Embracing my Sangre Indígena in Colombia

Inspired by Cindy Medina’s article Descubriendo Mis Raices / Discovering my Roots about her trip to El Salvador, the land her parents are from. These series of posts are about Latina travel bloggers connecting with their ‘motherland’, also known as the country that one or both parents are from, where they were born but only spent their childhood there, where close or extended family still live, and/or they have visited throughout their life.

Up until recently, Colombians often used a saying “no seas indio”, literal translation being “don’t be an Indian.” What’s the actual meaning, you ask? Significa:  “don’t be an idiot” or “don’t be stupid.” Colombians have grappled with issues of race and ethnicity since the time of Spanish colonization and conquest. Afro-Colombians, Indigenous groups, and dark-skinned mestizos deal with racial discrimination in Colombia every day. They are less able to have access to educational opportunities needed to better their livelihood, to acquire certain jobs that help to accumulate wealth, targeted disproportionately by police authorities, and/or to live in more favorable areas that are closer to better opportunities and safety. In addition, lighter skin is considered more beautiful by Colombian society’s standards. If you look at the majority of the Reinas de Belleza, or the Beauty Pageant events that are followed as much as fútbol, you will notice the majority of the contenders or winners have lighter, almost white skin. Considering the fact that the white or lighter skin demographic does not match the majority (roughly 80% of the population is non-white) of women that represent the whole population, there is something wrong with how beauty is viewed. Latin Americans, and the rest of the world, struggle to deal with the fact that people of darker skin are treated differently because they are stereotyped as unable to learn, ugly, dirty, savage, less-than, and poor. Unfortunately, it is no different within my own family, especially since many members of my family have darker skin while others have white skin, including every shade in between. There is a sense of shame to have darker skin, especially by the older generation.

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My abuela “Clarita” with my cousin Caro, who always got called “Pocahontas” growing up. Here they are in Villa de Leyva, Colombia.

I always thought very deeply about my race and ethnicity ever since I was young. For instance, I associated my non-white yet lighter brown skin to ‘ugly’ or ‘less than’ when I was in elementary school living in San Antonio, Texas. I wanted my Dad’s blue eyes, white skin, and blond hair. I’m not sure how or why I already held that view at that age since we interacted most with many Mexican-American, Colombian-American, or other Latin American families while living there. When we moved to Mexico in 1997 for 2 years, I was made fun of for having a mezcla of a Gringo and a Colombian accent. I was confused because I thought I identified with most of my classmates since most of them physically looked like me, and they also spoke Spanish. Granted, I did not understand the difference between Mexican Spanish & identity with my own Spanish mix & blended identity in the 4th grade. By 5th grade I was finally saying Mexicanisms like “que padre” rather than Colombianisms like “que chévere.” Soon came another culture shock. My family and I moved to the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan in 1999. We were one of the few non-white (with the exception of my Dad) families in town. Starting my first year of middle school feeling like a foreigner, even though I was born in the US, was not the greatest feeling. 8th grade was the first time I ever filled out an anonymous form about demographics that threw me into an identity crisis. We could only “check one”: _Caucasian, _African-American or African, _Native American or Pacific Islander, or _Asian-American or Asian. There was no “other” option, and there was no option to check two. I knew I felt like I didn’t identify with being Caucasian as much as being Colombian even though I was 50/50, purely because I was always asked “what I was” and automatically placed in a box other than Caucasian by classmates. I had no idea what to choose. This was the first time I realized I must have Native-Colombian-South American roots, so I asked my platinum blonde history teacher if I could check that. She told me that one can only check “Native American” if one has official Tribal documentation or identification. Considering the dilemma, I checked Caucasian. Another impactful experience was a mission trip my sister and I took to the the Pine Ridge reservation with the Oglala Lakota in South Dakota. This experience allowed me to see that I felt connected though I knew I really cannot call myself Indigenous or Native since I did not experience life as such in the US or in the rest of Americas. Years later when I pursued my higher education at the University of Michigan, it allowed me a space to explore my identity intellectually, culturally, and socially. It wasn’t until the summer after I graduated that I connected the most with my roots, let alone embraced them wholeheartedly with orgullo (pride).

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My familia Colombiana: Abuela Clarita is in the center (of course), abuelo Jaime is the bald gentleman. The siblings in order of age is Martha (my Mami) with the red collar, Tia Maria Clara with the pearl necklace, Tio Carlos Jaime with the black hair, and Tia Rosita with the bright colors. Tio Carlos with the glasses is Maria Clara’s husband, my dad Richard with the cool tie, and Tia Diana in gray is Carlos Jaime’s wife. The cousins starting with the youngest Andres, Maria Clara’s son, my sister Michele with the big bow, my prima Diana Carolina with the bangs, and me (matching my sister’s dress). ****This photo was taken in 1994 when we visited Colombia. I want to note that it appears as if many of my family members’ skin tones where lightened.***

It was the summer after my 2010 graduation, and Colombian family joined forces and bought me a plane ticket as a gift to come visit them in Colombia. Spirit Airlines was brand new, and I bought a ticket for $432.70 after taxes and fees! Weirdly, it was my first time visiting without my sister, Mami, or Dad. Prior to that summer, I had traveled to visit my Mami’s side of the family 4 times throughout my life, at each stage: 1) toddler years, 2) Elementary School, 3) Middle School for a whole summer without the parents, and 4) High School. I knew it was going to be an unforgettable month just me and los Chavarriaga, with not a cent in my bank account and still no job prospects.

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Great Cousin Ninía, abuelos’s cousin, with her husband

The beginning of my trip began with my free-spirited Aunt Maria Clara telling me some unexpected information about our lineage history. Coming from a family who’s older generation adamantly declares that we are 100% of Spanish (see: European) descent, it was a pleasant shock to start my trip with the new found information that my tátara (great-great) grandfather on my abuelo’s side was a Muiska chieftan who purchased the Spanish name “Ramirez” in order to gain status and power in society at that time. Seeing that this was a progressive statement for her to say, Maria Clara also warned me that my abuelo and his siblings were very upset because of her claims. This could be because abuelo and his siblings have dark brown skin complexion, and therefore they most likely have experienced discrimination in ways that they themselves are ashamed to accept. I vaguely remember her saying they stopped talking to her and refused to see her when she would visit Bogotá from her current hometown of Manizales. Maria Clara reflected back to the time she found out the family history when she was a little girl hanging out with Ninía, her father’s (my abuelo’s) cousin one summer. Ninía had told her that their grandfather was 100% indigenous. The original family name was Balsero, which is the Muiska name for someone who handles a canoe. Fast forward to 2016, and one of my inspirations to write this article is because my abuelo is getting older and starting to show signs of dementia/Alzheimer’s. This also means he finally admitted this year that his grandfather was in fact indigenous, according to my Tia Maria Clara. I am sure this is not the only instance of indigenous roots in my maternal family tree, but the only one with verbal proof from several sources. Maria Clara continues to find ways to search for documentation to further prove these claims.

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Abuelo Jaime with his siblings starting with him on the right to left: Guillermo, Gloria, Lilia, Olga, and Hernán.

Back to the summer of 2010, with the exciting new family history on my mind, my family informed me we would be taking a road trip together throughout Colombia. We made 9 significant stops throughout our trip: Zipaquirá, Bucaramanga, Parque Gallineral, Barichara, Parque Chicamocha, Santa Marta, Manizales, Honda, and Nocaima.  It was mostly my uncle Jaime (Hi-meh), my Tia Rosita, and my abuela Clarita in Jaime’s huge white 4-door truck.

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The map of the road trip we took in Colombia in 2010

Check us out next week for the full account of the road trip adventure, my thoughts along the way, and a conclusion to this story!

Does your family know about your Indigenous or African roots? How do they handle this information? Comment below!

3 Comments

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  1. Love the article Ale! My family is SO MIXED I don’t even know where to begin, lol. I didn’t have the identity crises as young as you and as strongly perhaps because I came to the USA at 11 and was just unaware of it, since I didn’t speak English at the time. But I definitely battled with beauty ideals of not having “pretty straight hair”, not fitting the mold, not knowing which box to check off when filling out forms. I’ve always felt I needed “other” or “mixed”. The incessant questions of “what are you?” And I just really wanted to answer “Human like you”, but I knew what they were really asking. It’s liberating and beautiful to embrace one’s roots and own it with pride. The older generation certainly has a harder time with that, but I love being part of the generation that embraces it full of wonder and love! Cheers to our amazing roots!

    • Alexandra Tracy Chavarriaga July 12, 2016 — 11:18 am

      @apwildgust thank you for sharing! I would love to learn more about your experience. Feel free to write your own post about your identity, connecting with your roots, and/or connecting with Brazil. I would love to read more about all of it!

  2. The race issue seems to be mostly a thing of Americans (estadounidenses), and it is a very interesting thing, and an issue Americans should try to solve.
    Regarding my experience, I have never ever filled out a form stating my “ethnicity”. I remember when I came to the United States for the first time, in San Diego, I was asked by a classmate in UCSD something about my ethnicity, and I didn’t understand what and why she was asking me that. Something about my ethnicity, which I can’t recall. I felt I was in nazi Germany: to declare my ethnicity, like people do in countries where there’s ethnic cleansing.
    This classmate was also the daughter of immigrant parents, and she was American as she had lived most of her life in the USA, and while fluent in the language of her parents, she was not a native speaker. It was the first time, someone had asked for my ethnicity instead of my nationality, which is the nationality related to the country I grew up and lived most of life. In Mexico, nationality is not related to race or ethnicity; you are Mexican regardless if your parents are not.
    I remember once in college I met this girl who had studied all of her life in the Lycée Franco-Mexicain, which is a private school created for French immigrants, but now everyone can attend if they can pay and show some French proficiency. Because one of her parents was French, and because of the school, she identified herself as French-Mexican. So, in one of the first interactions I had with her, she introduced herself and said she was French-Mexican; it was something weird to listen because I have never met someone who introduced that way, but I did not pay much attention to that. Other classmates didn’t take it very well, and had the impression that she mentioned the nationality of one of her parents in order to say: “In this country of Indians, I am French (which is not Indian)”. It was hilarious to me, and I have the impression some people may feel more self-conscious about their race. To me, I kind of understood she introduced that way because she had been taught she was also French and she was also Mexican; to me, and to most Mexicans, if you had been born and, most importantly, raised in Mexico, you are Mexican regardless of anything else. I think she would pass for a French citizen in France as she also passed as Mexican in Mexico.
    The racial dynamics in the USA are very different to the racial dynamics in other countries, yet Americans seem to think people act and behave the same in countries with a completely different history. They talk about racial “privileges” that fade away immediately when your clothes are cheap, your accent is weird and your wallet is empty. While there may be discrimination based on the color of your skin, your skin becomes irrelevant if you do not portray an image of self-consciousness, which is mostly based on your education, upbringing, accent and the way you dress.

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