Hurrah for Colombia

My wife and her family are over the moon after the daring rescue of Ingrid Betancourt and fourteen other hostages from the clutches of the FARC in Colombia. My mother-in-law was born in Colombia, and my wife and I have made several visits to her relatives in various parts of that magnificent country that has suffered so much for so long.

Whatever one thinks of American foreign policy in Latin America — and there is much one could say at this point — our backing of Colombian president Alvaro Uribe has brought a great degree of peace to the most populous Spanish-speaking country south of Mexico. In my visits, I’ve seen abundant evidence of increased security and prosperity in even remote, rural farming regions. My wife’s family, who live on simple fincas in Cesar and Norte de Santander departments, have finally stopped paying regular “head taxes” to the FARC thanks to the success of the American-backed Plan Colombia.

In any event, it is a glorious day for Colombia, a land near and dear to my heart and a place where, God willing, our future children will visit in peace. We even talk, my wife and I, about buying some land and spending some of our future retirement in her mother’s homeland. Events like today’s make that more and more of a viable possibility.

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Mother’s day with Juanes

I’m a little bleary-eyed this morning after two back-to-back nights of five hours of sleep. Eating a vegan diet does enable me to cut back a bit on the number of hours I need, but I still seem to do best when I’ve had a minimum of six. Given how busy our lives are without human children, the real question we both have is how it is that we will adapt to having a kid. What does it look like when two Type A personalities who want to go-go-go 18 hours a day suddenly have a small child? No, we’re not announcing anything, folks — just musing together. Some things will have to give, and that’s a prospect that fills me with considerable ambivalence.

We’ve had some of my wife’s family in town, and last night, my wife, brother-in-law, and I took their mother to see Juanes at the Nokia Theater downtown. Juanes is, as most of my readers will know, one of Colombia’s two most famous rock stars (the sublime Shakira is the other). We’ve been fans of his for years, and even though I have only a limited understanding of his lyrics, I’ve always found his pop hooks to be particularly infectious. It was a delight to see so many multi-generational groups in the audience last night; though my wife and I brought her dear mother, I saw several grandmother-daughter-granddaughter pairings enjoying a Mother’s Day evening out together. The audience was, of course, overwhelmingly Latino, but not exclusively so.

When Juanes dedicated one number to the Afro-Colombian people, my wife and mother-in-law exploded with delight. My mother-in-law was born into an African-Colombian family in Santa Marta, on the northeastern Colombian coast; she bequeathed to my wife that marvelous mixed heritage of West African, Spanish, and indigenous American influences. Too often in Colombia, “whites” ignore or malign the sizable Afro-Colombian minority. To have Juanes, the consummate Colombian rock star and perhaps, after Juan Valdez, the nation’s most recognizable male export, celebrate the African influence on his country and his music was welcome indeed.

I danced in the aisles. While my wife and in-laws moved their hips with easy and rhythmic abandon, I danced in that traditionally self-conscious white boy way. When it comes to distance running, I know how to center myself in my core. When it comes to dancing, however, my center seems to be located in my trapezius muscles, and I scrunch my shoulders and rotate them while shuffling my feet. I was teased good-naturedly by my family and by others around me, but I was happy as a clam. The fact that I understood about 50% of what Juanes said from the stage struck me as a special triumph.

“Your wife is quarter nigerian? Nice.”

Four posts in one day today…

On August 22, I put up some links, including one to this excellent post on interracial relationships and children at Alas, A Blog.  I wrote, almost as an aside:

Someone recently asked me what my wife and I would tell our children (when, deo volente, we have ’em) about their ethnic heritage.  The long answer: Indigenous Colombian/Jewish/Nigerian/English/Croatian/German/Austrian/Scotch-Irish/Czech/Welsh/Spanish. Short answer: a beloved child of God and two adoring parents. 

It’s funny: my wife is only one-quarter African (what would, in a racist era, have been called a "quadroon"), but that’s the one-quarter that seems most fascinating to most folks.

As if to prove my latter point, Everchange wrote a comment this morning:

your wife is quarter nigerian? nice.

Now, as it turns out, Everchange is a Nigerian blogger, which helps me put the comment in context.  I admit, that before I clicked on the comment to find out who this person was, I was deeply annoyed.

My wife is one-quarter African.  I don’t post pictures of her as I wish to protect her privacy.  To most people, she appears to be of mixed race.  Folks often ask her (or me) about her ethnic heritage.  When I give a full answer, it’s amazing how often folks fixate on the African quarter.   I sometimes hear:

Wow, she doesn’t look black. 

or, alternatively:

Yeah, I can kind of see it in her.

Both are verbatim quotes from our acquaintances.  The last one was particularly infuriating. Is blackness an "it" to be seen?  My wife’s father was born in Montana into a family of Czech-Croatian ancestry (think Willa Cather novels), but hardly anyone focuses on that aspect of her heritage.  That strikes folks as dull by comparison!  Her mother’s mother is mestizo Colombian, which also seems less intriguing than her mother’s father’s Nigerian background.

Race and ethnicity is not my field of expertise.  But I’ve been amazed, over the year of our marriage and our several years of dating, how my wife’s perceived "blackness" and her African heritage are regularly singled out by my family and friends for unique scrutiny.  It’s certainly reminded me of why using the term "exotic" for human beings ought to be a misdemeanor! 

Even in multi-cultural greater Los Angeles, black-white marriages and romantic relationships seem to attract significantly more attention and fascination than Asian-white or Latino-white or Latino-Asian couplings.  It’s not surprising, of course, given that black-white relationships have a unique and special history, a history often charged with sexual stereotypes and horrific abuse.  But it’s still quite eye-opening to encounter it as part of one’s own life.

Children can look like both their biological parents, neither of their parents, or one of their parents.  Or they can closely resemble a grand- or great-grandparent.  It is with some curiosity — and trepidation — that I muse over how our future children’s visual appearance and skin color will affect how they are perceived in the wider world.

Colombia gets safer, and Hugo gets over romantic illusions about insurgents

It’s been an exhausting but happy couple of weeks.  Since I was last on campus, my wife and I have flown through seven different airports,spent quality time with both our families, and surprisingly enough, had the chance to sleep eight hours straight several nights in a row. 

We spent the past week with my wife’s mother’s family on their remote, rural finca (ranch) in Cesar province in northwest Colombia.  It was our third visit to Colombia together, and our first as a married couple.  Since I’m tired and lightheaded this morning, I’ll offer some random thoughts.  I hope to have photos up by the end of the week!

First off, almost as much as a good lefty likes me hates to admit it, even I can see how much Colombia has improved in recent years under the leadership of President Bush’s only true friend in South America, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe.  The right-wing Uribe was elected in 2002 on a hardline platform of no compromise with Marxist guerrillas and drug traffickers.  Many feared a dramatic escalation of violence in what was already one of the most dangerous countries (if not the most dangerous) in the Western Hemisphere.  But in many regions, security has clearly markedly improved.

My wife, my mother-in-law, and I all agree that things had improved noticeably in the mere 20 months since we were last in Colombia.  The main highway that leads from Bucaramanga (the city with the nearest airport) north to the finca had been repaved and cleaned up.  Most of the potholes that we saw in 2004 were filled in.  The number of army checkpoints in Santander, Norte de Santander, and Cesar (the three provinces in which we spend most of our time on our Colombia trips) had been clearly reduced.  Last time, we were ordered out of the car several times to have our papers checked and to be frisked for weapons.  That didn’t happen once on this visit.

The small towns near my wife’s family’s finca all showed signs of increasing stability and prosperity.  In Pelaya, Costilla, Aguachica, we saw new streetlights up, new paved roads, and fewer soldiers.   We saw more new cars.  (Speaking of cars, almost everyone in this region of Colombia drives Renaults; for years, they were the only brand available in the northwest provinces, and even now, they retain considerable loyalty.)  We discovered too that people were more willing to discuss politics than they had been in the past; there was a clear reduction in the amount of palpable fear that folks seem to have.  In the poor and simple farming communities in which we spent our time, we found surprising (to me) support for the hardline, conservative policies of Alvaro Uribe.  Everyone in my wife’s family is planning to support him in his reelection bid next month, grateful as they are for his refusal to compromise with the narco-traffickers and the guerrillas who have tormented them.

I confess I grew up romanticizing left-wing revolutionaries and guerrilla groups.   In the 1980s, as a teenage socialist, I became enchanted with the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.  (It all started, of course, with a sublimely good Clash album).  I became a fan of Fidel and Daniel Ortega and the FMLN; I had the ubiquitous ratty Che Guevara t-shirt.  I loved the idea that not so far away from my comfortable home on the California coast, men and women were marching through the jungle, fighting the capitalist oppressors and liberating the poor campesinos.  In more recent years, my adolescent radicalism faded into limousine liberalism, but I still made appreciative noises about armed Marxist insurgencies wherever they were in the Third World.

While I had daydreams of revolution, my wife’s family had many very real and very brutal experiences with the FARC (the left-wing guerrilla army that has been trying to take over Colombia for decades) and with the right-wing paramilitaries who combated them.  For years, my wife’s uncle (who owns the little finca) was forced to pay protection money to the guerrillas.  Indeed, when we visited in August 2004, the FARC was still quite active in the hills very near the family place.  In order to guarantee our protection, my wife’s uncle paid the guerrillas a substantial "head tax" (in cattle) for each of us.  This was to ensure our safety during our visit; had he not paid it, the guerrillas made it clear that we would risk being kidnapped.   My wife’s family only told us about this head tax after we returned to the States — it was a sobering realization, and one of many that put an end to my fantasies about the moral superiority of armed insurgents.

And then there was Matteo, a skinny and lovable mutt who looked a lot like a lab/doberman/retriever mix.  Matteo has been guarding the finca for years, and he has the bullet wound and the machete slashes to show for it.  It’s funny how dense and sentimental we privileged types can be!  I can listen to stories of people I’ve never met getting abducted and killed and be unfazed — but show me very real wounds on a very real animal and I become instantly enraged!   Listening to the story of how Matteo survived a brutal slashing a year of two ago at the hands of the FARC left me shaking with anger and close to tears.  And any last shred of sympathy for the cause or the tactics of the guerrillas vanished last week.  And even more bizarrely, I come home rooting lustily for President Uribe to win a second term in office! 

You see, since the president stepped up his military campaign against the insurgents (a campaign backed by considerable infusions of cash from the USA), my wife’s family — my family — has felt safer.   No one asked for a head tax this time.  No one has shot at Matteo in over a year.  We walked the streets in broad daylight fearlessly, and my uncle-in-law didn’t have to sell a dozen cows to give us the right to do so.  That’s worth something.  Yes, I understand that Uribe’s human rights record is less than perfect; yes, I understand that the left-wing press on which I normally rely to form my world-view is deeply hostile towards him for a variety of reasons.  But I’ve been to Colombia three times now, and I’ve seen very, very real progress for a great many very vulnerable and poor people — and whether the press in this country reports it or not, I’m going to believe what I’ve seen and experienced more than what I read.

Colombia is still not a safe country by the standards of the prosperous global North.  It still has a high murder rate, and the guerrillas and narco-traffickers remain active in certain parts of the country.  But it is clearly getting safer, and is starting to become the sort of place adventurous  American tourists could consider visiting more often.  Last night, we flew home on COPA Airlines, flying from Bogota to Panama City and then home to LAX.  Very few Americans on the first leg of the flight leaving Colombia, but tons on the second leg back from Central America; lots of sunburned folks heading home from a week in Panama or Costa Rica or on the islands of the southern Caribbean.  Colombia, of course, is the closest South American country to the West Coast of the USA — it’s only an hour’s worth of flying time beyond Costa Rica.  It also offers infinitely more biological and anthropological and cultural diversity than the small Central American nations that have become popular with US tourists; Colombia has the mountains, the beaches, the lowlands and the dazzling metropolises.  What it doesn’t have is a reputation as a top tourist destination (outside, perhaps, of the walled city of Cartagena.)   If things keep getting safer and more secure, that might change.

Wednesday links

Pasadena is a madhouse today with the Rose Bowl game ("the game of the millenium") kicking off tonight at 5:00PM just a mile or so from home.  Yes, we’re going.  I’ll be in full Trojan regalia, my UCLA degrees notwithstanding.   Among other things, love conquers grad school allegiances.

To begin with, a couple of quick links:

Issue 6 of the Carnival of the Feminists is up today at Reappropriate.  Many good links to be found there.

A troubling story about Afro-Colombians and the drug wars.   Racial prejudice is alive and well in Colombia, and the most vulnerable targets of narco-traffickers, guerilla forces, and government troops are  indigenous groups and blacks.  According to the article, of all the world’s nations, only Sudan today has more internally displaced people than Colombia.  As many of my readers know, my wife is of Afro-Colombian heritage; we’ve gone down to South America twice in recent years to spend time with her family in a remote and troubled region.  After much pressure from the Congressional Black Caucus, a tiny portion of US aid to Colombia is being directed to meet the needs of internally displaced Afro-Colombians — but that portion pales in comparison to the massive amount of military aid being sent down.  Then again, my wife’s family (whose exact location I won’t disclose for obvious reasons) are ardent supporters of the hard-line, pro-American administration of President Alvaro Uribe, as are most folks in their small and impoverished community.

Jill has a long and powerful follow-up to yesterday’s post about beauty, women bloggers, and trolls.  She kindly links to my post on the subject.

Also on the subject of looks, female bloggers, and sexuality, read this excellent offering from Barb Howe: Books, their Covers, and the Consequences.  She manages to combine both feminist analysis with writing about Colombia, so the need to link is overwhelming!

Andrea has a long and interesting post On Chivalry, with some points I’d like to respond to soon.

Colombian football, menarche, and the need for fearless father figures

It’s another busy morning, and I’m running late.  My beloved and I went for our last bike ride before Saturday’s Solvang Century early today; I’m still thinking I may opt to just play it safe and ride the 50-miler.  I need to amp up my running as I get ready for June’s Rock n’ Roll marathon in San Diego.

Tonight, we’re off to Cal State Fullerton to watch the USA-Colombia soccer friendly.  My fiancee and I are taking her Colombian-born mother as a birthday present.  (Have I mentioned how much I love soccer?) We’ll all, naturally, be rooting for the South Americans.  I’ll be decked out in my Atletico Nacional kit.  My fiancee’s family is Afro-Colombian from the northern coastal regions of Colombia; AN is the favored team of the costenos

In my post last night, I mentioned lecturing on the subject of menarche, or first menstruation.  (First off, folks, it’s a Greek word, not a French one. I run into people who say "menarsh" as if it’s French; it’s pronounced "men-archy".  Sheesh.)  The point that many body historians, chiefly Joan Brumberg, have made is that we cannot underestimate the importance of the drop in average age of menarche that took place over the course of the 20th century.  At the turn of the last century, American girls began to menstruate sometime between 16 and 17 (on average); today, they begin sometime between 11-12.  (There is some evidence that African-American and Latina girls begin earlier than white and Asian youth.)

Feminists rightly tend to see the sexual objectification of women as a cultural phenomenon rather than a biological inevitability.  Any feminist or pro-feminist worth her or his salt is quick to point out the deleterious effects of consumer culture and the media on girls’ self-esteem.  But we have to remember that social forces interact with biology — and the fact that American girls hit puberty an average of four to five years earlier than their great-grandmothers did has immense consequences for which the culture alone cannot be held responsible.  It’s obvious that 16 and 17 year-olds, in any culture, are going to be mentally more mature than 11 and 12 year-olds.   In an earlier time, physical adolescence was, I argue, far better matched to emotional development.

Obviously, different girls develop at different rates.  As most teens will tell you, it’s as upsetting to be "later" than all your friends as it is to be "earlier".   Teenagers of both sexes generally want to be right in the middle, and of course, statistically speaking, few are.  I often ask my students in women’s history courses about what it would be like if girls developed four to five years later than they do now.  Without exception, every one seems to agree that it would be marvelous indeed.  "We’d have so many more years to just be kids", they say; "We could stay innocent so much longer."  "My friendships with other girls would be so much better with so much less competition."  These are the sorts of comments I frequently hear in my classes.

Obviously, we can’t undo the biological changes of the past century easily.  (Though if we fed our kids less animal protein, it might be a start.)  But I do think we have to be prepared to accept that the self-esteem crisis among adolescent girls (so well-documented by Mary Pipher and others) is not merely a function of crushing and conflicting cultural messages.  (Though Heaven knows those messages do their damage.)  It is also a result of increasingly early puberty for which our sisters and daughters are naturally ill-prepared.   Thus I think a feminist concern for girls must be marked by particular attention to the impact of early puberty on girls who are much younger at menarche than it seems that nature intended.

Parents, educators, and youth workers need to be much more aggressive about resisting the sexualization of girls in early adolescence. (Of course, I’d be happy if we did a better job of fighting the objectification of women of all ages, but I am particularly concerned for the very young and vulnerable.) 

Fathers — and other male authority figures, like youth group leaders — also have a vital role to play.  Too often, I hear stories from young girls about fathers who began to distance themselves at the precise moment that they hit puberty.  (It’s an old story: when Dad sees his daughter developing breasts and hips, he is forced to confront the reality of his child’s sexuality. For too many men, that is so uncomfortable that they end up withdrawing their attention and affection — or, alternatively they end up becoming hyper-vigilant and critical.  Both approaches harm their daughters.)   Young girls desperately need older male figures (ideally, but not necessarily their fathers) who will give them immense amounts of love and non-sexual validation as they go through the early stages of puberty.  Good male figures will not, of course, respond sexually to these girls.  Neither will they seek to deny the changes their daughters are undergoing by frantically covering up and controlling them.  Above all, they won’t withdraw their love and affection because they are bewildered and overwhelmed by their daughter’s transformation.   Though pubescent girls need the love and support of older women every bit as much, I’m convinced the need for safe, nurturing, and fearless adult male support is absolutely vital. 

I’ve talked about this issue with a few of my friends who are fathers of daughters.  We’re thinking of doing a workshop someday for Dads of Daughters at All Saints on just this topic.

I must prepare for class.  Viva Colombia!

Home, the trip, and some more thoughts on community

We had a marvelous visit to Colombia.

The highlight of our nine day trip was surely our visit to my fiancee’s family’s finca (a ranch) in a remote corner of the Cesar department. From the start, the Colombian agent who handled our travel plans urged us not to go to the finca, saying that the roads we would have to take were very unsafe due to rebel and paramilitary activity, not to mention plain old crime. Nonetheless, we were anxious to make the trip. It was a calculated risk. We are not yet parents, my fiancee and I. If we had a small child, or others (besides Matilde the chinchilla, who weathered our absence well) to depend upon us, we might not have chosen to make this journey. As it was, we weighed the dangers and the rewards, and chose the rewards.

On Sunday the 8th, we flew from Bogota to Bucaramanga, a large and relatively prosperous city in the northeast. Upon arriving at the airport, we were met by a driver who had been hired to take on the four hour drive north to the city nearest to the finca, Aguachica. Despite our efforts to change his mind, he had insisted that driving to the finca itself would be too dangerous. We piled into a beat-up Mazda 323 and headed up the road.

We didn’t see rebels. We didn’t see paramilitary death squads. We did encounter danger, however, around every turn — Colombian drivers are reckless and determined, to say the least. My fiancee and I simply chose to close our eyes a lot. I prayed constantly. Somehow, we avoided all collisions. We didn’t avoid three military checkpoints on the drive up. At the last of these, I was asked to step out of the car, put my hands on the roof, and submit to a pat-down search. The soldiers who were searching me looked barely out of their teens, and from the looks on their faces, mine may have been the first American passport they had seen. (They had no idea, for instance, where the pertinent entry stamps might be found.) Honestly, I was trying hard not to laugh at them. As I got back into my car, I left them with a cheerful “ciao, gracias” that had the other occupants of the Mazda in near-hysterics. (The informal “ciao” is apparently not to be used when speaking with soldiers of the Colombian army. Who knew?)

Our four days on the finca were marvelous. The heat and the humidity (we were near the Magdalena river in sub-tropical conditions) was oppressive, but we soldiered on (though I spent most of my time in shorts, tennis shoes, sunscreen, bug spray, and not much else). I met dozens of members of my fiancee’s extended family; one aunt had had 22 children and another had had 15. There was much laughter, talking, horse-back riding, and so forth. There was little sleep.

It’s tempting for folks like me who’ve come back from trips like this to wax eloquent about the joys of the “simpler life.” (I’ve taken some church youth groups to Mexico before on a couple of occasions; the American kids always come back rhapsodizing about the experience — even while they usually complained throughout!) Though my fiancee’s family was wealthy by local standards, their living conditions were very poor compared to those of affluent Americans. The small hardships we endured (no washing machines, no air conditioning, showering beneath a spigot) were brief. We could go along with these cheerfully because we knew how limited our time was. I’m under no illusion that we really experienced what life is like for the poor in rural Colombia. We didn’t deal with being sick or injured; we didn’t deal with any significant danger. We simply got a snapshot, albeit a colorful, exciting, and joyous one.

And though it is often said, I need to reiterate the truth about the importance of family ties in rural communities. I grew up seeing my cousins and extended family on holidays (brief times of great excitement). The dozens (literally) of children we met on the finca grow up surrounded by extended family. They have no shortage of playmates and helpers and friends. Most of them will live their lives surrounded by kin, rarely (unless they choose to move to Bogota to make money) traveling more than two dozen miles away from the land on which they were born. How can those of us who live wealthy and peripatetic lives in America and Europe not envy that? Both my near and extended families are stretched across a half-dozen states and two continents; I see my beloved brother and sisters once a year if not more infrequently due to these distances.

So many of us in the blogosphere write about community: how we have or don’t have it, how we can find it, how we can strengthen it. But unlike those in rural Colombia (and countless traditional elsewheres) ours are usually communities of choice. Our churches are often not those of our parents — they are places we have come to after years of searching and sifting for something that “feels right”. Our networks of friends are often formed through accidents of geography or through shared activities (like my dear fellow runners). Few, if any of us, have all of our extended family of origin within five miles of us. Most of us, even if we love our families, wouldn’t WANT to have them so close!

Look, I’m glad my parents didn’t have 22 children. I’m glad I have the wealth and the freedom to make the choices that I do make. But I also recognize that with that wealth and that freedom come nearly invisible costs, the chief of which is the fracturing of family ties and the loss of stability that is found more fully elsewhere. I would not now choose to live on a finca. But if I had grown up on one as my fiancee’s cousins have, I doubt I could ever move away to the big city to pursue my dreams without having an acute sense of loss.

Much to think about. For now, I’m going to catch up on more blogs!

Getting ready for Colombia

Well, folks, this is the penultimate post before heading off to South America. (I’ve got the Thursday Short Poem still to come tomorrow, naturally. It’ll be an Auden favorite.) We leave late tomorrow night for Colombia, and will be in Bogota by Friday afternoon. We’ll be back on Sunday the 15th.

This will be our second trip to Colombia. We went exactly a year ago, visiting Bogota, Santa Marta, and Bucaramanga. This time we will be visiting spectacular Bogota again, and also traveling to my fiancee’s family’s remote ranch in a river valley in Cesar province (northeastern Colombia). Though I doubt that anyone who might mean us harm is likely to read this blog, I’m not going to be specific about the ranch’s exact location until after we have returned.

I felt perfectly safe last year in Colombia, but it is still a dangerous country. Prayers for our safe travel and return will of course be appreciated. Anyone who follows the news or does research on the internet is aware of just how troubled that country has been in recent decades. We will be taking all the basic precautions, of course, and have many contacts down there to help us.

If you’re interested in reading more about Colombia, check out some of the following sites in English:

The Colombian Embassy in Washington DC.

Colombia Week — excellent news and analysis with perhaps a left-of-center bent.

Z-Net’s Colombia page (a bit farther left, thank you)

Colombia Times, which collects various news articles on Colombia and other South American countries.

The Poor but Happy discussion board on Colombia. (This gets very interesting).

Google News: Colombia

Amnesty International’s Colombia site.

Mennonite Central Committee’s Colombia site

COVIC (Children Orphaned by Violence in Colombia), a fine charity

The Lonely Planet Colombia Guide

The State Department’s Travel Advisory (Mom, don’t read this).

Our hotel in Bogota, which we stayed in last year and loved. It will make a nice contrast with the primitive conditions we expect in Cesar.

My Spanish is very poor. I can read it reasonably well, but can’t comprehend it orally. And when I speak, it tends to send folks into peels of laughter. (Colombians seem to laugh a lot.) My fiancee, of course, speaks perfect castellano, so she will handle the interpreting duties.

I’m very excited!