Going to Colombia is a tremendous ordeal for me. Forget that it is the home of legendary ruthless drug lords, or that it is where a brutal war is being waged between a leftist guerrilla group and a right-wing paramilitary force, or even that it is the country with the highest homicide and kidnapping rates in the world. Although I have not lived there in 25 years, going to Colombia is still “going home,” and that, of course, evokes all sorts of angels and demons.
I’m not sure why I still think of Colombia as home; I’ve lived and worked in New York City since 1986, and I have been making this trip since the age of 15, when I first came to the United States for schooling. The first few years I lived abroad, I went back to Colombia mainly for short family visits. But eventually my personal reasons for returning became entangled with my professional ambitions. In the fall of 1999, Washington, which had always portrayed Colombia as a drug-producing pariah, suddenly became interested in my country. That year, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright referred to Colombia’s situation as a matter of “national security”; a military aid package was put together, and Plan Colombia, as it is known, was born. Colombia today receives the third-largest military aid package from Washington, second only to those of Israel and Egypt. Because U.S. involvement in Colombia has grown, so has the interest for stories. The last time I visited Bogotá—it was last May, the week before the presidential elections—I went as a journalist. This time I’m here on a family visit, for my brother’s wedding on Saturday. These recent visits have made it more difficult for me to separate my American self from my Colombian self, to divide the journalist in me from the daughter and the sister. While I once thought of Colombia as a place of family obligation, I now think of it as a place at war where my family lives. It might be that my journalistic ambitions here are a way I protect myself from where I come from; perhaps they are a way of clarifying and exposing the ugly reality that surrounds and threatens my family.
I could have flown directly to Bogotá, but instead I chose a flight that stopped in Miami because this is the way I’ve always flown home. As I deplane, I inhale a familiar mix of tropical humidity and air conditioning. I’ve been running these terminals for as long as I’ve been doing anything on my own. I walk past the drugstore where, as a child on family vacations, I would spend my last American dollar on Bazooka bubble gum before boarding the plane. There’s also the bathroom where, as a young college student returning to the University of Michigan after Christmas break, I would run to change from summer clothes into heavier winter attire. As I walk through the airport, I remember the time when I planned to meet a boy I liked at the duty-free shop and spend the day hanging out with him instead of taking my connecting flight back to school. And I remember another time, many years ago, waiting for a friend while a young man mopping the floor made comment after rude comment that I ignored. “Look at her,” he said in Spanish. “Pretending she is a gringawith that Latin face of hers.”
On my way to my gate, I stop for a snack at a place called Café Versailles. As I order a pastry filled with guava jam and a cortadito (Cuban for espresso with hot milk), I think that one could argue that American cuisine is influenced by Latin America’s political instability. Though Café Versailles is now a fast-food stand at the Miami airport, it started as a restaurant in Miami *. It was the home away from home to all the Cubans who fled the revolution and missed the taste of ropa vieja (stripped meat) with moros y cristianos (rice and black beans) and mofongo (a plantain purée). Forty years later, Cuban food is as popular as pizza.
Will the next fast-food stand at the Miami airport be Colombian? I’m not sure if Colombia will have its own revolution, but the truth is that the country is in such a state of paralysis and of trauma that people are leaving in droves. It won’t be long before a hard-working entrepreneur sets up in the Miami airport and starts selling, say, arepas, a delicious cornmeal pancake.
My brother is 37 years old and must have thought often about leaving Colombia. With his American education and his impeccable English, he is a perfect candidate. Not only has he chosen not to leave, but on Saturday, he will marry a young Colombian woman and start a Colombian family. As I walk toward my gate, I wonder what my new sister-in-law will be like.
Correction, July 11, 2003: The original version of this piece stated that Café Versailles started as a restaurant in Hialeah, Fla. The landmark Cuban restaurant that operates this stand has always been located at S.W. Eighth Street in Miami and never in Hialeah. [Return to corrected sentence.]