Te Mando Flores

Te Mando Flores Maya admires the flowers

Te Mando Flores
Maya admires the flowers

On this cold January day, “Te Mando Flores”, I send you flowers. That’s the title of an upbeat and uplifting song by Colombian Vallenato singer Fonseca. On this cold January day I share with you some of my Colombian heritage and introduce you to the warming sounds of the Vallenato.

The Vallenato music is from the northern coast of Colombia. It means, “from the valley”, specifically referring to the valley between the mountains of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and Serranía de Perijá in the northeastern part of the country.

Vallenato is from the northeastern part of Colombia.

Vallenato is from the northeastern part of Colombia.

The Vallenato is one of Colombia’s most popular and representative genres of music. In my opinion, a party is not a party unless a Vallenato is played. Its origin has roots in Spanish minstrels and West African rhythms. The Vallenato originally played with an indigenous Gaita flute, a drum called a caja, and a percussion instrument called a guacharaca later added the European instruments of the guitar and accordion.

Symbols of Vallenato:  El Sombreo Vueltiao - The Turned Hat, The Accordion, the Caja, and the Guacharaca

Symbols of Vallenato:
El Sombreo Vueltiao – The Turned Hat, The Accordion, the Caja, and the Guacharaca

It was played by the farmers who traveled with their cattle throughout the region while providing entertainment and a means of story telling and communications between the villages. I often hear similarities between Vallenato and Cajun Zydeco. When I listen to contemporary West African music there is no denying the ancestral roots of these coastal Colombian tunes. Not only do I love the fact that Colombian music is a blend of many cultures, Vallenato in particular is going to make you want to DANCE. Those lively accordion songs and rhythms are guaranteed to take you out of any state of funk you may be in. In my case today, the January winter blues!

Visiting an island off of the the northern coast of my native country Colombia. Wearing the sombrero vueltiao and getting to know the local children.

2007 – Visiting an island off of the the northern coast of my native country Colombia. Wearing the traditional sombrero vueltiao and getting to know the local children.

I have very fond memories of listening to my first live Vallenato band. During my college years I went on an amazing expedition trip throughout Colombia with my best friend. The year was 1983. One of our many stops included Santa Marta located on the northern coast. It was there that I enjoyed my first “cerveza” ever while listening to live Vallenato music. The only reason we ordered beer was because it was cheaper than Coca-Cola. I remember a lot about that night: the place was an outdoor cafe, the lighting was golden, I felt so grown up drinking a beer, the beer tasted bitter but was o.k. (I had not quite acquired a taste for hops yet), the band played Vallenato on a stage at the front of the café, and had two female singers wearing identical yellow dresses singing away with gusto. We ended up calling the singers, “the screaming pestaña sisters”- “the screaming eye lash sisters”. I think the name came about mainly because they wore a lot of make up and not because their singing sounded like screaming. They probably were not even sisters but their identical outfits made them look like twins. We were two childhood friends, now in college, transitioning into adulthood, but still enjoying the laughter and giggles that we had shared since we were two years old. And mostly I remember thinking, “This music is awesome!”

So open up your favorite music-streaming app and look for Vallenato music. Look for Fonseca and Carlos Vives, both Colombian Latin Grammy winners. Try out songs by Fonseca: Te Mando Flores, Eres Mi Sueño, Gratitud, Ilusion, and Hace Tiempo. And by Carlos Vives try: El Cantor de Fonseca, La Gota Fria, El Amor de mi Tierra, Fruta Fresca, and Carito.

…. Let go and dance away in your kitchen, living room or office! It’s good for your heart and soul. You will feel so energized afterwards. I hope this music livens your day and your life as much as it does me. Baila conmigo… Dance with me!

2000 - Dancing with my children and dogs.

2000 – Dancing with my children and dogs.

Annual Colombian Festival of the Vallenato

http://www.colombia.travel/en/international-tourist/what-to-do/history-and-tradition/fairs-and-festivals/april/festival-of-the-vallenato-legend-in-valledupar

http://globalvoicesonline.org/2011/05/05/colombia-the-vallenato-legend-festival/

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Rediscovering a Friend

In life we meet many people that we like to refer to as “friends”, but the truth is that often we don’t take the time to really get to know them. This happened to me with an old colleague from business school. We were two of approximately 171 women in a graduating class of 780. Although we were “friends” we were more like comrades sharing an experience, supportive of each other yet not close enough to fully understand each other’s personal story. After graduation we both went our separate ways and lost contact. After 24 years I would have the opportunity to reconnect with Vera. She had just published a book and shared the information with some of her classmates. So, this summer I read her book and rediscovered an old friend in the process. After completing the book I knew I had to speak to Vera to fully understand the inspiration behind her novel, The Lonely American. Though it was written as fiction, I suspected there was much of Vera herself interwoven in the story, and it sparked a desire, almost a need to learn more. I spent three hours with Vera on the phone, not only catching up on life, but also delving into the historical period of her book from her perspective.

The Lonely American by Vera Lam

The Lonely American by Vera Lam

Vera was born and raised in Saigon, now known as Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. So naturally she chose to write a book inspired by her personal experiences with the Vietnam War, a time period that is of particular interest to me. To clarify, in Vietnam, “The Vietnam War” is referred to as “The American War”. Like many, I grew up in the 1960’s with current events of the Vietnam War playing out in television news and the papers yet I understood very little of it. Reading about the war in Stanley Karnow’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, Vietnam: A History, was an eye opener. It helped me understand the context, the players, and the actions of a war. When Vera told us about her new book, I was delighted to hear the news, and at the same time intrigued by the subject. The Lonely American delineates the life of an American pilot and his kindred connections to Vietnam. After serving two tours of duty, he returns to the US as a fully decorated officer. He marries his pre-war American sweetheart and has a son. However, he never forgets a woman he had met during his Vietnam years. Years later, as his treacherous life has driven him to complete solitude, he rediscovers his special love and connections to Vietnam. I don’t want to give the story away but suffice to say that it is a story that could have and may have happened to many. The characters personify the true historical experiences that so many have lived.

I wanted to dig deeper and asked Vera about her own personal story. As we spoke on the phone, I listened intently and scribbled pages and pages of notes. Listening to Vera’s story was like reading a novel. I appreciated her openness. Although she was happy for me to share her story I have respected her request to omit some of the events due to their delicate nature. After listening to Vera’s life experience I have a newfound respect and admiration for her.

The United States supported South Vietnam in their fight against communist North Vietnam. In January of 1973 all parties finally agreed to a cease-fire. The United States pulled its troops out leaving South Vietnam to deal with its fate. Many South Vietnamese refugees chose to leave their country when the US left. But leaving the country would become increasingly difficult especially if you did not have money or connections. Soon after, North Vietnam broke the cease-fire and resumed fighting, continuing its push to the south. South Vietnam, with no military aid from the US, was forced to surrender in 1975. In 1976, the country was officially united and called the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. This caused another exodus of South Vietnamese who chose to leave rather than live under communist regime.

So while I navigated the dramas of middle school and high school, watched The Six Million Dollar Man on television, and listened to Simon & Garfunkel on the radio, Vera was figuring out ways to leave Saigon in 1975. Since her father had been an ‘under cover special agent’ in South Vietnam for the Republic of China for more than two decades, he was blacklisted by the North Vietnamese. Though he had narrowly escaped by boat to the neighboring country of Thailand, Vera’s mother and her siblings were left behind. They were subsequently placed under house arrest for several months. In time, Vera obtained a pass that allowed her to leave communist Vietnam and move to Paris. After having lived through the aftermath of the war and all of its insecurities, Vera understood the importance and need for establishing “security” in her life. She decided it was time to go to America to study engineering. She believed education was the equalizer in society. In 1979, with her unstoppable resolve, Vera moved to LA and began her studies in a community college. In 1981, Vera’s family finally joined her in the United States. She would go on to win a full scholarship to the University of Southern California where she earned a degree in computer engineering in 1984. After graduating from USC, Vera started working for AT&T Bell Laboratories. Soon after, Vera’s path would cross with mine. She and I met in Boston at Harvard Business School in 1988. After graduating from HBS, she would go on to have a very successful career in business. And lucky for us that she would get inspired to write “The Lonely American”.

In writing her book, Vera wanted to express the “things” that are important to her. She wanted to remind people of the horrors of war because as she says, “we have such short memories”. In June of 2014 the UN Refugee Agency reported that the number of refugees, asylum-seekers, and internally displaced people worldwide due to conflicts exceeded 50 million people for the first time since the end of World War II. Pulling a direct quote from her book, “Bullets have no eyes”, Vera wanted to remind us that many of the victims of war are the innocent bystanders. She iterated the importance of our understanding foreign policy because it will undoubtedly impact us one way or another. Towards the end of our telephone conversation, Vera mentioned that she had bore grudges against her own family members, but later recognized the power of forgiving.

I am very impassioned with the topic of mentoring others and serving as a role model. My “rediscovered” friend is a true inspiration for the next generation. She is an inspiration, not just for young women, but also for all young people around the world living in conflict. Vera’s determination proves to us once again that we are the ones that make the choices in our lives that can alter our destiny in a positive way.

I invite you to read “The Lonely American” by Vera Lam, my friend. http://www.amazon.com/The-Lonely-American-Vera-Lam/dp/9573909111/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1410626853&sr=8-2&keywords=the+lonely+american

The UN Refugee Agency Report June 2014 http://www.unhcr.org/53a155bc6.html

For historical background read Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam A History http://www.amazon.com/Vietnam-History-Stanley-Karnow/dp/0140265473/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1415295380&sr=8-1&keywords=stanley+karnows

The Story of the Funeral Home, Coca-Cola, and the Buñuelo

When I look back at my life I have to laugh at some of my quirky memories. One in particular comes to mind. As a child, my parents would send me to Medellin, Colombia every summer to spend it with my relatives. One of the things I would do often during my visits was to spend time at my grandfather’s business. There is where the quirkiness begins. You see the family business was and still is a funeral home. Imagine their dinner conversations. Although today the family business still performs funeral services, it has evolved into a very successful international funeral services insurance company. However, back in the 1960’s it was a modest family business helping to support a very large family.

The year was 1969. The funeral home consisted of industrial garage premises located in downtown Medellin. The front office was completely open to the sidewalk filled with people passing by and the street bustled with circa 1950’s cars and trucks. In the front room there was a desk with a receptionist, a black rotary phone, and a couple of metal chairs. In the backspace there was an office for my grandfather, the laboratory where the bodies were prepared, and what seemed like rooms and rooms of casket storage.

To my relatives, bringing me to visit my grandfather at his “office” was a very natural thing to do. I have no recollection of who would bring me or how we got to the funeral home. What I do remember is that once we arrived I would have a grand ole time. One of the employees would ask me if I wanted a snack and undoubtedly I would always say yes, because the snack du jour was and still is one of my all time favorites. The employee would go to the corner coffee shop and buy me a glass bottle of Coca-Cola (this is pre-aluminum can days) and a freshly deep-fried cheesy batter dough ball about the size of an orange called a buñuelo. Yummylicious!!!!! My mouth waters as I reminisce savoring a hot buñuelo and chasing it down with an ice-cold 1969 Colombian-formulation of Coca-Cola. There was also a method to buñuelo eating. First, I would slowly peel the hot golden crispy outside of the dough ball, and then I would eat the warm moist cheesy inside by carefully tearing small pieces at a time. (Note: Colombian buñuelos are different to Mexican buñuelos. I have included a recipe at the end of the story). I would sit at the front desk and eat my exquisite snack. But the excitement of the afternoon would not end there. At some point I would get up and skip away into the back rooms. I remember seeing the white-tiled sink body prep area. The truth is that I was probably only allowed in there when it was not in use. But where I got the most entertainment from was spending time observing the rows and rows of hand-carved heavily varnished wooden caskets lined with what seemed to me like beautiful padded velvety soft plush fabrics of jewel-toned colors. There were deep blues, royal purples, emerald greens, and burgundy reds. I actually remember saying, “When I die, this is the one I want” with amazing certainty and pointing to a casket with a deep red velvet interior. How crazy was that! So now you realize why it’s a quirky memory. I don’t know of many children aged 8 getting a tour of the back room operations of a funeral home and picking out favorite casket lining colors.

Medellin, Colombia 2006 My children with one of my favorite aunts. Teaching the next generation to enjoy Coca-Cola with Buñuelos!

Medellin, Colombia 2006 My children with one of my favorite aunts. Teaching the next generation to enjoy Coca-Cola with Buñuelos!

As a teen and young adult, and obviously as part of the family, it was only natural that in time I would be exposed to all of the operations of the business. Although I have always felt funny and weird saying, “My grandfather owns a funeral home”, the reality is that the business fulfills an important need. It has also given me a collection of light-hearted childhood memories.  And yes “red” is still my favorite color, and yes I still love to eat freshly made buñuelos and chase them down with an ice-cold Coca-Cola, although it’s Coca-Cola Light now. The family business has also made me acutely aware that my existence on this planet is temporary, so why not try to live the best life I can and eat my buñuelos too!!

For a buñuelo recipe go to:

http://www.mycolombianrecipes.com/bunuelos-colombianos-colombian-bunuelos

 

Series on Multiculturalism, Cross-Cultural Relationships, and Diversity

Part I: My Passion for All Things International

This is the first of a series of three articles on the topic of multiculturalism, cross-cultural relationships, and diversity. In this first posting I share with my readers how and when my interest in this area developed, creating a backdrop for the second article. In the follow-up article I communicate why I feel it is so important and critical to be exposed to multiculturalism, cross-cultural relationships, and diversity. In my last and third article I discuss some of the challenges that we face in this arena, and offer recommendations of steps to take that could increase our exposure to diversity. Keeping in mind that when I refer to diversity in my articles, I am including individuals with all kinds of differences. 

A symbol of Colombian Culture, the open truck called "Chiva" or "Bus de Escalera" used as transportation in rural areas. The buses are beautifully hand painted with colorful images and accents.

1983 – A symbol of Colombian Culture, the open truck called “Chiva” (goat) or “Bus de Escalera” (ladder bus) used as transportation in rural areas. The buses are beautifully hand painted with colorful images and accents.

There are things in this world that inspire our passion and interest. For me, some of those things are multiculturalism, cross-cultural relationships, and diversity. There are various paths that have brought me here. I am a Colombian born immigrant to the United States. This allows me three distinct roles, that of being a Colombian citizen, a Colombian immigrant to the United States, and lastly an American citizen. By moving to the United States I entered into a multicultural environment, I lived in a Colombian home in an American culture. A defining moment in my life, when my interest for all things international was sparked, happened when I joined Mrs. Bouhafa’s 3rd grade class in 1969. I joined her class after the first month of the school year when the powers to be decided I belonged in her class.

Mrs. Bouhafa and her 3rd grade class of 1969-1970

Mrs. Bouhafa and her 3rd grade class of 1969-1970. That’s me, the Girl Scout Brownie on the left hand side.

Mrs. Bouhafa stood in the front of the classroom with me and introduced me to the rest of the class and said something about my Spanish-speaking ability. I had been fully bi-lingual since kindergarten. A boy in the class, Stephen (bottom row 1st boy on left), took me by the hand to the back of the room, to a globe of world, pointed to Spain, and asked me if I was from there. I said no, and rotated the globe back and proudly pointed to Colombia and said, “I am from here”. Stephen smiled. I feel good even today knowing that he and the other children learned about Colombia from me. It would be the beginning of my lifelong mission of trying to share a positive image of Colombia and of Latinos with Americans. Mrs. Bouhafa was a world traveler. She shared her passion for all things international with her students. Her room was filled with pictures of her in various parts of the world, but the picture I remember the most was of her on a camel with the Egyptian Pyramids in the background. Mrs. Bouhafa taught us about world cultures, worldwide geography, and to find beauty in all of it. Little did Mrs. Bouhafa know that she had planted a seed of wanderlust in me, and the desire to see the world.

That's me as a very proud Girl Scout Brownie 1969 waiting to discover the world.

1969 – That’s me as a very proud Girl Scout Brownie  waiting to discover the world.

At first I would not need to travel very far. I lived in New York City where all you had to do was step out of your front door and see people from around the world. When I rode the subway I loved observing the different outfits worn by people, the beautiful colors of the fabrics, the styles, and the hats. In one afternoon you could see Hasidic Jews dressed in black with their payot, Indian women in colorful saris, African women in their long dresses of African print, Cuban men in guayaberas, Muslim women wearing hijabs and abayas, and Sikh men wearing turbans. You could venture into Chinatown and feel you were half way around the world as you walked in wonderment looking at the food markets, smelling all the fish, and seeing all the Chinese character signs. It was also the sixties and there were many changes happening in our society. The Civil Rights and Feminist movements were in full swing. People were protesting the Vietnam War and the Flower Power generation was blooming creating a historical generation gap. My dad’s hobby was to make 8mm home movies and capture the essence of New Yorkers on his films.  On Sundays, our family would go to Greenwich Village in Manhattan to people watch. We have great footage of my mom and I dressed in our 1960’s Sunday church outfits hanging out with “Los hippies”, as my parents called them, while listening to guitar folk music and Hare Krishna chanting. There I stood at age 8, absorbing all of these experiences quietly in my head helping to shape my opinion of the world.

I attended Public School 151 in Woodside, Queens. Our 3rd grade class of 29 children was comprised of mainly white (European ancestry) children, 4 African-American boys and girls, 3 Asian boys, 1 girl from Aruba, and 1 Colombian girl (me). There was some religious diversity. In the month of December we learned Hanukkah songs together with Christmas songs. My first school trip to the United Nations Headquarters in Manhattan was a true highlight. I was amazed with the concept of simultaneous language translation. The idea that someone could be speaking in their native tongue, and that dozens of translators would be translating in their private cubbies, speaking into microphones, which in turn were wired to members of the audience. That people could understand each other even though they spoke in different languages was mind-boggling.

In my other parallel childhood life, I would visit Colombia during the summers. I realize now how privileged I was to be able to have had those experiences. When I went to Colombia I would stay with family in my birth city of Medellin. Sometimes I flew with my parents, and other times they would send me by myself on the airplane. I would spend amazing summers discovering Medellin, its surrounding villages, and the countryside. But it was not all fun and play, my mother who gave me spanish lessons during the school year, would also request that I take spanish lessons during vacations.

The "gringita" niece learns about animals at the "finca"  (the ranch)

1971 – The “gringuita” niece learns about animals at the “finca” (the ranch)

As a young adult I would begin to travel the world. The first big trip that I planned and saved up for was during college. In 1983, I visited a total of 10 cities and villages in the Atlantic coastal, central Andes, and Amazon regions of Colombia.

1983 - On the first adventure that I plan and finance myself. Here I am by the edge of the Amazon river near Leticia, Colombia in the Amazon jungle area of the country.

1983 – Look Mrs. Bouhafa, here I am by the shores of the Amazon river near Leticia, Colombia in the Amazon jungle area of the country.

In 1984 I began working as an engineer in upstate New York. That alone was a cultural change for me, Schenectady was very different to New York City. I continued to travel with work to other states allowing me the opportunity to see the vastness of this nation and the huge regional differences. In 1986, I took my first European trip to the Alps in Switzerland to ski. With each trip I knew I wanted to see and learn even more of the world and its cultures. There was no turning back. I started figuring out ways of traveling, not just for pleasure but also for work.

Look Mrs. Bouhafa, that's me on a train in the Alps!

1986 – Look Mrs. Bouhafa, that’s me on a train in the Alps!

My career in engineering evolved and in time I got an MBA. Business school was transformative for me not just in academic ways but also in my view of the world. Prior to business school I used to think that the United States was the be-all and end-all. Sure, I had a multicultural back ground, but I was close minded in thinking that there was nothing better than the United States. I judged everything through the biased American view. Business school exposed me to international students and business, and broader thinking.

One of my dear friends from business school. We sat next to each other for our 1st year. Since English was his second language I helped him with clarifications during class. This is after business school when I visited him in Tokyo, Japan

1994- One of my dear friends from business school. We sat next to each other for our 1st year. Since English was his second language I helped him with clarifications during class. This is after business school when I visited him and his family in Tokyo, Japan.

I learned about countries not just from a cultural perspective but also from a socioeconomic and geopolitical view. I started understanding the role that the United States played in world politics and in the global economy. I knew then that I wanted to work in international business. In time, I achieved my goal and ended up doing international business and product development that involved traveling around the world, working with cross-functional, and cross-cultural work teams. I was in my element.

I sponsored a meeting for our Middle Eastern organization in Marrakech, Morocco. This was the last evening dinner with our Moroccan entertainers. Circa 1996

1996 – I sponsored a meeting for our Middle Eastern organization in Marrakech, Morocco. This was the last evening dinner with our Moroccan entertainers. 

Although, my own multicultural background and training has given me a heightened sensitivity to appreciating other people’s cultures, it has been with each subsequent trip and cross-cultural encounter that I have gleaned the cultural nuances, learned how to behave abroad, and learned to become a more open-minded person. This exposure to multiculturalism has also developed my sensitivity to understanding people’s differences no matter what kind. I thrive in environments that have diversity and I relish the opportunity of being inclusive and of being included.

Visiting another friend from business school in Tokyo. His wife dressed me in a traditional kimono for dinner.

1994 – Visiting another friend from business school in Tokyo. His wife dressed me in a traditional kimono for dinner.

My business and leisure travel has taken me all over the world. I have been to 5 out of 7 continents, and to 33 countries. I have been to 32 states of the United States. If only I could sit with Mrs. Bouhafa to compare pictures and experiences, and to thank her for sharing her love for all things international with me.

Look Mrs. Bouhafa, one hand camel riding in Dubai. 2001

2001 – Look Mrs. Bouhafa, one hand camel riding in Dubai.

Everyday I continue to learn more and more about diversity and human nature. Although, I count the days until I can get on another airplane to visit some exotic part of the world, I know that I have hundreds of resources and experiences to be discovered right here in my own neighborhood.

Family Trip to Vietnam. Our tour guide teaches us about the food at a market in Hoi An. 2013

2013 – Family Trip to Vietnam. Our tour guide teaches us about the food at a market in Hoi An.

With every connection I make to someone or someplace around the world or even right here in my own backyard, I discover we have more things in common with each other than I realized. When I focus on the similarities it seems to lessen the differences.

In my next posting I share why I feel it is so important to expose ourselves and our children to other cultures. I also make the connection to the importance of exposure to all that is different, be they people of different race, religion, sexual orientation, age, physical abilities, mental health, socioeconomic, genetic attributes, etc.

 

Relishing the trip in the Mekong Delta, outside of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

2013 – Trip to Vietnam. Navigating the Mekong Delta, outside of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. I love this picture my daughter took because if you look at my sunglasses you can see my daughter taking the photo and son and husband further back, all three the apples of my eye!

 

 

Definitions from various sources:

Multiculturalism:

  1. of, relating to, reflecting, or adapted to diverse cultures
  2. relating to communities containing multiple cultures
  3. the preservation of different cultures or cultural identities within a unified society, as a state of nation

Cross-Cultural:

  1. comparing or dealing with two or more different cultures
  2. pertaining to or contrasting two or more cultures or cultural groups.
  3. in sociology, involving or bridging the differences between cultures

Diversity:

  1. the condition of having or being composed of differing elements.
  2. the inclusion of different types of people (as people of different races or cultures in a group or organization.
  3. the term can describe differences in racial or ethnic classifications, age, gender, religion, philosophy, physical abilities, socioeconomic, sexual orientation, gender identity, intelligence, mental health, physical health, genetic attributes, behavior, attractiveness, or other identifying features.
  4. In sociology, the term can be used to describe groups of people whose members have identifiable differences in cultural backgrounds or lifestyles.