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…
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,
“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.