Deborah Bethea is a Community Economic Development (CED) volunteer serving in a pueblo in Atlántico, Colombia.
Every day in my site, I am reminded of what makes me different. My race is brought into almost every conversation. Whether overtly or subtly, I am reminded that my skin is darker and also given the impression that this dark skin denotes my tendencies and my capabilities. As an African American woman with a beautiful, deep brown complexion, it is obvious that I am no stranger to prejudice. I believe the shock I feel towards my current situation stems from my expectation to find commonality with my fellow people of color.
Having been in Atlántico, Colombia for almost five months now, I feel relatively comfortable discussing the trends I’ve experienced with a variety of residents here. From catcalls on the street to unsolicited advice on my appearance, I have come across so much in these first few months that it has altered my world view. Media representation of Americans across the world often inaccurately portrays our lives, and I believe this, plus Colombians’ lack of exposure to people like me, is the core of my challenges at site.
Colombia is one of the most beautiful countries I have visited. From the breathtaking views of the Caribbean Sea, to the gorgeous architecture in Usiacurí, the beauty of the coastal region of Colombia is almost as fantastic as that of the people. During my short time here, I have met some of the most welcoming and delightful people. Here on the coast, hospitality rivals, if not surpasses, the Southern hospitality in the United States. As a resident of the state of Alabama, I know the requirements for a good host and a good neighbor; the friendly and generous spirit of costeños (people from the coast) is so genuine and very refreshing.
Though I am having one of the best experiences of my life, I still must acknowledge a daily occurrence that makes my service a bit different, and at times more difficult, than that of my fellow volunteers.
During my first few visits to the school in my town, I quickly made a connection with one of the English teachers in the school. One day, he showed me around the school and introduced me to some of his colleagues by taking me to the teachers’ lounge. Several teachers walked in and out of the lounge. One male teacher who also has a dark brown complexion walked in I introduced myself and shook his hand. A teacher who was sitting at the table then said, “¿Qué sucede cuando negro y negro se pegan?” which roughly translates to, “What happens when black and black hit each other?” She did not expect me to understand, but could tell that I did by my look of disbelief. She proceeded to tell me that the teachers at the school are fun and cool because they joke around like that all the time.
Five minutes after this exchange, another teacher with a dark complexion walked in, and the same woman yelled, “Look another black person for you!” A few minutes passed after that outburst, and she attempted to set me up with the two gentlemen who looked just as uncomfortable and embarrassed as I did.
On the topic of dating and romance, it is very common to hear piropos or catcalls in the streets here, especially for foreigners. When I am walking to the store or sitting in the park, men and women will comment on the color of my skin, mostly in amazement. The typical phrase I hear is, “ay, morena” which means, “hey, dark-skinned girl.” I don’t mind that people are mesmerized by my skin, because if I am honest, I am too. I love my brown skin—I just don’t like that it is my identifier. My skin color places me in a category of a seemingly lesser value than other women.
When men call out to other women with skin color ranging from pale to tan, they will generally use phrases that translate to “my love,” “my life,” “my queen,” or “my princess.” These phrases are typically followed by telling women how beautiful they are. I thought very hard about this and realized that I have never heard these words directed at me. I have only been called “morena” or “negra” and deemed “the most beautiful black woman” that they have ever seen. Knowing that they haven’t seen very many black women, I am doubting the weight of this compliment.
Besides my skin color, my hair receives a lot of attention. When I arrived in Colombia for training, I had a huge afro that I had been growing and loving since 2010. My training host family constantly asked me about my hair; they mainly wondered what it would look like if it were straightened. At the end of training, I cut my hair. I went from armpit-length hair to a teeny afro. With maybe an inch or two of hair, I began using a braided wig that I brought with me because I love the ease of it. In site, I do not wear my natural hair; I only use the wig. However, while I am in my host house, I walk around with my baby fro. For the first month, my host mom did not make any remarks on my hair which
surprised me because I know that long, straight hair (aka the exact opposite of mine) is a part of the beauty standards here in Colombia.
On the sacred day in natural hair circles known as wash day, I had been more open with my hair as I was prepping, drying, and conditioning my hair. While I was relaxing in my room after the extensive process, my host mom entered and gave me a seven-minute speech on how I should not have cut my hair. She elaborated by saying that beauty comes from the hair and that I could either chemically straighten my hair to make it longer or dye it to make it stand out because I did not not look beautiful to her. She also said she did not like my braids because they are way too long. She said several other things, but all of it amounted to a list of things I need to do or consider in order to be beautiful.
Truthfully, my appearance as a whole has made my time here somewhat trying. Because I am of African descent, I have to prove my nationality. Many people believe that Americans have blonde hair and blue eyes or believe that they are at least Caucasian, so they find it hard to believe that I am from the United States. Usually after I tell them that I am from the States, they ask, “really?” Sometimes I interact with people who aren’t satisfied with my answers, so they follow up with, “okay, but before you moved to the US?” Their ignorance on the diversity of the US does not offend me because I have so much pride in my country. In fact, I am hurt because African Americans, my people, apparently are not accounted for in the story of my country given that we have done so much towards growth and development and are essentially the foundation of the United States.
All in all, my experience in Colombia has been amazing. I have tried new things and met so many new people. I have been pushed out of my comfort zone and have grown so much for it. One thing I know is that the Colombian culture is rich with diversity, whether it be the people, the music, or even the landscape. However, I know that here, just like in the US, there are people that still hold onto traditional, prejudiced views. I also know that I have been placed here for a reason and can help shift their perspectives.
What I don’t know is how I am going to make a substantial change all by myself. I don’t know if one person being authentically happy in their own skin and hair is going to make a difference. I also don’t know if telling the little boy about Martin Luther King, Jr. and the brief history of the Civil Rights Movement when he asked me about my hometown really made a difference. But, none of that matters. Because, I believe that when seeds are planted, growth must happen. So, I am going to plant the seeds anyways; I just hope to be around to see them bloom.