I Am A Gypsy

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BEACON

Uncle Conrado was crushing them. One nut after another. He ripped the shells off with his hands and as he popped one into his mouth with one hand, his fingers were already in the bowl, hunting for another. You’d think it would be boring to watch an 83 year old man eat nuts, but it actually wasn’t because it wasn’t just about the nuts.

Ever since I met him, I had wanted to know what made Uncle Conrado so prosperous. But what really got me was all he had to endure happening around him in Colombia when he started out. This is a personal essay on the memories of a circus master, Colombia’s ‘pájaros’ killers of the 1950s, and dignity. Continue reading on Beacon…

Monsieur Periné: Latin American Folk Meets Gypsy Swing

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OZY

“I spent one whole year trying to convince the other band members we should dress up,” says Catalina García, lead singer for Monsieur Periné.

“But finally I got them to do it,” she told OZY, after Colombian designer Alejandra Rivas insisted that they all needed costumes.

Now, when the Bogotá. -based quartet performs, its outfits are eccentric and just as hard to define as its music. One minute it’s a poppy, bouncy, jazzy rhythm carrying lyrics in French, and the next, it’s slow, serene, passionate and all in Spanish. Continue reading on Ozy…

 

As Long As She Gets Her Tomb Back

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BEACON

Just look at Maria Elena. It’s as if she’s not afraid of anything. Not afraid of anything in this crowded, crime-ridden Barranquilla market. She has five things on her shopping list and you can just tell she’s going to do anything to get them, no matter what.

It’s as if Maria Elena isn’t afraid of anything – not even death. I went to the Barranquilla central market with her to buy perfumes and lottery tickets, and get her shoes fixed. A personal essay about envying the determination of a Colombian woman, Barranquilla’s central market, and the things we fear. Continue reading on Beacon…

The Sweet Wet Heavens Come Falling Down

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BEACON

I wanted to go to the Tasajera fish market on Saturday, but we were forced to cancel our trip. Just before we were about to go, it started to rain hard, and it hadn’t rained the whole year on Colombia’s Caribbean coast. It started soft, and then the drops got bigger and came down faster, and soon it came down in monsoon-like proportions. Benedicto, my guide, told me, “we’re not going today, amigo – with the rain, it’ll be chaos… it’s too risky.”

No one in Tasajera knew it was going to rain that day. It hadn’t rained on Colombia’s Caribbean coast for the entire year, and a drought was plaguing the land. So when the rains came, the people celebrated. But the fishmongers still took the risk and went out for a night on Big Swamp. A personal essay about facing the rains, fishing in Tasajera, and the chaos of water. Continue reading on Beacon…

Death Happens With Flowers

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BEACON

Celia told me that yellow daisies are what people like the most. I found Celia outside the entrance to the cemetery. She was surrounded by flowers, and she watched and waited as one by one, mourners came to the iron gates, paid her 6 or 7 pesos for a bouquet of yellow, and walked down the dirt path to find their family tomb. The mourners seemed to walk slower than usual. Few people are in a rush to get to death, I suppose.

Ciénaga, a town on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, has two places for people to go when death happens to them: one is called Cemetery of the Rich, and one is called Cemetery of the Poor. A personal essay on visiting the tombs with a local Cienaguero named Benedicto, inequality in Colombia, and mourning. Continue reading on Beacon…

Latin America’s Newest Experiment in Tearing Down Trade Barriers

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OZY

Colombian industrial designer Carlos Maya grabs his luggage, steps off the plane and, like other passengers arriving in Mexico City, heads straight for the immigration line. But Maya’s Colombian passport only gets a quick review, a stamp, and that’s it — no visa required. He’s free to stay for half a year. Why’s he in Mexico? Maya’s selling machinery, and hopes to make a killing under a new trade deal uniting Mexico, Colombia, Peru and Chile. Continue reading on Ozy…

If The Dynamite Goes Off

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BEACON

It was already 11am and our bus had screeched to a halt around 2am that morning. When I woke up, I first thought we had broken down, but then I saw the long line of tractor trailers, engines off, packed like sardines, one after another. Traffic was frozen. It felt like the greatest traffic jam in the world.

Fighting between Colombia’s military and Farc rebels broke out on the road between Barranquilla and Medellín. The road was dynamited, and that meant my bus traveling the route from the coast to the interior was stuck. A personal essay on getting trapped in a mountain traffic jam, Colombia’s armed conflict, and hostility. Continue reading on Beacon…

Big Swamp and The Fishmongers of Tasajera, Colombia In Photos

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BEACON

Tasajera, Colombia is a small village that lies a little more than an hour east of the Caribbean port city of Barranquilla, and is home to a thriving community of artisanal fishmongers. The fishmongers of Tasajera live from booms to busts. Sometimes they come to market with a catch that nets them $50 a day, and that’s good for a fishmonger. Other days, a crew of three might go a whole stretch of days with no catch.

Colombia’s ‘Big Swamp’, Ciénaga Grande, is home to a thriving community of artisanal fishmongers on the country’s Caribbean coast. This photo essay takes you inside Tasajera, a village where fishmongers from around Ciénaga Grande come to sell their catch. Continue reading on Beacon…

And I Like You Too, Julio Cesar

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BEACON

I often see Colombians crossing themselves when they walk in front of a large church like La Santísima Trinidad (that means Holy Trinity in English). It’s a very Catholic tradition. What you do is you hold your hand open and raise it to your forehead. From there, you draw a line down the center of your body to your chest, then swipe over to the left for a second, and then swipe to the right, and that’s it. You’re done.

I met a man in front of a sad-looking yellow church with sea green doors called La Santísima Trinidad. He wanted to know about my beliefs. His name was Julio Cesar. This is a personal essay about an oil man, Colombia’s tradition of Catholicism, and tolerance.

“I like you,” Julius Cesar told me. He liked me. But did I like him? If I did, that would mean that Julius Cesar and I like each other, and that sounds downright off color according to my sexuality. I just couldn’t say the same about Julius Cesar right away. We had just met on a park bench.

Not just any park bench though. It was more of a plaza, a big, wide open brick plaza in front of an old sad-looking yellow church with sea-green doors that I’ve never seen open before. It was called Plaza de la Santisima Trinidad in Cartagena’s Getsemani neighborhood. And lots of people come and sit and watch kids play soccer and eat street meat drenched with ketchup and mayonnaise and some people booze. Julius Cesar was boozing. He even offered me something to drink. I said no because I already had some. It was a Wednesday night to be precise. 10pm.

Ok, now I’m going to tell you a secret: the truth is that I did like Julius Cesar. No, not because of his name (which, was a pretty cool one, to be honest, because he really looked like a Roman gladiator: he had a big rub-a-dub belly and a bald, glistening head in the shape of an egg. Plus, when he smiled, he looked like he was ready to eat you whole, so if it weren’t for his otherwise polite and friendly demeanor, you’d be scared of him) but because of how he treated me: he was a nice man.

Having belief is important, and I’m a believer that two people can be of different religions and still treat each other well. And it’s funny, because religion is usually thought of as a foundation for forming our values and our sense of right and wrong, and yet, people of different religions often hate each other. Anyway, it turned out that like roughly 95% (check stat) of all Colombians, Julius Cesar is Catholic. He told me he believes that going to church every Sunday is very important too, and whenever he’s with his family, and it’s a Sunday, he goes.

Then he asked me what I am.

“What are you?” he asked.

“Well, my mother was raised Protestant, but my Dad was from a Catholic family,” I said.

“So you’re both?” he asked.

“Neither,” I said.

“Interesting…” he said.

The other thing I should tell you about Julius Cesar is that he is an oil man. Well, not exactly an oil man. I mean, he doesn’t go drilling holes and sucking out crude per se. He’s more of a construction man who works in the oil sector (No 1. export and big business in Colombia, by the way) and travels all over Colombia for his job.

“I work here, but I live in Bucaramanga,” he said. Let’s be honest, Bucaramanga is a very silly word. But let’s be honest again, it’s a real place.

“What do you do here in Cartagena?” I asked.

“Building a refinery,” he said.

From what I’ve learned, Julius Cesar and other oil men get shipped all over the place to do work, and that often means moving away from their families for long stretches of time. Some of them go a month on the job, and then two weeks rest, then a month back at the field.

I wondered if maybe Julius Cesar was separated or had family troubles from moving around so much from work.

“Does it put a strain on the family?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “Because when I’m with my family, we treat each other well. We do things together, we share together, we’re a really close family, but then sometimes I have to go off and work, and it’s hard, but I’m happy,” he said.

Julius Cesar seemed like such a nice guy.

Ok, so I guess it’s easy to say that you like someone because they’re nice, but let’s face it, it’s not too hard to be nice. And being nice doesn’t mean someone is good. Come to think of it, nice people have totally screwed me over before. What if this Julius Cesar ham turned out to be an ace lier (un mentiroso en español)?!, I thought to myself. So I got to thinking why I really liked Julius Cesar…

No answers.

So the next night, I went back to the plaza and sat down in the same exact place where I had met Julius Cesar. Except he wasn’t there. In his place, there was an old woman in a very pretty purple dress. My guess is that she made it herself, but since she was a stranger, I didn’t ask that right away. Instead, I asked,

“Would you like some wine?”

She looked at me and opened her mouth. I could tell she would have been smiling, but since she didn’t have any teeth, it just looked like an open mouth. I opened my mouth at her in response.

“Ok, but I can’t get drunk, ok?” she said.

She was so sweet. I asked her what her name was and it was something like Magda but a lot of what she said was incomprehensible so I could be wrong. We sat and watched the neighborhood kids play soccer and then some Argentine jugglers came alone and put on a show. Then some Spanish jugglers, some bicyclists, etc.

“The whole world comes here to meet,” she said.

“Yes… it sure seems like it,” I said. “It’s really lovely.”

Old Magda had some more wine and I had some more wine too, and she asked if I had a girlfriend and I told her yes and she told me I was a nice young man and that she was a teacher and she told me she taught little children and I said oh how nice.

And the truth was, Magda was nice, but she wasn’t getting off the hook that fast.

She told me she was a teacher of religious education and when I asked her what kind of religious school, she said,

“Mormon.”

“Oh, how interesting,” I said. “Now how is what you teach in Mormon class different from what they teach in Catholic school?”

Old Magda paused and got thoughtful. Then she turned serious.

“Mormonism is the truth!” she shouted.

“But what’s the difference, I mean, there must be different interpretations of those biblical stories or something like that, right? I don’t know, so I’m just wondering, you know?”

“Jesus said there would be one path to the truth! and Mormonism is it!” she shouted again.

Now, I don’t want to come off sounding like a trombone or anything, but this old bat was turning out to be a total kumquat. She wasn’t answering my question. And she couldn’t plead guilty for being drunk, because I looked and she hadn’t even had a full glass of wine.

It makes me sad, but Magda turned out to be the most intolerant old bird in that plaza. She said she had even disowned some children over the whole religion thing. And it’s funny, because even though she recognized the beauty of this diverse plaza teeming with people of every sort, she couldn’t reconcile the fact that someone might do it Catholic-style or Islam-style or some other style than Mormon. I capped my wine and said goodbye. It was box wine, that’s why.

As I walked back to my room, I thought about Julius Cesar again. And I realized that the reason I liked Julius Cesar is because even though I was a very different man than he was, he was very tolerant of me, and sometimes being tolerant is a hard thing to be.

Fooled At Night

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BEACON

It’s remarkable how easy it is to get fooled. Sometimes, clever people really get the best of me. And the hot night of July 24th was one of those times.

Much earlier that day, through a reckless series of Si Señors and No Señoras I found myself in the company of a new friend. He’s a leather smith and we were sitting in his shop. It was a sweltering night, around 9pm or so in Cartagena’s Getsemani neighborhood, and my new friend the leather smith was done for the day. So we set to drinking.

Just the thought of old Javier kills me. What a clever old ma he turned out to be. I’ve known some pretty clever folks, but Javier earned a spot right up there at the top.

 

The reason I knew? The old bird tricked me. You see, I met Javier on a hot July night in Cartagena’s Getsemani neighborhood. Much earlier in the day, through a reckless series of ‘yes sirs’ and ‘no mams’ I found myself in the company of a new friend. He was a leathersmith, and we were sitting in his shop. It was around 9pm or so and my new friend the leathersmith was done for the day. So we set to drinking. And that’s when Javier interrupted us.

 

Even though it’s a dangerous habit, I love to make judgements about people before I meet them. It makes me feel good, and as long as I don’t say my judgements out loud, it’s hard to hurt anyone’s feelings when I’m flat out wrong. So in this case, I figured Javier was probably 50 or 60 years old. Maybe even older. And since he told me his family had lived in the neighborhood forever, he must have known everything about everyone.

 

He didn’t strike me as a clever hawk at all when I first saw him leaning up against the cool stucco in a shady doorway in the Getsemani. He actually looked more like an old grouchy buzzard perching, waiting to clean up the remains of a kill that would never come. He had long legs and long arms and he sat with his legs tucked up to his chest and his arms hugged his legs together. Tight. And then every once in awhile he kind of sprawled out and stretched everything. He watched everyone who passed and didn’t say much of anything to anyone.

 

My final judgement made me sad. I couldn’t help it: Javier looked like a poor old bastard. I said hello.

 

It was only later that I found out that old Javier knew everything about everyone – at least a lot more than I did anyway.

 

Javier told me his family goes back five generations. He said the Spanish shipped over his family to be slaves. The slaves the Spanish brought from Africa built Cartagena with their hands, hauling around stones to build Cartagena’s fortress of walls. The walls the Spanish built were there to keep out pirates and competing houses of royalty. The Spanish fended off the… WHO? Buccaneers?

 

But some of the slaves turned into maroons and escaped. Javier said they fled from Cartagena to a place called San Basilio de Palenque.

 

Develop this narrative. One slave, Benkos Bioho, led the resistance and founded a village, which Javier calls the first free town in the Americas: San Basilio de Palenque. Many of Palenque’s residents say Benkos Bioho was the town’s liberator and founder. Bioho was a leader of African resistance movements during the 17th century. He even organized guerrilla attacks on the port of Cartagena with stolen arms.

 

The way the Palenqueros remember Benkos Bioho is the strongest of the strong. In the middle of the town, there’s a statue of Bioho’s torso shooting out of a brick wall. His arms are outstretched and his wrists are bound together in chains. When you look closely though, you can see he’s breaking free of his chains, and his face is filled with glory and indignation.

 

Because Benkos Bioho’s new town was made up of maroons, the language they spoke was a blend of western African languages and bits and pieces of Portuguese, the language of the slavers. The language in Bioho’s town is known as Palenquero. Many words in Palenquero come from African Bantu, a series of languages spoken by people from Africa’s western coast – from Niger to Angola.

 

It’s no surprise the Palenqueros have trouble expressing themselves with Spanish-speaking Colombians. The word for peanut in Spanish is mani. In Palenquero peanut is ngubá. In Colombian Spanish, you call ‘money’ plata (which also happens to be the word for silver). In Palenquero, ‘money’ is burú.

 

The thing is, the Palenquero language is disappearing. San Basilio de Palenque is made up of around 3,500 people, and only the older folks speak it.

 

What is Colombia’s history of slavery?

 

Javier called the town of San Basilio de Palenque a free town, and I could tell he was proud of how his ancestors liberated themselves from the ugly chains of slavery. But the people of San Basilio de Palenque live in something of an poor economy, and it’s hard to escape the poverty that comes with yam and peanut farming.

 

(What is Palenque’s condition? Even though the town is free from slavery, it’s subjected to a great deal of poverty. People who grew up in the village and try to find work close by sometimes cannot because Spanish-speaking Colombians discriminate against them.)

 

Reflection?

 

I looked at Javier. I could tell he cared a great deal about his good looks and handsomeness because he was holding a pink razor blade in his hands. And without shaving cream, he was shaving a white, bristly patch of whiskers on his chin and his throat. It seemed the sweat dripping off of him was the only thing he had for lubrication. Good thing he had something to make it smooth. He took a quick few swipes with the razor blade. I’ll admit, old Javier looked pretty suave.

 

But then I took a closer look. He didn’t have any whiskers. The razor was just a prop.

 

Javier was much more clever than I thought. As it turns out, he was a drug dealer, and you could buy prostitutes from him too, but you’d never guess he was a merchant of such things. He probably even called himself a salesman. It’s a more dignified title, and Javier kept up a very dignified appearance. Boy did he fool me.

 

The thought I couldn’t get off my mind was about Javier’s condition: when you’re whole race is dehumanized, illegitimized and put under the lashes of such an ugly institution as slavery, you have to be smart, you have to be clever to survive. For the descendents of Javier’s family, to survive meant being captured by the Europeans, enduring their torture, being herded into a ship, crossing the ocean and not losing the willpower to live, and – eventually – using their cunning to escape.

 

All along, that probably meant going against the rule of law. But it’s no surprise to me that when the rules of civilization were so cruel, so inhumane, so disgusting, the Afro-Colombians felt compelled to break them. Otherwise, they would have been screwed.

 

I looked at Javier. He pretended to swipe the razor against his whiskers, waiting for the night’s business to begin. To think, I had him cut out for a poor old bird.