A Profile in Citizenship
by Jeremiah Norris (Colombia 1963-65)
In her own words, a woman then named Margery, lived in New York City, mainly in Brooklyn, for the first 21 years of her life. Her three most frequent sentiments were boredom, frustration, and anger, although she was undoubtedly considered ”normal and well-adjusted.” She was a good student. School, far from great, was a welcome escape from home— which was a welcome escape from school.
She attended Barnard College, a long subway ride from Brooklyn and an even longer journey from the sameness of her childhood to the discovery, albeit theoretical, of multiple universes — past and present. It was a glimpse into the “escapes” she longed for. Margery was strong on imagination and weak on finance. Then, President Kennedy read her mind and felt the beat of her heart. The Peace Corps was already in operation, so after graduation in 1964, she joined and was sent to Colombia. There, upon arrival, she became Margarita.
Her work, loosely defined as community development, was in two areas in the Department of Huila, south of Bogotá, with a warm climate and even warmer people. After her two-year tour of duty ended in 1966, she returned to Colombia as an independent in 1981, this time settling on the Caribbean coast. She thanked college for opening her mind to a big world and she thanked Colombia and the Peace Corps for letting her experience some of it.
In the first year of her tour she learned about new people, their language, customs, and culture. It was often frustrating but very realistic. Money she thought was being raised for neighborhood projects often ended up in the pockets of community leaders. In her second year, in a more rural setting, she worked with groups to found a secondary school for women (schools observed strict gender lines in those days), helping them to acquire skills leading to careers providing income and independence.
When she returned to the United States, she worked in domestic programs that promised development to communities left behind, living in NYC and later in Washington, D. C. But, Brooklyn boredom followed her. She was “busy” at work and, in the nation’s capital she studied law on the night shift. After graduation, she tried to build on the idea of “community” in an international setting, working with housing and improvement programs that were carried out in other countries. The results seemed incredibly remote, and even non-existent. Thus, returning to life as Margarita appeared to be her best option.
So, since 1981, she lives in Cartagena, a world heritage city on Colombia’s Caribbean coast. She fully expected to become involved in community development, but life turns funny corners. To her surprise, Margarita found herself in academic and cultural settings with work related to language — spoken, written, read and translated. She worked with the city’s local film festival for some 25 years, as well as Cartagena’s version of the Hay Festival in literature. The world of culture and the world of community nurture one another, and both have nurtured her in ways previously unexpected and unimagined. More recently, she became interested in the topic of aging in Colombia. The country has a relatively young population but its elderly segment is growing rapidly. Margarita shares ideas with an interdisciplinary group of professionals and community representatives. She is their literary voice, as well as an authentic member of the aging population.
As the old millennium ended, additional responsibilities arose for Margarita. Her mother, an elderly widow, needed help with life’s daily activities. Margarita went to Brooklyn to see what was in order and it appeared that her presence on a more continuing basis was required. Thus began a horrendous period of commuting between Cartagena and NYC. She knew that she needed a personal refuge and reading was her way of entering other worlds. This time though, Margarita went about things methodically, enrolling in a doctoral program in Hispanic Language and Literature at New York’s City University. If she could not be living it, then at least she could be reading and writing about it!
The library in Cartagena had a section devoted to “local authors” where Margarita discovered the work of people — to her surprise — she actually knew personally, among them Gabriel and Eligio Garcia Marquez, Gabriel’s younger brother. So, when her graduate studies required her to select a project for personal research, she chose Eligio. By doing that, she hoped to present something “original” since very little had been said or written about the youngest brother of the Garcia-Marquez family. Eligio wrote about the Cartagena Margarita knew, a city of ordinary people trying to get along in the extraordinary world of the 1960s in Colombia, fast becoming overwhelmingly urban.
If Margarita had been born and bred in Cartagena, Eligio’s characters would have been her friends. Her work at the CUNY Graduate Center, done entirely in Spanish, culminated with a PhD in 2008. Back in Cartagena, she taught in the Humanities Department of Bolivar’s Technological University. She also participated in the orientation of students in the doctoral program in Educational Sciences at the University of Cartagena. Even before her doctoral studies, she taught world literature at the Jorge Tadeo Lozano University.
In 2009 Cartagena’s Cultural Heritage Institute put out a call for projects and she submitted a proposal on Eligio’s work in journalism and fiction. It was selected and published in 2009, highlighting the author’s contribution to urban literature in Colombia. The urban novel itself represents a new literary genre in 20th century Colombia and, indeed, in Latin America as well.
In 2005, Margarita assumed another challenge when she brought her younger brother, Paul, to live with her in Cartagena. He had multiple handicaps, some from childhood, and others more recent. This experience helped her to learn and grow, to have patience and compassion (though not as often as she would have liked). Colombia and Cartagena were perfect for Paul who accompanied her there until his death in 2018. His life, according to Margarita, represents a testimony to “making lemonade out of the lemon.”
Margarita never imagined that her life, which began as a mish-mosh of boring sameness, would involve so many fundamental changes: new language, climate, customs, music, food and friends. She never dreamed that she would orchestrate those transformations. And, . . . lo and behold . . . going from Margery to Margarita was really about the discovery of her own authenticity and a better “her” because of it. In effect, her professional career “helped promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of Colombians,” earning Margarita Sorock a Profile in Citizenship.