When was the last time you felt truly energized yet simultaneously refreshed?
Despite the bite of cold air when I walked off the plane back here in Seattle last weekend, I felt completely refreshed. For the previous two weeks, I was in Cali and Armenia, Colombia visiting friends, former students and family.
The idea of family took on a new meaning during this most recent trip — the 7th I’ve made back to Colombia since my adoption into the U.S. as a baby. This time I met several of my biological father’s extended family members. The catch is the following: my biological father has absolutely no idea I exist.
The details about how this situation arose is detailed in the pages you’ll read in the memoir, more specifically in the final chapter and the epilogue of the book. I’m still struggling to piece it all together. The most difficult aspect of meeting them was accepting and trying to embrace their privileged lifestyle, knowing I come directly from them.
During the past 15 years, I’ve grown accustomed to how my biological mother’s family lives. They are all black and exist on the fringes of the most impoverished sectors of Colombian society. In many cases, material luxuries are unfathomable fantasies. Eating foods that are not fried or planning ahead for post-secondary education opportunities are life choices perceived to be restricted to wealthy Colombians in the high rise apartment complexes throughout the country....
High rise apartment complexes nestled between rolling green mountains like the one I was welcomed into by Luis Fernando, a former candidate for governor of the Quindío province and my second cousin whom I met in early 2019 via 23andMe.
Luis was extremely friendly and made me feel at home instantly as his relatives poured into his apartment to meet me. We sat on white leather couches with several beverages and I answered as many questions about my life as I could. For as much as I wanted, conversations about who my biological father could be did not surface—the goal was simply to get to know one another. It was surreal to be with them as they laughed, yelled, joked and asked more questions about my adoptive family and my biological mother’s family. I couldn’t help but let myself drift into a bewildering haze of “what if”s.
What if my biological father had known of my birth—would he have tried to raise me among these people I sat sipping coffee with? What if he and my biological mother would have stayed together long-term? What if I’m the product of a rape and she was never able to tell me her truth? What if I would have been raised with these people, with their priorities and level of access in a deeply corrupt country? The list could go on and on.
Luis Fernando snapped me out of my thoughts with a question: “are you ready to go visit where your great grandmother was from? We’ll go the day after tomorrow”. He went on to explain she was from the small town of Filandia and was someone who enjoyed great privilege and standing in the area, complete with a house that overlooked the main plaza in the town. A house on the main plaza was synonymous with power and influence.
After a couple days of sight-seeing around Armenia, Buenavista, Pijao and Salento, we arrived on a cool late morning in Filandia to the busy chorus of jeeps, light cantina music and the sound of horse hooves on pavement. We wasted no time in walking to the plaza and Luis showed me where my great grandmother’s house was. Her second floor view would have been spectacular, easily able to see the entire plaza as well as the mountains in the background.
My mind raced back to more questions... my paternal great grandmother and my maternal great grandmother would have lived polar opposite lives - what would a conversation between them have looked like? A privileged white Colombian woman in a small conservative town in the coffee growing region of the country and the daughter of a slave in a small black town on the Pacific coast... their paths would have surely never crossed.
And there I stood, in a way representing both of them while representing neither. If they both would see me there in the plaza, looking up at the former house and taking pictures with my iphone...what would they say? Would one of them be proud and the other disgusted? I admit, I'm still struggling to embrace that I come from a privileged family on my biological father's side. It is 100% reluctant acceptance.
Still, we made our way to one of Luis Fernando's cousins' house, just a couple blocks away. Her name was Ofelia and she welcomed us with open arms. Luis made an elaborate introduction of how he and I met then slowly handed Ofelia's daughter a large manila folder. He asked them to have a look inside and to all of our surprise, he said they were the original baptism documents for 16 of my great grandmother's children. "One of the people in those documents is your grandmother or grandfather", he boomed proudly while smiling at me. Turning to the others he joked, "now we just need to find out who was with a black lady in Cali in the 80s. Simple!"
It will be anything but simple. Fortunately multiple people in Cali, Filandia, NewJersey, Armenia, Bogotá and Pereira will be speaking to extended family members throughout this year in an effort to find out more information. I'm confident that by the end of the year we will have a handful of names of men who could be my biological father. I've already prepared a 5-page letter and when we have the names, I'll forward the letter to people close to those men. They will deliver copies of the letter and we will see what emerges from that process. Stay tuned here for more updates as the year marches forward.
The other highlight of this most recent trip back to Colombia was the hope I saw in one of my cousins' eyes as she prepares her last year of high school and looks towards opportunities to study law. It was a pleasant surprise to learn of her ambition - we hadn't spoken about it during my last visit at all. Her name is Kelly and she is my uncle Vicente's second oldest daughter. She is quiet at first but once she opens up, she is hilarious and witty at the same time. We were able to talk a lot about her future (and that of her family) up in the mountains outside of Cali at a family friend's breathtaking eco park (if you or someone you know is heading to southern Colombia, let me know and I'll happily provide you with the details). I took Kelly and her younger sister Chaira to the place because it's important for their young minds to be exposed to different surroundings, especially ones as beautiful as that location.
Kelly doesn't shy away from difficult questions. She was curious about my undergrad and grad school studies but then shifted to asking what it was like being adopted. She asked if my family in the U.S. treated me well, if I was happy with them and if I would ever consider adopting a child (you'll find the answers to these and more questions in the book!). Her calm yet inquisitive demeanor inspired me to ask if she'd want to meet with some of my lawyer friends in the city to learn about what to expect from the next phase of her education. "Of course, right away!" she responded without thinking twice. So we set it up and she will meet with some of them this month. She seems quite determined and prepared to do the work. Time will tell to see if she is indeed able to pursue her academic dreams.