By Martin McKinney with Eddie Rosa-Fuentes
The more time I’ve spent in countries like Colombia, the more it is clear to me that I arrive under the tent that someone else has built. To understand this analogy, one need only turn to the story and its history.
I sat with Boris the other day and he told me of how, during the conflict in Colombia, the army would stop cars along the road and remove the occupants and separate them. They would check the identification of all the passengers and some would be allowed to return to the vehicle and others would be arrested. He said that many times, the army would suspect that a certain person was a guerrilla and would kill that person. He said that this was a regular occurrence and inflicted severe psychological damage on the community.
As we departed the town and headed back to Barranquilla the next day, army personnel were stopping vehicles along the road. I could not help but wonder if, even in the aftermath of war, people were being killed in these stops. What we do know is that these stops are continuous visual reminders of government domination, and while they are affecting the stopped person, they also have a lasting effect on those who are simply bystanders.
When I arrived in Colombia, I observed many differences that exist in the visual and environmental understandings that I have learned to expect. There were people everywhere, and they seemed to move non-linearly. There seemed to be no order to the way buildings for commercial and residential use were configured and where they were placed. My every movement was planned by way of taxi or automobile, and this was always preceded with a price negotiation. The public buses were belching pollutant, scorchingly hot, and the driver was likely having a cellular conversation as he bumbled through the mass of traffic. The “Americans” were relishing that they could speak Spanish fluently and perfectly; some looked at me with disdain as I tripped through the conversation. Street food was everywhere with eggs kept on hot shelves and meat butchered on street corners. Music was loud and disruptive and people liked to dance outside until the wee hours. I’ve seen scores of motorcycles, their riders holding babies, as they sped through the streets. There were signs and graffiti drawn across buildings, light poles, streets and overpasses. And immediately upon my arrival, I noted with sadness that I made every effort to avert my gaze from such things.
It is violent to enter into a culture and be unwilling and/or unable to disavow one’s own normative understandings and soak in what is not understood. But this is the tent that was built and left for me.
Mentally I beg my hosts to not see me as part of the culture, with its own issues of government domination and violence, from which I have come. I want them to reason that because I am here with them, and I speak their language, the culture I represent is privatized and packaged away.
If I am honest, I know that’s not true. If it were, I would propel myself into my hosts’ culture by embracing the deep connections that we share. The pain of death, brutality of beatings, and disregard for the hearts of suffering people would bleed from the ground and into my spirit. I would be given food, and I would recognize the ancestral values that bind us together in this food. If I were emotionally connected, I would understand that while learning the language is important for completing my purchases or arriving to my destination, it is not as valuable in allowing my heart to immerse itself in their culture.
And so, I am personally tasked with finding a way to extend the love of people who are not here, and I am tasked with preparing the tent of welcome for those who follow. While I am trying to suppress the fire that resides in me that wants to rebuild their culture to my liking, I am aware that what I have to offer is really insufficient as a replacement. Unfortunately, I will return to the United States and pick up where I left off.
When what I have to offer is separate from the lips, the lives, and the hearts of those with whom I want to commune, I have much work to do. Some might think it war-like to knock down and replace the tent that others left with the best of intentions. I, however, think that a tent that is built with the hands of war can take on a better life. In this way we can, together perhaps, look for a way forward in love.