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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Great story! Thanks for sharing it.
Thank you. I appreciate you reading it.
Greggo my name is Omaar I’m traveling to Medellin Colombia for dental work. I live in Atlanta Georgia I’d appreciate a liaison whiling Medellin please contact me if you could ? I’d appreciate a familiar American
Hey Omar, I can recommend a good dentist if you like. If I’m in Medellin I’d be happy to meet you for a coffee. You can write me directly at email@example.com
Your thoughts on wondering how you would have felt living in the Bronx and having tours come through really gave me a good and fresh perspective. Your “New Yorker” attitude helping you resonated with me. From being from NJ, I have some of that attitude. My wife who has not been back to her home country in about 20 years was very nervous. Sometimes that nervousness was visible. Often I was the one who carried that attitude through as I explained that nervousness would make you a mark. I really appreciated this post and agree with what you say about diversity and it is our opportunity to learn. As I learned from you sharing your unique perspective and insights through your lens.
Thanks for your comments.
Culture is a very interesting phenomenon and there is something unique about the northeastern metropolitan United States. There’s an edge we all have in common, despite race or other differences. It’s fun! … Well, it’s fun for us that have it.
I can’t speak as an expat but as a tourist with yet another visit coming up in a few months, I truly enjoy my vacation time in Medellin. Yes, I’m a black American and no, I haven’t experienced anything negative in my interactions with the people of Medellin.
In fact, that’s one of the reasons why I feel so at home there. My impression overall is that my skin color isn’t as important in Colombia as it is in the States. Mind you, I live in one of the most “progressive” States in the country. I can attest that living in a “tolerant” area does me no favors as far as my treatment is concerned. As if the “alt-right” (whatever that even means) has a monopoly on racism. Plenty of liberal minded folks carry the same prejudices despite their virtue signals. Being a person of color almost demands a political stance which is tiresome and unfortunate. A victim paranoia sets in from an early age that somehow, somewhere there’s an injustice just waiting to strike with your name on it. I never allowed myself to buy into that narrative and its helped me be open to the wider world.
Medellin allows me to just BE. I like that I can walk the streets, take the metro, dine at fantastic restaurants, sit at the park and watch the people go to and fro while being treated like any other man. Because I’m a…man. My Spanish is minimal and I like the Poblado area along with so many other great areas in the city. I’m a tourist and I’m proud of that. I still can’t wrap my head around why Poblado is so reviled by people who themselves were once considered tourists? Not realizing that most people not from Medellin went there for the first or second time. Regardless, I may one day retire in Medellin if not some other place in Colombia.
So if you’re a person of color, don’t ever let anything or anyone stop you from seeing the world. Go to Medellin. Say, “Estoy tourista” with a smile. Kindness is accepted in any language or skin color. The people will be returned to you. If your worst fears come to pass it won’t be likely due to your skin complexion but your folly in being someplace where your safety is compromised.
Yep, exactly. I appreciate your comments.
Nice post and thanks for writing about your experiences in Medellin.
Thanks for reading!
Greggo, I thoroughly enjoyed reading your article. It’s well written, and it presents an interesting view of your experience. Thank you for sharing it. I’d like to comment on a couple of points you make, if I may.
Although I see most of what you write to be of a generic nature in that it’s not necessarily open for discussion or it does not elicit the reader’s opinion, there was a point in your article that gave me pause for thought. It relates to your comment about El Poblado, which you ‘avoid like the plague’ due to an unacceptably high number of gringos there. Well, I happen to live in El Poblado, four years now, and the truth is that I hardly ever see a gringo, save when I happen to go down to that 4-5-square block area around Parque Lleras that teems with them without a doubt. One of the things I like about El Poblado, which by the way is the largest burrough with 25 different neighborhoods, is that it’s a cultural melting pot. On my walks I usually see or run into all kinds of folks of various ethnic and cultural backgrounds and hardly ever hear any other languages spoken other than Spanish. So, if what you meant was to refer to that small area I mentioned above, I wholeheartedly agree with you. In contrast, my visits to Laureles are quite different given the number of gringos that can be seen and heard everywhere. So, I’d like to encourage you to give El Poblado another try. There are neighborhoods of the same estrato (2-3) as San Javier and Marique all over El Poblado, they would welcome you as warmly as those neighborhoods you wrote about do.
Again, thank you for your article. I hope that one day we can run into each other.
Thanks for your comments. My remark about avoiding Poblado was somewhat tongue-in-cheek, and yes, I was most-specifically referring to the Parque Lleras area. I do recognize that Poblado is a much bigger area. Admittedly, I don’t know it very well. One day I was driving with a friend of mine and I didn’t readily recognize where we were. Then it dawned on me, This is Parque Lleras! Meaning it’s completely different during the day. And actually, I was in Poblado (Provenza) last Friday and I had a blast.
Maybe we can meet for cawfee (New York accent comes through even in my writing) one day and you can hip me to new spots.
Thanks for reading.
This has to be one of the realest articles I’ve read about life in Medellin.
As an American “latino” man coming from Long Beach CA, I can definitely relate to much of what you’ve written.
I am completely with you on the inner city sixth sense and knowing how to carry yourself in the hood. Not everybody who comes here will truly understand what “no dar papaya” means. It really is a secret weapon.
Like you, I also grew up in a multi ethnic society that taught me how to assimilate to new environments and be open to other cultures. Here in Medallo I can blend in with the population and won’t stand out unless I start talking (apparently I have an accent even though I speak perfect spanish).
El Poblado is ok to visit every now and then but I share your sentiment and stay away if possible. I’d much rather experience the city as a local than as a tourist just passing by. Which is why I chose to live here in La Floresta, not far from where you’re at. It’s made for a much more authentic experience.
Although I came to Medellin with an open mind, I was initially on the alert all the time (media must have gotten to me). But as time has passed, I have learned what life is really like here and do my best to learn more about it everyday. Life in Medellin has become an adventure waiting to happen every time I step out the door.
Again, thanks for the fresh perspective
Stay safe parcero
Wow, thanks so much for these comments and compliments. Enjoy your life here. I am enjoying mine.
Very well written article! You have a talent for writing. I too can relate to the inner city sixth sense having grown up in Waterbury Connecticut where I had my share of being beat up and mugged.
My wife is from a tiny town out in the middle of Texas and we both met in San Francisco. Whenever we are in a big city my radar comes on automatically and I too am in the mind frame of saying NO to pan handlers as well. My wife having a sweet and soft heart is the opposite and I gently remind her at times that it is wiser to have your gurad up than not to.
We have visited Medellin 3 times and will be moing there in December from here in Boquete, Panama. We are looking forward to being there and all that a big city has to offer!
Stay safe and enjoy your adventers!
Thanks for the compliments and comments. My first wife used to call me “Stony Face” when we walked the streets wherever we were living. I just replied, “you can’t look like lunch when you’re on the street!
Good fortune with your upcoming move. I’m sure you’ll love living in Medellin.
Enjoyed the article. It’s refreshing to hear someone speak truth from the heart. Correct me if I’m wrong, but what you meant by “too many gringos” in Poblado was code for “too many light skinned people” …right?
I’m just gonna stop putting my tongue in my cheek! I thought it ironic that a guy from the U.S. would say there are too many gringos in a certain area. I was not speaking in code. I typically don’t hang out in Poblado (and I specifically meant Parque Lleras) primarily because it’s not really my scene, secondarily because of the number of tourists, and tertiarily (not too sure it that word exists) because there are great places closer to where I live . You can typically find me at a hole-in-the-wall salsa club or a Tango milonga. All that being said, I was in Poblado last week (in the Provenza section) and I had a blast.
Thanks for reading, complimenting and commenting.
Awesome post Greggo! was great meeting you this week.
Hey, thanks a lot. Great meeting you too!
Wonderful Piece; Gives answers to questions that pass through your mind from time to time. Thank you very much for sharing.
Thanks a bunch. I appreciate you reading and commenting.
Great article! Your descriptions are very insightful and solidified my desire to visit Medellin. Do you plan on living in Medellin for good?
Gregonometry — I like it!
Thanks for your comments. I have two plans open for internal debate. One is moving back to Manizales, which is a smaller city to the south of Medellin, in the Colombian coffee triangle. I like it because it’s smaller and more personable. I lived there for a year an a half before moving to Medellin. The other option is to give up my apartment and just travel month-to-month, place-to-place around Colombia. There’s so much going on I sorta hate being tied to one place. We’ll see which plan wins out.
Great writing as usual Greggo. Are you still writing on your site or should I just look for you here now?
Hey Marc, Thanks for the compliment and thanks for reading me here. I’m still writing on my site. Please do visit me there. http://www.oncolombia.grupoamos.com
Great story my friend. I can tell you’ve had amazing experiences in Colombia. I recommend you should try Puerto Rico. It a nice place for a vacation. I am sure you will like it, people love salsa there. The Puerto Rico culture also has similar elements form the South American cultures, because Puerto Rico was colonized by Spaniards, before being colonized by the US.
Hey Henry, Thanks for commenting. I have visited Puerto Rico once. Love it. Besides extensive travel in Colombia, Cuba is next on my list of countries.
Great article. I came home from Court back to my office and said to myself I had enough. Started looking for places to retire that I can afford. This place looks promising. Look forward to reading your blog / Post in the future.
Sounds good to me. Start creating your plan. Colombia is a great retirement locale. You can read more of my writing on my blog, GrupoAmos on Colombia. http://www.grupoamos.com
I liked your article and your writing style. However your dislain for “gringos” and white people to me is a bit hypocritical. You are echoing the same view points as the “altright”. Just replace “too many blacks/latinos” with “too many whites/gringos”. See the similarity? Tolerance starts with accepting other people that have different views/beliefs/cultures than you and that does also include “white people” and their many different cultures around the world. Thanks for your article and I hope that one day we can stop identifying ourselves by our skin tones.
Thanks for reading and commenting. I’m going to have to stop putting my tongue in my cheek. Saying that I avoid Poblado because there are too many gringos was a bit of sarcasm on my part. I certainly have no disdain for other gringos or white people. Sure, I avoid touristy sections. That’s principally because I never consider myself to be a tourist and prefer engaging in local activities for a more pure Colombian experience. All are welcome to partake in my book.
Thanks for reading and commenting. I’m gonna have to stop putting my tongue in my cheek. I certainly hold no disdain for other gringos or white people. While I do avoid touristy parts of town, it’s primarily because I don’t consider myself a tourist and always prefer a more local and pure Colombian experience. My goal is to integrate into Colombian culture and society as much as possible. That’s the spirit I travel and write from. All are welcome in my book.
My brothaa , you look like an awesome dude to hang with. Im trying to go to Colombian in January, Bogota , Medellin , then Cartegna . I wanted to know which is the best city to go to? Would Air bnb be a good choice for a couple weeks in Medellin? I have Zero spanish language ability but like you I can adapt real easy as I am originally from the Motherland. Where would be the best place to stay in Medellin ?
Hey Jones, thanks for writing. “Which is the best city” is purely subjective. It all depends on what you’re looking for and what you like. In terms of lodging, AirBnB is a great resource for any Colombian city. In the meantime, start working on that Spanish. In my opinion, speaking as much of the language as possible is always the first step in entering the culture and connecting with the people after you’ve entered the country.
Feel free to write me directly: firstname.lastname@example.org
Dope read Family. As a Brooklynite with Caribbean heritage I could relate to your blog in many ways. Looking to visit my boy in Medellin very soon!
I’m glad you enjoyed the column. Safe travels, especially here to Colombia.
Don’t remember last time I read an article and felt the heart of the writer so colorfully and authentically. Your piece and the great comments have helped me to decide to visit Columbia. Just turned 59 years old, love salsa music (not that great at dancing to it) and a native New Yorker whose thinking about retirement outside of New York area. Definitely going to work on my Spanish and probably hit you up for some advise down the road. Thanks again for sharing your heartfelt experiences with us.
Hey Walter. Thanks for writing and thanks for the great comments. Covid notwithstanding, Colombia is great. I’ll be here when you swing through and will help with anything I can.
Insightful and well-written. A lot of travel articles just talk about what sightseeing boxes to check, places to take the best pics at, etc.. you travel with a much wiser lens and reflection on your experiences. Even writing on Comuna 13 shows you have some ethical compass and thoughts on how your interaction impacts the community. Many tourists don’t give that a single thought.
It’s interesting to reflect on how you’re perceived or seen when visiting another community. Thanks for posting.
Rich, thank you much for this thoughtful comment. I’m glad you enjoyed the post.
Wow how racist! very very gringo yank!