An immigrant story from the son of an immigrant country

ancestral home

Me standing in front of the building where my father grew up in La Candelabra, Bogota

Last weekend I visited the home that my father grew up in. The slope-side building in Bogota’s historic district of La Candelaria is a “hippie” hostel today. In the room that was once occupied by my family, a small TV entertains languid backpackers spread out on mats across the tiled floor. The ceiling is about the only thing that has been left unchanged; its ornate patterns dance from corner to corner, as they have done for decades.

My grandfather also held an office in this exact same room. A partition separated the living quarter from a dentist consultancy, where he would receive a range of clients, including those from nearby congress. In the 1960s, Colombia was struggling to piece itself back together after the bloodiest wave of violence in its history, known as La Violencia. A peace pact between the two main warring political parities had been signed, but it was exclusionary and poorly addressed deep-seated social issues. As a consequence, more violence began, inspired by communist ideology sweeping over Cuba; armed groups still active today instigated the beginning of the illicit drug trade.

My grandfather was extorted for protection money. Or he was made aware of a possible kidnapping attempt. Or both. No matter the cause, he was no longer assured of a safe future in Colombia. His friend told him that, with his knowledge and trade skills, he would be able to make a good living in the US. Maybe even get rich.

He decided to take a gamble to move to New York and send for his family — his wife, my father and his brother and sister — when the dust settled. But when he arrived, 38 years old, a new man in a strange land, the frightening fog of reality descended quickly. There were only so many jobs that he could get with the minimal English he commanded. Having such few options, he took a job working on a factory floor. Shame gripped him. He did not wish to send for his family yet, nor admit that his aspirations had been met with failure. A man with the capacity of an academic at home was relegated to a student in the new country. Everything had to be relearned.

Five years in the factory passed before he finally found a job as a dental technician, but he never owned his own practice again. It came time to call my family to join him, and they rented an apartment in Astoria, Queens. All of his children went to university, as did all of their children. Maybe he could never be that proud Cachaco again, nor own his own business, but at least his children’s future was certain, and those more ominous days were only a distant memory, forgotten somewhere in La Candelaria.

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