by Pamela Sturner
Colombia lies in the northwest corner of South America and covers an area of 439,735 square miles (1,138,914 square kilometers), about three times the size of Montana. It is bounded to the north by the Caribbean Sea, to the northeast by Venezuela, to the southeast by Brazil, to the south by Peru, to the west by Ecuador and the Pacific Ocean, and to the northwest by Panama. It embraces the northernmost point in South America, Point Gallinas, and is the only country on the continent with both Caribbean and Pacific coasts. The Andes run the length of the country in three ranges called the Cordillera Occidental, the Cordillera Central, and the Cordillera Oriental, which comprise the highland core where most of the population lives. Some of the richest farmland lies between the western and central ranges along the Cauca River. The Magdalena River valley, between the central and eastern ranges, is densely populated and the site of the capital, Bogotá. The eastern plains, or llanos, account for 60 percent of the country's territory and are sparsely populated, as are the coastal lowlands. To the southeast lie the undeveloped tropical rain-forests of the Amazon basin. The economy depends largely on such agricultural products as coffee (the leading export), bananas, cotton, rice, corn, sugarcane, and tobacco. Colombia produces more than 90 percent of the world's emeralds and also exports gold, iron, nickel, copper, lead, salt, coal, natural gas, and petroleum. Manufacturing, a growing sector of the economy, employed about 20 percent of the population in the early 1990s.
The country's highly diverse population of 38.5 million includes at least 15 distinct cultural and regional groups. The major ethnic groups include: descendants of Indians, who are concentrated in the Andes; persons of solely European descent, who have traditionally held most of the country's wealth and power and account for less than 20 percent of the population; costeños, persons of mixed African, Indian, and Spanish descent living primarily on the coasts; and mestizos, or persons of Indian and Spanish descent, who account for about 58 percent of the population. Most Colombian Americans are Roman Catholic; a few are Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or Hindu. About 65 percent live in urban areas.
The civilization of the first inhabitants of what is now Colombia occupied much of the Andean interior until European colonization. Christopher Columbus probably explored the mouth of the Orinoco River in 1498; Alonso de Ojeda led another expedition in 1509, and in 1525 the first Spanish city, Santa Marta, was founded on the Caribbean coast. In 1536 the conquistador Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada sailed up the Magdalena River to search for the mythical city of El Dorado and, after defeating the Chibcha, founded Bogotá in 1538. During the years of the Spanish Main, the Caribbean port city of Cartagena (founded 1533) was a point of embarkation for shipments of gold and other minerals bound for Spain. The Spanish relied increasingly on the labor of slaves to maintain the expanding colony, and Colombia soon had one of the largest African populations on the continent. After 1740 the colony formed the center of New Granada, a territory that included the greater part of what is now Colombia, Panama, and Venezuela. A movement for independence from Spain began in 1810; in 1812 the territory came under the direction of Simón Bolívar, who waged a series of campaigns that ended with the surrender of the Spanish in 1819. Bolívar renamed the territory Greater Colombia and annexed Ecuador to it in 1822; political differences led Venezuela to secede in 1829, followed by Ecuador in 1830.
The 1830s were marked by the rise of the Partido Conservador and the Partido Liberal as the most powerful rivals in national politics. Their struggles fueled unrest throughout the century and resulted in a civil war from 1899 to 1902 that left 100,000 dead and brought the Conservatives to power. In 1902 crisis beset the country again when the United States seized the zone where the Panama Canal was being built. After rejecting the treaty establishing American control, the Colombian government sent troops to Panama where, with American support, local forces revolted and won independence in 1903. In the wake of this defeat, a president with dictatorial powers assumed office in Colombia during the following year, ushering in more than four decades of peace. Hostilities between the Liberals and Conservatives led again to civil war in 1948, and in 1953 General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla seized power through a military coup; he was removed by the military in 1957 after Liberals and Conservatives joined together to oppose his regime, and political order was restored in 1958 when the two parties formed a coalition government, the National Front. Under its leadership the country began its recovery from the war, known as "La Violencia," which in the course of a decade had left between 200,000 and 300,000 dead and had displaced numerous others by forcing the rural population into the cities and that of small cities into the largest urban centers.
Since the 1960s, attempts have been made to address longstanding social, political, and economic problems. Under President Carlos Lleras Restrepo (1966-1970) inflation slowed, the economy was diversified, and land reforms were instituted. After a period of gradual transition toward full democracy, the government of the National Front ended when elections were held in 1974. Extreme disparity between the wealthy and the poor contributed to widespread disillusionment that kindled a Marxist guerrilla movement dedicated to revolution. Social problems worsened as the birth rate rose and farmers displaced by new technology moved to the cities, where they found their skills inapplicable in an industrial economy. During the 1980s, producers of illegal drugs flourished, banded together in cartels, and threatened the country's political and social stability through campaigns of bombings, abductions, murders, and the assassinations of officials, judges, and newspaper editors. Undocumented immigration to Venezuela increased: by some estimates 200,000 Colombian Americans without work permits found employment there during this time. Years of steady growth in Colombia came to a close as the economy stagnated under the weight of foreign debt in the mid-1980s. As of 1999, Colombia was still recovering from a recession that began in 1996.
In the face of an escalating social and political crisis, President Virgilio Barco Vargas launched a campaign in 1989 to suppress the drug trade, which resulted in hundreds of arrests, the confiscation of property worth millions of dollars, and violent retaliations by the cartels. Several presidential candidates were assassinated before the election of 1990; victory nonetheless went to César Gaviria Trujillo, a well-known opponent of the drug trade. During his first years in office, he sought to restore the population's faith in the government by pursuing an aggressive policy against the cartels, encouraging the formation of new political parties, and offering a role in national affairs to Indians and former guerrillas. Agreements reached with foreign creditors eased the burden of debt, allowing Colombia to achieve a trade surplus, and in the 1990s negotiations began for new trade arrangements with other countries.
In 1994 Ernesto Samper Pizano was elected president. He was defeated four years later amid allegations he took money for his campaign from the powerful Cali drug cartel. In 1998 voters elected Andres Pastrana president. A concerted effort by Pastrana to negotiate a peace settlement with Colombia's two main Marxist guerrilla groups failed. Both groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the National Liberation Army, intensified their campaigns of terror against the government, the military, the Catholic Church, and civilians. These acts included mass murders, kidnappings, bombings, extortion and drug trading. Colombia has the world's highest kidnapping rate, with 2,216 reported abductions in 1998 alone, according to the Pais Libre Foundation, a private human rights group. In 1999 the political situation in Colombia remained tenuous.
The first Colombian immigrants were probably among the few South Americans who settled in the United States during the nineteenth century (the federal census did not specify the country of origin for South Americans until 1960). Little is known about these settlers, who maintained no ties with their native countries and within a few generations identified themselves only as Americans. The first Colombian community formed when several hundred professionals, including nurses, accountants, laboratory technicians, pharmacists, and bilingual secretaries, moved to New York City after World War I; the population was later augmented by students who stayed on after earning their degrees. Most immigrants made their homes in Jackson Heights, a middle-class neighborhood in Queens, attractive for its proximity to employment in Manhattan and for its churches, comfortable houses, large yards, and fine schools. Known by residents as "El Chapinerito" (after Chapinero, a middle-class suburb of Bogotá), the neighborhood did not grow much until the 1940s, when New York City and Venezuela surpassed Panama in popularity as destinations among Colombian emigrants.
The number of Colombians entering the United States each year increased only slightly until the early 1950s, when it rose from a few hundred to more than a thousand, owing in part to upheaval associated with the civil war of 1948. Nor did the rate decline with the restoration of civil order in Colombia. As a result of land reforms and the introduction of agricultural machinery during the 1960s, the population became concentrated in the metropolitan areas and a deep economic recession set in, forcing many Colombian Americans to leave the country in search of work. The number that settled in the United States continued to grow rapidly: according to the annual reports of the Immigration and Naturalization Service 116,444 Colombians entered the country between 1960 and 1977, the first large influx driven by purely economic reasons. These immigrants were far more racially and economically diverse than their predecessors, and with their admittance, skilled and semiskilled laborers gradually displaced professionals as the majority.
In the postwar years, Colombian Americans were among the national groups at the center of a political debate about immigration that reached a peak when immigrants from Asia, Africa, and Latin America outnumbered those from Europe. Calls for stricter controls culminated in the Immigration Act of 1965, the first legislation to place a limit on the western hemisphere, for which only 120,000 visas were to be reserved annually. The law also sought to bar entry to all but the most needed and highly qualified workers, including professionals, technicians, and domestic servants. These measures presented a host of obstacles for Colombian Americans. The quota was so small relative to demand that families could wait 20 months for permission to be reunited. Pressure on the allotted visas was further exacerbated by unemployment and underemployment in Colombia, which escalated to between 20 and 25 percent by the mid-1970s. Patterns of settlement changed as a result of these conditions. In part because they had little hope of establishing legal residency, most Colombians who arrived after the mid 1960s planned to stay in the United States only temporarily. As a result, the rate of undocumented immigration soared: estimates of those living in the country without permanent residency status ranged from 250,000 to 350,000 in the mid 1970s. Discouraged by the law, some immigrants settled in Ecuador, which in 1973 had a Colombian population of 60,000.
Despite a succession of stringent immigration laws, the Colombian population in the United States continued to grow. New York remained the most popular destination. While those who could afford to do so moved to Jackson Heights, other Colombian neighborhoods took shape in nearby Corona, Elmhurst, Woodside, Rego Park, and Flushing. Smaller communities formed in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston, and Washington, D.C. During the 1970s, an enclave of a few thousand professionals developed on the North Side of Chicago. After the late 1970s, many Colombians chose to settle in Miami, which they found attractive for its climate, growing economy, and tradition of tolerance dating from the establishment of a Cuban community there. Initially they took up residence in Little Havana, the largest Cuban neighborhood, and many engaged in business related to the brisk trade between Miami and Latin America; a few worked in factories or as domestic servants. The area also became a haven for the wealthy, who moved there to receive medical care, send their children to school, and escape from social, economic, and political turmoil in Colombia. By 1987 Colombian Americans were one of the fastest-growing Latin American groups in Miami.
Julia de Riano, cited in Ramiro Cardona Gutiérrez's El éxodo de colombianos,1980.
"[I n Colombia] my surroundings and the narrow-mindedness of the people always bothered me. In the United States, on the other hand, I could be myself without worrying that others would think ill of me and work at whatever was most profitable without having others think that it was degrading."
By the early 1990s, overcrowding, crime, and the high cost of urban living led Colombian Americans to leave metropolitan centers for the suburbs. This trend was perhaps first noticed in the coastal towns of Connecticut and New York, where, since the 1980s, many Colombian Americans and other Latin Americans have taken jobs in service industries left unfilled by the local population. A better choice of housing, which was much more affordable in these towns than in New York City, was also available. One of the fastest-growing communities developed in Stamford, Connecticut, which in the mid-1990s had a Colombian population of more than 7,000. Enclaves in northern New Jersey also grew during these years, including those in Bergenline, a town dominated by immigrants and entrepreneurs, and in Englewood. Jacksonville and such suburbs as Kendall, Florida, attracted a growing number from Miami, and Skokie, Evanston, Arlington Heights, and Park Ridge, Illinois, became fashionable alternatives to the North Side of Chicago. The largest concentrations nonetheless remained in New York City, Miami, and their environs: in 1994 there were 86,000 Colombian Americans in New York City (mainly in Queens), 56,000 in northern New Jersey, and 84,000 in Dade County, Florida.
With other immigrants from developing countries, Colombian Americans have faced serious obstacles to achieving success in the United States in the 1990s. As American society became more technologically advanced, much of the work traditionally performed by immigrants disappeared, leaving only dangerous, undesirable, poorly paid positions that offered no health care benefits and little promise for the future. Language was a definitive barrier against advancement, as most Colombian Americans lacked proficiency in English and the opportunity to gain it. Those living in cities often inherited abandoned neighborhoods, substandard schools, and a crumbling infrastructure. Perhaps the most pressing issue was the rising tide of hostility toward immigrants, especially Latin Americans and Asians, that swept the country on the heels of the economic recession during the late 1980s and early 1990s. After years of being virtually ignored by the larger society, Colombian Americans found themselves a target for American resentment over problems ranging from drug-related crime to a decline in the standard of living. According to the federal Census Bureau, 43,891 Colombians were admitted to the United States in 1990 and 1991, more than from any other South American country. They also accounted for the third-largest group of undocumented immigrants (after those from Mexico and Central America). The influx has continued through the 1990s as guerrilla violence in Colombia escalated. Between 1992 and 1997, nearly 75,000 Colombians immigrated to the United States, with many settling in California. Such statistics figured prominently in debates about the effects of immigration, both legal and illegal, on the economy and even on society itself.
Colombian Americans were also subject to concern about the growth of the Latino population, which was perceived as a threat by those who considered immigrants, particularly the undocumented, an economic burden and resented Latinos' efforts to preserve their language and culture within American society. Such sentiments fueled a political backlash against immigrants that led to the passage of Proposition 187 by California voters in 1994. The law denied health care, education, and other services to undocumented immigrants. A federal appeals court ruled most of the measure unconstitutional and in 1999, the state decided not to appeal the ruling. In 1994 the fate of even documented immigrants remained uncertain after the Republican congressional leadership proposed to deny them benefits and services as part of its Contract with America. In 1996 Congress enacted a law denying non-emergency health care, welfare and higher education benefits to undocumented aliens.
Acculturation and Assimilation
Motivated by ethnic pride and a desire to circumvent legal, racial, and cultural obstacles encountered in American life, Colombian Americans have maintained a distinct identity in the United States. In light of immigration laws that allow few to expect citizenship, they usually consider their stay in the United States temporary and retain strong ties to Colombia, where they plan to resettle permanently. Colombians with American permanent resident status return for visits as frequently as possible and above all at Christmas. Colombian Americans struggle daily with racial and economic discrimination and also with American culture, which many find alienating. Some preserve their own culture by operating within Latin American social and economic networks as much as possible; they nonetheless reject the notion of assuming a larger Latino identity, seeking instead to remain distinct from other groups, especially Puerto Ricans.
Since the 1970s, Colombian Americans' efforts to be accepted in American society have been impeded by the prevalence of stereotypes of them based on news of the drug trade. Reports on escalating drug abuse and related arrests in the United States and the growing chaos in Colombia during the 1980s fueled American fears that the violence and terrorism associated with the cartels would spread to the United States. These fears reached a peak after the murder of Manuel de Dios Unanue, the editor of El Diario/La Prensa and an outspoken critic of the Calí cartel, in a café in Queens on March 11, 1992. To protect against reprisals for American intervention in the drug trade, the state department restricted travel to Colombia by Americans. Sensationalism tinged much of the news reporting on these affairs, and since the mid-1980s, stereotypes of ruthless drug lords supported by unlimited funds, sophisticated weapons, and armies of loyal thugs have captured the public's imagination. These images were perpetuated in Hollywood, where a growing number of motion pictures were based on stories about American efforts to destroy Colombian drug operations. Some critics even suggested that with the close of the Cold War in the late 1980s, Colombian drug lords had become the new stock villains of the film industry. Like spy thrillers of earlier times, these films ended with the triumph of American virtue over the machinations of a clever but morally inferior opponent. In the shadow of such characterizations, Colombian Americans, found themselves objects of suspicion and experienced more intense discrimination in housing and employment. Although by most estimates only a small proportion worked in the drug trade in the mid-1990s, the widespread assumption remained that a large number, or even the majority, had some connection to it.
An important holiday is Colombian Independence Day on July 20 (celebrated on November 11 by immigrants from the Caribbean coast), which is marked with traditional foods such as tamales, chorizos, empanadas, Colombian coffee, yuca congelada, tapas, arepas (thick cornmeal patties sometimes served with cheese), obleas (a confection made with two wafers and a layer of caramel in between), a chilled, blended drink made of milk, sugar, and a fruit known as curuba, and the alcoholic beverage aguardiente cristal; creole specialties including ajiaco, a hearty soup made with chicken, several varieties of potato, capers, herbs, avocado, and corn on the cob; and Andean beans, plantains, fried pork skins, and rice. Colombian Americans also share in the celebration of other Latin American independence days and in cultural festivals held from time to time in major cities.
DANCES AND SONGS
Latin American dancing is a central activity at festivals and in local clubs. Since the late 1980s, the Colombian dance known as cumbia has grown in popularity. Developed on the Caribbean coast by slaves, it consists of intricate, restrained steps that reportedly trace the limits of the dancers' shackles.
Colombian music has gained an international audience largely through the efforts of Antonio López Fuentes, who formed the first Colombian record company, Disco Fuentes, in 1934 and made well-received recordings of indigenous music using modern instrumentation. One style, the cumbia, is written in 2/4 time and performed with a button accordion, drums, maracas, and horns. A related form, vallenato, traditionally consists of vocals, an accordion, a cane scraper, a drum, and a curved flute. Versions of vallenato songs, put to rock instrumentation by Carlos Vives, have enjoyed tremendous success throughout the Americas. Colombian musicians tour the United States frequently, among them the accordionist Lisandro Meza and the bands Las Mantas, Grupo Niche, and Los Macondos, which was formed by seven musicians from the Caribbean coast. Styles known as porro and mapale are performed to a lesser extent.
Obtaining health care poses a serious problem for many Colombian Americans. Those in poorly paid jobs rarely receive health benefits and cannot afford to pay for a health plan or leave their families long enough to receive treatment. In addition to these problems, undocumented immigrants are burdened with the fear that through the medical establishment, their status might become known to the immigration authorities. As a result, Colombian Americans often seek medical care only in emergencies or confine themselves to facilities available within Latin American networks.
Like other immigrants, Colombian Americans sometimes suffer from stress disorders associated with cultural adjustment; few seek out mental health services, owing to longstanding taboos in Colombia against seeking help for mental illness. By the early 1990s, a few social service centers and programs catered to Latin Americans, including La Familia in Marin County, California, and the Fordham Tremont Mental Health Center in New York. In June of 1993 Fordham Tremont launched a counseling service to provide not only mental health care, but also information about such matters as housing and employment. The Women's Rights and Information Center in Bergenline, New Jersey, offers counseling to help Latinas take advantage of opportunities open to them, in part by providing advice about work, education, housing, and legal matters.
Colombian Americans traditionally consider themselves the stewards of the most elegant Spanish spoken in South America. After the 1500s, the upper class sought to preserve pure Castilian as the language of the colony; they succeeded largely because the rugged terrain made travel and communication between regions virtually impossible. Some Indian and African words were adopted by the middle and lower classes and eventually became standard in Latin American Spanish, including several of Caribbean origin (ají, arepa, bagre, batata, bejuco, bohío, cacique, caimán, caníbal, canoa, ceiba, cocuyo, colibrí, guacamaya, guanábana, guayacán, guayaba, maíz, mangle, múcura, papaya, tabaco ) and from Chibcha (curuba, guadua, toche, tatacoa ) and Tupí-Guaraní (cámbulo, chamán, maraca, mandioca, anana ). The geographic isolation and diverse populations of the colonial departments encouraged at least nine regional dialects to develop. Certain characteristics are common to many or most of them. Colombians, especially those from coastal areas, tend to speak more quickly than other South Americans, and their speech is also noted for its lyrical intonation. In certain areas some letters are omitted (a "d" occurring in the second-to-last syllable is suppressed in Antioquia and on the plains around Boyacá) or substituted for others, such as "j" for "s" on the Caribbean coast and in the Cauca River valley and "ch" for "tr" in Cundinamarca.
Spanish is the language of most Colombian households in the United States, where it serves as perhaps the surest means of preserving traditions. Professionals and other members of the middle and upper classes worry about the deterioration of Colombian Spanish in American cities, where it is subject to the influences of English and the Spanish of other countries. They tend to use formal address in more situations than other Latin Americans and commonly call only well-known acquaintances by their first names.
For Colombian Americans, as for other immigrants, learning English is a compelling desire, because without advanced language skills they remain ineligible for most kinds of work; many find that achieving fluency nonetheless remains an elusive goal. They are often unable to afford the time and money necessary for intensive courses and, lacking other options, resort to night school, where classes tend to be large and conditions vary widely. Opportunities to use the language are also limited. Aside from those employed in English-speaking households, most Colombian Americans have little exposure to English, and when they do use it are usually received rudely by native speakers. In the face of these difficulties, Colombian Americans often gravitate to Latin American networks, particularly in large cities, where there is little or no need to know English in either business or social life; families sometimes rely on bilingual children for outside transactions. They consider Miami exceptionally hospitable: Spanish is the second official language of government and also dominates business and cultural affairs.
With the children of other immigrants, Colombian students are at the center of a debate about the future of bilingual education. Studies have shown that even after acquiring fairly advanced English skills, non-native speakers are unable to compete with their English-speaking classmates for several years. Some educators argue that bilingual programs are essential to help students of English as a second language build confidence and keep up with their peers; their approach has aroused anger among Americans who believe that English should be the country's only language and consider wide use of other languages a threat to American culture.
Family and Community Dynamics
A focal concern for Colombian immigrants is to preserve their families intact against pressures encountered in American society. In Colombia traditional values define the home: the husband is the wage-earner and head of house; the wife sets the tone of the household and rarely holds outside employment; children are taught to obey their parents and respect authority. Families prefer to immigrate together but have increasingly been prevented from doing so by restrictive immigration laws. They are often forced to separate for months or even years while one member, usually a parent or an older child, finds work and establishes residency before sending for the rest. Undocumented immigrants go for years without seeing their families, as they cannot return to the United States if they leave. Once reunited, families discover that the conditions of American life undermine traditional roles and values. Lacking access to well-paid jobs, nearly all rely on two incomes to meet living expenses and are forced to adjust to the entrance of women into the work force. In earning their own salary for the first time women gain a measure of independence virtually unknown in Colombia; they also have more opportunities for education. By contrast, men usually have more difficulty finding work and often take more responsibility for household chores than they do in Colombia. These changes sometimes tear families apart: despite strong cultural prohibitions, immigrants divorce far more often than their counterparts in Colombia. In other cases, families are strengthened in uniting against such pressure and transmitting traditional values to their children.
Colombian Americans value education highly and often move to the United States for the chance to educate their children through high school and beyond, a privilege reserved in Colombia for the wealthy. Such ready access offers a crucial advantage to immigrants from the middle and lower classes, for whom an American degree represents an end to the cycle of limited education and poorly paid work that inhibits economic mobility in Colombia. During the late 1980s, the rising costs of higher education threatened the hopes of many families, who found themselves unable to afford their children's college tuition. Among all cities, New York remains the most popular destination, in part because of its colleges and universities, especially those of the city system, which were tuition-free until the early 1970s and remain less expensive than others. Most parents are nonetheless disappointed by American public schools; they consider the curriculum lacking and are disturbed by the informal tone of the classroom, the rate of delinquency among American students, and the wide availability of drugs. They usually look to Catholic schools for an environment that emphasizes values in keeping with their own and enroll their children as soon as they can afford to do so.
Family networks are the primary source of aid in both Colombia and the United States. Relatives, godparents, and friends already living in the United States are often the only source of support for immigrants; they provide not only money and housing but also advice about work and legal and cultural matters. Once financially independent, most immigrants remit a large portion of their salaries to family left behind. On several occasions they have also united in the wake of disaster in Colombia. They responded quickly to a volcanic eruption in the northern part of the country that killed more than 20,000 and destroyed untold property in November 1985; through campaigns nationwide they mounted one of the world's largest relief efforts on behalf of the victims.
Colombian social networks are extensive and difficult to categorize. Doctors' associations in New York City and Chicago were probably the first Colombian organizations in the United States, and other professional societies soon followed. Social clubs based on regional identity became another community institution. According to Gutiérrez, about a dozen formed in New York during the 1970s, their membership drawn mostly from among poor immigrants; they serve as a soccer league during the warm months and meet indoors in cold weather. Colombian Americans also develop strong ties with other Latinos through more informal networks. To some degree they share a common culture through Spanish-language media, which provide news, entertainment, and music from Latin America unavailable elsewhere. Social events draw immigrants from throughout Latin America and are often held at neighborhood restaurants and nightclubs. Soccer is also widely popular; many Colombian Americans take part in local games and also closely observe the fortunes of Latin American teams.
Under Spanish rule, Roman Catholicism spread quickly throughout Colombia and displaced native religions. The country's patron saint, the Virgin of Chiquinquira, nonetheless represents a synthesis of Catholicism and indigenous beliefs: the population named St. Mary their champion in impossible matters after the prayers of a poor woman supposedly restored an abandoned painting of her in Chiquinquira in 1586. From colonial times, the church hierarchy cultivated a close alliance with the elite, and for the poor, stressed the promise of an afterlife achieved through obedience and endurance. Protestant missionaries, who first arrived during the nineteenth century and concentrated on helping the poor, condemned these systems. Their efforts met with swift retaliation from the establishment, which persecuted Protestant ministers and closed their churches. These attacks were especially violent during the civil war of 1948-1958 and abated only after Pope John XXIII took office in 1958.
Catholicism in Colombia faced an even more serious challenge during the 1960s with the rise of Liberation Theology, a movement within the church that sought to focus on the needs of the poor. Its agenda was articulated at a conference of Latin American bishops in Medellín in 1968 and solicited strong opposition from the Vatican and the Latin American elite, which waged a campaign of terror against priests and nuns known or suspected of being activists. Marxist guerrilla groups took up the cause of Liberation Theology, but modified its goals of education and political action to allow for warfare. The movement was weakened throughout Latin American by opposition from the military, the government, and the church, which appointed conservative bishops to fill vacated positions; it also lost the support of guerrilla leaders, who abandoned Marxism in favor of democratic solutions.
Colombia has one of the most conservative church hierarchies in Latin America and one of the highest percentages of regular churchgoers. In addition to Christmas and Easter, religious holidays include Corpus Christi Day (June 21), the celebration of Saints Peter and Paul (June 29), the Procession of Our Lady of Carmen (Cartagena, July 16), All Saints Day (November 1), All Souls Day (November 2), and Immaculate Conception Day (December 8); not all are observed throughout the country. Despite efforts at reconciliation, the country's Protestants and Catholics remain divided.
The Catholic church in New York City was slow to respond to the needs of its Colombian parishioners. Like other Latinos, Colombian Americans in Jackson Heights during the 1960s and 1970s were largely ignored by the local Catholic clergy, which was predominantly Irish and Italian and did not acknowledge the changing ethnicity of the neighborhood. As few priests spoke Spanish, Latinos had difficulty obtaining information about services and programs offered by the church. Enrollment in parochial schools was a charged issue; most parents initially failed to secure their children's enrollment because they were unaware of registration dates and the requirement to make donations at Sunday mass for a year before applying for admission (Gutiérrez, p. 224). In response to such problems, the diocese of Queens and Brooklyn sponsored the Instituto de Comunicación Internacional, a program for teaching Latin American culture and Spanish to the clergy. Even after Spanish-language services were introduced, tension remained between the Hispanic congregation, which was assigned to hold its services in the church basement, and the English-language one, which was composed primarily of Italians and Irish and met in the body of the church. The shortage of Spanish-speaking priests persisted, and from the mid 1970s, about a dozen Colombian priests not formally affiliated with the diocese operated within the neighborhood. Some parishes sought to attract Hispanic congregants by offering masses that featured Latin American music. In Queens a few hundred Colombian Americans led by a Colombian priest established a church based on charismatic Catholicism.
The Catholic church provides crucial support to Latin Americans throughout the United States. Religious ceremonies are closely tied to important customs and traditions, such as compadrazgo, the establishment of kin networks through the choice of godparents (usually the man and woman who acted as the best man and the maid of honor at the parents' wedding); their preservation has been assured in recent years as parishes have added Spanish-language services in not only large cities, but also a growing number of suburbs. The church is also one of the few venues that offer respite from the isolation, loneliness, and hostility that immigrants may encounter in American society.
Employment and Economic Traditions
Since 1960 Colombian Americans have moved to the United States primarily to work. With the deterioration of the Colombian economy after the civil war, the rate of emigration increased as some sought to escape rising unemployment, underemployment, and inflation. In the United States they pursued professional careers, took employment as laborers, factory workers, and domestic servants, and opened small businesses, often catering to Latin Americans. In New York City those who could afford to buy property did so as soon as possible. As immigration restrictions tightened, fewer Colombian Americans planned to remain permanently in the United States; more frequently they sought only to work long enough to improve their financial status before returning to Colombia, where inflation made investment and saving nearly impossible. During the 1970s and 1980s, plans for temporary settlement were common among professionals, who in the United States found opportunities unavailable in Colombia to use their skills, earn salaries commensurate with their education, and enhance their professional standing through advanced training. In the mid-1990s Colombian Americans had one of the highest average incomes among Latinos. Many have prospered in business, especially in ventures in Miami related to trade with Latin America.
Conditions of employment have often brought Colombian Americans into conflict with other groups and exerted pressure on Colombian traditions. According to Gutiérrez, in New York City Colombian Americans developed somewhat strained relations with Cubans, who they felt dominated business, even in El Chapinerito. In Miami they have experienced racial tension with blacks over such issues as competition for work and provisions for more extensive measures to help the poor. They have also had to deal with cultural stigmas attached to the work open to them, which, although remunerative by Colombian standards, often requires far less skill and education than they possess. In New York City during the 1960s and 1970s, they took positions in manufacturing whenever possible, particularly in the garment and textile industries, which were considered most desirable among the kinds of work available. For members of the middle class, especially those without resident status, accepting such work represents a decline in social status; many do not discuss their work with friends and family in Colombia. The problem is severest for women, who in Colombia are held in contempt or deemed disreputable for working at all. With other immigrants, Colombian Americans also face growing uncertainty about their position in the work force. After the economy entered a recession during the late 1980s, they became a target of hostility among Americans who sought to bar immigrants from working, arguing that their jobs should go to the American-born; those without work papers were some of the first to be dismissed.
Work is the focus of Colombian households. While men usually find their earning power diminished, women have many more opportunities than in Colombia. Despite a longstanding tradition of machismo, their husbands offer little or no resistance to their wives' employment because their salaries are needed to repay sponsors, meet daily expenses, support family members who stayed behind, and save money toward children's education, trips to Colombia, and other investments. Husbands and wives often operate small businesses together, and many people hold more than one job.
Politics and Government
Colombian Americans have traditionally devoted themselves to politics in Colombia rather than the United States. Most believe that they will not remain abroad and see little point in becoming involved in American politics; a large proportion do not have the right to vote. In New York City, notes Gutiérrez, strong regional identities have impeded efforts to organize: four associations designed to unite Colombian Americans during the 1970s quickly failed, as did efforts by the Democratic Party to open a Hispanic headquarters in Queens in 1974. By contrast, the power of the community as a voting block in Colombian elections has become so well known that Colombian politicians often campaign in the neighborhood and buy advertisements in El Diario, the city's main Spanish-language newspaper. Colombian Americans in Miami have joined with other Latinos to achieve common political goals such as electing mayors, councilmen, and congressional representatives and engaging lobbyists to represent them in political circles. They have also organized to address the increasingly urgent issues of immigration and discrimination. In 1994 Colombian Americans in New Jersey mounted citizenship drives in response to a Republican plan to deny legal immigrants their Supplemental Security Income on retirement. Throughout the country they fight to correct prevailing stereotypes concerning their relationship to the drug trade.
Individual and Group Contributions
Perhaps the best-known Colombian in American business is the entrepreneur María Elena Ibanez (born in Barranquilla); after helping to manage her father's orchards as a child she moved to Miami in 1973, where she earned a degree in computer science and later formed International High-Tech Marketing, a firm that sells computer equipment in more than 100 developing countries. Andrés Mejia is the world's largest supplier of Paso Fino horses and maintains stables in Miami and Colombia.
The works of Nobel Prize winner Gabriel García Márquez (born in Aracata, Colombia, March 6, 1928) were among the first from Latin America widely read by an English-speaking audience; their critical acclaim stimulated interest in other Latin American artists. A number of Colombian writers living in the United States have also enjoyed success. Silvio Martínez Palau (born in Calí, 1954) moved to the United States in the late 1960s and published the play The English-only Restaurant, a collection of short stories titled Made in USA, and the novel Disneylandia. The playwright Enrique Buenaventura has had his work performed in several American cities; his best-known play, ¡Por Mi Madre Que Es Verdad ! (I Swear on My Mother's Grave ), is set in the southern Bronx. Alister Ramirez lives and writes in New York City.
Pilar Bernal de Pheils, an assistant clinical professor of nursing at the University of California San Francisco, has promoted educational exchange programs allowing Latin American nurses to study and teach in the United States.
Several Colombian composers work in the United States. Jaime Leon was named music director of the American Ballet Theater and composes lyrical songs. Juan Carlos Quintero (born in Medellín) grew up in Brussels and in Freehold, New Jersey, and attended the Berklee School of Music and the New England Conservatory before moving to Los Angeles, where he developed a distinctive style combining jazz and pop with cumbia, salsa, and samba. Freddie Ravel is known for the versatility of his compositions. Colombian musicians based in the United States include the opera singer Martha Senn and the salsa performer Yari More, who works primarily in Los Angeles.
The best-known Colombian in the performing arts is the actor and comedian John Leguizamo (born in Bogotá, 1965), who has written and performed oneman comedies based on his childhood in Jackson Heights, including Spic-O-Rama and Mambo Mouth; he also appeared in the motion pictures Die Hard II and Hangin' with the Homeboys. Rosario Vargas helped to form the Aguijon II Theater Company, the first Spanish-language theater company in Chicago, and remains one of its artistic directors. The dancer Ricardo Bustamente made his debut as a soloist with the American Ballet Theater in June 1989.
The race car driver Roberto Guerrero (born in Medellín) won the title of rookie of the year after the Indianapolis 500 in 1984; at the same race in 1992 he set a record qualifying speed of 232.482 miles per hour (371.971 kilometers per hour).
The artist Fernando Botero (born in Medellín, 1932) has gained international renown for his paintings, drawings, and sculptures of obese figures; after presenting his first solo exhibition of watercolors in Mexico City as a young man, he lived in New York City during the 1960s, where his painting Mona Lisa, Age 12 was shown at the Museum of Modern Art; although decried by members of the academy, his work was enthusiastically received by a wide audience; in 1994 the city of Chicago showed 17 of his bronze sculptures in an outdoor exhibition. Another Colombian artist who has exhibited his work widely in the United States is Enrique Gran, who was born in Panama, spent his childhood in Cartagena, Colombia, and studied painting at the Art Students League in New York City from 1940 to 1943. María Fernanda Cardoso is known for her haunting sculptures dealing with violence in Colombia.
El Diario/La Prensa.
Primary Spanish-language newspaper of New York City; founded in 1913.
Contact: Carlos D. Ramirez, Publisher.
Address: 143-155 Varick Street, New York, New York 10013.
Telephone: (212) 807-4600.
Fax: (212) 807-4617.
El Nuevo Herald .
Spanish-language edition of the Miami Herald. Founded in 1976, it has a circulation of 103,000, and focuses on Latin America.
Contact: Barbara Gutierrez, Editor.
Address: Hometown Herald, 1520 East Sunrise Boulevard, Fort Lauderdale, Florida 33304.
Telephone: (954) 527-8940.
Fax: (954) 527-8955.
Contact: Lucy Diaz.
Address: 625 North Michigan Avenue, Third Floor, Chicago, Illinois 60611-3110.
Telephone: (312) 649-0105.
Fax: (312) 664-2472.
WQBA-AM (1140) / WAMR-FM (107.5).
Address: 2828 Coral Way, Miami, Florida 33145-3204.
Telephone: (305) 441-2073.
Fax: (305) 445-8908.
Address: Telemundo Group, Inc., 1740 Broadway, 18th Floor, New York, New York 10019.
Telephone: (212) 492-5691.
Owns and operates Univision, the leading Spanish-language television network in the United States, and Galavisión, a Spanish-language cable television network. The company, in 1997, also owned and operated 21 television stations. The Univision network was providing, in addition to the company's own stations, 27 over-the-air and 835 cable affiliates with 24- hour-a-day programming.
Address: 1999 Avenue of the Stars, Suite 3050, Los Angeles, California 90067.
Telephone: (310) 216-3434; or (310) 556-7676.
Organizations and Associations
Cartagena Medical Alumni Association.
Established in the late 1960s by costeño physicians.
Address: Chicago, Illinois.
Colombian American Association (CAA).
Objectives are to facilitate commerce and trade between the Republic of Colombia and the United States and to foster and advance cultural relations and goodwill between the two countries.
Contact: Linda A. Calvet, Executive Director.
Address: 150 Nassau Street, Room 2015, New York, New York 10038.
Telephone: (212) 233-7776.
Fax: (212) 233-7779.
Sources for Further Study
Antonio, Angel-Junguito. A Cry of Innocence: In Defense of Colombians. Plantation, FL: Distinctive Pub. Corp., 1993.
Birnabaum, Larry. "Colombia's Vallenato Up North," Newsday, August 24, 1994 (Nassau and Suffolk County edition), p. B 7.
Booth, William. "Miami Auditions for Lead in Latin American Affairs; As Leaders Gather for Summit, America's Southern Trade Hub Tries to Shed Vice-squad Image," Washington Post, December 9, 1994, p. A1.
Chaney, Elsa M. "Colombian Outpost in New York City," in Awakening Minorities: Continuity and Change, edited by John R. Howard. 2nd edition. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1983, pp. 67-74.
Feldman, Claudia. "It Is a Source of Irritation to Some, a Matter of Cultural Pride to Others. Either Way, It Is a Fact of Life in Houston: Spanish Spoken Here," Houston Chronicle. November 20, 1994, p. 1.
Garza, Melita Marie. "Census Puts Latinos in Bittersweet Light," Chicago Tribune. October 20, 1994, p. 1.
"Colombian Americans." Gale Encyclopedia of Multicultural America. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 20, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/colombian-americans
"Colombian Americans." Gale Encyclopedia of Multicultural America. . Retrieved April 20, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/colombian-americans
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