Written by Jonah Bolton (Kalamazoo College) Student Correspondent, CET Colombia Fall 2019
My CET group and I had only been in Colombia for a few short weeks, but we were about to become acclimated with the country and our host university very quickly. The way in which this would happen came in a powerful and very cool way. Before we had even started our two week intensive Spanish course, our Spanish was about to be put to the test in a serious way.
Many of our Colombian roommates are very active in various organizations on campus, and on this particular day our roommate Jennifer invited us to an event through her organization, Macoas. The event was about the African Diaspora, and the lived experiences of Black people in Cali, Colombia. We arrived to the presentation a little late, and when we walked in, the event had already started. The eyes of every single person already seated in the room followed us as we awkwardly tried to find seats in the absolutely packed auditorium. There weren’t any chairs, so we had walked halfway around the perimeter looking in vain before someone kindly offered our group of eight a place to sit.
When we finally sat down, the speaker resumed his presentation and I tried my hardest to catch up to what I had missed in my struggling Spanish. I was able to pick out various themes throughout, but my brain was only capable of listening with enough focus to decipher about five minutes at a time before it needed a break. Since the beginning of this semester, my Spanish has improved immensely with more exposure and intentional efforts to make conversation and friends. However, in this moment my confidence in my Spanish was low enough that I became very nervous when the speaker asked for Jennifer to have her American friends introduce themselves.
All the eyes in the auditorium were once again upon us as panicked thoughts rushed through my head deciding which information was important to tell the group about myself and which information I would actually be able to properly communicate. In the end I went with my name, my major, and my home state, which seemed like the bare minimum I could get away with without having to many mess ups in front of all these people. I was also lucky enough to not have to go first, and some of the other CET students helped set the tone.
When we all had finished introducing ourselves, the presenter went back to speaking about living conditions and life expectancy in Aguablanca. Aguablanca is a primarily Black barrio in Cali where there is a clear difference in the quality of public institutions such as hospitals and schools. There is a tense and heavy police presence there as well that has familiar themes of police brutality and racial profiling. Some of the other issues discussed during the presentation were about the exponentially higher numbers of Afro-Colombians that have been displaced by the various conflicts versus mestizo Colombians. Many of these displaced Afro-Colombians have made their new homes in Cali, making this a very relevant topic.
Just as we had finally settled in and gotten used to listening to these presentations in Spanish, the meeting took an interesting turn. The students that had gathered for the presentations today were already very informed on many of the issues that the speaker had covered, and there were interesting new subjects in the room that could also speak on a Black experience that was different from their own. Both the speaker and the audience were very curious to learn about being Black in the United States and how this may be similar or different to being Black in Colombia. Three CET students courageously volunteered to take part in the questions; Julia, Sydney, and Arlett. This group also had an interesting dynamic of having three different Spanish levels, with Arlett having grown up speaking Spanish with her family from the Dominican Republic, Sydney who is a Spanish major at Howard, and Julia who has had Spanish exposure through a couple classes at her school. What started out as a few casual questions that were directed to the girls in their seats quickly became something much bigger, with the three of them being invited up to the stage to give a presentation of their own. Sydney and Julia took the lead on answering the questions to the best of their ability, while Arlett helped to translate anything that the other girls were struggling to relay to the audience. I was amazed at the courage Sydney, Arlett, and Julia demonstrated while giving this presentation; speaking on a topic that many people struggle to communicate sensitively even in English. To present in front of a hundred people in their second language within weeks of arriving in a country that none of us had ever been to took guts and a strength that I admire.
The girls discussed many important topics that can be hard enough for some people to talk about in English, like police brutality, the wealth gap, and White privilege. The Colombian students listened very intently and many of the students wanted to record videos of an experience that was very important and new to them as well. When they finished their presentation, the whole room applauded loudly and made sure to give the CET students credit for their bravery. This is one of the events I will never forget that I experienced while in Colombia, and I’m glad that through this blog that I am able to share it with you all. I guess the moral of the story is, studying abroad is going to challenge you in ways you might never imagine, however the effects of these challenges can be extremely rewarding and fill you with a strength that you may have never known that you had.