A moment to remember a special individual of my youth shared with my beautiful Peace Corps Colombian wife Gloria. It began April 1968 during the riots in the District of Columbia after the death of the Reverend Martin Luther King. We were being posted to Colombia to be Peace Corps Colombia staff, I was to be a Regional Director for the North Coast. But, in order to accept the assignment, Gloria would have to become a US Citizen, State Department policy. Gloria was (is) very proud of Colombia, why should she change being Colombian? Being a strong Liberal, I convinced her that if she became a US Citizen, she would be able to vote for Bobby Kennedy in the California primary…she accepted!
Because of the riots in DC and curfew, our stay would be shorten and we would be in Colombia by the end of the week. On our second day in our Nation’s capitol, Gloria became a US Citizen. Peace Corps Director Jack Vaughn presented Gloria with a dozen red roses and welcomed her to the United States! Walking down Connecticut Avenue holding hands and dreaming about the future, Gloria spotted Bobby Kennedy’s campaign office next to the Mayflower Hotel. And she screamed…”he will be here right now!” Sure enough, his car with driver and Ethel pulled up. Gloria never being a shy person, stopped the Senator in his tracks and said in her accented English…”today I became a US Citizen so I could vote for you, and we are with the Peace Corps!” Senator Kennedy was taken back, acknowledged me, but kept Gloria’s hand in his. Telling Ethel, “I want them to come with us!” And with that, Gloria gave her red roses to Ethel and a hug.
The crowds reacted to Bobby Kennedy’s vehicle with respect and hope, he was going to be their President…a new dawn was on the horizon. When we arrived, the crowds were excited, wanting to hear his words. When they saw me and my wife, they wanted to know who we were, why were we here? The Senator introduced my wife…”she just became a US Citizen so she could for me…and they are with the Peace Corps!” We were welcomed and thanked for coming to their community. What an awesome feeling, to be with Senator Kennedy and Ethel on the first day of Gloria’s American citizenship.
Two days later we were on our way to Colombia, but with memories of our evening with Bobby Kennedy and the African American community…I still cherish those moments! Shortly afterwards we were assigned to Barranquilla, Colombia to be our home for the next three years. The assignment saw us traveling the north coast of Colombia and the islands of San Andres visiting the Volunteers.
On June 6, 1968, we were in Santa Marta looking to expand the program with more Volunteers. Gloria and I went to bed early as we were scheduled to be on the road early to bring supplies to Volunteers near the border with Venezuela. But…at around 3am the morning of June 7th, there was a knock on our door in the hotel in Santa Marta…who could be at this early hour? Gloria and I went to the door when we saw the Mayor, the Chief of Police, and Commander of the military base…they came to inform us that Senator Bobby Kennedy had been killed in Los Angeles after winning the California primary. The Mayor offered his sympathy, and said flags are being placed at half mast…there would be a mass at 6am. These officials were emotionally moved and wanted us to know their feelings of respect for Booby Kennedy. Colombia was a country where JFK was their special friend. Posters of JFK hung next to those of Jesus in their homes. I gathered as many Volunteers in the Santa Marta area, and we went to Mass to share the grief of the Colombian community.
Flags were at half mast for a week in Colombia, and Peace Corps Volunteers were stopped and told how sorry Colombia was to lose another Kennedy. Emotions were high and we felt our loss and shared it with our Colombian “family.” My memories are clear of events of June 6, 1968. This year I am back in Barranquilla, Colombia and plan to attend Mass and remember Senator Robert Kennedy as he won the California primary…48 years ago. I will attend Mass on June 6, 2016…and return to Panamá on June7th at 3am! We still miss you Bobby, and so does Colombia!
Bob Arias (Colombia 1964-66), followed his tour by becoming Language Director for Camp Radley (1966-68), and then APCD (Colombia 1968-73), and Peace Corps CD in Uruguay and Argentina (1993-95). In 2001 he turned to create the Peace Corps Office of Safety and Security. Retiring from Los Angeles County where he was a Compliance Officer, Bob has served as a Peace Corps Response Volunteer since 2009 in Paraguay, Colombia, and now for a second time, in Panamá.