Jul 4, 2011
When most Americans think about stereotypes of people from Medellin, they automatically associate them with drug dealers and Pablo Escobar. However, paisas are stereotyped in their own country for a very different reason. Medellin was founded in 1616, by what historians believe were mostly Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. Although only around 4,000 Jews live in Medellin today, common Jewish stereotypes played a major role in the process of stereotyping paisas, whom are sometimes referred to as the Jews of Colombia. An extremely famous food here is known as a chicharron, or fried pigskin. This snack gained in popularity years ago because paisas began to eat them in order to prove they were not Jewish. Additionally, in the past, it was said that paisas were extremely business conscious, which is obviously connected to the famous Jewish stereotype of being cheap. There is a famous Colombian saying that claims “if a flood would come, a paisa would charge you a fee to cross the bridge to safety.” Although it is not as clearly connected, I believe that the paisas’ renowned hospitality is similar to that of Jews. Traditionally, Jews have been extremely gracious hosts to travelers, especially international ones. Being Jewish and having lived in Israel for 9 months, I find it difficult for me to not make connections between the hospitality I have experienced here in Medellin and that which I encountered in Israel.
The first time I hung out informally with my compañero, Daniel, he asked me what I thought of him before we met. I said that the photo he submitted for the compañero program was scary looking (because he wasn’t smiling and he had a sinister looking beard and was wearing dark clothes), but that after talking to him online and via skype (which we did a few times before I arrived in Colombia), I realized he was very outgoing and amicable. And now that I was spending more time with him I realized how welcoming and easy to talk to he was, and we have had a lot of fun together. But when I asked him the same question, of what he thought about me before he met me, his answer was also less than favorable. He said that he thought we would be enemies because there is a perception of American girls here: that is that they are stuck up, are focused only on themselves and their work, are too serious, and don’t like to go out and have fun with the locals. He feared I wouldn’t be friendly and that I would look down on Colombians as an inferior class, because that is also stereotype of Americans- that they think they are better than the rest of the world. And to some extent I don’t disagree with his assumptions. It has become very clear to me how cold American society is in comparison to the culture in Medellín.
Dan and I talked about this at length- how in America I feel it takes a lot of effort to be considered friends with someone. When you meet a new person in the US, there is a “getting to know you process” that takes time and effort before the new person is considered more than a casual acquaintance, but rather an actual trusted friend. It is very hard for “the new kid” in America to establish a network or group of friends (and even harder to break into an existing group), and there is usually several months in school before the new person is accepted and considered part of the school and not an outsider. Being unknown carries a stigma in the US that is hard to overcome and often Americans keep their distance from people who they perceive as different from them, instead of being excited by the chance to learn about a different way of life. I think this is especially true when a stranger has difficulty speaking English. When confronted with someone with a heavy accent and a limited vocabulary, most Americans dismiss that person as ignorant, and are impatient with their inability to communicate. It is something I am now ashamed of, because my experience here in Medellín could not be further from my experience as “the new girl” in middle school, when I transferred from private to public school.
Here in Colombia, when I met new people, I was immediately their friend, no questions asked. The Colombians were excited to take me out, show me the city, introduce me to their friends, and help me with linguistic challenges. There was no period where I was in “purgatory” and seen as a foreigner. I was inserted into the friend group of my compañeros, and since the moment I met them, they have included me in their plans and taught me about their wonderful city. I feel so lucky that the youth here are such kind and fun-loving people! And I also feel guilty for not being the same to foreigners back home.
At Duke this past year, there was a girl doing her semester abroad in the US who joined club lacrosse to meet new friends. She was from Sweden and her English was pretty good, but not perfect, and while I saw her at practice and games, it never even occurred to me to invite her out at night with my friends, or include her in my social plans. And not until this trip did I ever think twice about that situation. It is a cultural difference that I wish didn’t exist, but I am grateful that while I am on the “gringa” side, there is no animosity, nor indifference, towards me.
One of the best parts about this experience thus far has been the relationships that I have established with the compañeros (buddies) from the Universidad Nacional. While we all were assigned specific friends, the group has definitely meshed together and organic relationships have formed. I had a pretty interesting conversation with one of the compañeros who was not assigned to me, Daniel Schaefer. It truly opened my eyes to cultural differences and perceptions. Daniel stated that when he first saw his assigned Duke student, he immediately thought they would be enemies. Little did he know that when he got to know his compañera, they would become the best of friends. Dan thought that all Americans were ignorant, close-minded and not respectful or receptive of other people and cultures. He also thought that American women were consumed by materialistic possessions and that American men used their money to attain anything that they want. He expressed that his perceptions of Americans had been transformed in the short time that we had been in Colombia. I was happy to share with him that the sentiment has been mutual. My initial views of a drug and violence-ridden country have been erased and I now know how much the transforming city of Medellín has to offer. I'm extremely excited to continue listening, learning, and loving the city of Medellín.
Lydia Rose: What Robin Said
We met another US citizen, Robin, a three-year resident of Medellín. He says he has been following our Duke Engage project, but seems to think that our program is just pushing the existing stereotype. People are already all over the poverty circuit with documentaries, he claims. People already know that Medellín has its rough parts, its violence.
Robin puts out an English language magazine about Medellín that talks up the latest bars, the fashion shows, the things to do and places to be. It looks like your average flashy, fun contemporary city in the photos, a version of Medellín so cropped and photoshopped as to be barely recognizable.
I can appreciate now, having heard Robin’s point of view, how our DukeEngage in Medellín program could be seen as a mere extension of tourism, filming for a few weeks and then taking off, perhaps forever. What good does that do? he implies.
But that’s not what we are doing, really. This program is bigger, as Tam explained, than us, the individual filmmakers. We are part of a huge, overarching organization of people who are working to show Medellín as it is, transformation and social initiatives, but also displaced people, poverty, and violence.
So, while our films may be less flashy and bright than Robin’s magazine or the city’s public relation’s campaigns, we’re still capturing an as yet unshown, unknown truth. I guess we are both working to overcome the stereotype of Medellín in our own way, adding new information to tales that have grown stale and false over time. To each his (or her) own.
After I finally arrived to my host-family’s house in Carlos E. Restrepo from a long day of travel, my host-mom called me a name I’ll never forget. We were all sitting at the dinner table, drinking Coco-Cola (that, I swear, tasted exactly like Pepsi), playing cards, and getting to know one another. I explained that I was half-Colombian, and my host-mom, Margarita Maria, said, “Eres colombamericana.” I laughed out loud, finally hearing a word that perfectly described my ethnicity. Throughout my life, I’ve always had to give a long description about my origins; people either assuming I was white or just funky looking. Nobody thought I was out of the ordinary. During middle school and high school, I didn’t want to be out of the ordinary. But deep down inside, I think all of us desire to be “oh”ed and “ah”ed at.
Then the other day, a security guard outside of the mayor’s old house we were visiting went around asking if we were all from the Unites States. When he came to me, he said, “But you’re from here, right?” I laughed and said, “No, I’m from the U.S. too.” So now its like I blend in while in two different countries. Being a bi-racial person allows for ambiguousness world-wide, and it can be both boring and pleasant at the same time. No, I won’t be hooted and hollered at because I have blonde hair, but all the locals expect me to speak perfect Spanish. So the minute they recognize my accent, the “what-seemed-to-be” Colombian girl façade is shattered. I am Colombian and I am Caucasian. It’s just hard because a lot of people expect you to pick one.
Coming to my other home country has been rejuvenating, though. I’m meeting people that I already knew I’d love, like my host family, and all of our companeros. I had no doubt beforehand that they wouldn’t be kind people, let alone loving people. I grew up around people like this. But because of my parent’s divorce, and a lot of screwed-up things, I didn’t get to see my Colombian side of the family for a long time. And there was a lot of awkwardness and weirdness between us all because I wasn’t going over to my father’s anymore. Everybody wanted to move on, and thought I would to. But I couldn’t. I always blamed it on the cultural difference, the language difference, everything. Lost in translation.
But everything seems easier now. The fact that I came here, on this trip, has allowed me to become closer with my Colombian grandparents again. We skyped yesterday, and I talked to them, for the first time, in complete Spanish. It’s funny that it took all this time for me to communicate with them finally.
Even more, my father began reading my blog and started emailing me. It was really jarring at first, but then I realized that it takes time to heal and forgive. And now that I’m learning about where he came from and possibly why he is the way he is, I can now reply to his emails. He’s happy I’m here and everything seems at peace here and back at home. Through a long journey of trying to understand myself through stereotypes, I’m slowly understanding who I am and where I come from.
Rubia, mono, ojos azules, these are all characteristics that apparently identify una gringa, a US American. I am none of them. My hair is brown, eyes are brown and even my skin is a lighter shade of brown. Growing up in North Carolina, my family was one of the first Latino families in our apartment complex and sometimes it felt like we were the only ones in Durham. My name would routinely get butchered during attendance at school, but as years passed more Latino families moved in and difficult names became the norm. I always knew I was different from my white friends, but it did not hit me until my freshman year of high school. It was then that people started making crude jokes asking if my parents jumped the fence or if I was an illegal immigrant. I love my heritage and my family is everything to me, but I took these jokes very personally and at one point wanted to reject my Latino roots. I am now extremely proud of my heritage, thanks to my huge supportive extended family in México and Costa Rica, and I will do anything to prove the stereotypical jokes wrong. Here in Medellín, Colombia there are many stereotypes as to what a US American should look like, I am none of them. I very much consider myself a US American but for once I am glad that I fit in here. My host family was surprised that I was not a ‘typical US American’, but honestly, who is?
I confuse some Colombians. I have brown skin, but my face doesn’t have Latina features. I say I’m from the United States, but I don’t have blonde hair. I let them know that my parents are from India, and I’ve already had three different people respond by asking me if I’ve seen Slumdog Millionaire. Medellín has very little to no contact with Indian culture, and I realized that this is the first time I’ve been in a place where people actually have few preconceived notions about me just by my looks. I wonder if they know that, in the States, I’m instantly predicted to be pre-med, to like spicy food, and to have parents that run a motel or 7-11. Now that Colombians have watched Jamal running through Bombay slums on the screen, their limited conception of India is probably scarred with images of extreme poverty. This upsets me because I want Colombians to know more about the beautiful sides of Indian culture, which is one of the two cultures that help to shape me. But I recognize that this is the same manner in which we are treating Medellín in the U.S. Movies like Maria Full of Grace and Colombiana, or TV shows such as Entourage give us a side of Medellín that only includes Pablo Escobar, guerilla warfare, drugs, and violence. In the same way that I am teaching my friends and family here in Medellín about Indian culture, I hope that we can use the stories we hear here to expose people back at home to the many other wonderful faces of Medellín.
Stephanie: The Irony of Stereotypes in Juvenile Detention Centers
Incarcerated, stripped of privacy, violent outbreaks—this is how I pictured a Juvenile Detention Center to be. In Medellín, however, this is not the case. Because of stereotypes and my preconceived notions of violence, brutality, and thousands of hungry children begging for money on the streets, my initial perceptions when arriving to the Carlos Lleras Estrepo Juvenile Detention Center were quickly reverted. In the United States, the treatment of inmates, including the youth is so brutal; they are seen as less than human. Many would say that the “street children” in Colombia were involved in brutal crimes, therefore the best treatment would be to treat them without respect or concern for their well-being, but we have to take into account that these adolescents are human beings. This is exactly what the Carlos Lleras Estrepo Juvenile Detention Center takes into account—the well-being and respect of all of the youth. This methodology, although strange to many, because of the violent stereotypes, was beautiful. I know, you are probably wondering how can a juvenile center’s disciplinary regimen be beautiful? I found that the relationship made between the director, receiving hugs as every child and young adult walked by, the daily evaluation sessions, and the respect that each adolescent had for the director and the center’s personnel were astounding. I would even say that these adolescent children had better manners that those of the United States. The young man who was about to complete the program spoke to us about his experience there. He spoke with such conviction and began to cry when he expressed gratitude to the director for his help in turning his life around. I was filled with emotions that were undeniable; as we left in the van, a tear ran down my face, but I tried to wipe it away as quickly as I could because in America, crying is seen as a sign of weakness. I believe, however, that the tears I shed and the tears shed by the young man represent a sign of strength; the ability to express an acceptance and understanding of something new, of something incredibly life changing. My tear was an acceptance of a new stereotype—one of respect and change, not violence.