Nobel Peace Prize for Santos, Really?

As a fellow Colombian I felt that I could not stay silent after hearing this past week’s announcement that the Nobel Peace Prize had been given to Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos.

The Nobel Prize Committee’s press release states that Santos deserves this prize for his “resolute efforts to bring the country’s more than 50-year long civil war to an end”. https://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/2016/press.html

The bottom line is that his long effort has resulted in a peace accord that was rejected by the Colombian people in a referendum vote held on October 2nd and peace with the FARC  (Fuerzas Armadas de Liberacion de Colombia – The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) has not been reached. I thought Nobel prizes rewarded true accomplishments like those achieved by the Chemistry and Physics scientists whose work has culminated in major scientific advances. Awarding this Nobel Prize to Santos trivializes it and in many ways makes it appear like the little plastic trophies our children get for mere participation rather than accomplishment.

I suspect that what really happened is that the Nobel Prize Committee got caught with its pants down and had no back up plan. From what most media sources were reporting, it was expected that Colombian citizens would ratify the peace agreement unanimously. Even President Santos was convinced that the peace accord would be approved and had made no formal plans for an alternative strategy. I can imagine the Nobel Prize Committee Communication’s department scrambling at the nth hour to add a paragraph at the end of their press release that would desperately support their decision in light of the October 2nd referendum results. Towards the end of their press release they acknowledge that although peace has not been achieved in Colombia they hope that this prize will inspire Santos to complete his mission. I find the Nobel Prize Committee’s comments trite and patronizing.

Colombia’s citizens have become polarized with a peace process that has dragged on for five years and with its resulting peace accord. Families and friends are divided with regard to how peace should be achieved. The referendum vote was very tight, 49.78 % of the population voting to approve the peace accord, and 50.21% voting against it, with only a 37.43% voter turnout. Many voted against the current peace agreement because it was unconstitutional. In other words in the many concessions agreed upon, the government would have had to set up different judiciary and fiduciary systems to accommodate the FARC’s requirements, ultimately mandating changes to the existing constitution. Furthermore, it was also believed by many of the victims who suffered at the hands of the FARC that there would be no justice for the crimes committed by this terrorist group. In addition, some Colombians believe that Santos is in cahoots with the communists in Havana and that the approval of the current peace plan could only lead Colombia down a path similar to that of Venezuela’s. Then there are the Colombians that voted to support the peace plan. They felt it was a good peace plan. They cried when hearing the results of the referendum vote. It is interesting because recently I mentioned to my dear Nigerian friend that many Colombians felt the proposed peace plan was not adequate enough. She offered a sage comment, “Sometimes we must accept the peace plan even if it is not perfect, forgive, and move on”. She observed this situation through a different set of lenses and offered me a different view. We must never forget how important it is to allow ourselves to listen to different and opposing views.

All Colombians want peace. Colombians are sick and tired of the FARC, they want hostilities to end, they want security restored, they want to put it all of this behind them, and move forward to a new prosperous Colombia. I have always felt Colombia’s potential is enormous if they can get past all of this. A tentative ceasefire holds and the negotiating parties appear willing to continue talks but they must move quickly on this. Santos, Colombia, and the FARC must continue working on a peace agreement that will bring Colombians together and satisfy the majority.

I leave you with a translation of a thoughtful verbal message I received from a high school friend in Colombia. It summarizes in my opinion how other Colombians may be feeling tonight. It shows how polarized family and friends are. To put the message in context, my friend is writing to three of us who live outside of Colombia. She wants to share her views with us. She explains why she has decided to exit “chats” that she belongs to because emotions are running too high and she feels friends are just hurting each other with so many negative comments.

 “… The country is very polarized. I do not censor nor do I judge anyone based on his or her views regarding the peace plan. I try to maintain a position of respect especially towards those people with opposing views to mine. Respect not just towards my immediate friends but to all the leaders involved in this peace process, Santos, Uribe, and Timochenko*.

We are all human beings. We all have our fears and dreams. Inarguably in Colombia we all want peace. We all understand the road to peace in a different way. What I don’t appreciate is all the negative rhetoric on the Internet. Because if we let ourselves be consumed by these messages that make fun of others, make fun of the opposing camp, we are falling into a trap that as a human beings we should not fall into. I am not a supporter of Santos, Uribe, or Timochenko. I don’t identify with any of the political leaders.

 I was going to vote “yes” for the peace plan but the day that I went to vote I voted “no” because I had seen Maduro** sitting at the Peace Accord signing ceremony and I got worried about the future of our country ending up like Venezuela. If I had not seen him at the signing ceremony I would have voted “yes”. My only fear was seeing Colombia become another Venezuela. Of course if the “yes” had won, it does not necessarily imply that we would have become like a Venezuela, it was a probability but not a certainty.

In order to achieve peace in a country, in our homes, or in anything I feel that the most important thing is to lower one’s guard especially in our hearts. We must be kind and respectful to others. We must try to have compassion and empathy so that we don’t get caught up in harmful attitudes, negative attitudes that don’t contribute to anything. I chose to exit various chats where emotions are running high. We end up making others and ourselves feel bad. I was too caught up in the Internet “noise”. I decided to quiet myself. I decided to spend time reflecting on the situation asking God for clarity, generosity, and sanity for all of us. I love you all. Don’t worry about us. This too shall pass. Our group of friends will come together again. I left the group intentionally because I don’t want to ruin friendships that are 45 years old. I hope you are all well. Chao..”

*Juan Manuel Santo: President of Colombia 2010 – present. He won his second term with the promise of bringing peace to Colombia. He has spent 5 years negotiating with the FARC. A peace treaty was signed in September 2016. The peace treaty was rejected in a Colombian referendum vote in October 2016.

Alvaro Uribe: President of Colombia 2002 -2010. Revered by many for using military force against the FARC and effectively diminishing it power while restoring security to the country.

Timochenko, Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri: Took over as head of the FARC in 2011.

** Nicolas Maduro: Venezuela’s President

Below I include some links to help the reader better understand Colombia’s history and the background to this peace process.

  1. This report presents a detailed background to the peace process including history of Colombia, the FARC and other rebel groups. The report also outlines the agreement reached between Colombia’s government and the FARC. The report ends on September 26, 2016 just 6 days before the referendum vote in Colombia. As you read the facts listed for the month in September there is a real sense that the peace agreement would pass with flying colors. Presented also in this report are details of the rejected peace agreement: Rural Reform, Political Participation, Illicit Drugs, Victims, End of Conflict, and Implementation – http://colombiareports.com/colombia-peace-talks-fact-sheet/

 

  1. This article was written on October 3rd, one day after the referendum vote. The article talks about what happened and what needs to be done next. – http://colombiapeace.org

 

Personal Note:

I am willing to accept that when the FARC was formed in the early 60’s, all of Latin America, and for that matter the United States was in need of reform and was going through revolutionary changes. The United States was going through the Civil Rights and Women’s rights movements. Many Latin American countries were fighting dictators and looking for equality for its people. This is the time that Fidel Castro developed his strategy to fight Batista in Cuba. This is the time that Che Guevara, having grown up in an affluent Argentine family, would travel throughout South America to discover the harsh inequalities in society.  Colombia, although a democratic republic, can be viewed as an oligarchy. The few rich rule the poor majority. This is what inspired the FARC to take up arms. Other leftist rebel groups in Colombia did the same. The M-19 was one of those groups who eventually laid down their arms and became a political party. The FARC and the ELN  (Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional – The National Liberation Army) have continued to use violence to try to achieve their goals unsuccessfully. But 52 years later, the goals of the FARC and ELN have gotten obscured. Although the FARC still wants redistribution of wealth and help for the poor rural communities, they do not have the support of Colombian citizens because the FARC commits terrible crimes such as kidnapping, murders, extortion, running the Colombian drug trade, destroying infrastructure, and hurting the economy of the country. The FARC has lost any popularity that they may have enjoyed in the sixties. I used to visit Colombia frequently throughout my childhood and early adult years. In 1997, I visited my relatives in Colombia when I was pregnant with my first child. Insecurity in Colombia got so bad because of the FARC that I would not return to the country for 9 years for fear of having my children kidnapped because they looked foreign. Many Colombian presidents attempted to negotiate peace unsuccessfully with the FARC and other rebel groups. Alvaro Uribe, the president between 2002 -2010 decided to take on the FARC and fought them with military force. He was able to restore security to the country. So it was that in 2006 that I felt it was safe enough to take my children to Colombia for the first time to meet their great grandparents and extended family. We went again in 2008 and 2011. My children really appreciated learning about their cultural background and meeting all their relatives. When Santos came into office in 2010 Colombia started to see a rise in the FARC’s power and a decline in the county’s security  once again. I cannot help but be distrusting of Santo’s peace plan. He has let the country’s security slip. I often ask myself why did the peace talks have to take place in Havana. I have not been back to Colombia since 2011. I also want peace. I want the best for everyone. I want the rural communities to prosper. I want for my friends and family to feel safe. I want everyone to feel they have a future in Colombia. I want for foreign investment to flood the country. I want to bring foreign friends to Colombia to show them what an incredible country it is. I want for the rest of the world to see Colombia for the amazing country that it is.

 

My children meeting their bisabuelita (great grandmother) for the first time in Medellin in 2006.

My children meeting their bisabuelita (great grandmother) for the first time in Medellin in 2006.

 

My children in el Peñol, outside of Medellin. This part of the country had become inaccessible because of the FARC and drug lords for a time period.

My children in el Peñol, a town outside of Medellin. This part of the country had become inaccessible because of the FARC and drug lords for a time period.

 

Celebrating my 50th birthday with my children in Colombia and a handful of cousins.

Celebrating my 50th birthday in 2011 with my children in Colombia and a handful of cousins.

Advertisements

A Special Treat

It does not get better than this…

_DSC2593_new

  • The warm gentle sun of a beautiful summer morning.
  • Good mellow music playing in the background.
  • Delicious coffee made with organic coffee beans from my uncle’s coffee plants on his farm in Guatapé, Colombia; with a touch of half-n-half and a generous amount of sugar because this Colombian likes her coffee sweet.
  • Very crunchy Tuscan bread toast with light whipped cream cheese and fresh in-season sweet figs.
  • A good book “My Brilliant Friend: Neapolitan Novels Book One” and today’s paper.
  • And the company of my two labs exploring the yard and the Swallowtail butterfly exploring my flowers.

IMG_5492_new

Wishing for all of you happy moments like this.

Mariíta

Note: The accent mark on the second “i” separates the two short sounding vowels and is pronounced Mari-ita.

Mariíta was a small, frail, and very poor woman who lived in Medellin, Colombia. Even her name, the diminutive form for the Spanish name Maria, described her smallness. My paternal grandmother had taken Mariíta, her neighbor, under her wing. She would bring her food and keep her company. When my grandmother moved my father and mother took on the responsibility of checking in on Mariíta and helping her out. Mariíta also received help from the local parish priest and neighbors. Government assistance was non-existent.

My parents and I moved to the states in 1964 so in our absence my maternal grandmother took over the job of helping Mariíta together with one my uncles. Whenever we went back to Medellin a visit to see Mariíta was a mandatory stop. Even when I traveled to Colombia by myself, I was required to visit Mariíta with my grandmother. Mariíta had always looked very old to me, about a hundred years old. The reality was that her frailness and suffering made her look much older than she actually was. With each visit I would detect her decline in health and mobility.

My earliest memory of Mariíta and of her very poor existence is from age six when we visited Colombia in 1968. She lived in a modest one-story house typical of colonial houses built in Colombia in the late 1800’s/early 1900’s. These houses were made of brick and covered in stucco, painted on the outside with two colors, a bright color in the lower part and a white wash on the upper section. The front of the house had one wooden double door and one wooden window with bars and interior shutters, no glass. As soon as you entered the house you would be impacted by the smell of damp earth because the floor was uneven compacted dirt, no poured cement or tiles. The house had one room, with a double bed in a corner and a couple of chairs and small tables. The room always felt dark and the only source of light came from a small lamp, since the window’s shutters were generally kept closed. Yes, the house had electricity. There was a door that brought you to the backyard and to the outdoor kitchen. There was a tin roof covering the kitchen area that had a stone sink and a small cupboard space holding a single portable gas-burning stove. Mariíta would light up with joy whenever company arrived. In the earlier years when she was more mobile she would offer us something to drink, generally aguapanela (a hot beverage made with water and brown sugar). She would shuffle to her kitchen, to her gas-burning stove, light it up and heat up the aguapanela. As a child I remember feeling uncomfortable in her home and bit squeamish at the conditions. My parents sensing my hesitation to accept the offer of aguapanela would nudge me and quietly tell me that the polite thing to do was to accept whatever it was she was offering. I remember taking the cream-colored tin cup from her skinny old hands, saying “gracias”, staring at the brownish liquid in the cup and finally building up the courage to take a gulp. Over the years, whether I went with my grandmother or parents I would politely accept the offerings and in time I would get over my discomfort and enjoy her aguapanela and her home.

Scan_new

I never learned much about her. As a child I would just hang out while the adults talked. I would hear conversations about her ailments and suffering but that is all I learned. The last time I saw Mariíta she was bed-bound. She had become even more dependent on the kind souls that would check up on her periodically to help. Eventually Mariíta died.

Yes, Mariíta was a small, frail, and very poor woman. Perhaps we can say that Mariíta was one of the lucky ones with a roof over her head, a bed to sleep in, and the kindness and charity of friends and neighbors. I always wondered who Mariíta was before she became the Mariíta I met. What adjectives would I have used to describe her if her life had been different? What was she like when she was young, as a child, did she run and play? Did she have parents who loved her? How was she as young woman? What did she look like? Did she ever fall in love? Did she know happiness? Did she have a job? How did she end up in this house? What did she eat for meals? Did she have medical care? How did she end up so poor?

Yes, I learned many life lessons during those visits to Mariíta’s that have stayed with me over the years. I also learned about the frailty of the human existence and the need to nurture it through compassion.

Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive.

– Dalai Lama

 

May you always have compassion and love in your hearts.

 

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/

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, Diversity, and Cross-Cultural Relationships

Part II

The Importance of Exposure to Multiculturalism and Diversity

This is the second of my three-part series on multiculturalism, diversity, and cross-cultural relationships. In my first article: https://thelabyrinthguide.wordpress.com/2014/04/18/series-on-multiculturalism-cross-cultural-relationships-and-diversity/, I shared with my readers how and when I became impassioned with this topic. In this follow-up posting, I elaborate on the importance of exposure to multiculturalism and diversity. My definition of diversity includes people with all types of differences: race, religion, philosophy, age, gender, sexual orientation, physical health, mental health, socioeconomic, intelligence, genetic attributes, etc.

Exposure to multiculturalism and diversity helps us expand our awareness and knowledge. As we build our awareness of other people’s differences we learn to understand them and in turn we develop tolerance, acceptance, trust, and compassion, which can lead to cooperation and collaboration. And how much easier would it be to live on this planet, to work together to solve its problems, if we operated under this premise. But I know this sounds very utopian, and perhaps rather than try to solve the world’s problems, I can focus on my little part of the universe and help influence those around me in a positive way. I behave a certain way, because I know that my children are watching and emulating my every move. I want them to grow up without unfounded prejudices and fears.

Celebrating my birthday in London with wonderful friends from around the world. From left to right: Colombian-American, Mexican, Palestinian, Turkish, Venezuelan, and Canadian.

2012 – Celebrating my birthday in London with wonderful friends from around the world. From left to right: Colombian-American, Mexican, Palestinian, Turkish, Venezuelan, and Canadian.

It is human nature to gravitate to known and comfortable environments. And it is also human nature to be weary of those and of things that are unknown. In the absence of true knowledge we allow fear and ignorance to form our misguided judgments.

I grew up as a Colombian immigrant in Queens, New York in the 60’s. At the time the Latinos in New York City were made up of mostly Dominicans, Cubans, and Puerto Ricans. Even among the existing Latino groups there was dislike and mistrust. My parents and I moved to an apartment building in Woodside, Queens. We were the only Hispanic family in our building. For several months after we moved in, my parents greeted our next-door neighbors, a white Jewish elderly couple, and for months they ignored my parent’s polite salutations. My parents were patient and knew from prior experience that in time the couple would come around, and they did. Somehow their comfort level grew as they got to know us and they became friendly with us. It makes me happy to think that we helped influence their viewpoint in a positive way. My other memory of a neighbor was of the Marshall family, one of the few African-American families in our building. Mrs. Marshall was working a full-time job, was raising a family, had lost a son in the Vietnam War, and on top of all of that, she was the dedicated Girl Scout leader of my troop. I always admired her commitment to the community and am grateful that she served as a role model to me inspiring me to become a Girl Scout leader to my own daughter.

Marching proudly in the 4th of July parade in Westport, CT with my Girl Scout Troop.

2005 – Marching proudly with my Girl Scout Brownie troop in the 4th of July parade in Westport, CT.

Growing up as a Latina in New York was not a great thing. Not because I was directly mistreated but because there was a prevailing attitude that Hispanics and Hispanic culture was sub par. As a child I looked for ways of blending in and forgetting my ethnicity. I suppose this is what thousands of immigrant children had done before me and continue to do to this day. Immigrant groups that arrived before us staked a claim and defined what they believe is the “right way” of being American, and all of the newly arrived immigrants try desperately to fit in by giving up their uniqueness. It is sadly contradictory that some of the people of this country, a nation founded on freedoms and religious tolerance, punish those for being different. I was incensed recently with the reaction by the general public when Ms. New York, the first Indian-American woman to win the title of Ms. America 2014 received vile feedback in the news and social media. Ugly comments were made accusing her of not being “American” enough, and of not representing “American” values. Wow, that today in 2014 we can still have such biased views and prejudices saddens me.

In 1974, my parents decided to return to Colombia because that was their plan all along. Little did they know that our going back to Colombia would be the greatest gift they would ever give me. I had come to the United States at age two and now at 13 we were returning to my birth country. The USA was my home but I was equally accepting of the idea of moving back to Colombia where I had spent most of my childhood summers. I would become immersed in the culture, learn the history, travel the country, study the language, and develop an appreciation for being Colombian. This experience also heightened my sensitivity to the appreciation of other cultures.

My daughter smiling in the African dress I sewed her for a pre-school international event.

2003 – Westport, CT My daughter smiling in the African dress I sewed her for a pre-school international event. The shoes are Colombian “alpargatas”, a type of espadrille shoe.

As much as we enjoyed living in Colombia I had my sights on going to university in the states and so we returned in 1978. Living in Colombia had raised my self-confidence and solidified my identity. Upon my return to the USA I no longer felt like a minority. That is until my senior year of college when I went from not feeling like a minority to being labeled a “double minority”. That was a huge surprise and I envisioned a giant rubber stamp coming down on my forehead.  I was a soon-to-graduate engineer who was a “woman” and a “Latina”. I became highly coveted by the recruiting companies because I could fill two of their minority recruiting quotas. The reality was that I was back in the United States where labeling seemed and continues to be, unfortunately, a very important part of this culture.

In my first article, I mentioned how I have three distinct roles. I am a Colombian citizen, a Colombian immigrant to the United States, and a US citizen. In the first role, I did not and do not need to prove anything to anyone. However, in my role as a Colombian immigrant and naturalized US citizen I have always felt it necessary to show other Americans a positive image of Colombia and of Latinos, while dispelling some of the misconceptions they have of our ethnic group. I will take this opportunity to say that there is a subset of American society that is open-minded and have an appreciation for diversity. I also have to point out that prejudices can also exist within a minority group.

Celebrating a birthday in Annapolis, MD with two American friends.

2013 – Celebrating another birthday in Annapolis, MD with two wonderful American friends.

My husband, a white American of European decent, and I have raised our children in a multicultural environment. Together we made the decision that I would speak Spanish and he would speak English to the children. As a family we have lived in Belgium, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and England. Every location has offered us varying experiences. Moving has taught us resilience and adaptability. Living abroad has taught us to see things from a different point of view. We have lived in small towns and in big cities. We have lived in very diverse and in very homogenous locations.

2002 - My son on the left in yet another costume I made, representing lightning. He is standing next to his Sikh buddy. His mother would share concerns over whether or not to cut his hair for kindergarten. In Sikhism, Kesh is the practiceof allowing their hair to grow as a  symbol of respect for the perfection of God's creation.

2002 – My son on the left dressed as “lightning”. I certainly kept busy making costumes. He is standing next to his Sikh buddy. His mother would share concerns over whether or not to cut his hair for kindergarten. In Sikhism, Kesh is the practice of allowing their hair to grow as a symbol of respect for the perfection of God’s creation. She was worried about her son being teased as he got older.

I have come to the conclusion that people from very homogenous towns or groups are at risk of becoming insular and close-minded. These folks have had limited exposure to people who are different perhaps by their own choosing or just by chance. When suddenly faced with a person or group who may not conform to their value system, they allow fear and ignorance to form their misguided judgments. Some can exhibit behaviors such as apathy, unfriendliness, anger, discrimination, segregation, bullying, mistreatment, or even violence. These behaviors are then passed on to their children and the negative behaviors and misconceptions are perpetuated. However, not all people from a homogenous group will react negatively. Some will allow themselves the opportunity to get to know the “stranger” much like the elderly couple did towards us, and eventually welcome them into the community. It is nice to know that human decency and goodness can prevail.

In 2011 we had the opportunity to move to London with our teen-aged children. We spent two years living in one of the most diverse cities of the world. I am so grateful that we were able to expose our family to so many ethnic, racial, religious, and socioeconomic groups. When you live among people of different backgrounds or attributes you develop a comfort level with them that allows you to be open-minded. This better prepares you to interact with each other and offers a basis for cooperation and collaboration. It prepares you to live in the global community and to work in a diverse environment. I also feel that living in London gave my children an appreciation for their own multi-cultural background.

2011 - London Exploring our new home.

2011 – London Exploring our new home.

We are now in suburban USA. There is still so much to improve and accomplish in the arena of diversity. In the fall, I was at an orientation at my children’s school and I could not help but notice that there were three distinct groups of people. There was a large group of mostly white families with a smattering of some ethnic families mingling with them, there was a small group of African-American families, and then there were the assorted loners. I wondered to myself why each group was keeping to themselves fully knowing the answer to my own question. Everyone was choosing to stay in his or her own comfort zone. This self-selected segregation bothered me so I chose to walk over to the group of African American parents to introduce myself. Some of you may argue that self-selected segregation is acceptable, but I will counter that with, self-selected segregation is a defense mechanism, that although shields us temporarily, it prevents us from pushing ourselves outside of our comfort zone to reach our fullest potential.

The United States is not the only country dealing with diversity issues. The challenges exist worldwide. Italy appointed its first black female cabinet member, Cecile Kyenge in April of this year. What was seen as a positive step in racial integration has publicly highlighted the ugly face of the prejudices that exist in Italy as Mrs. Kyenge endures countless racial abuse. Many other countries have experience similar challenges with assimilation of ethnic groups such as France, Germany, Britain, Sweden, and Finland. Colombia and many other Latin American countries are guilty of marginalizing their own native and black minority groups. Other nations struggle with uniting internal religious and ethnic groups. No location is immune to this problem.

I have been through my own journey. I too am guilty of passing incorrect judgment. I have come to the realization that prejudices come in all shapes and sizes, and sometimes can be almost imperceptible. We all have a value system that we learned at home. There are moments in our lives that we come to crossroads where our existing value system is challenged. If we recognize these junctures as learning opportunities then we can begin to make changes that allow us to become better human beings.

In the end, the hallmark of a good relationship is when all parties involved are made to feel good in that relationship. And how do we do this?  By taking the steps necessary to learn about the other person. As we build our awareness of other people’s differences we learn to understand them and in turn we develop tolerance, acceptance, trust, and compassion, which can ultimately lead to cooperation and collaboration.

Slide1I do a reality check and bring myself back to my little corner of the universe, back to my original goal, to behave in a way that teaches my children to be open-minded and not develop unfounded prejudices and fears.

In my last and third article I share my call to action with you, steps you can take to further your exposure to multiculturalism and diversity.

For now I leave you with the following:

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
― Maya Angelou

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.