Are you wondering what it is like to be a black man in Colombia?
Colombia is a country located in South America that’s landlocked by Ecuador to the left and Venezuela to the right. Spanish is the official language and the country has a population of over 47 million people.
Let me introduce you to Ernest White II, a black American university professor who lived in Colombia. Ernest is currently a globetrotting storyteller and explorer, but he used to live in Colombia for over 5 years and understands the culture very well.
What is it Like Being a Black Man in Colombia?
Describe your first trip abroad.
My first trip abroad was a six-week foreign exchange home-stay in Sweden in 1994, organized by Youth for Understanding International Exchange. I spent five weeks with one family in the far north of the country, a place of midnight sun, deadly mosquitos, and stewed reindeer called Råneå. My last week was spent in the capital, Stockholm, where I was first exposed to the wonders of European topless bathing. I was but a mere sixteen years of age.
When did you realize that you had the Expat bug?… That you wanted to live abroad?
Since then, I’ve yearned to live outside of the United States.
Where were you born and in which countries have you lived?
I’m a true Flawda Boy: born in Pensacola, raised in Jacksonville, educated in Tallahassee. Besides a few months in Sweden and the Dominican Republic, I didn’t live abroad until my move to Colombia in 2005.
How did you end up in Colombia?
After my initial study abroad experience in Latin America, I decided that I wanted to live in that region once I finished graduate school. I was so thoroughly enamored with the rhythm and flow of Afro-Latino culture that I knew I needed to be in a place where the pulse of our common ancestors could be felt on a surface level in society; essentially a place that was palpably more African than what I was accustomed to in the States, but still retaining the flavorful and familiar mixture of civilizations that make up the Americas: a Spanish-speaking country with a warm climate and plenty of folks who looked like me. My first choices were Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, and Panama, but none of those countries paid the kind of money that would sate my wanderlust and keep my US debt at bay.
Then, in 2005, I met a brother in DC who had been living in Colombia for a few years, and he told me about a bi-cultural language center in Medellín where he was the academic director and invited me down for a visit. I loved the city, finally free from the weight of drug overlords who had kept it in a choke hold for the previous two decades, despite the lingering image outside of Colombia, and I also liked the language institute. But the job didn’t even break the thousand-dollar monthly salary mark and I had to turn it down. Still, I got wind of a university position in the Caribbean port city of Barranquilla, Shakira’s hometown, and popped up there on a cheap ticket. I spent two days touring the impressive campus of the university and walking around the central area of this place that reminded me of a little Santo Domingo, with its concrete streets, royal palms, and obvious African-descended population. I was offered a job via email two weeks later and that’s how I came to live in Colombia.
Did it meet your expectations?
There’s a scene in the J-Lo and Mark Antony-produced biopic of salsa legend Hector Lavoe, El Cantante, in which Lavoe, with his phenomenal voice and phenomenal band, performs in the middle of a gritty and run-down but vibrant, loud, exciting Puerto Rican street, surrounded by every shade from coal to cream, twirling around each other under the twin umbrellas of sun and salsa. That’s how I thought it would be living in Barranquilla, just as I had experienced during trips to Caracas, Havana, and Santo Domingo. It wasn’t. In fact, most Barranquilleros, as the citizens are called, dance a very intimate, no-spins version of salsa that’s relatively low-key in comparison to the Cuban-style that folks learn at their weekly local Latin Night in the States.
The prevailing musical style here on the Caribbean coast of Colombia is called vallenato, a tropical beat that is heavy on the high-pitched accordion and high-pitched singing. I am not a fan; this particular genre is heard on every bus, in every taxi, at every corner store, and the New York brand of salsa that keeps the folk Uptown and in Miami on the dance floor is only played at a scant few nightclubs down on the “Southside,” if you know what I mean. As a foreigner employed by a “prestigious” educational institution, I hardly get to the South side at all. And that’s been pretty much my experience in the country, ensconced by professional circumstance (and financial necessity) in an upper-class environment that doesn’t really embody the admittedly romanticized image of the hip-swayin’ Latin America I thought I was moving to. Barranquilla’s also not a swinging-in-a-hammock-sipping-on-a-Cuba-Libre type of place—that would be Cartagena. The hammock-swinging is there; the jobs are in Barranquilla.
And in fairness, I’m only speaking mainly about one region of Colombia; because of mountainous terrain and disparate climate zones, the country truly is like a collection of mini-nations. Each major city has a different vibe in accordance with its altitude and temperature: crisp and serious Bogotá, warm and rambunctious Medellín, hot and spicy Cali. They’re all incredibly different places within a one-hour flight of each other, and visiting Colombia is nothing short of surprising.
What has been your most enlightening experience while living abroad?
The most enlightening experience I’ve had is the result of four years living away from family, friends, and peers: that black Americans are the most privileged people of African descent on this planet. As a demographic group, we have more opportunities to become educated and succeed socio-economically in the US, despite myriad systemic injustices and societal barriers, than in any other country. I have never been more thankful that my ancestors’ slave ship landed at Savannah, instead of Cartagena, Havana, or Salvador, than after having spent time amongst other Diasporic people in the hemisphere.
What has been your most disheartening experience while living abroad?
My most disheartening experience abroad was realizing that black Americans are indeed the most privileged people of African descent on this planet. We squander so many opportunities, knowingly and unknowingly, to improve our communities, increase our exposure, and control our own image abroad. In most of Latin America, the access to a decent eighth-grade education is limited to those few who can afford it, and most of those who can do not have faces that look like mine. In fact, the only “brown” students at the school where I teach are the children of the gym teachers and the secretaries.
What customs have you adopted in your new country?
Living in Colombia, I’ve learned to arrive at appointments five-to-ten minutes late (better to keep them waiting), and to let little foolish things people do, like jumping the line or stopping in the middle of a busy street to talk to a friend in a another car, annoy me too much. Cógela suave, which means “take it easy” is the national philosophy.
Which customs from home do you miss the most?
I’m Southern, and I miss crab boils and barbecues, grits and sweet tea, strangers nodding to each other as they pass on the street. Of course I miss the general order and overall sense of civic mindedness. People in the States don’t like it when folks throw plastic cups on the grass; pro-green attitudes haven’t really caught-on quite yet here in Colombia.
How important is knowing the local language?
I’ve lived in two cities – the capital, Bogotá, and Barranquilla, an industrial city on the Caribbean coast. In Bogotá, many people at banks, restaurants, and tourist attractions speak some English, as do most young, college-educated people. In Barranquilla, English is spoken much less and knowledge of Spanish is essential.
Do you have proficiency in the local language?
I’m pretty fluent, but only after four years of study in the States and four years living in Colombia.
How have you gone about making friends?
In general, in my experience, I find Colombians to be no more different from most other Latin Americans in scheduling an activity that they suggested, not showing up or answering their phone when the scheduled time arrives, and then saying you’ve been missing when you run into them on the street, or they call you out of thin air to wish you a Happy Birthday, whichever comes first. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to build a solid group of Colombian friends the way I’ve been able to in Venezuela or Brazil: most of my true friends here are from other countries, or are Colombians who’ve lived abroad themselves (and maybe one ex). But I relationships between people and places are the same – sometimes they mesh well and sometimes they don’t, and it’s nobody’s fault.
What goals have you achieved while living abroad?
When I first moved to Colombia, I planned to teach at a university for four years, improving my Spanish and eventually moving to Spain for graduate study. Well, my Spanish has improved, but I’m focusing more on writing these days and plan to move to Brazil within the next few years, so I’ve certainly learned the lesson that plans change more often than not. I’ve also picked up a tremendous amount of patience, with others and myself, and everyday, I’m discovering new ways to appreciate and utilize the numerous positive aspects of my experience in Colombia, which can be difficult knowing that I haven’t connected to the place as I thought and hoped I would.
Do Blacks (or foreigners in general) in your view have any problems with adjustment or discrimination?
A major sticking point in my relationship with Colombia is indeed how racism, or “colorism,” to be more precise, plays out here. Like most other Latin American countries, Colombians say they don’t have a problem with racism, but with classism. Historically, however, race has always been tied to class (Europeans enslaved Indians, then Africans), and because of the fluid racial color spectrum and lack of segregation based on hypodescent (the “one-drop rule”), there was never the same type of racial angst and animosity that fueled the US Civil Rights Movement. The myth that “we’re all mixed” keeps darker-skinned Colombians in lower-class jobs and with very little education because there’s no institutionalized impetus by the government or industry and commerce to increase opportunities for people of African descent (up to 40% of Colombia’s population). On top of that, the pro-European standards of beauty that are constantly reinforced on television and in advertising lead to negative comments by people my own skin tone about darker-skinned, fuller-featured “black” people, which is ironic, since these same people would be considered black in the rest of the world and have family members with the same dark skin and full features. Though in the US, black Americans like to pretend not to “see” phenotypic differences among our range of colors, hair textures, and facial dimensions, these features indicate racial differences in Latin America that encourage societal division. When asked about my own heritage (because I do have a phenotype that suggests European ancestry, or, cream in the coffee), I respond with a very typical, “I’m black.” The woman then asked me in English, “Why you wanna be a black nigger for?” To her, I was clearly not black and shouldn’t even be considering that identifier as a desirable box to check. And this type of interaction has been, unfortunately, quite frequent.
Personally, I’d say that my experiences with overt discrimination have been isolated incidents, but have indeed happened. I was served once with obvious disdain by a darker-skinned waiter at an upscale restaurant in Bogotá while dining with my white university colleagues who noticed his behavior, I’ve been screened extra-thoroughly by a security guard who didn’t understand my name and buzzed up to my student warn her that a Mr. Ernesto Moreno, literally a brown man, was attempting to enter the building. I was also denied a job at a language institute because, as it got back to me later from a friendly co-worker, the person in charge loved my résumé but didn’t like my picture. My phenotype also makes a difference in how I’m treated here, as when I don’t speak, I blend in with the general population. But one of my good friends who lived in Barranquilla a few years ago, a Congolese-Canadian brother with dark skin and broad features, was constantly given strange looks, asked to leave certain restaurants and nightclubs, and overheard rude remarks that would never be applied to me. Meanwhile, my blonde, blue-eyed friends from the US or Europe are given the royal treatment, local guys proclaiming their undying love and fidelity for these golden Nordic angels. I don’t begrudge my friends their admiration; I think it’s both funny and sad, and very telling.
What has living abroad taught you about yourself?
At bottom, I think living here has allowed me to become a better educator. I’ve developed important skills for interacting with people, discussing controversial topics, and engaging unwilling participants in meaningful dialogue about various issues in ways that I wasn’t able to utilize before moving abroad. I’m certainly grateful for my experiences and lessons in Colombia, and I can’t say with complete certainty that I wouldn’t do it all again.
Why are you still in Colombia?
The easiest answer to give is money; I’m on the verge of eliminating all but student loan debt and creating a nice financial cushion for a move to another country. Still, money can be made anywhere, and I think my connection to the region is just as strong as it ever was, despite Colombia not being the Diasporic love-fest I had envisioned. I enjoy speaking Spanish on the street. I like having people who know my nationality compliment me on my pronunciation, and those who don’t guessing where the hell I come from (they almost never guess the US). I revel in walking down a street in Barranquilla or Bogotá with the same sense of every-day normality as I have walking down a street in DC or Tallahassee. I love seeing the sun rise over misty green Andean peaks and I love seeing it dip into the Caribbean Sea at the end of a sweltering day. I thrive on the constant cultural upheaval that manifests in countless permutations of the three original founding populations, enriched even more by immigrants and ex-pats. And I rejoice in noticing the strong and subtle linkages between my own African-American culture and the drum-infused Latin way of being, even if those linkages aren’t always publicly acknowledged. I know they’re there.
Do you consider yourself a permanent expatriate, a temporary expatriate or an incidental expatriate… And why?
As far as living overseas indefinitely, I think I’d move back to the States once I have a family of my own. I want my children to be raised in Florida, for the combination of Southern culture, great weather, open space, and the beach. Of course, I/we’d travel incessantly, and I definitely see myself having a second home somewhere in Latin America, maybe Panama, Brazil, or the Dominican Republic. There are many things about life in the US I miss and that I’d like my kids to be exposed to, but the amazing breadth of opportunity and experience that comes from stepping outside of your comfort zone and exploring the world is something that I can’t encourage enough; and not just to my own children, but to young people of color in general. Most of what people abroad see of black Americans is the same violent and misogynistic garbage aired on BET. Not even ghetto fabulousness…just plain ghetto. I think the only way to change that image is to go abroad and interact with people. And in interacting with people, we broaden our own horizons and deepen our own understanding of our purpose in the world and in our own communities.