“You don’t understand Colombia”, “You don’t know how we do things”, “You’re Foreign”, “You cannot have an opinion”, “this is how we do things in Colombia”…asi es!
My verbal adversary, seeing and feeling no other way to close the argument, inevitably pulls one of the aforementioned aces out of an endless repertoire of mildly racist statements. And that’s it; I just shut down and refuse to entertain any discussion that is based along these lines. The idiocy and ignorance of it all leaves me with no option than to remain silent and walk away. There is no retort or response to qualify such a statement and any attempt to justify my position becomes a petty, floundering and altogether trivial riposte.
Is it that Colombia has been so closed to immigration over the years that we “foreigners” who live here and ply our trades, contributing to the overall well being and economy of the country – a country that without doubt we love – have been so thin on the ground over the last decades, that we are going to be condemned forever to remain as “outsiders” in the eyes of the average Colombian?
I don’t think so. But there is work to be done.
I feel this stems from a deep rooted issue and insecurity within the country which is the over-zealous regionalism that manifests itself along geographical, sporting, language, race and socioeconomic lines. And foreigners have been absorbed into this pattern as another semi-autonomous department.
My dispute last Saturday evening with some university students here in Mompós demonstrated this aptly. A group numbering eight or nine and ranging from the ages of 17 to 19 had parked their car – lowered naturally – in the park in front of my house and had their speakers – in the boot, flashing lights, heavy bass – pointed at us contaminating a preciously rare cooler evening in town with highly amped popular vallenato.
My wife and I approached respectfully and calmly. Could they turn the music down a little please?
“This is a public park.”
Yes, fine, we are not asking you to leave, nor to turn your music off, nor to stop drinking, just to respect others.
“Hija de puta, perra.”
Directed at my wife. Then a threat to hit her. All the while we maintain calm and ask politely once more.
“This is a public park, we are permitted to be here and we’re not turning down the music gringo.”
That’s fine, but please can you consider us, your neighbours. There are people sleeping. It’s midnight.
“What are you going to do about it gringo? You’re not from here, you don’t know how we do things, and you’re not Colombian.”
I just shut down and walked away, why even address this? There’s no point as the regionalism so present in Colombia has become a byword in the local vernacular for anyone beyond their means of comprehension. It is irrelevant that I have been here in Colombia for 6 years, it matters not that I have been almost permanently based in Latin America for 13 years and am well accustomed and acclimatized to the idiosyncrasy of the region.
Just as a costeño lambasts a cachaco for being corroncho and a rolo laughs at a costeño for their behaviour in the capital city and that pastusos are a figure of fun or that a paisa will try and sell you anything and a chocoano can be marginalized for “talking too much”. There’s too much suspicion in someone hailing from beyond their region.
And so why should I, as a foreigner, expect to be treated any differently? Just see one of the comments on my last blog from a disgruntled reader.
A geographer once described Colombian territory to me as resembling a piece of crumpled up paper. I found this to be a fantastically visual depiction and one that of course explains so much. Without a difficult geography, for example, the UK could build effective highways, rail system to communicate the towns and cities and thus create a system where the country is united. There is certainly regionalism, but arguably this manifests itself in accents and sporting events more than anything. In Colombia each town and city more or less has had to develop its own economy making the regional capitals less dependent on Bogota for example.
This, of course, strengthened the regionalism between departments and left Bogota very much the size of a large pueblo, relatively speaking, until recently when more importance – in an international context was placed on the need for a center for business and investment – has been expected and thrust upon the capital. And let’s not forget the droves of internally displaced people who have moved from the countryside to Bogota’s streets.
A recent study conducted by the World Bank has shown Colombian cities to be slow in terms of traffic and poorly connected to one another. The article then written in Portafolio went on to detail the economic costs of transportation and the issues this has presented the country. One wonders why a survey was done in the first place, those of us that live here can declare outright that there is no infrastructure that rivets this impossible national geography together.
To get past the mild racism that is effectively produced by having five or six countries within one universal border requires making significant in-roads into regions without access, without government representation, connecting the main economic and industrial hubs and making the country accessible.
It was refreshing to me when, in two cities, my nationality was not an issue and business was business, nothing more. These two cities were Barrancabermeja and Barranquilla.