I’ve always considered myself both Colombian and American. As a first-generation Colombian-American whose parents migrated to the United States as adults, I was born and raised here in the U.S., albeit with a merge of two distinct and, at times conflicting, cultures. In my younger years, I spent a few summers in Colombia, savoring the mecato and delighting in the mountain-rich landscape, a landscape that South Florida lacks (although in lacking mountains, I am by no means depleting South Florida of its own picturesque and unique landscape). The memories that remain from those summer months stick to me like the South Florida sand I seldom visit, and I am in no rush to wash them off.
My nostalgic attachment to all that is Colombian comes courtesy of my parents and the displaced version of Colombian foods and rituals I grew up with. Since I have memory, my mother has filled the kitchen space every Christmas Eve – and sometimes, if she felt up to it and upon my request, my birthday – making buñuelos. For those who are Colombian, the simple mention of this traditional treat is enough to make the driest mouths overflow with longing. For those who are not, let me be brief: buñuelos are fried, cheese-dough balls that are best consumed immediately upon frying. This past year, my second as a new mother, I learned my mother’s recipe for buñuelos: 1 cup buñuelo flour mix (“and it has to be the Buñuelina brand – any other brand is no good”), 2 cups cheese (“make sure it has el venado printed on the front”), and 2 small eggs. Mix the dough, by hand, until the consistency is just perfect – not too sticky and not too dry. Once the dough is rolled into little balls, they’re ready to be fried. Turn on the fryer and watch them roll and brown. Then they’re done. No time limit, no specific guidelines and oh, I have to use a coffee mug, not a measuring cup.
“Mami, there are directions here on the box; I was going to follow those.”
“No! Those directions aren’t good. No quedan como los mios.”
So if I wanted to have my mom’s buñuelos, which I have to admit are smaller and tastier than those I have bought at Colombian bakeries here in South Florida, I had to follow her directions pié a pié.
Buñuelos are not the only Colombian food that fills me with a pining for mi tierra. The Colombian empanadas, pan de bono and frunas are among my most desired edible treasures. My husband and I have an ongoing battle as to whose country has the best empanadas, Colombia or Chile. Mind you, we’re both American-born and raised, and technically, my husband’s background consists of a German mother and a Chilean father. In battling these two specific countries’ empanadas we are subtly excluding all other competitors, something which is quite laughable in retrospect. I stand firm that Colombian empanadas are better, although they are not the healthiest option since they, too, are fried. But the rich, corn masa that is used for the outside and the inside filling of ground beef, potatoes, and spices simply beat out the larger, baked Chilean empanadas that contain too many onions for my taste. But that is all in jest. We both know the favoritism comes from our upbringing. We long for that which was of our youth and that reminds us of times, and people, past.
As for rituals, Colombians tend to be very festive people. While that may not have been true for my father who, although Colombian, barely celebrated birthdays, my mother’s family relishes in celebrations. With a total of eleven children – of whom my mother is the eldest – and countless grandchildren and great-grandchildren – I’ve lost count on those two areas – family gatherings have always been an important part of our family life. Today, though, it is a more challenging task to gather the entire family together; the family, and the distance between us, has become larger.
While growing up, some of the most important holidays for our family were the year-end celebrations of Thanksgiving, Noche Buena and New Year’s Eve. Most of the celebrations followed consistent patterns with a few deviations. They all consisted of gathering as many family members (and even friends) as possible and squeezing them into the living room of a townhouse or apartment, whose small living space had been depleted of furniture (stored in whatever room it would fit in) and stacked with plastic chair upon plastic chair. Most of the time we had a pot luck, with every aunt or family bringing a hand-made dish; the colorful plates on the table would represent not only Colombia but the influx of cultures that surrounded us in South Florida. These included carne asada, pork, or turkey seasoned with some mojito, sans the stuffing but with gravy; sweet potato and marshmallow “pie” – without a crust; corn casserole; black beans and rice; buñuelos; and for dessert, natilla, arroz con leche, or flan. Sometimes, one of my aunts would make a Jell-o-and-condensed-milk dessert which, for me, was much better than any of the other desserts.
We would wait until most of the guests arrived and then we would eat, balancing cheap, paper plates on our knees, praying for a mess-free meal that hardly happened. The children would run and scream in between the adults, and the teenagers would sulk in the corner or on the doorstep, wishing to be anywhere else with their friends. The adults would sit around in the chairs piled neatly against the walls and the chatter would be nostalgic reminiscences of times past- who married whom, who died, who had left, who was now working for so-and-so, and who had migrated to another country. They would laugh and cry and say, like Alan Jackson’s song, “Remember when…” Then, I was one of the teenagers, sipping aguardiente behind my mother’s back (because my father never went to these events – he always stayed home) and thinking about the other things I could be doing that did not involve being there.
For Thanksgiving, we would pray before we ate, but not a single, simple prayer uttered by the patriarch or matriarch of the family. Instead, we would form a circle, holding hands, and one-by-one we would declare what we were thankful for. Most of us despised being put on the spotlight, but we truly reaped the bonding benefits it provided. The prayers were usually interrupted by the clearing of throats, the sniffling, and the wiping of tears that was guaranteed each Thanksgiving.
On Noche Buena, otherwise known as Christmas Eve, we would all stay up until midnight, when we would open the family gifts. The time, from our arrival to the opening of gifts, was spent dancing to cumbias and vallenatos and catching up from Thanksgiving. Usually, my grandfather would dance with every daughter and sometimes, even with every granddaughter present. We would also pray the novena, a series of prayers and songs that begin nine days before Christmas and end on Christmas Eve with the birth of el Niño Dios. We didn’t have Santa Claus, we had el Niño Dios, or Baby Jesus, who gave us our presents and made the family gatherings possible.
New Year’s Eve boasted more drinking and dancing, and we incorporated el Año Viejo into a makeshift, straw doll that would be burned at midnight. In recent years, we’ve changed that somewhat to make it safer and less of a fire hazard, and instead have a balloon-filled doll that the children enjoy popping at midnight. About fifteen minutes to midnight, we would turn on the TV and watch the drop of the ball in Times Square. As we watched, my aunts would distribute champagne and small, cellophane bags filled with twelve grapes, and some would bring their luggage by the door. As soon as midnight hit, and after we all kissed and hugged and spilled champagne, they would go outside with the luggage bags and walk circles around the block. That was so they could travel much in the new year.
That is when I was Colombian.
However, as I enter now into my thirties, I have to entertain the notion that I am really half-Colombian. It is almost like an identity crisis; I am not the Colombian girl I thought I was. Sure, I speak Spanish a lo paisa, I enjoy buñuelos for Christmas, and I can dance vallenatos and cumbias, but in Colombia, I am a gringa, an extranjera, a daughter-of-Colombians. When I spent my summers there, they would say, “Ay, look at the gringita!” because I was from the United States and spoke English without an accent. Perhaps if I had had an accent, then I would have been considered Colombian there. Today, whenever someone asks, I still say I am Colombian, but then I have to quickly clarify – when asked “de que parte?” – that I was born in New York to Colombian parents. I wasn’t born in Colombia, so how could I claim it as a nationality?
I am half-Colombian.
The same could be said about being half-American, although I guess if you really want to get down to the basics, I would be three-fourths American and one-fourth Colombian. After all, I don’t like natilla or sancochos, and I am not that fond of sporting the yellow-blue-and-red bracelets and bands to sport my nationality because, in essence, I’d have to sport that and a red-white-and-blue one as well. I love to visit my parents’ land, and my father’s family, and I become nostalgic for the romantic notion of Colombia and Colombians, but I am very much an American, a gringa. Yet even though I am legally an American, I am not really “American” here; I’m a Latina or a Hispanic because of my Colombian roots. American-born but not really American, whatever that means. It delves into the whole question of identity and nationality in a nation that is made up of immigrants. I wonder if it’s the same for Italian-Americans or Irish-Americans or any of the other hyphenated cultures that embrace both the culture in which they were born and the culture of their parents. And I wonder, how many generations does it take to erase the connection to one’s roots?
I have noticed that the older I get, the more American and less Colombian I seem to become. This particular dilemma is not made easier by my husband who is not Colombian, but German-Chilean-American. The celebrations we do in our home now consist of a blend of all our cultures, although they appear to be mainly American celebrations with certain German, Chilean, or Colombian twists. The half-American part of me enjoys these gatherings and barbeques, and looks forward to the reunions. After all, time spent with family is priceless no matter the cultural background. We’re simply making our own traditions with our cultural fondue.
The half-Colombian part of me is saddened because I still live in the memories of Colombia and I want my son to grow up with that, only I have to concede that he is second generation American, born to a Colombian-American mother and a German-Chilean-American father. He will know the fragments of Colombian-German-Chilean culture that my husband and I have brought with us. He will not experience a road trip from Medellín to San Agustín when he is nine, like I did, but perhaps he will hear our stories like I heard the stories of my mother and her siblings growing up in Colombia.
But there are times when I feel almost Colombian again. Recently, my mother’s family got together to celebrate a birthday since most of the family was there – seven of the eight women and three men that make up my mother’s siblings (as an only child, I treasured having such a large, extended family). In addition to my mother and aunts, the house was decorated with cousins ranging from the mid-thirties to the pre-teens, our grandfather – the patriarch of the family – and other in-law family members. As in most of our recent celebrations, the men took out their guitars, passed out miscellaneous musical instruments to those willing participants, and the voyage into a musical past began. The songs were mostly those that they grew up listening to although a few current ones made their way into the repertoire, such as “Camisa Negra” and “Esta Vida.” As in my memories, my grandfather danced a cumbia with each of his daughters and one of my aunts video-taped the celebration; my grandmother, deceased almost two years, graced us with her spirit.
When I was younger, such celebrations were many times met with crafty resistance on my part. Today, though, I miss them. The responsibilities of adulthood and the change that comes naturally with time prevent me from being part of those celebrations as much. Now, most of my family lives a good two hours away that, while not too far for some, prevents family-hopping during holidays. So the times when everyone comes down here to celebrate, I immerse myself in the memory-made-real.
And it leaves me feeling almost Colombian, at least while I am there. Once I am back in my car, going back to my Colombian-German-Chilean-American home, I lose some of the “Colombianness” and become half-Colombian again.