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Photography by Luiz Clas | Written by Morgan Harlan

The best way to break the stigma of any culture is to immerse yourself completely in its environment. Former model Marcela Vanegas came to America from Colombia, to build a new life and raise a family. Years later she returned home to Colombia; this time with an entirely new perspective, but not before sharing with us what it’s truly like to be Colombian.

Before I begin, I just wanted to point out that there is a touch of irony in the fact that I am writing anything about culture. I am about as untraveled as they come. It is slightly embarrassing, now that I mention this fact out loud (okay, in writing). Having said that, I had a wonderful experience living vicariously through my Colombian friend, Marcela Vanegas, and I hope to paint for you the same picture that I received.


Marcela was born in Cúcuta, Colombia, a town just five minutes from Venezuela. She refers to this as a “small town” with only around a million people. Hmm, small huh? “Everybody knew everybody,” Marcela explained.


One of the luxuries, Marcella recalled, of being in a small town was being able to play in the streets, which is impossible or unwise to do almost anywhere nowadays. She said that she was also very blessed to be from one of those families who were not rich, but who were not poor either. She was able to go to a good school, which was more than some other people could say.

Women in Cúcuta are

famous for being tough.

“Men should be afraid of us [laughing],

which, I know, is true for me,”

Marcela joked.

Women in Cúcuta are famous for being tough. “Men should be afraid of us [laughing], which, I know, is true for me,” Marcela joked. This came to be because in the 1500’s, when the Spaniards came to Colombia, the Indian tribes (Motilones) who lived in the area were very tough warriors, and that is who the Cúcuta are descended from.


The people in Cúcuta are also known for being very straight- forward, to the point that is not always so well-received in other areas. “In the Spanish language, when you use the term “tú” (you) it feels close. In Cúcuta we use ‘usted’ which also means ‘you,’ but with some distance. That’s the way you talk to people you don’t know, or older people you respect. The way we talk is very dry,” Marcela explained.


Just because they [Hispanic people] speak the same language, does not make them the same as the people of Cúcuta. “We do many things differently,” she said. “For example, we name things differently. One word for ‘me’ might be a different word if you are from Mexico. But that ‘formal way’ of living and being, and the importance of appearances, is common, really common.” She laughed about it as she described this common attribute. She said that she thought it was just a Colombian “thing,” but then she realized it goes across many Hispanic communities. “We are all victims, victims of formality,” she said with a chuckle.


When Marcela pointed this out to me, I took a second to think about it and I laughed to myself, recognizing that I, too, can notice that among my Hispanic friends.


Normally, this formality would not be an issue for Marcela, but she has lived in the United States now for seven years, and she is about to move back home to Colombia with her husband and two children. With regards to appearances, she has admittedly enjoyed the luxury of not worrying about it every two seconds. “It shouldn’t be that difficult, really,” she said. In fact, when I interviewed her, she looked quite comfy in her tee shirt and sweatpants. However, once she goes back, it will be fancy clothes and lipstick at all times. Otherwise, her family may disown her <wink>.


Before doing this interview, the first things that came to my mind when I thought of Colombia were coffee and violence. I was right about the coffee thing, but significantly off on the violence. This current misconception dates back to when I learned about Colombia in grade school, which was a time when violence was prevalent. I guess I never had a reason to keep up with my Colombian facts, but violence is no longer a characteristic of Colombia today.


I mentioned this to Marcela and she had a great reaction. “That was a small part of Colombia, but sometimes, it looks bigger if you are not there. We can fulfill each other in huge and awesome ways, but it is preconceptions that make us different in the end,” she asserted. Yes, there is history, but that is just part of it. These things make me a little sad, but they also give me clever ideas on what I am going to do when I return to Colombia. I really love the United States and want to share what I have learned with Colombians.”

Marcela’s desire to unite the two

cultures is why she is trying to create

an “open-door” experience in her home

when she returns to Colombia.


Marcela’s desire to unite the two cultures is why she is trying to create an “open-door” experience in her home when she returns to Colombia. She really wants to let people have the “real” experience for themselves; she wants it to be the most amazing place that people visit. She also plans on returning to the States once a year to travel and visit the friends she met while living here. “We want to change the perspectives.”


One thing that stood out to Marcela was that the U.S. has a sense of community, but Colombia doesn’t. She says, “They don’t have that there like we do here. We don’t even use the word ‘community’ in our language.  Here in the States, the church is a community, the school, even your neighborhood is a community. There is a sense of ownership in community. I love that about you guys.”


One of Marcela’s favorite things about Colombia is the people’s passion and way of living. She really misses the people, their talking, and their sense of humor. Colombians have a very dark and sharp sense of humor. Everything they say has a double meaning and they know it. She also loves the way they interact when they are together. “In Colombia, a morning tea can turn into talking and then salsa dancing. People come knocking on your door without a formal invitation. We are warm and loud and we love to party. Music is a huge part of our daily lives, too.”


Marcela also asserted that Colombian coffee is the best in the world. “It is not what it is, though; it is what it means [the coffee]. When I say coffee, it’s my say, ‘Let’s get together.’ We could end up just having water, but we are together, sharing something. I miss that.”


She explained that in Colombia, if you

are a friend of a friend, you are my friend.

“I will invite them over, introduce them

to everyone, and make them

feel like one of us."

She explained that in Colombia, if you are a friend of a friend, you are my friend. “I will invite them over, introduce them to everyone, and make them feel like one of us. Here, in the U.S., I can go to a common friend’s party and be there for three hours and not know who was there. I go and talk to the two people I know and say hi, but not really know anyone. We are different that way.”


Family is very important to Colombians. I was initially confused when Marcela described what she loved about Colombia, because I felt like she was describing that “community” feeling to me. But, she corrected me, saying this is the way they are with family, not other people around them. I found this very interesting. To explain, she gave me the example of religion in Colombia. She said that the main religion is Catholicism, but Christianity is rising as well. She said the difference there, versus in the U.S., is you don’t belong to one church. You go to many different churches. You go in, listen to the service, and leave. There is no coffee for everyone after the service. You don’t know if anyone needs help. It is just different. “I love that about the U.S., though. It is an awesome concept. You just have it [a sense of community]. It is in your chip. We don’t, and I really admire that about you guys.”


In Marcela’s family, they have a tradition with Sunday lunch. It could start at noon and by 5 p.m., you are moving the furniture so that you can dance. There is always drinking involved, too. “Beer, wine, whiskey, it doesn’t matter. Everyone has to have at least one drink,” she explained. It always becomes a party with her family, so you know better than to make plans after a family event. In the U.S., if you have a party that starts at 7 p.m., it will probably be over at 9 p.m. In Colombia, the party can go from 1pm to 1am. You just never know!


Colombia has many of the same customs that the U.S. has, but there are certain things that they don’t have, and these are what Marcela will be taking with her when she goes back. Easter eggs, for one. She started laughing and said, “we will be the only crazy family you will see in the park looking for Easter eggs, but that’s okay. My kids love it.”


Marcela and her family plan on building their new life based in both cultures. “We have to keep the traditions alive. They (her two children, both born in U.S.) are Colombians, because we (she and her husband) are Colombians, but they will be more Colombian, because we will now live there. But, they were born here (the U.S.) and this is what they know.”


Many countries operate essentially the same way. Think of the United States and how the accents and food are different, based on what state you are in. It’s exactly the same in other places. Different areas of the country have different fares. There are a lot of potatoes in Colombia. She thought there were at least 30-35 different varieties. There is a lot of meat, beans, grains, fruit – you name it, they have it there. Colombia has a very interesting, diverse palate, just like their dialects. You travel to different places and each one will serve completely different cuisine. They love their desserts, too. Bocadillo is popular. It is made from guava. Colombians love to eat it for energy and often pair it with a white, salty cheese. There is also Arequipe, which is similar to a Dulce de Leche, but a little bit thicker and darker.


Colombia doesn’t have seasons, as it is a tropical place. But, it is a special place, because it has everything in its terrain. It has mountains, two oceans, a rain forest, deserts, and three big mountain ranges that divide the country (referred to as Cordillera). Agriculture is huge in Colombia. “We have so many resources under, on, and above Colombia. But what makes it sad is that we don’t use these resources to our advantage,” she said. “Everything is so close, too; you can be on the mountain, then drive an hour, and be at the beach.”


So, I will end this amazing tale of Colombia with an old saying, when God was designing the world he said, “This place is going to be called Colombia. We will give them all the resources. I will give them oil, two oceans, rivers and lakes and mountains and snow.” Then, an angel came down and said, “Hey God, you are giving everything to Colombia.” Then, God said, “Wait, just wait and see the people I am going to put there.” Maybe, one day, I will end my non-travels and be one of those people who knocks on Marcela’s door, un-announced and ready to dance. Buenas!



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