wombs to be gifted with the citizenship of earthlings. But somehow the fact that my brother and I were born in Colombia and not in Cuba or France or Armenia makes all the difference. Perhaps it’s because we have an anchor to the land, or a microchip in our hearts, or we are genetically programmed to never forget our country of birth, however distant, however bitter and beautiful the memories.

Thus it was that on the day California citizens were voting in the primary elections for governor and Senate, I found myself at the Colombian Consulate in Los Angeles in a last-minute attempt to register to vote in Colombia’s presidential runoff. The showdown between Antanas Mockus and Juan Manuel Santos is fascinating. Green revolution progressives put up their dukes to the oligarchy as I watch from afar. Journalists, academics, politicians and citizens blare headlines in the media, post messages on Face Book and Twitter, and debate in public forums. I put my Colombian kidnap genre books aside and read up on the election. But by the time I make the appointment at the Consulate, it’s too late to register to vote. Colombians will decide the country’s next president on June 20th without my input because despite my professed love of country I am a lousy and distant citizen.

The Colombian Consulate is on the fourth floor of a tall business building on Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills. The clerk at the candy store on the first floor takes Polaroids for passports and cédulas and I cringe at the results of my face on old technology. I get a money order for $117 at the post office, head back up to the Consulate with all the necessary pieces of paper for my new documents and wait in the lobby while clerks from Medellin, Bogotá and Cali process them. The lobby is packed with Colombians renewing cédulas, proof of Colombian citizenship, that expire on July 31, 2010. (Note to all expatriated Colombians—if you don’t renew your cédula by July 31 you will be undocumented and potentially trapped in the U.S. para siempre.) Colombian flags, emblems, landscapes, artwork and replicas of gold Chibchas adorn the Consulate, and I get that tug to dart to the airport with packed suitcases and U.S. and Colombian passports in hand. I am in the middle of fantasizing about where to land—Medellin or Bogotá? Cali or Barranquilla?—when they call my name and pull me into a little room with a lady who makes me take off all my rings and rolls my fingers, one at a time, into the black ink for a full set of fingerprints. It feels so official, this Colombian citizenship thing.

I return to my apartment in Long Beach, where I take note of the proof of my allegiance—6 shelves of books about Colombia or by Colombian authors, mola wall hangings, framed Boteros, the 3-D country map, the Colombian record and CD music collection, curtains beaded with Colombian seeds, painted totumas, miniature balcones, my great-great grandmother’s iron, volcanic rocks from el Nevado del Ruiz, a chunk of salt from Zipaquirá, artifacts and fotos from my family lineage, my Boots & Bags purse, the panela and pan de bonos in my refrigerator, the ruanas in my closet, the placemats and caserolas in my kitchen.

Pumped up with all my objects, I make myself some Colombian coffee like a good nationalist and get online with the New York Times. I am a Colombian-American and an American-Colombian. It’s simple, really. Any moment now, I could get on a plane and land at some airport, where I will promptly fall to the ground and kiss the earth.


Olga said...

Great piece, tatiana! I enjoyed reading about how Colombia keeps beating/breathing inside of you, despite the distance and the time. I have to say that I've come to love Colombia through you--su bandera, sus vallenatos, ese pan de bono! I have only a few pan de bonos left in the freezer and my heart aches to think what I will do when they are gone.

Astro/arte/flora said...

Como vos decís, es un tanto raro amar un país, y muchas veces, sobretodo cuando una lo padece día a día, es aún más difícil, este amor me gusta pensarlo como el amor que se tiene insistentemente a un mal amante... así es Colombia: te calienta y te abandona, te seduce y te traiciona, te deja, te engaña y te mima. Un amor de desamados y sumisos.