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The Country as a Mirror: Reflections of a Young Colombian in Bristol


Pablo Uribe, photographed by the author in Bristol (United Kingdom).

This is the second post in a series of interviews that explore the experiences of Latin Americans who leave their countries of origin in search of new opportunities, and look back on their home countries with changed outlooks. In this post, Ana Hernández talks to Pablo Uribe, a young Colombian political scientist, who has obtained Spanish citizenship and recently made Bristol his new home. The first of these interviews, conducted with a Dominican businessman in Spain, can be read here.

Pablo Uribe has lived outside of Colombia for 14 years. For him, eating sancocho soup is a deeply nostalgic experience. He is from Medellín, and spent some of his life in Madrid, Colombia, too. Pablo left the country when he was 19 years old. Now a Spanish citizen, he's still as much an explorer today as ever, living in Bristol, where, during this interview, he reflected on Medellín and the idea of leaving, returning, and seeing oneself reflected in a single country: 

[Yo] era muy de la idea de volver a Colombia, tanto era así que al principio de vivir en Madrid fui muy reticente a pensar en mi situación administrativa como extranjero. Con el tiempo finalmente me hice ciudadano español; pero cuando ya vas por la segunda migración la casa que queda más cerca es la que acabas de dejar atrás. Terminas con un caos identitario importante.

I was all about the idea of coming back to Colombia, so much so that when I first started living in Madrid, I was very reluctant to think about my legal situation as a foreigner. Over time, I finally became a Spanish citizen, but when you immigrate for the second time, the home that ends up being closest is the one you just left behind. You end up having a significant identity crisis. 

The young political scientist maintains his roots by remaining in contact with his family and friends. Online social networks make help preserve these relationships. Additionally, publications like SemanaEl EspectadorLa Otra Orilla and La Silla Vacía, solely for political news, are also important points of reference. 

Although he hadn't traveled abroad until he was 19-years-old, Pablo had plenty of time to grab a backpack and explore Colombia. He started at the age of 14, taking advantage of weekends, holidays, and school vacations: 

Fue durante esos años de adolescencia que visité la costa atlántica pero también la montaña; la cordillera en la zona cafetera, todo los alrededores de Medellín. Bajé también hasta Bogotá y continué luego con algunos otros lugares. Quizá sea que Colombia no tiene grandes atractivos como el Machu Pichu, la ruinas aztecas en México o el Perito Moreno en Argentina, pero creo que en conjunto es muy atractivo, cada parte hace un todo donde su gente es lo mejor.

It was during those teenage years that I visited the Atlantic coast, but also the mountains; the mountain ranges in the coffee-harvesting areas, the outskirts of Medellin. I also went down to Bogotá and later continued on to other places. Colombia might not have big attractions like Machu Picchu, the Aztec ruins in Mexico, or the Perito Moreno glacier in Argentina, but I think that overall it is very attractive, each part makes up a whole where its people are the best. 

Pablo also talks about how Medellín probably experienced its most tumultuous period during his childhood, when it was immersed in conflicts stemming from the drug trade: 

En los años 80 y hasta que muere Pablo Escobar en 1993, fundador y líder del Cartel de Medellín, la tasa de homicidios andaba entonces casi por el doble de lo que están ahora algunas de las ciudades de Centroamérica. Eso fue una guerra abierta y total.

Throughout the 1980s and until 1993, when Pablo Escobar, the founder and leader of the Medellín Cartel, died, the homicide rate hovered at around double what it is now in some Central American cities. It was complete and open warfare. 

Still smiling and explaining this with pause, Pablo remembers how a bomb was planted in front of his grandmother's house, how he used to think that his father would never return from work, or how, even as a teenager, he recalled entering a restaurant for water and finding three armed guerrillas playing pool: 

No siempre te encuentras un tío con un fusil en un billar, pero era algo que ya no te producía miedo. Luego sí, después la cosa se complicó y tenía su riesgo salir por ahí, el peligro era objetivo. Ahora, que lo veo con perspectiva, pienso que viajar por el país en solitario es algo que no debí haberle hecho a mi mamá.

It's not every day that you come across a guy with a gun at a pool table, but it was something that didn't scare you anymore. Later yes, after things got complicated and it was risky to go out there, the danger was real. Now that I see it in perspective, I think that traveling around the country alone is something that I should not have inflicted on my mother. 

Pablo, who is 33-years-old now, cannot pass up the occasion to talk about what was happening in Colombia when he was about to leave: 

El surgimiento de una extrema derecha, que se presentó ante todos con un discurso radical que apelaba al miedo y al nacionalismo, dejó poco margen para la crítica.

The rise of the extreme right, which presented itself to everyone with a radical discourse that appealed to fear and nationalism, left little room for criticism. 

It was at that very moment that Pablo discovered politics and would go on to study political science in Spain afterwards: 

Ahí fue inevitable no toparme con la realidad política de Colombia, y al vivirlo desde fuera creo que estuve en una posición privilegiada; por verlo con distancia y tener referentes con qué compararlo. Entonces choqué mucho con Colombia. Y aún hoy me queda reconciliarme con mi país en muchos aspectos.

There it was impossible not to run into Colombia's political reality, and I think I was in a privileged position to have experienced it from outside the country, seeing it at a distance and having references to which to compare it. So I disagreed with Colombia a lot. And even today, I have to reconcile with a lot about my country. 

Pablo also drew attention to people’s reluctance to listen to criticism in certain cases: 

Cuando un país, una religión o una ideología está estigmatizada, se le convierte en victima y entonces sucede que está mal visto hacer crítica. Eso ocurría en Colombia. La nación entera cargaba con el estigma de ser un país inseguro y de narcotraficantes; así cuando llegó [el ahora ex-presidente de Colombia] Álvaro Uribe e hizo un discurso derechista, muy agresivo con la crítica que venía de fuera, todo se potenció. Y al que estaba fuera no se le consideraba suficientemente autorizado, su juicio no tenía la misma validez y se le acusaba de desconocimiento y de sesgo. Hubo una vez que un periodista que no era colombiano expuso que Medellín era el burdel a cielo abierto más grande del mundo. Ahí se le cayó la reprobación encima.

When a country, religion, or ideology is stigmatized, it becomes a victim and drawing criticism becomes frowned upon. This was happening in Colombia. The entire nation bore the stigma of being an unsafe country, full of drug traffickers. So when [the now former president of Colombia] Álvaro Uribe came and made an aggressive, right-wing speech, people were more than ready to hand over power, despite what the rest of the world was saying. People outside the country weren't considered sufficiently informed, their judgement wasn't worth the same, and they were accused of ignorance and bias. Once, a journalist who was not Colombian proposed that Medellín was the largest outdoor brothel in the world. And for that, he was ostracized.

Finally, Pablo reflects on the traditional media's “narco-telenovelas,” a television genre based on stories related to drug trafficking, and how other initiatives in the world of arts and culture manage to open the spectrum of Colombians’ self-understanding: 

[No obstante] aprendimos a vivir con las diferencias. Y aunque fuimos exportadores de narco telenovelas que contribuyeron a estigmatizar la población o a objetivizar y denigrar a la mujer, hoy día hay en Colombia mucha gente está haciendo cosas muy buenas. Hay cosas interesantísimas dentro de la cultura, del arte o la música. Falta que llegue la normalización política, pero llegará 

[Nonetheless] we learn to live with differences. And although we were exporters of narco telenovelas that helped stigmatize the population and objectify and denigrate women, today there are many people doing very good things in Colombia. There are extremely interesting things within the culture, art, and music. The only thing missing is political normalization, but it will come. 

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