When Family and Friends Become the “Others”

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The five of us settled into a large cab for the 25-minute ride from the hotel to Aunt Gloria’s house. My son, Hans, my two grandchildren, and I were visiting relatives in Cali, Colombia with Sandra, my daughter-in-law, a native of the city. Given the success of security measures for city dwellers reported by Cali in-laws, the summer of 2009 seemed right for the moment of reunion that had been on hold since my son and his Latina love married in the States nine years ago.

The cab entered a neighborhood of attached houses—each two or three stories high with decorative wrought iron fences across the front. It had the appearance of neighborhoods in New Orleans. But a closer look revealed that the filigreed iron and steel were in fact security fences that wrapped around the front of each dwelling. Like landscapes in Italy, still dotted with 100- foot high towers, the refuge from enemies for medieval folks, so too this neighborhood resembled clusters of mini-fortresses, each house protecting its dwellers from the “others.”

“Let us get on with our Middle Ages…” Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez once commented, resigned to the difficulty of changing the habit of civil war among his countrymen. I puzzled over what could provoke extended conflicts among compatriots, feeling certain in 2009 that such an atmosphere could not occur in my native land.

“We’re getting close to Gloria’s house,” Sandra said. Gloria and her three sisters were close to my age and all grandmothers. Sandra, the fourth of seven sisters, had often stayed with these women and their parents as a child. She loved them and had had a special relationship with their mother whom she always referred to as her “grandmother,” even though there was no blood connection.

When we pulled up to Gloria’s house, she was standing in the ten-foot high, arched gateway of her security fence. She opened the cab door on my side and we fell into each other’s arms, exclaiming “Ciao” and “Buenos.” We’d met several years ago when she visited the States. She and Sandra introduced us to everyone assembled. While the kids played, the rest of us sat down at a table set with wine glasses and plates of snack foods. Gloria proposed a toast:

“How wonderful to have the family in Cali. How wonderful it was for me to visit
the United States. How proud I am to have everyone as guests.”

Our first time all together, we leaned toward one another, lifting our glasses reverently. “Salud!”

Looking back, I am saddened to the point of despair that while Colombian law-makers continue to unite and bring peace to their troubled country, the leaders of my homeland are desperate to divide and isolate with the creation of fences, walls, and travel bans, as if tactics resembling those of our medieval forebears can solve multilateral problems among nations. Our proudly bicultural gatherings in Cali or the States are once again at risk, like those of many millions of American families across the globe separated as we are by national borders.