The multiple warnings will not stop me.
A volunteer in the Barranquilla Peace Corps office reminds me, “The barrio where you worked is a red zone now for Peace Corps. We’re not allowed there for security reasons.” I figure that I’m no longer under the jurisdiction of Peace Corps.
I query several taxi drivers about Las Americas. Is it dangerous? They all agree that it is, but I find this difficult to believe or maybe I just don’t want to believe it.
Besides, I’m working on a contact there. Weeks ago I wrote to the Office of Citizen Participation in the Barranquilla City Hall, explained my story and requested help in contacting the president of the barrio’s Junta of Community Action. I received no response. I worried that my search would lead me to a dead end.
The morning after my arrival I head to the sixth floor of the bustling City Hall. Expecting difficulties after all the years that have passed, I’m anxious to begin. I have only a week. At the front desk I am directed to a man nearby. “Jorge Romero is the one to talk to.”
Yes, he had received my email.
“You didn’t answer me.”
“Elections are this Sunday and it’s been a very busy time.”
“Can you help me? I want to contact the president of the Junta in barrio Las Americas. I want to go there and need someone from there to accompany me. People tell me it’s dangerous.”
He checks his computer and writes down the name of the president, address and cell phone number. Telephones in Las Américas! I’m thrilled.
Sr. Romero picks up his phone. I realize he’s calling Alfonso, the president. He explains who I am and that I will be contacting him.
“How do I get there?” I ask. “I checked out the barrio on Google Earth. It’s so changed now. I’d get lost.”
He prints out a Google map and traces a line on it for the taxi to follow. I could have kissed him.
That evening I call Alfonso, and we make plans to meet at his house the day after next. I’d promised my husband I wouldn’t go there alone, so I’ve asked Flaco Bob to accompany me.
Bob and I flag down one of the ubiquitous yellow Chevrolet Spark taxis that swarm through the city like indomitable bees. I ask the driver if he’s willing to go there. “I have this map” I say, handing it to him.
We take a wide, busy street lined with small businesses and stores and, after half an hour, turn left onto the street marked on my map. The driver says, “This is Las Americas.”
I gaze out the taxi window in shock and disappointment. In the rows of solid simple houses nothing is familiar. No remembered landmarks. Where is the barrio of my memories? We soon pull up to Alfonso’s house, its façade papered with a huge ad promoting him for city “edil” in Sunday’s elections. (I had to look that one up. Edile: a magistrate in ancient Rome in charge of public works, buildings and roads.) A young man appears in the open doorway, wearing a tee-shirt proclaiming Junta de Acción Comunal Las Americas. We shake hands and he invites Bob and me inside. The bare cement walls and floor look freshly constructed. Was this until recently a wooden shack?
“Las Américas is so changed,” I tell Alfonso. “Nothing looks familiar.” I pull an envelope out of my purse. “I noticed on the city webpage you’ve written a short history of the barrio. I’ve brought copies of some old photos for you, so you can see what the barrio was like then.” I hand him a photo. “Here are the men working on the health center. This one shows the inauguration.”
He studies the photos with great interest. “We have a new health center now,” he says. “We’ll have to go there.”
“And the original health center we built?” I’m anxious to see it. So much sacrifice and sweat went into its construction. My parents held a fund raiser to pay for the roof.
“The city is going to rebuild it and convert it into a senior center.”
We step outside into the shade of a tree. I look around. Instead of wooden shacks perched precariously on rolling hills of eroded, barren red soil, I see trees, vegetation and cinder-block houses. A few shacks remain like the one next door to Alfonso where he tells me three families live. I tell Bob, “That’s what all the houses were like when I worked here.”
Women wander up and join us, including Alfonso’s sister and his mother, a small, smiling woman wearing a white tee-shirt with the image of a pious-looking saint and the saint’s name, Santa María Goretti. Alfonso introduces us explaining that I’m the one who helped build the old health center. More gather. I immediately forget the names given. Not one is familiar. Alfonso passes the photos around.
“Look, there’s my father in that photo!” says a neighbor.
We start off down a paved street, Alfonso and his sister like emissaries escorting visiting dignitaries. On a corner under a tree a group of young men in blue jeans and tee-shirts hang out with their motorcycles. I’m wary. The term “red zone” pops up in my mind like a warning flag. But Alfonso walks right up to the group and introduces me. “These men all drive moto-taxis,” he explains. He shows them the photos I’ve brought. They pass them around, pointing out people they recognize.
“That’s what Las Americas looked like fifty years ago,” I tell them.
We laugh, and they crowd around for photos, me perched on a motorcycle seat. I even consider the possibility of arranging a ride back to the hotel later with one of them, until I recall the recklessness of those motorcyclists in crowded downtown.
Alfonso moves our little party along. “Let’s go down this street where Señora Nidia lives.”
Older women in faded shorts and skirts, tee-shirts and flip-flops drift out of neighboring houses. Again names flit by, air-borne words I cannot grasp. Most remember me, and I feel badly that I don’t remember them. I want to remember them. But I worked mainly with men when I was here, all of whom are now dead.
“Oh yes, my mother used to talk about Señorita Susana.”
“My grandmother spoke of you.”
“You knew my mother. I’m the daughter of Modesta Borerro.”
“Of course, Señora Modesta,” I say. “She was always dressed in black and had a severely malnourished grandchild, Doris. Didn’t she die?”
“No! Doris is married and has children.”
We gather in a semi-circle for multiple photos, our arms linked.
A woman crosses the street towards us. “Here’s Nancy Vasquez,” someone says.
“Nancy!” We hug and laugh. She had been a teenager in a women’s group we organized back then. I show her a photo where she appears.
Alfonso urges us on. “I’d like to see the old health center,” I tell him. “My friends Fidelia and Petra lived on the same street.” We ask at various doorways (always open to welcome the slightest breeze), but the news is not good. Both had passed away. I’m also terribly saddened to see that the health center is boarded up, the construction now considered unsafe, but I take comfort in knowing that it served this community for several decades.
The large modern health center looks out of place, as if some city official plunked it down here by mistake. How is it possible? This in Las Américas? In the spacious, immaculate, air-conditioned interior, Alfonso introduces me to the doctor and a nurse. I’m pleased when the doctor tells me that he used to work in the old health center, indicating to me his dedication to this community, one that many doctors might avoid. Several patients are waiting their turn. One smiles and waves. “I remember you!”
We visit a ‘mega-school’, one of two that receive children from pre-kinder age through high school. Neatly-uniformed boys and girls chatter and scurry through the hallways. A tussle erupts between two young boys. “He hit me with his backpack.” Hallway bulletin boards carry messages about democratic values and beneficial environmental practices. Our tour includes the gym which serves as a cafeteria where the students receive lunch. Alfonso introduces me to the school director, a small, middle-aged man with a very long grey beard. He explains that a Canadian Baptist organization founded and runs the school.
“Are these children all from Las Américas?” I ask.
He reassures me they are. We pose for photos with other administrators and two small children. I photograph the littlest ones napping on mats. As we leave, I congratulate the director on the magnificent work they do. I am in a state of disbelief. Is this really the same barrio that fifty years ago had just one two-room school?
Bob comments that my face is very red. Beads of perspiration slide down my neck, my arms, under my bra, but I can’t say no when Alfonso says I must see the church, which I remembered, and meet the priest. Adjacent to the church is the Escuela Golda Meir, founded by the Barranquilla Jewish women’s community. Different faiths in harmony side by side.
I’m elated to see the many improvements in infrastructure and services in my old barrio: running water, schools, health centers, football fields and some paved streets. But, talking to the neighbors, I realize that most of these improvements only occurred in the past decade, under the administrations of the past two mayors, one of whom will undoubtedly be re-elected on Sunday. Yet, I knew it took much longer for each determined, hard-working family to convert its fragile wooden shack into a solid house, cement block by cement block.
Alfonso is busy with elections just four days off, so I suggest we find a taxi.
“But I don’t want to leave until I’ve seen Agripina.” She was another 13 year-old in our women’s group. Alfonso guides the taxi driver up a rocky incline to a small, rundown house. He announces my arrival to Agripina. I pass through the front door of peeling brown paint into a small drab living room, equipped with a few basic pieces of furniture. I would never have recognized her without the introduction. How can this gaunt, bent and flat-chested woman be the same person as the perky, smiling girl with hopeful eyes in the photo I carry? We embrace and then smile for the camera against the backdrop of a cracked, patched wall and a crude, lopsided painting. I show her the black and white snapshot I brought. It is my only copy but it is all I have to give to her. We hug farewell. I cannot linger; the taxi awaits us outside.
I feel overwhelmed as if a whirlwind has whisked me through the barrio, a dream run in fast-forward. So many more questions to ask. I thought maybe someone might have invited me back another day for a more leisurely visit. I would have suggested it if I’d had more time to chat. I had wanted to visit Eugenia the former president’s wife, now a widow. In spite of the deplorable conditions in which I saw her decades ago, she outlived her husband.
We drop off Alfonso and his sister at a corner. I thank him and wish him suerte in the upcoming elections. Although I’m on the verge of sunstroke, I lament that this will be my only visit to this place that marked me with such an outpouring of love – then and now.
Just three short hours after fifty long years.
October, 2015, Barranquilla