March 9, 2001

First Person

Colombia, Mi Pais Pero No Mi Patria (Colombia, My Country But Not My Home)

By David Higuera,

I cannot think of Colombia without thinking of my father. Though I was born in Bogota, Colombia, and though I still have a lot of family there, I do not think of Colombia as my place, my home. It is my father's place. In my heart it belongs to him.

My father, "Papi," as I used to call him, cheated on my mom when I was two years old and my sister five. They separated, but he would not grant her a divorce. Finally, my mom secretly brought my sister and me to San Francisco, to her family and home. She left behind many close friends and most of her belongings. It was from the states that my mom was able to have the divorce settled. I turned five in my new home.

To understand my relationship with my birthplace, one must understand my father. Papi is a complex man in some ways, and in others painfully simple. He has always been independent-minded, even as he struggles with dependence. He is an entrepreneur living in a country that moves backwards economically. He is a dreamer whose dreams are as hopeless as they are convincing. He is a lover who has never loved, but has always managed to throw others' love away. He's a son, a brother, an uncle, a father. Yet he has never known the meaning of family.

For many years I viewed my father as my sister Susana does; he was the man who cheated on Mom, was never around during our childhood, and had forever forfeited his right to know his kids. But my feelings of betrayal and hatred — more for what he did to my mother than for what he did to us — and my desire to simply write him off were tempered by my sincere need to understand him. This need compelled me to relearn Spanish in college. (Though the pride I felt in relearning Spanish was great, it did not match the shame I'd felt as a teenager having to tell people that Spanish was my native language, but I did not speak it.)

I returned to Colombia three years ago for the first time since I was a child. I lived with my father in a tiny apartment in northern Bogota that he shared with his mother, mi abuelita, and a young woman who cooked, cleaned, and took care of my grandmother. Some of my greatest fears about Papi were immediately confirmed. He didn't know how to care for his own mother, preferring to run around town trying to create business opportunities where none existed. He was close to penniless — only filling the gas tank of his car with a few pesos-worth each time — yet he always kept alcohol in the house, just enough to submerge his sorrows.

My first night in Bogota, Papi brought me to meet my aunts, uncles and cousins, whom I'd never known, and reunited me with my half-brother, Santiago, whom I'd met once eight years before. But my father seemed to take more pleasure in introducing me to his asociados than to my own flesh and blood.

After a few days of eagerly escorting me around town to meet all his "buenos amigos," I told him that I would rather spend time with Santiago. I started to meet Santiago at the university every day, getting to know him and his friends. None of his friends could believe that we were brothers; we are about as close in resemblance as we are in our command of Spanish.

During this time together, however, Santiago and I realized that we had much more in common than we'd thought. We shared the same appreciation for friendship, and the same loyalty to our mothers. (Seeing him and his mother together in that simple but beautiful apartment they shar-ed reminded me of my mom and her successful struggle.) We talked. I learned that Papi was only a peripheral figure in his life, too. Santiago didn't seem disappointed in Papi; if anything, he struck me as jaded. I felt differently.

Papi had failed Santiago, just as he had failed Susana and me. I'd already come to grips with the fact that my father would never be a part of my life or my sister's life. But seeing that my father was not a reliable person in Santiago's life was too much for me to accept. Though I felt sympathy for the man who had given me life while struggling to find his own, I was left with a bitter and permanent taste in my mouth.

Since returning to the States and later discovering that Papi is yet again a new father, I have witnessed the evolution of my own journey. It has taken me from disappointment to empathy to anger, and finally to sympathy — plain and unremarkable. Someday I may come to a fuller and more hopeful reconciliation with my father. Someday, I may be able to forgive him. Until then, I will continue to protect myself from his broken promises, from his inadequacy as a father and as a man.

David Higuera is an educator and student in San Francisco.

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