Cut Right in Two

July, 2012

Cutting across Plaza Lourdes, one of Bogota’s many pigeon-dotted hubs where shoe-shiners huddle and whisper, policeman drift, and idlers stand and stare, I notice two features of the plaza that proudly stick out from these other ordinaries.

First, there is a large, ornate Gothic-Moorish church, Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Lourdés, which seems to maintain a straightforward, blunt posture toward me no matter which direction I face. Second, on the front doors of the church there is a gigantic, equally sincere dollar-sign spray-painted, fresh and white, into the defeated wooden doors.

The front doors are shut tight.

Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Lourdés was constructed in 1875. Designed by Julián Lombana, the church, which is under what appears to be a forgotten moment of construction, sits in the center of Bogotá’s Chapinero district, where a strong proportion of the city’s lively commercial activity flourishes by day.

Up until 1991 Roman Catholicism was the official state religion in Colombia. Then, a wave of constitutional reform granted equal treatment to Colombians no matter what their spiritual choices. It is estimated that some 90% of the population identifies as Catholic. Only roughly 25%, however, practice their faith each Sunday inside dim, quiet cathedral walls like the ones that face me as I pass.

Moving swiftly through the plaza with a dossier of documents clutched under my arm, I head for home, where Yudbeny waits to put something on my plate and quiz my mood.

But something prohibits my cut across the plaza.

In the middle of the flat brick space, there is a large crowd. A circle of shoe-shiners, elderly women, young boys and old men, idlers and passers-by gravitate around someone who has decided to growl and yell something important at the top of his lungs. Everyone is watching intently.

I decide to take a look, and what I find is a hefty man with his shirt and shoes absent. The soles of his feet are black. He is yelling passionately. In front of him there is a raggedy blanket, and on top of it, there is a small mountain of shards of broken glass bottles. Next to him, there are more instruments that could only be the utensils owned by a soul of strange habits: a board laden with nails, and a knife whose tip is stuck into the board, as if a cut frozen in time.

The crowd watches as the man shakes the glass on the towel and waits for him to perform his act.

I, instead of becoming enchanted by the charm of the performer and distracted by the blur of the crowd, decide to take a moment to scan my surroundings.

I see no police. That is odd, I register.

And then my eyes seize upon it. It is the sort of thing that should send chills through any spine.

It runs from somewhere near the top of the left side of his head straight down toward the collar-bone. The cut is deep. It appears freshly stitched and still moist. It runs directly behind his ear. The image is not startling at first, but it grows increasingly grotesque as I hold my stare.  Feigning an aware calm, I am totally transfixed on the gash belonging to the head of a young boy that bobs in the quiet crowd one foot in front of me.

The young boy is standing close to an old man. Both listening patiently to the yelling voice harmonize with the rattle of broken glass.

Surely, it appears that the young boy was the victim of some heinous crime. That is what I think of first. My conscience tells me it was not an accident, but I am in no position to know, and I feel as though I am in a precarious position to ask.

So I don’t.

For all of the beauty that Colombia owns, today its Plaza Lourdes wears another ugly liability. For a country that tries desperately to dress its wounds, cuts still appear.

Later I cross through the plaza again. This time the man with black soles who screams with the sound of shards of glass is gone. The plaza is nearly empty.

It is a morning on a Sunday.

Then, further toward the church, I notice an old man. He is standing almost directly in front of the front doors. The doors are still shut. The man possesses a wide stance. He wears dark shoes, a suit coat and peppery hair. He appears comfortable and dignified with his hands tucked calmly inside his pockets. And the only thing he does is stare. The old man stares at the doors of the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes and the gigantic dollar sign seared into the mouth of the church – like stitches holding together a once beautiful face, now knotted and ugly.

The old man’s stare is fixed and intent.

But it is difficult to know why he stares so hard. It is difficult to know if he is watching the doors, saying a prayer to his beautiful church and cursing the scar, or if he is cursing the ugly church and praising those who gave it the scar it wears. Or maybe he has his eyes closed tight, not watching anything at all, thinking instead of how the politics of fighting for the church against the politics of fighting for the dollar have plunged his country into decades of civil war – cutting his sweet Colombia right in two – and how when he opens his eyes, he hopes both the church and the dollar sign will vanish before him. Maybe this is what he wishes.

The next day I pass again. The man has vanished. The church and the dollar sign are still there.

Student Protests Against Education Policy Turn Ugly in Santiago

In this video, aggressive clashes between Chilean students and police take place along La Alameda, one of Santiago’s major avenues, during part of a widespread protest against recent motions issued by billionaire President, Sebastian Piñera, that regard how to ease the costs for students while keeping intact a privatized system of education put into place during Augusto Pinochet’s 1973-1990 rein.

According to the Santiago Times, “encapuchados” battled with police in a series of violent encounters, calling for an end to what they perceive to be an education system that separates students based on socioeconomic factors. Reuters reports that one student suffered fatal wounds after being shot in the chest by police, and that more than 30 police were left injured. Some 1,300 of an estimated 200,000 protesters have been detained.

The BBC reports that Mr. Piñera recently appeared on national television to outline tax reforms expected to raise around $700m USD, much of which will be funneled to the country’s education system.

A disgruntled posture toward education policy in Chile has been maintained by student activists for more than a year now, but despite Piñera’s reforms, Chilean students are still left unsatisfied, frustrated and increasingly irate. What they fundamentally want is more regulation in the private sector and to put an end to for-profit education organizations.

Student leader Gabriel Boric told Spain’s Efe news agency, “We will carry on making history… We students will not give up the fight to make education a public right.”

Under the Stress of Development, Brazil Re-thinks Immigration

Petar Rusev, a member of the 1920s Bulgarian communist party, transformed himself and his name when he arrived in Brazil in the 1930s after fleeing political persecution. Petar became Pedro, Rusev became Rousseff, and the Bulgarian emigré started what would eventually turn out to be a successful career as a lawyer and entrepreneur. The newly made Bulgarian-turned-Brazilian met a schoolteacher from Minas Gerais and by 1947 their daughter, Dilma, was born. Dilma Rousseff, the current President of Brazil, is this immigrant’s daughter.

Brazil has a tradition of welcoming immigrants of Mr. Rusev’s sort. Since gaining independence in 1822, Brazil, much like the US, has played host to immigrants from Europe, Japan and Africa. In the 1970s it opened its arms to a throng of Lebanese, Syrian and Palestinian political refugees.

Now though, in the wake of recent growth (in 2010 GDP struck 7.5%), Brazil is itching for professional talent from beyond its borders. And immigration and its lively history is not cutting it.

Reuters reports that Brazil lacks an estimated 20,000 engineers per year to keep up with its infrastructure projects. The shortage of talent is reportedly one of the reasons why Vale, a mining behemoth, has created an ambitious training program for new engineers. The mining company’s hiccup has also slowed down Foxconn’s $12bn USD investment to jump-start manufacturing iPads in Brazil.

According to Reuters, Ricardo Paes de Barros, a strategist for President Rousseff’s office, said that proposals are in the mix to attract foreign professionals and lift the proportion of professionals from abroad up to a goal of 3% from the current 0.3%.

The problem that anxious Brazil and its eager guests face is time. Time is of the essence, especially in sectors like oil & gas, where demands are immediate. To secure work in Brazil companies must justify the absence of equivalent talent in Brazil. Additionally, the Brazilian Ministry of Work sets hiring quotas, which ensure that for every foreigner hired, two Brazilians must be hired. It is by many accounts a byzantine web of bureaucracy, and even though navigating it is possible, it takes time.

Luiz Fernando Alouche, an immigration lawyer with the Almeida Advogados firm in Sao Paulo told Reuters, “hiring a foreigner in Brazil is complicated. It takes a lot of bureaucracy, time and uncertainty regarding whether it will be granted.”

It seems that there are two fronts where Brazil has to hurry. One is the matter of its bureaucratic jungle gym. Foreign professionals could very well be attracted to the country’s economic buoyancy and promise, but until Brazil relaxes its bureaucracy, the best will be scared away over the high potential loss of time.

Another is the matter of education policy, which arguably helped contribute to Brazil’s talent problem in the first place. Rousseff’s Science without Borders project, which was designed to send 100,000 Brazilians to study abroad at some of the world’s best universities, shows that the thinking about Brazil’s talent squeeze is there. The scale and the timing, however, might not be.

Yudbeny’s Alphabet

June 21st, 2012

The world around me in a large room located at the back of an old house is barely changing.

The room is cold. It is some time after noon. Across the room, a black maid wears a blue apron and chops potatoes into long slender shapes. As her wet hands let the starchy shapes hit the pan, a radio voice singing in Spanish cries out in between violent crackles of oil on hot iron. The potatoes fry and the music doesn’t stop.

Somewhere in between the maid and I is a rotund woman who wears not an apron, but a sleeveless shirt. Her red frizzy hair is tied back behind her head in an old-fashioned bun. As she moves toward me, she sings to the music and wiggles her wide hips playfully.

In her hands she is balancing a piping hot bowl of white broth. She sets it down. I start eat. Lunch begins in the old house.

Yudbeny Gonzalez, the eccentric proprietor of the house where I now stay, turns, still singing, and sways back toward the sizzling oil. Yudbeny came from Huila, a department south of Bogotá where security issues are still prevalent, six or seven years ago. She is one of many Bogotanos who have moved to the city to escape minimum opportunity and the dangers of more rural parts of Colombia.

Now Yudbeny, along with her Mexican husband Alfredo, whose mornings are normally occupied by reading one of the national newspapers, El Tiempo, through a magnifying glass the size of an orange, own an historic faux-tudor style house in a neighborhood called Palermo.

Yudbeny and her husband own a handful of these old beauties in the Palermo and their primary profession is renting rooms to students, young professionals, and expatriates like myself.

Yudbeny pauses in the middle of her feast-making and plops down in the chair across from me. I have begun the daily chore of slurping my ajiaco, a thick Andean soup made with potatoes, corn, and cilantro.

The menu at Yudbeny’s house, much like the tired peeling paint on its walls, its faulty drainage system (whose being neglected causes dripping in several of its rooms during the wet season rains), and the stubborn, sticky keyholes on the locks that protect it, does not change.

The things that Yudbeny says and does, however, do.

Today, Yudbeny calls me niño (or little boy) and by doing so she exalts herself to a location far above me, where the Colombian mother is almost a goddess watching over the banalities of my youthful, masculine, yet ultimately boyish ways. It gives Yudbeny the power to ask. Yudbeny asks me about my love life, and about my work-life, and about when I will become the next President of the United States, and why it is so hard for Colombians to get a visa to the US, and how I like the women here, and whether or not I like her food, and which fruits I’ve tasted recently and why haven’t I tried this exotic new fruit that Yudbeny says I must try. Everyday it seems like there is a new fruit to try.

Today it is the Cherimoya.

I correct her about being a boy. “I am a man,” I say. She ignores me.

The broth of my soup is nearly gone. What is left is a large, unwieldy bone with a single morsel of beef dangling off the edge. Being the well-mannered man I am I lift the bone carefully out of the bowl and position it on a plate near by. Fork in one hand, knife in the other, I begin the final butchering of my meal.

Yudbeny protests and gestures with her hands and mouth to grab up the bone in my hands and tear the meat off with my teeth.

I do not follow her rule.

She probes for details about mature topics – love and money and politics – topics that seem to appear out of thin air like demons for me. I am the tongue-tied informant, who must capture and tame her probing questions before moving on to the next puzzle inside Yudbeny’s labyrinth.

Her questions are like temptations. And as the questions unroll I know, like always, that soon Yudbeny and her labyrinthine alphabet will find some way to ensnare me. No matter my seriousness, Yudbeny finds a way to disarm it with comedy.

Yudbeny has a way about her.

It seems that she has the uncanny ability to fix the young men who occupy her rooms and quarters into niños – little boys – and keep our becoming serious from growing up into men – from becoming dealers of love and money and politics. Us men, well, we are just boys waiting at Yudbeny’s table – not just for her food, but her alphabet too. Yudbeny is the eternal mother for men who wish to be boys for a quiet hour.

“Be careful,” she says to me. She always smiles after she says this, as if she knows more about what comes next than I do.

Mothering, more than money, I think, is Yudbeny’s plot. Every day there is a masterful trial designed to entangle me in a linguistic bind, to entwine me in her idioms, to corner me in a place where my forthright explanations about serious things often come across as juvenile, plain, and ultimately innocent. Yudbeny just laughs.

Often I feel like Don Quixote de la Mancha (a serious man tirelessly striving to demonstrate serious action, but where my granter of judgments lets only comedy precipitate). Except in Yudbeny’s kitchen there is no Sancho Panza to remind me what it feels like to be sane in this house that does not let one change. There is only Yudbeny – temptress, enchantress – to lead me away from my seriousness and into a distraction of theatrical fits and tricks and laughter. I am sure of my conclusions. Yudbeny wants me to slip, to fall, to come crashing down from my seriousness and formalities – in a sense, my being a young man. She wants me to break the rules of her alphabet so that she can laugh at me, and so that I can make confessions to her without being so serious, so that we might be distracted from the hard truths that come pouring out of her questions, and so that she might be able to put life against the mundane chaos of the sizzling and the clinking and the scratchy singing radio noises of her old, decaying, unchanging house.

Learning a language is uncomfortable, but it is a whimsical thing in the company of Yudbeny and her house.

Yudbeny, despite daily theatrics, teaches me her language. In a sense Yudbeny teaches me how to be.

But there is a rule in Spanish that makes being difficult for an English-speaker.

The rule is that there are two kinds of being. There is the verb ser. Ser means to be. Then there is the verb estar. Estar also means to be.

“What sort of grand trickery is this?!” I ask myself.

Growing up in Spanish (indeed in other Latin languages as well) you live through two modes of existence – you live inside two ideas of what it means to be.

The first, ser, is used when you want to declare that something is normal, unchanging, and fixed. A normalized type of being could be the meaning of where someone is from, the time of day, or the beauty or ugliness of an old empty church crumbling in the middle of a city.

The second is estar. Using estar is for declaring the being of states or conditions of emotion, feeling, location, and a long list of other things that have lives of a more transient sort. Estar is used when you want to declare whether or not someone is feeling blue, or to say whether someone is standing inside or outside that crumbling church at some precise moment in time.

Like choosing whether to act like a man or a boy at Yudbeny’s table, I must choose my way of being at each step along the way in Yudbeny’s maze of questions.

Sometimes I feel like a shepherd, and these two essential words are my mischievous sheep. Playing with them is fun. Yet my livelihood depends on them and that is a serious business.These days I feel as though I must always choose: to be a boy or to be a man.

Yudbeny performs a string of examples to help me out:

“Estoy aqui. Estoy contenta. Soy una mujer. Soy Colombiana. Soy mágica. Soy divina.”

I am here. I am happy. I am a woman. I am Colombian. I am magic. I am divine.

“I’m divine,” is the last thing Yudbeny says. She shoots me an enchanting smile as she says it, again, showing on her face a message that says that she will know more about being, in some ways, than I ever will. Then she laughs.

Trying to draw the line between these two ways of being, I watch Yudbeny turn and move toward the stove. Janet, the black maid from the Chocó, attends to a patacón frying on top of the the hot iron. The room is cold. On the walls, I can see the paint peeling on the old house. The room feels decadent. It feels as though it cannot change no matter how much it wants to. It is too old.

Yudbeny explains that the house falls under a certain class of housing called patrimonio cultural where the owners of the property are legally forbidden to make changes to the house. In other words the laws governing the old house say that the house is and it always will be the way it is.

Other things, however, are changing fast around us. In less than one week, I will leave Yudbeny and her old house. She does not know this. I slurp the last bit of my soup and push the bowl and the bone aside. I am done. Lunch is finished.

No matter how much Yudbeny wants a young man to seem like a boy forever, young men want to grow up. They are done being boys. Boys, I realize, have a tendency to run away from their mothers in order to become men. But the best of them remember that the seriousness and pain that comes out of realizing maturity and the responsibilities of masculinity are best buried deep within the secretive vaults and chambers of memory of a comical muse like Yudbeny Gonzalez.

Contemplating my linguistic maturity inside the realm of Yudbeny’s alphabet, I escape from the noise and try to find some presence and assemble what I have just learned.

“Let’s practice,” I tell myself.

Estoy aqui. Estoy feliz. Soy Americano. Yo era un niño. Ya soy un hombre.

I am here. I am happy. I am American. I used to be a boy. Now I am a man.

Yudbeny looks at me. She knows I am reciting words in my head. She can see it on my face. “What is it?” she says. “Nothing, I tell her.” The reason I don’t tell her is because, well, too much could change, and this is a house where things are not supposed to change.

Some time much later, another white bowl hits the surface of Yudbeny’s table. Like yesterday it is piping hot. Not cold. It is in front of me. I do not slurp. I quietly eat like a man. I eat like a man against a house and a woman that tell me, “Niño, do not change.”

Forgive me. But some things must.

Footloose Pesos: Ecopetrol Signs $1.2bn Deal with Essar Oil, Central Bank Harnesses Currency

Ecopetrol, Colombia’s state-owned oil & gas giant, announced on August 15th that it plans to sell $1.2bn USD in crude petroleum to Essar Oil, an Indian energy firm, over the course of one year.

The Colombian energy company is the fourth largest oil & gas company in Latin America and accounts for 60% of Colombia’s production. According to company financial reports released in July, Ecopetrol’s total unconsolidated sales climbed from COP$13,868.4bn ($7.74bn USD) in 2011 to COP$14,796.0bn ($8.26bn USD) in 2012. Its earnings per share (COP$) jumped 6.0% in the same period.

The Financial Times reported that “Essar seems to be looking at diversifying crude sourcing away from Iran, and Latin America is one of their focus regions,” according to an analyst at SBI Capital. Essar’s renewed interest in Colombian oil reflects a recent boom, where production of crude has almost doubled over the past six years.

Foreign investment in Colombia’s oil industry moved from $278mil USD in 2003 to $4.3bn USD in 2011, reported The Economist. Since cultivating an increase in security coupled with a set of policies under former President Alvaró Uribe that opened up massive tracts of land for energy exploration, and increased capital with which to improve efficiency, Colombia has triggered a blossoming energy sector (though not without its problems of success). Hostility toward foreign investment shown by Bolivia, Ecuador, and Mercosur – Latin America’s other oil & gas leaders – add to Colombia’s benefit.

It should come as little surprise, then, that Finance Minister Juan Carlos Echeverry has recently deployed a tactic for slowing down the strengthening peso. The Colombian central bank plans to lift its buying of US Treasuries from $20mil USD per day to $40mil USD per day, reported Businessweek. Colombia’s currency intervention scheme is aimed at keeping prices attractive to foreign merchants as the country sniffs out more export accounts like Ecopetrol’s hopeful Indian deal.

D’Artagnan’s Three Musketeers: Venezuela Joins Mercosur

The Urupema, a high performance glider manufactured by Embraer, flies, 1971. (Source:

In 1971, somewhere inside a polished set of newly constructed hangars in São José dos Campos, Brazil,  you might have found a group of men huddled around the manufacturing blue prints for Embraer’s high performance glider, the Urupema, whose plan to start production ignited in response to an order filed by a club of Brazilian aeronauts. Today, nearly 18,000 employees generate $1.15m USD for Embraer in a competition for representing Brazil as one of the world’s top-performing airline manufacturers. Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, then, must command a mighty appetite for aeronautical performance, because the country he leads just purchased 190 of Embraer’s winged marvels. Hugo wants to be in the club too.

And now he is.

Thanks to Mercosur’s low tariff policies enjoyed by its members, the $270m USD deal between Brazil and Venezuela will be free of a 35% mark up on goods and services imported from member countries. That’s because after waiting since 2006, Venezuela has finally become a member of  Mercosur. Venezuela’s addition makes the trade zone the world’s 5th largest economy in terms of GDP, boosting GDP to 3.3bn USD, according to the Argentina Independent, an English online newspaper based in Buenos Aires.

How the block formed came about in 1991 when a group of South American states ratified a series of trade agreements that Brazil and Argentina had already begun practicing. This was called the Treaty of Asunción and by the final hour of their congress Mercosur was born. Mercosur originally intended to increase the strength of trade amongst emerging South American nations. Its original premise was that member states would act as a group of democracies that encourage liberal trade policies in the region. The idea was that Mercosur would be founded on the same model as the European Union. But now, according to some analysts, the group of states seem to neglect their original purpose for unifying. According to The Economist Mercosur now behaves more like a political union whose policies serve to guard member states against the free trade interests of the US.

Chavez says that the addition of Venezuela is a “perfect equation,” reports La Nación, an Argentine newspaper. Indeed Venezuela’s entrance makes for a nice little financial numbers game. Venezuela is scheduled to benefit thoroughly as it will be able to access sales in Brazil and Argentina for oil, which accounts for 95% of GDP and  constitutes 40% of the Venezuela’s budgeted revenue. Trade is not the only motivation, however. Chavez, whose fragile socialist experiment depends almost singularly on oil exports, also looks to Mercosur to bolster his swashbuckling political rhetoric. According to a Reuters report, Chavez announced that “Mercosur is, without a doubt, the most powerful engine that exists to preserve our independence,” referring to a renaissance of Bolívarian nationalism practiced by Chávez and his followers.

Outsiders fear, however, that Venezuela’s membership will only complicate the problems from which Mercosur already suffers, like its flimsy decision-making process, and instead promote further migration away from the group’s original goals. Mercosur faces internal troubles too. According to The Council on Foreign Relations the block still struggles with the question of how to manage unbalanced productivity and dissonant economic policies among participants. Argentina recently blocked trade with several members and even prompted Brazil to respond with its own set of barriers.

For the short term, it looks like Chavez and Venezuela will benefit from the deal in true political fashion by having a new checklist of successes to present to Venezuelan voters come elections in October, 2012.

But for those who view the trade block as a potential boon for commodities like oil and soy, the loose strings that hold together Mercosur’s democratic processes and its clumsily aligned economic policies will only appear to grow more knotted. The reason why Mercosur abandonded Paraguay is because it agreed that Paraguay violated the block’s “democracy clause.” However, admitting Venezuela, who recently backed out of the Inter-American Council on Human Rights, as a replacement doesn’t say much in favor of democracy. Financial Times’ Richard Lapper says that Mercosur’s main duo – Argentina and Brazil – continue to be focused on economic issues. Even if they are, it might be tough to see them clearly through Chavez thick clouds of talk and promise.

Gods of Dog

A reciclador paws through the trash as he scavenges for valuable material in a residential neighborhood, Bogotá

Gods of Dog

June 20th, 2012

The word dirty is graffiti-ed onto the side of the cart in purple letters. It is written in English, as if a silent scream – a message that wants to be heard by more than just passive eyes.

Inside the cart there is a mess of used appliances, black bags concealing used auto parts, pieces of wood, plastic, beer bottles, and coils of wire coated in rust. The cart is stopped on the side of Avenida Caracas, one of Bogotá’s main commercial avenues. It’s raining. Tied up and wet, a dog jumps out of the cart and onto one of the planks of wood. Tugging against the weight of the cart, the dog points its head toward the sky and howls.

I can hear it, just barely, from inside the eerie confines of my clean, modern bus, which roars down the road, past the cart, away from the ugliness.

At first I think that the dog and the cart are abandoned. In fact, this is how the recicladores’ (recyclers) carts usually appear: like lost piles of junk. But then, further down the road, I spot three bodies huddled together. All of the storefronts on Avenida Caracas are closed and the streets are deserted. At night, the Caracas is where the homeless live and work while their dogs scrape and paw and pull on their chains and howl.

 These bodies, these Gods of Dog are the impoverished, the addicted, the homeless, the destitute of Bogotá. In the most dignified case, they are hustling, hard-working recicladores who scavenge the city streets by night and day using horse-drawn carriages for materials that can be sold to one of several bodegas sprinkled along the Caracas where someone promises to buy their loot in exchange for barely enough pesos to scrape by until the next day. In the most tragic of cases, the reciclador is a bent man standing in the middle of the road causing buses to swerve and honk, huffing a worn out black bag most likely containing some sort of aerosol. He is drugged and delirious and stumbling.

Bogotá, a city of 8.9 million people, is bulging at the seams in large part due to a massive wave of internal migration where land-holding people have been ousted by guerrilla and paramilitary groups and therefore have been forced to find refuge in Bogotá. Some, like the three I see huddled together on the street, have evidently resorted to scavenging recyclable material in order to make ends meet. An estimated 70 thousand families claim life of a reciclador. Those who choose it make roughly $1 to $10 per day.

A recent act introduced by Juan Manuel Santos called the Victims and Land Restitution Act promises to compensate roughly 4 million victims who have suffered forced displacement from Colombia’s conflict and to a lesser extent environmental degradation, according to the International Organization for Migration.

Until then, Bogotá’s displaced will have to settle for being recicladores. At least they can be Gods of Dog.

Pieces of a Colombian Family

Tuesday June 5th, 2012

Altogether there are seven of us now. Pacho. Quiet, patient, caution of a surgeon. Pedro. Forthright, engaging, owner of a politician’s opinion. Grandmother Beatríz. Gentle, kind, suffers from arthritis. Señora Alvarez. Ecstatic, vain, exhales breathes of an alcoholic. Señor Alvarez. Firm hand shake. Absent. Like a ghost.

And then there is Cindy.

Cindy. Venezuelan. Seventeen. Wide, glorious smiles pouring from her face. Strangely, I later learn that Cindy is the lifeblood of the Alvarez family, even though she is not even part of it.

I am a stranger to the Alvarez family, and occupy the seventh room of a house that is undecorated. Beside plain white walls there is nothing to look at except a collection of mirrors, which seem to serve only one purpose, and that is to show you how old or young you really feel in a house where memories seem to be better forgotten. There is a collection of telephones in the garage. This is the shared memorabilia of the Alvarez family. 
The Alvarez family seems unprepared for my visit. On the day I arrive, Pacho notifies me that his father has left and has become unreachable. I ask why. Pacho tells me not to worry. Pacho says his father does this sometimes. It’s not me. Pacho explains that he has never done this before – he has never hosted an extranjero. I can tell that he is anxious. I tell him not to worry. I tell him that I have done this before.
At a wooden, clothed-in-white table, we sit down to our first meal. We wait. There are seven places for us. Señora Alvarez and Señor Alvarez do not come. Señora Alvarez, I later learn, would had long since chosen to remain inside her lone chamber on the second floor enjoying the bliss of smoke and beauty magazines and early retirement. Señor Alvarez, it becomes clear, is plainly gone.
Pacho explains that both of his parents used to work for one of Colombia’s most important telecommunications companies during the 1970s, 80s, and 90s as computer engineers. This made his mother unique. They retired early. The small collection of 20thcentury telephones is a celebration of an earlier era for the Alvarez family. Now the small collection of phones seems like an ugly reminder of an antiquated conversation had one time too many.
What I learn learn, in amidst low voices, cold tones, careful, and short whispers, is that the Alvarez family is not excatly unprepared for my visit. It is not that the conversation is obsolete. No. The Alvarez family is torn. The conversation that carries them, I think, seems to be dying.
But to say that it is dead would be an injustice to those who try to keep the family alive.
I hear Cindy’s footsteps on the stairs that lead into the center of my one room apartment. Balancing on a tray clutched tightly in her hands is my dinner. She sits it down on a small table in the center of the room and stands upright. She waits for me to sit and acknowledge her latest domestic feat. I do. I pick up my fork and begin. Then she sits across from me in an aristocratic wooden chair and crosses her legs. She feasts her eyes and watches me eat.
¿Te gusta? she asks.
I nod affirmatively. We talk.
Pacho says that Cindy is like a little sister in his family. Even though the presence of a domestic servant is foreign to me, I quickly learn that Cindy is not the rule, but the exception. When Pacho and Pedro and Cindy are in the same room there is finally laughter. She is more family than servant, it seems. 

Pacho explains that Cindy will clean my room daily, make my bed, and prepare meals. Meals are as follows: breakfast at 8am, lunch at 1pm, and dinner somewhere in the later parts of the evening. Dinner is taken alone, in our rooms. Lunch on Saturday is the last meal. Then Cindy finishes cleaning. Sunday, she is free. Do not expect Cindy to be here for you on Sundays, Pacho explains. And so I feel like a king.

Finally, Sunday comes. The Alvarez house is full, but silent. I am alone in my room. Then I hear footsteps. They are Cindy’s footsteps. However, who enters is not the diligent, youthful girl who cooked my meals over the last several days. Instead, today she is dressed to kill.“I’m going out,” she informs me. She says it in this dignified way as if it is a curated message that she has carefully decided to give to me at that precise, perfect moment. She says it like a diplomat. She stands in front of me, arms crossed, eyes staring into mine and says it.“Ok,” I reply. It is Sunday and Cindy is free. This morning, she appears like a lady. She appears astonishingly beautiful and mature for a maid of seventeen. Cindy might spend her Sunday with her sisters and her Mother and lament the cleaning of bathrooms and other domestic foes, politely toil over the intimate perplexities of a family to whom she does not belong, and conclude the day with a plot for navigating a week of the Alvarez family again. Six days of smile and laughter bravely crushing the habits of silence between brothers, father and son, mother and son, mother and Beatriz, sons and Grandmother. Six days of desperately trying to defeat the weariness of a dying conversation at the table she tirelessly governs so that she can make it to the seventh day intact, and express her disappointments to her sisters and her mother, and finally, maybe, feel like something of a lady again.