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  • Isabel Sanchez

Foreigner at Home

Updated: Jan 30, 2019

Dedicated to my loving and beautiful Aunt Siva. May you always live on in my heart.


The first thing you learn about a person is his/her name. Based on this given name, your mind subconsciously crafts images and ideas about the person. Luigi? He must be Italian. Brad? He must be athletic. Angelina? She must be a badass.


I was born with the surname Sanchez - the 8th most common Hispanic surname in the world - so naturally, people assume I’m Latina. As the daughter of Colombian parents, my childhood was characterized by Latin traditions. Christmas meant midnight empanadas, birthdays meant hours of dancing to Ricky Martin, and family reunions meant rounds of aguardiente (or as my dad lovingly calls it, jet fuel). On the contrary, home didn’t mean conversing in Spanish and vacation didn’t mean visits to Colombia. In fact, the only line of Spanish I seemed to know was, “Hola, como estás?” After that, the conversation always trailed off into an uncomfortable declaration of my inability to speak the language… but I always secretly hoped that someday, my mouth would create the same beautiful sounds that I heard rolling off the tongues of my parents.


As I got older, the disconnect between myself and other Hispanics grew until I could no longer see the common thread that once connected us. My mind became clouded with stinging comments of you are not Latina enough, and I questioned one of my dearest personal truths. It felt like a mid-life crisis arriving 20 years prematurely. And for a brief moment I thought: maybe they are right.


At that time, I remembered one of my dad’s many phrases of wisdom: a little bit of fear is healthy, because courage and fear go hand in hand. And I admit that in that moment, I was afraid. I feared the loss of my identity, I feared that my future children would never share in our treasured traditions, and I feared that every passing day was another moment of inaction that would only carry me further from my family’s roots. So, unwilling to surrender my identity, I gathered my courage. Fast forward six months. I am on a plane to Manizales, Colombia where I will spend the next three months studying in my grandfather’s hometown.

Like any good romance, my relationship with the Spanish language was all-consuming. Some days, as Edgar Allan Poe put it, “We loved with a love that was more than love.” Other days, we fought like hell. With each passing day, the culture consumed me and the language tempted me. I jumped into the waters of Colombia feet first, allowing myself to drown in it.

I immediately moved in with my two great aunts, Tia Melva and Tia Silvia, both widowed and fully prepared to turn me into their pseudo granddaughter. Despite their shared height of barely five feet, each had dramatically different personalities. Melva traveled via personal driver, made weekly trips to the salon, and enjoyed frequent crocheting sessions (or as I called them, gossiping sessions) with her other well-coifed friends. Silvia, on the other hand, opted out of makeup most days and enjoyed quiet afternoons spent napping or reading. However, both of them embodied everything I had hoped to find in Colombia: a sense of family, a feeling of acceptance, and the sweet spice of Colombian culture.


Most days, I woke up before sunrise and was greeted by Margarita, the family maid, and one my favorite women in Colombia. She was petite, yet sturdy, with facial features that showed her indigenous roots. Her tanned skin wrinkled into deep smile lines every time we saw each other – a greeting that meant more to me than any spoken words – and her hands showed the proof of years of labor. “Que quieres comer? – What do you want to eat?” I would point at the eggs, bright orange papaya, and powdered hot chocolate on the counter. Margarita has worked for my aunt for over 40 years, and her cooking skills remain unmatched.


Every morning around 7:30 AM, I was picked up by Don Luis, my aunt’s driver. At a first glance, I would have never guessed his advanced age of 82 years – partly because of his NASCAR-like driving skills that weaved us through the maddening Colombian traffic, and partly because on weekends, he hikes about 12 miles a day through the Manizales mountains. Don Luis was in charge of getting me to and from each of my daily activities, including Spanish classes, lunch, dance lessons, cooking lessons, and any other declared plans. Communication of my schedule was done via Google translate until I had the knowledge and confidence to explain in Spanish.


In Colombia, economic class differences remain a prominent part of society, and a classic example can be seen in the driver-passenger relationship. As the passenger, it was expected that I sit in the back seat of the car. Maybe it was my American upbringing, or maybe it was my sense of empathy, but I couldn’t bring myself to sit back there. So, every morning, I pointed to the front seat, and Don Luis hesitantly opened the heavy silver door for me. I hoped that this tiny action would begin to close the gap between him and me. We spent an average of 8 hours a day together, and our simple, dozen-word conversations became one of the things I looked most forward to. As we passed street vendors and run-down buildings, Don Luis would point out objects and tell me their names in Spanish. Every day without fail, about two lights down from my aunt’s apartment, he would pull the car over for a brief moment, roll down the window, and hand a few pesos to a homeless, disabled friend of his. I never learned this man’s story, but his legs were of no use, and he could only move about with the help of forearm crutches. Most mornings, I would also share some pesos, and Don Luis always made sure to say, “De la niña – from the girl,” and the man would flash me a decaying smile of gratitude. I will never forget leaving Don Luis on my last day in Colombia. His unexpected parting tears still make my throat tighten up.


Monday through Friday, I began my days with Spanish classes. I enrolled at the University of Caldas where my grandfather had gone to medical school nearly 60 years prior. In generous terms, the international program was small. Each morning I would hike up the concrete stairs to the fourth floor of the building where the international center was located. There was no AC, but Manizales rests at 7,000 feet above sea level, so I was more concerned with staying warm. I had one classmate, Bert, from the Philippines. With such an unassuming name, and his daily attire of a graphic tee and jeans, I would have never guessed that he was a religious friar on a mission trip in Colombia. He was teaching philosophy to high school students, in Spanish – a fact that I never understood since we were both enrolled in a beginner’s level Spanish course. Class was four hours long, and I always left with a heavy feeling of mental exhaustion. Before immersing yourself in a language, no one tells you that the first few weeks are comparable to a mental prison. Not a single person around me spoke English, so I resorted to perpetual silence. I often envisioned the thoughts that I longed to express, clanking on the bars of my mind like pirates with their metal mugs. I would sometimes try to express myself in English, with the hopes that my professor would understand, but she would simply tell me – “No puedes hablar ingles en mi clase – you cannot speak English in my class.” I would sigh, and once again retreat into my head.


After class, Don Luis would promptly take me back to my aunt’s home, where a multi-course meal prepared by Margarita awaited. To this day, my mouth still waters when thinking about the aroma of fresh cooking and cilantro that seeped out of the apartment cracks each day around 1 PM. Our meals always began with a salad – crisp shredded lettuce and shaved carrots topped with a drizzle of lime juice. Next, we would be served either beef or chicken paired with sweet plantains, rice, and fresh tomatoes sprinkled with salt. Each meal was accompanied by my favorite item, a freshly made smoothie that showcased the rich and exotic fruits of Colombia such as lulo and cherimoya. After stuffing myself to the point of a food coma, siestas ensued.


It should be noted that afternoon siestas sounded like a great idea (especially to me, a pro-napper) until I learned that the local fruit vendor chose 2 PM as his prime time to advertise. Through my seven-story high window, I heard the tan man in his white button-down shirt yelling “AGUACATE, AGUACATE, AGUACATE” until a stray passerby would stop to purchase – you guessed it – an avocado.


After a failed nap, one of my favorite afternoon activities was heading to dance class. In Colombia, music and dance runs through the colorful veins of the people. Through the inexplicably intertwined network that my Colombian family has, I was put in contact with Freddy, a trainer of world-champion Tango dancers. His studio was a single, unassuming room that rested on the bottom floor of his home, which sat on one of the steepest streets in Manizales. I often imagined the building sliding away down the mountainside. Twice a week, I would throw on my yoga pants, tank top, and tennis shoes, and jump into a one-on-one class with Freddy. It was during this hour that my trapped thoughts were finally set free through the language of dance. Over the weeks, he taught me Salsa, Bachata, Tango, and the Milonga. However, as a classically trained ballerina (and unfortunately, an American gringa) learning Latin dance didn’t come naturally. Ballet is very linear while Latin dance is very circular. Picking up the steps was easy, but picking up the style was another story. Freddy, in his chic white tennis shoes and tight button down would say, “Más movimiento, menos ballet.” With each passing class, I fell into a more natural rhythm, and I quickly developed a love affair with Tango. I always left class longing for just one more dance.



At the end of each day, I would come home to my sweet aunts and listen to them chat about the day’s events. I chimed in here and there, but most of the time I just listened. I would look out the large glass windows, and admire the expansive view of the Manizales mountains – a carpet of deep green that covered rocky peaks as far as I could see. I could have sworn it was a green screen. At night, I would lie in my bed and replay the day – what did I learn? what did I accomplish? what was I feeling? The smallest tears of happiness would pool in my eyes as I thought – I am Latina enough.


© 2020 Isabel Sanchez Photography