Deep in the Red Zone

The multiple warnings will not stop me. I’m determined to go.

“It’s a red zone for Peace Corps. We’re not allowed there for security reasons,” I’m told. I figure that I’m no longer under the jurisdiction of Peace Corps.

Besides, I have a contact there. Weeks ago I wrote to the Office of Citizen Participation in the Barranquilla City Hall, explaining I worked as Peace Corps Volunteer fifty years ago in barrio Las Américas and that I wanted to contact the president of the barrio’s Junta of Community Action. I received no response.

The morning after my arrival I head to the sixth floor of the bustling City Hall. I explain at the front desk what I want. I’m directed to a man nearby. “Jorge Romero is the one to talk to.”

Yes, he had received my email.

“You didn’t answer me.”

“Elections are this Sunday and it’s been a very busy time.”

“Can you help me? I want to contact the president of the Junta in barrio Las Americas. I want to go there.”

He checks his computer and writes down the name of the president, address and phone number. I’m thrilled. I hadn’t expected this search to be so easy.

Sr. Romero picks up his phone. I realize he’s calling Alfonso, the president. He explains to him who I am and that I will be contacting him.

“How do I get there?” I ask. “I checked out the barrio on Google Earth. It’s so changed now. I’d get lost.”

He printed out a Google map and traced a line on it for the taxi to follow. I could have kissed him.

That evening I call Alfonso, and we make plans to meet at his house the day after next. I’d promised my husband I wouldn’t go there alone, so I’ve asked Flaco Bob to accompany me.

I’ve queried several taxi drivers about Las Americas. Is it dangerous? They answer in various degrees of the affirmative. Bob and I flag down one of the ubiquitous yellow Chevrolet Spark taxis that swarm through the city like indomitable bees. I ask the driver if he’s willing to go there. “I have this map” I say, handing it to him.

With little trouble we pull up to Alfonso’s house, its façade papered with a huge ad promoting him for city “edil” in Sunday’s elections. (I had to look that one up. Edile: a magistrate in ancient Rome in charge of public works, buildings and roads.) A young man appears in the open doorway, wearing a tee-shirt proclaiming Junta de Acción Comunal Las Americas. We shake hands and he invites us inside. The bare cement walls and floor look recently constructed. Was this until recently a wooden shack?

“Las Américas is so changed,” I exclaim. “Nothing looks familiar.” I pull an envelope out of my purse. “I noticed on the city webpage you’ve written a short history of the barrio. I’ve brought copies of some old photos for you, so you can see what Las Americas was like then.” I hand him a photo. “Here are the men working on the health center. This one shows the inauguration.”

He studies the photos with interest. “We have a new health center now,” he says. “We’ll have to go there.”

“And the old health center we built?”

“The city is going to rebuild it and convert it into a senior center.”

We step outside into the shade of a tree. I look around. Instead of wooden shacks perched precariously on rolling hills of eroded, barren red soil, I see trees, vegetation and simple, solidly-built houses. A few shacks remain like the one next door to Alfonso where three families live.

Women wander up and join us. Alfonso introduces us and explains who I am. More gather.

“Oh yes, I remember my mother talking about Señorita Susana.”

“My grandmother remembers you.”

“Look, there’s my father in that photo!”

We start off down a paved street. Alfonso’s sister joins us. On a corner under a tree a group of young men hang out with their motorcycles. I’m wary, but Alfonso walks right up and introduces me. “These men all drive moto-taxis, he explains. He shows them the photos I’ve brought. They pass them around, pointing out people they recognize.

“That’s what Las Americas looked like fifty years ago,” I tell them.

We laugh and gather to pose for photos, me perched on a motorcycle seat.

Alfonso moves our little party along. “Let’s go down this street where Señora Nidia lives.”

More introductions. “I remember you! I’m the daughter of Modesta Borerro.”

“Of course, Señora Modesta,” I say. “She was always dressed in black and had a severely malnourished grandchild, Doris. Didn’t she die?”

“No! Doris is married and has children.”

We gather in a semi-circle for multiple photos.

A woman crosses the street towards us. “Here’s Nancy Vasquez,” someone says.

“Nancy!” We hug. She had been a teenager in a women’s group we organized back then. I show her a photo where she appears.

I ask to see the old health center. “My friends Fidelia and Petra lived on the same street.” We ask at various doorways (always open to welcome the slightest breeze), but the news is not good. Both had passed away. The health center is boarded up, the construction now considered unsafe, but I take comfort in knowing that it served this community for several decades.

The new health center is spectacular. In the air-conditioned interior, Alfonso introduces me to the doctor and a nurse. Several patients are waiting their turn. One smiles and waves. “I remember you!”

We visit a ‘mega-school’, one of two that receive children from pre-kinder age through high school. Neatly-uniformed boys and girls chatter and scurry through the hallways. The gym serves as a cafeteria where the students receive lunch. The school director and I are introduced and pose for photos with other administrators and two small children. I photograph the littlest ones napping on mats. A Canadian Baptist organization founded and runs the school. I congratulate the director on the magnificent work they do.

In spite of my tomato-red face and sweaty body, I can’t say no when Alfonso says I must see the church, which I remembered, and meet the priest. Adjacent to the church is the Escuela Golda Meir, founded by the Barranquilla Jewish women’s community.

I’m elated to see the many improvements in infrastructure and services in my old barrio: running water, schools, health centers, football fields and some paved streets. But, talking to the neighbors, I realize that most of these improvements only occurred in the past decade, under the administration of the past two politically-aligned mayors, one of whom will undoubtedly be re-elected on Sunday. But it was each determined, hard-working family that converted its fragile wooden shack into a solid house, cement block by cement block.

I know Alfonso is busy with elections just four days off and suggest we find a taxi.

We hop into a taxi. “But I don’t want to leave until I’ve seen Agripina.” She was another 13 year-old in our women’s group. Alfonso guides the driver up a rocky incline to a small, rundown house. He announces my arrival to Agripina. I would never have recognized her without the introduction. How can this gaunt, bent and flat-chested woman be the same person as the perky, smiling girl in the photo I carry? We embrace and smile for the camera. I show her the black and white snapshot I’d brought. It is my only copy but I give it to her and hug farewell. I cannot linger; the taxi awaits us outside. I regret we have no more time. I have so many more questions to ask, and I would have liked to have visited Eugenia the former president’s wife, now a widow. In spite of the deplorable conditions in which I saw her decades ago, she outlived her husband.

We drop off Alfonso and his sister at a corner. I thank him and wish him suerte in the upcoming elections. Imagine. A city representative from Las Américas! Although I feel on the verge of sunstroke, I lament that this will be my only visit to this place that marked me with such an outpouring of love – then and now.

Just three short hours after fifty long years.

October, 2015, Barranquilla

moto-taxi drivers

Barrio friends

Barrio friends

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