I am a Black American from the U.S. living in Medellín. And I have lived in Colombia for five years and in Medellín for three. I feel at home in Medellín and I would like to share my experiences of being an American Black in Medellín.
Does my brown skin and Black culture have any special significance — in addition to the American part — to how I navigate being an American Black in Medellín and living in Medellín and Colombia? I would hazard yes.
First off, because being a Black American in the U.S. is vastly different from being solely an American from the U.S. (estadounidense in Spanish), especially given the social atmosphere of the U.S. these days. But that’s a whole other story and has nothing to do with life in Medellín.
Lots of times, when Colombians try to guess my nationality, they think I am Jamaican or Curaçaoan. They’re not far off.
My maternal grandparents emigrated from the American West Indies. Caribbean culture runs strong on that side of the family. And Caribbean culture parallels that of Latin America.
As a result, I don’t really consider myself a “gringo”. I speak Spanish very well. I dance salsa and tango. And I eat rice and beans.
When someone says gringo, I envision someone who is white from the U.S. or Europe, a guy who can’t dance to save his life and who has a strong accent if he even speaks Spanish.
I’m not a gringo, I’m a American Black in Medellín, originally from the U.S.
My World Travels
Years ago, I visited Africa for the first time, Togo in West Africa. Excited about communing with my African brothers and sisters, I thought I would be the lost American brother returned home.
To my surprise, my supposed brothers received me not as a prodigal brother, but as an American visitor. My Americanism stood out as much as a white skinned colonizer.
It got better. One night at a party during my visit, casually leaning against a wall, a man sauntered over to me. He had a familiarity about him but I couldn’t put my finger on it.
No way I could know him. He asked me what city I was from. Not what country, but what city! I answered, New York. He nodded and said he was from Detroit.
He told me he could tell, just by looking at me from across the room, that I came from a northeastern American city. In hindsight, he seemed familiar to me because he exuded urban Americanism, like me. I hadn’t yet identified that as a thing, but it resonated within me.
Last year I worked as an interpreter in Risaralda, facilitating communication between a team of Africans and their Colombian counterparts. I accompanied the visiting Africans to coffee plantations to learn about how Colombians cultivate the bean, very different from the African practices.
This experience impacted me profoundly. During our down time, we talked about intersections of culture. While we shared similar skin tones, culturally, we had little in common.
One of the Africans, the team leader from Uganda guessed, after looking over my facial features, that ancestrally, my people came from a certain part of Nigeria.
I know from my mother’s genealogical research, that he got the country right. More specific than that is supposition … and irrelevant. I’m not African. I’ve never considered myself to be African American because the Caribbean influence has displaced the African.
A New Yorker Living in Medellín
The city I grew up in trumps everything else. I’m a New Yorker! That means something a world apart from being African or Caribbean or American.
I’m a New Yorker in Medellín. Similar to Sting’s “Englishman in New York.” When someone approaches me for spare change, I tell them no! before they even begin their hardship story.
Sometimes Colombians think I’m rude. To me, no means no, I don’t need to know the person’s name, and generally I have neither the time nor inclination nor the patience to listen to any other part of their story.
Being a New Yorker makes me different from other Americans too. Stories of expats robbed on the street often make me smirk. Those things just don’t happen to me.
Not because I’m that stereotypical tough New Yorker, I’m not. But because I am that aware New Yorker.
I have the inner city sixth sense. I can see someone who might want to target me from blocks away. In Bogotá at the beginning of the year, a Colombian friend urged me to watch out for the thieves. I responded that the thieves needed to watch out for me. I can see them coming when they’re still at home eating breakfast!
How I’m Seen as an American Black in Medellín
Though I might have the same skin tone as a Black Colombian, I’m as different as I am from Africans, even with my Caribbean influence as entry to the culture.
They might not guess American, but Colombian doesn’t enter their minds. That statement requires a bit of modification and explanation.
I’ve had Colombians ask if I’m from Chocó, the Colombian department where the majority of the Black Colombians originate. Their question is based on skin tone alone.
As soon as they hear me speak Spanish, they know I’ve traveled farther to get here. The differences between me and a Black Colombian is similar to that of a White American standing out from a white Colombian, and not just because of the shorts and flip flops.
One significant difference stands out to how I’m seen by Colombians. When Paisas, or even Rolos, recognize me as an American from the U.S., I’m American. Meaning, not Black American.
My nationality in Colombia doesn’t come with the standard-issue prefix from the U.S. I enjoy a nationality freedom walking around Medellín. In my neighborhood, folks refer to me as the gringo or the American, never as the Black gringo or the Black American.
How I Feel as an American Black in Medellín
I’m comfortable as an American Black in Medellín walking anywhere around Medellín, although I avoid El Poblado like the plague. – Too many gringos!
I’m comfortable in neighborhoods considered caliente (literally hot, used to mean dangerous), like Robledo or Manrique or San Javier or el Centro at night. Not because of skin tone.
Certainly not because of toughness. But because I’m from not the best neighborhood in the Bronx. I know how to walk and carry myself in the ‘hood’.
Also, I know that the majority of people in any bad neighborhood in the world, are just working stiffs, and typically poor, concerned with getting to work on time or getting home to eat dinner.
I carry my New Yorker-ness, with me. It’s my secret weapon.
Heterogeneity vs. Homogeneity
I lived in Barcelona, Spain from 1997 to 2001. I never felt uncomfortable in Barcelona. In fact, I love that city.
But Barcelona and Spain are fairly homogeneous. When I visited Paris for a week, it felt like a breath of fresh air. As I walked Parisian streets I felt a comfortable sense of home from seeing more people that looked like me.
I feel equally comfortable in Medellín in particular and Colombia in general. I like seeing people that look like me. It imparts a degree of ease. I’m comfortable wherever I am. But the fact that there are Colombians of all hues in Medellín makes me feel more at home. Seeing nothing but white people is tiring, in the best of scenarios.
This is not an issue of only being around Black people. If that were the case I’d be more comfortable in Africa. The question focuses on diversity, in the value of being in a multi-ethnic society, where I can be enriched by exposure to more than just the plain-ole vanilla.
The intolerant alt-right in the U.S. doesn’t seem to understand this. We grow as individuals from exposure to those different from us. Never should we feel threatened.
Where I Go in Medellín
I live in the neighborhood of Simón Bolívar, next to Laureles, a great estrato five residential neighborhood in Medellín.
But I move about all throughout Medellín. Last weekend, I attended a birthday party in Honda, a neighborhood above Manrique. I’m sure I was the only expat within a five-kilometer radius. I had a blast: Good food, lots of dancing and I could sing all of the words to “Happy Birthday,” always sung first in English.
I’ve been in and around a number of neighborhoods considered dicey in Medellín: Robledo, Manrique, San Javier.
I’ve discovered these neighborhoods organically. Meaning I don’t just go places to go there. I go when I have a specific reason. I dated a woman who lived in Manrique. Many nights, I came home fairly late.
And because I live Simón Bolívar and typically don’t jump into taxis, I had to go through downtown.
I haven’t yet made it to Comuna 13. The graffiti tour initially prompted my desire to visit this notoriously poor and dangerous neighborhood making strides to emerge from its past through art and culture.
Some American friends went on the tour. I resisted. I just didn’t feel comfortable going as a tourist with a big group. And I wondered how I might feel if tourists came to the Bronx River Projects to see the natives.
I spoke to a Colombian friend about taking me for lunch with her sister, who lives there. I wanted to experience the neighborhood as an individual, not as a visiting tourist like it was a zoo.
However, she said these days, since the presidential election it just wasn’t safe. She said she doesn’t even go. She’s been trying to get her sister to come down and stay with her. Fortunately, the sister decided to travel to the family’s hometown of Urrao for an extended stay.
With my friend’s description of how bullets fly indiscriminately and of how folks could be killed just because they’re unknown, I let go the thought. Comuna 13 will carry on hot and fine without a visit from Greggo.
Another key part of my modus operandi (MO) as a traveler is that I’m never a tourist. It has nothing to do with being Black or an American from the U.S. It’s just how I roll.
My father moved to Hawaii when I was a teenager. I got to spend entire summers there. Sure, we did some touristy stuff, but day to day, I engaged in the same activities as those folks who lived there.
Joining a canoe club remains one of my most memorable experiences. I trained hard all summer and participated in one race. My canoe team came in next to last and I was exhausted, but exhilarated!
The Bottom Line: My Experience Being Black in Medellín
My childhood travel experiences set my personal style. While I may be a American Black in Medellín originally from the U.S., my New Yorker-ism serves as my protection and my desire to integrate and never be a tourist serves as the means to enter and blend.
I stand out when I speak because of my accent. Visually, I stand out because of how I dress and carry myself — not because of color— but everywhere I go I’m welcomed.
Ultimately, that integration wins out over the culture of American Blackness and bridges any gap created by cultural differences.
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