Sunday, March 25, 2012

Third World Green Daddy 30: In the club

"O gloria inmarcesible, o júbilo inmortal. De surcos de dolores, el bien germina ya!"

This is the chorus to the Colombian national anthem. It translates to something like, "Oh unwilting glory, o immortal joy. From furrows of sorrows, seeds of goodness at last spring forth!" The rest of the song details the major events of the Colombian independence struggle, and reads like a lesson in the country's history and geography. You can check it out on the Colombian president's official website

I've always liked national anthems. The French Marseillaise is particularly stirring: "To arms, citizens! Form your battalions. March onward, march onward, that the blood of the impure may water the furrows of our fields." Agricultural imagery, just like the Colombian anthem.

The US anthem is less explicit and striking, but I think its subtle poetry has a lasting nobility that leaves more of a lasting impression on the listener than other national hymns. The Star-Spangled Banner is not about victory or glorious violence, but rather perseverance under duress. It's certainly something we'd do well to emulate in the US, as opposed to the vainglorious boastful harrumphing that has dominated our national discourse for most of my lifetime. Ibidem for the line from America the Beatiful, "Confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law." A far cry from the indulgent excesses of a nation of selfish babies.

Anyway, I open this blog with the Colombian national anthem as a celebration. I am now officially and indefinitely a Colombian resident! Prior to this I'd been in the country on a series of "temporary" visas lasting a year or two, by dint of my being the spouse of a Colombian national. But thanks to my now being the father of a Colombian, I have the right to what's called qualified residency. It is an immigration status that lasts indefinitely (saving me the annual or biennial trip to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Immigration Agency to renew my visa and ID card). It still doesn't give me absolute freedom to work; I am only allowed to work as an independent contractor or a self-employed person, but since no one in Colombia is offering full employment status with benefits, this essentially puts me on the same footing as most Colombians as far as work opportunities are concerned.

The process of preparing my application for residency was similar to that which I've followed before for the temporary visa. The difference was that I had to offer proof of my fatherhood of a Colombian national. I brought Sam's birth certificate from our hometown to Bogota, but realized too late that it was the original copy, and not a certified copy from the same notary that had issued it. In Colombia notaries are a big thing, and if something isn't notarized, it doesn't officially exist in most contexts. So much so that the original birth certificate, which is issued by a notary but not stamped and signed by him, doesn't serve as an official document! You need to ask for a certified, stamped copy from the original notary office every time you need to present it to some application.

So my not having the certified copy was an issue of great consternation for me. I was worried that I'd have my application rejected, and my original visa was about to expire, and what if they charged me thousands of dollars in fines for overstaying my visa!? In vain I went to a Bogota notary office and asked if they could certify my original birth certificate of Sam, but they repeated what I already knew; I'd have to ask for the certified copy from the original notary office, back in my hometown hours away from Bogota. It seems that notaries are the only aspect of Colombia's governance system that's effectively federalized, not centralized in Bogota. It's as if each notary's office were a separate republic unto itself!

This put me in a black, worried mood. Damn it, it was easier to buy a notary's office than to get your own son's birth certificate (last year or so there was a big scandal of politicians offering notary office operations to the highest bidder). With all the scumbags who are born into Colombian nationality with no problems, why should I, a decent, tax-paying, hard-working person, be denied residency? I was about ready to send the whole country to hell, if it weren't for the fact that my family and my work were here!

But once at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I had no problems. They've changed the site of their office in the last year, and it is now a much friendlier, more streamlined operation. I was attended with little wait, and the officer said my original birth certificate would present no problem. Within an hour or so, I had my passport stamped with a new, indefinite resident visa for Colombia. It wasn't as pretty as the intricately embossed temporary visa, but it was worth a lot more to me. As soon as I got out of the office, I called Caro and sang her the national anthem. I said I was willing to illegally wiretap phones, go to the jungle to handle the government's dirty business, whatever they asked of me. Of course I was joking, but I really did feel happy and grateful to be a Colombian resident. I was born a US citizen, and I'm proud and grateful for that, but I acquired that citizenship through no merit of my own. This was the first time I'd really be able to say I earned my residency. I had gone through a process, adapted to a new country, and was now granted almost equal status with its born nationals. I'll probably never become a full Colombian national, because as I understand that would entail my renouncing loyalty to the US, which I'll never do (as long as the US continues to exist as a unified nation and hasn't yet devolved into a wasteland of provincial fiefdoms or something). So this residency is that pinnacle of my recognition as a valid member of Colombian society.

On the same Bogota trip I also renewed my membership to the Luis Angel Arango library. This is Colombia's national library system, run by the Bank of the Republic. It has branches all over the country, and you can have materials from one branch delivered to another free of charge. You have to pay for a membership, though the $50US we pay annually for a family membership isn't bad at all. That said, I got a little pissed off this time, because they wouldn't let us add my nephew to our family membership. Apparently the family membership only allows for three affiliated members, which is stupid since I don't know any Colombian families with only three people, especially not in our provincial region. In the end our nephew will just have to get a student membership on his own.

I also recently renewed my inclusion in the ranks of blood donors. For the year or so that I've been able to (after a two-year residency period in Colombia), I've been donating blood every three months. But last time they used a new machine to take out two pints of blood, centrifuge out the red blood cells, and reinject the plasma. After this procedure they want you to wait six months before giving blood again. So this was my first time giving blood in six months. Everyone at the center knows me now, and they ask about my job as an agronomist. Nevertheless, they always ask me the same set of questions about my history living in other countries. I guess they're worried about blood-borne diseases from Europe, perhaps foot and mouth disease from cattle or something. At any rate, donating blood seems to me an important part of a sustainable lifestyle. Since blood isn't something we can synthesize artificially, and it's likely we'll all need a blood transfusion at some time or another, the most logical thing is to donate as often as you can, so when you need blood, you can know you've put in what you're about to take out of the system.

My son, in contrast, has recently joined a few unpleasant clubs. For one, he's had various iterations of cold and flu ever since he started nursery school. This seems to be the norm, as children who'd previously been exposed mainly to their families enter into contact with society at large, and all its bugs and infirmities. It's a good thing in the long run, as Sam will need to build up resistance to common illnesses just like we all have had to do. Still though, it's ugly having to watch him suffer at times, and getting infected myself with his bugs. In particular last weekend his eyes were all weepy and would get stuck shut with mucus, and it was sad to see him romping about, feeling more or less fine physically but with his face deformed.

The other club I had really hoped Sam would never enter into has to do with Colombia's social ills. One day this week I was working at a branch of my university, when all hell broke loose. Caro, Sam, and I had just arrived, as my wife was going to spend the day helping with some tasks at the museum I work at. We heard explosions in the distance, and my fears were confirmed. Once again a group of idiotic, masked students was provoking the police with homemade bombs, and as we drove away from the campus my sun saw these hooligans lurking about in their hoods and balaclavas, stopping from time to time to hurl an explosive device at a nearby wall. These university students, who should supposedly be the vanguard of progressive thinking, who should be the ones leading us as a nation away from brute, stupid violence, become the tangible manifestation of all that is ugliest about Colombia. I don't want my child to think this is a model to emulate, that this is what going to university is all about.

The ostensible reason for the violence was the 25th anniversary of a student who'd been killed by anti-riot police during a university demonstration. That is to say that these kids lobbing light explosives were in theory avenging or commemorating a death that had occurred before they were even born, and whose circumstances had not repeated themselves since then. Like many naughty actions by young people, I read these manifestations as an attempt to act out our basest tendencies to aggression with some sort of lofty moral justification, at the same time as students are trying to define their values and their way of achieving the world they believe in. If this is so, it's a normal part of psychological development, a play-acting of resistance and insurgence against police that are theoretically limited in the danger they represent to the students (they don't use deadly force, and are even prohibited from entering the campus).

The problem is that I don't want my kid to see other kids play-acting at being violent thugs, even if I know that the real danger to everyone involved is minimal. The explosives they use are designed to make a big noise and a flash, but they don't usually hurt anyone. Usually. This time, it turns out that a group of students was in the midst of the play battle zone, when the explosives in a nearby backpack all detonated spontaneously. Four or five were severely mutilated, losing limbs, and one ended up dying. It made me so sad, and had my wife despondent for a few days. The students of our university are in large part the children of peasants and slum-dwellers, the source of great pride for parents who've worked all their life to bring up responsible children. I am proud of our university's role in educating Boyaca's proletariat class, and consisting a strong middle class that can create a solid nation while not forgetting its peasant roots. What an incomprehensible tragedy it must be for humble hard-working parents to learn that their child was involved in thuggish violence, and moreso that he lost his life for it. That's not what parents have in mind when they send their kids to college.

The easy, callous response is that if you play with fire you get burned, but this doesn't quite work. Part of growing up is indeed playing with fire and getting burned, which teaches lessons about limits and acceptable behavior. But if you die or are maimed for life, you can't go on to apply any useful lesson. These kids who play at being criminals or insurgents or political activists are operating in an area in which the risks are huge--prison, maiming, death, enlistment as guerrilla-fodder. But being young and stupid, they seemingly don't differentiate this level of risk from the small risks that are a normal part of growing up--getting drunk on your dad's liquor supply one night, or getting in a fistfight with a schoolmate, or things like that. Caro was so sad to see young people value their lives so little, expose themselves to death or lifelong difficulty just for a few kicks, not even a noble cause that will lead to something positive.

I'll close on a happy note, a happy entry into a frivolous little club. Last weekend I introduced my wife and kid to Pizza Hut pizza. Of the generic mass-produced pizza chains like Papa John's or Domino's, I find Pizza Hut to have by far the best quality. Their ingredients taste somewhat fresh, and their crust is fluffy inside with a crisp fried outer layer. Plus the chain is from Wichita, my dad's hometown. One day we were in a hurry to get out of Bogota, and we stopped there instead of making our own meal. Both Caro and Sam really liked the pizza, which I got with US-style sausage and pepperoni so they'd get the full experience. I often lament when foreigners think the US is no more than fast food, malls, bad TV and movies, and other mass-produced junk. But at the same time, those things do indeed form an important part of our national culture, so I was glad to expose my family to it, along with the more local, authentic Midwestern culture I always try to share with them.


  1. Me gusta este blog. Es lleno de actividades, aventuras,escenarios, pensamientos y sentimientos como la vida que hemos decidido vivir. Y eso hace que no corramos riesgos innecesarios y la vivamos apasionadamente. Caro

  2. Me gusta la forma balanceada como describe la idiosincracia de nosotros los Colombianos.

  3. Well-wrought observations under the unifying umbrella of clubs. Green Daddy #30 reminded me of the importance of Belonging—to a country, a library, a school—whatever provides a sense of community. BK