Dear America 🇺🇸

Introduction 

The following pages were written as the result of a phone conversation with my grandmother, Annette Calimafde, on March 21st, 2020. This conversation was the first that Lucia had with my grandmother. And, sadly, as we were in the midst of the Covid-19 scare, the conversation was by phone and not in person. During this conversation, however, my grandmother suggested to Lucia that she should write a short story. Specifically, that she should write about her first impressions here in America. If I remember correctly, this was pitched as a suggestion but ultimately felt more like an assignment. And, well, Lucia was very much up to the task, and, two months later, this is the result. What my grandmother did not know at the time of this first conversation, however, is that Lucia had been to the United States several times before. So, while the following pages do contain her first impressions of America—as the assignment requires—they ultimately contain a lot more. Lucia’s relationship with America is long and windy, as is outlined in the following letter to America. 

May 17th, 2020

Kyle Bawot


Dear America,

Set aside enough time to read this long letter, which will be my last one, because we are finally here together.  

The first time I heard about you I was six years old. Still, to this day, the smell of that brand new rectangular-shape cardboard box remains engraved in my mind. Just as we opened it, a Christmas tree popped up in pieces ready to be assembled. That evening, my family introduced me to you. To your Christmas and the white-bearded man who brought gifts by the chimney, who flew with his sled through the snow and wore a winter suit. Why was he dressed in clothes of winter if there’s no such concept of a white Christmas in Colombia? If my only reference to snow was the satisfying experience of opening up the freezer, scraping with my index finger to the frosty surface of powdery ice. Which later I put in my mouth. That was the closest thing to snow I knew until I was 16.

Over the years, I repeatedly heard from my mom how important it was to learn English. It would open doors for my sister and me. Because one of her frustrations was not speaking English, and she would not let it happen to us. That in America, the grass was greener and the opportunities bigger. Still, despite my resistance, every Tuesday and Thursday, she dragged me out of bed and forced me to go to my English lessons. The reason why I did not want to go was my basketball lessons overlapped, and to be honest, at that point, basketball was the only thing that mattered to me. At the same time, my dad talked a lot about his desire to move to Boston with us, that he could teach Spanish there. That was back in 2000. And that was when the initiative to get the visa came up. That event let me tell you, dear America, turned the beginning of our history into a tense one, I don’t know if you still remember it?

Around the same time, a mountain of papers was installed on the dining table, intruded between our breakfasts, lunches, and suppers. During those weeks, Mom and Dad sat at night, filling out those papers with a dramatic light above them, almost like in the police movies. My sixth sense got me thinking my parents did not know very well what they were doing. Still, you got named repeatedly during their conversations. At home, the desire for the “American Dream” was not mentioned. But still, I had a feeling those papers, the visa topic, and the trip to Bogota had something to do with that long-awaited dream of many. My mom packed in a small suitcase my most elegant dress for our trip to Bogota. We went on one of the buses from my mother’s transportation company, which was doing very well at the time. The bus driver repeatedly and insistently called my mom: “boss, boss, these are the best seats for the four of you”. We embarked on a trip through the Andes mountains. After 8 hours, we arrived in Colombian’s cold capital city, or “the fridge” as many humorously call it.

We took a taxi, my mom super confidently said to the driver: “Please to the American embassy”. I told myself: Finally, I’m going to see America. I was eager to see how beautiful the building would be. However, when we arrived, the structure looked like a pale-gray bunker, it almost resembled the skin color of my parent’s faces who at that time seemed quite distressed. We hurried toward the building, and formed in the line, the security guards kept repeatedly saying: “Please, line up against the wall and stay silent”. I still remember how small that wall made us feel, and my impatience to see you, dear America, turned the waiting even more unmanageable. From 7:30 a.m., when we arrived, to 11:00 a.m., we had only advanced to the entrance door. The next hour was another story, everything happened very quickly: we entered through a hallway full of lockers, we left all our belongings there, I even had to deposit the amber ring that I never took off my ring finger. The “lucky ring” I used to call it. We sat in some chairs that felt cold and sad, which would not be unlike the result of this first visit. And after a few minutes, they called on the loudspeaker with a “gringo” accent: Enoc Hernandez and family, window four. We all sat up in a rush and ran to the counter. From a distance, I could see the reflection of the four of us in the black window, and I felt someone might be steadfastly staring at us; once we arrived, my parents stood in front of us. I focused on looking closely at the blue flower pattern on my mom’s blouse because the window was so high up that I could barely listen to what they were talking about. During the five minutes we were standing there, only my dad spoke and answered four questions, all with a nervous voice. I remember, he replied: “Miami then, a month, we are going to pay for the trip with our savings, and finally: No, we have not bought tickets yet.” And just when he finished answering that last question, suddenly the man sitting behind the window passed a translucent red paper under the window slot. We walked towards the exit, and until that moment, my parents had not uttered a single word. My hypothesis was that they would tell us the good news outside.

But when we left your embassy, dear America, my naive appreciation of you whatever the results were had turned to hatred. We took a taxi straight to the apartment we had in Bogota, once we arrived, the four of us sat on the bright orange sofa in the living room, and my parents showed my sister and me the red paper sheet, which in capital letters and underlined had written on it DENIED. I remember that my parents spent hours chatting about the questions, the answers, and, with unhappy faces, they wondered what they had done wrong. At that moment, my dear America, I did not want to hear from you anymore. Still, it was difficult to ignore you since, in the following years, we tried again to apply for your visa. With such bad luck, the last time was just two months after the catastrophic event of September 11th, after which we were not surprised to receive the red paper slide through the window once again. 

Many years passed, and although I repetitively said to myself I did not want to get involved with anything that has to do with you, movie references always made me think of you. Also, the Christmas rituals, the Halloween celebrations, the Milky Way chocolate bars friends brought to me from their trips to America (eating them was a surreal experience at the time because in Colombia we don’t have anything similar). As well as songs played on the MTV channel that, little by little, I tried to hum in English, following the lyrics I had downloaded from a sketchy website. But continuing this story, when I was 13, and I went to Quito, Ecuador for a basketball tournament, we were very close again. Whenever we traveled with my team, we stayed with host families. On that occasion, I got to stay with a family that had a very particular story, they had just returned from living for many years in your country, dear America. Once I got in their car, the two children of this couple began to speak English, and soon after, very excitedly, they began to scream “McDonald’s, McDonald’s”. For me, this whole situation seemed to be taken from one of those American films; coming from a reasonably small city in Colombia, I had heard of McDonald’s, but I knew that it only existed in Bogota. My mom had absolutely forbidden me to eat American junk food, but considering I was 4,500 miles from Colombia. It was unlikely that my mom would find out. So, I accepted the hamburger of oversized proportions, in combo with french fries and an extra-large Coca-Cola, and I prepared myself to devour it, even today, I consider that as my first real act of rebellion never told before. During that week in Quito, it can be said I lived my first adventure with you, or at least we lived the stereotype of what you can genuinely be dear America. Our seven days were surrounded by hamburgers, copious sodas, Fruit Loops for breakfast, movies rented from Blockbuster, and what I thought would bring me closer to you, had the complete opposite effect on me. Between the consumerism, the junk food, and that feeling of shallowness, I felt there would never exist a place for me next to you. And that day, our paths parted. 

After that trip, I thought I could convince my mom to take me out of English classes. After all, I wasn’t planning to see you again. But still, my words had the opposite effect. My mom even took it more seriously, and every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday without fail, she would take me to my English classes. At the time, my sister was in an exchange program in Germany. She was having a hard time trying to communicate because, with her distinctive rebellious personality, she didn’t attend any of the English lessons back in Colombia. The brief-phrase was: “Your sister sent an email saying that the best advice she can give you is not to leave your English classes because she is now paying the consequences of being a rebel without a cause.” I don’t know if it was my sister’s advice, the desire to understand Avril Lavigne’s songs, or merely the fact that in three years from now, I was going to China for an exchange program, but I began to slowly enjoy your language, dear America, and the closer it got to my China trip, the more time I dedicated to improving my English. In 2008 while living in China, we ran into each other again; this time, it was not by good luck or bad luck; instead of as a fact of survival, your language became my only language of communication. And for the first time, I uttered a “shit”, dear America. It felt liberating. I even had to study Mandarin in English, and it worked. There’s something to this day I still found kind of insane; in Mandarin, “Mei Li” means America, and the literal translation of “Mei Li” is “beautiful country.” For them, you are perfect and unreachable even though you are so far away from those eastern lands. At the same time, that year, I had the chance to meet people from your country, such as Andrew, from Boston, the son of a millionaire, and Josh, an English teacher from California. With this group, I experienced my first hangover after I had drunk eight Heineken beers. I still have a clear memory of that morning after, when I opened my eyes and was lying on a blue sofa in Tamara’s apartment.

Most charmingly, you were part of my time in Buenos Aires. Where I juggled my college classes with the Friday bohemian encounters with my American folks. I awaited that last day of the week, to start the weekly routine of going out to the Chinese supermarket right around the corner to buy the cheap Syrah wine, I liked it so much, still do. Then, I started the journey to the subway station that always made me think of the scenes of the New York subway, and enjoyed the long walk through the cobbled streets of San Telmo neighborhood until I reached the red door of 1,200 Defensa Street, which was where Ally’s place was. Once I entered, the conversations shifted into exciting ones, and only in English, for some reason, I felt so content in that place, I belonged there, the laughter came from the right place, the toasts were constant. The countless nights I spent there, I met around 20 people from Connecticut, Boston, and London. I sensed I was part of one of Hemingway’s adventure novels. They told me about you America, about the horse-back riding adventures, the Broadway plays, and road-tripping adventures throughout your territory, dear America. I must admit, at that moment, a real need arose from me, I wanted to give it a second chance to our relationship again. So, we did, we took that step and love resurfaced even though I had not yet set foot on the real America. As the famous saying says: “From hatred to love. There is only one step.”

While still in Argentina or “the south”, as I like to call it, in my last year of university, I had the opportunity to go to El Salvador as a volunteer photographer for a coffee company from your country, dear America. That trip gave a 180° turn to my life, I met a new community that opened the doors to me even before I arrived, those fifteen days made me feel renewed and empowered again, it has been too long since I have felt that way. And it was there when I understood perhaps my destiny was not in Buenos Aires, although to this day I call it my second home, it got relegated because coffee became everything to me, even to this day. The story was like this, one January just after having had the overwhelming experience of seeing my ex-boyfriend pack his belongings, witness how he took down the clock from the wall as if he was taking the time we spent together as well; and listened to the last thank you and goodbye leave his mouth. I felt the world as I knew it was crumbling around me, and when I thought I couldn’t start again, my cell phone suddenly rang, I saw an unknown number on the screen, I slide my finger across the screen, sandwiched my cell phone between my ear and my shoulder and on the other side I heard: “Hi Lucia, This is Lilia, do you have 10 minutes to jump on a call in Skype?”. I nodded, assuming she was, for some reason, looking at me.

I remember, without having any idea what the call would be about, I experienced a pleasant tingling sensation all over my body. The ten minutes became 30, but it was all worth it. A new beginning was about to start all the way back in Colombia to work for a coffee company from your country, dear America. The only requirement was to have an American tourist visa. When Lilia told me, it was essential to have the visa, I felt like the eight-year-old girl who waited in line outside the pale-gray bunker and witnessed on multiple occasions, how that red paper slipped from underneath the window slot. But, despite having experienced that in the past, my mind felt strong enough to handle a fourth time, so without thinking twice, I sat in bed, opened the laptop, went onto the website of the embassy of your country, dear America. Then, I started to fill out more than 70 pages of questions, I was afraid inside, I did not know if I should be very honest or subtly lie when answering those questions, the appointment was given to me for four days later, I could not carry a cell phone, nor a bag, nor accessories. When the day came, the letter of employment from the company had not yet arrived.

Nevertheless, I went down the staircase of my building as expected, hopped on the taxi breathlessly on a chilly summer morning, my hands were colder than usual. On the way to the embassy, I had the impression, they would deny the visa to me, and that’s how it was. For the first time, I was the one who answered the questions with a nervous voice, the one who saw from another perspective. Still, with the same sadness, the red paper came out from underneath the window slot. I decided to walk back home, under the blistering hot Buenos Aires summer sun, it took me an hour, when I finally arrived at the apartment, I found myself walled by half-packed boxes and luggage, I called Lilia, she answered at the second ring. I said: “My visa was denied”. She was strangely concerned, and told me not to tell anyone, and make a new appointment with the embassy immediately, “she added she would arrange for me to send the letter of employment.” Precisely seven days passed for me to repeat the story, this time with the letter in hand, I waited in the various lines, I felt anxious. But in the end, for the first time, I got to see a green paper returned through the window slot, and then the consul said: Your visa has been approved. Your passport with your visa will be sent to your house in seven days, have a beautiful day. I walked back home again, but this time I spent every minute fantasizing about you, about your country and the desire I had to finally create my own memories, my own concepts about you, dear America.

After being back in Colombia for three months, still adapting to the fact I was back “home,” but for some reason, it didn’t feel like home at all. I received a letter from my boss in Portland, Oregon with the best news: he wanted me to travel and spend twenty days working from the headquarters, which means I was finally going to visit you. Once I got the email with the airfares for June 8th, still to this day I remember, I started counting the hours. The night before, I talked to Cora, one of my colleagues, that kindly offered to pick me up from the airport and settle me in. She told me: “you’re gonna love it here, I’m telling you.” The hours before I had to wake up to get to the airport felt longer than usual, before I left the apartment at 5:00 a.m. I checked twice if my passport was in the secret pocket of my purse, It was there. The flight was enjoyable, I read, watched a movie, and chatted to the lady that was sitting next to me, she gave me suggestions of places I should visit while in Portland, like Powell’s bookstore and the Crystal Ballroom (both of which I visited), it sounded like the ideal place to live. After 6 hours, we landed at my first stop. The captain said, “Welcome to Houston, Texas.” I felt slightly more scared than happy, I said good-bye and exchanged numbers with Sara, the nice lady I met in the plane, and started anxiously walking to the customs area to get my visa stamped, that idea sounded terrifying. What are the odds they do not let me in dear America and send me back to Colombia? That’s what happened in all the movies, right? Those are the stories I heard back in high school. My hands were cold as typical, it took me an hour to get through customs, between taking off my shoes, putting my bags on multiple scanners, and answering three questions: Why is the purpose of your visit? How long are you planning to stay? Is it your first time in the United States? The man with the mustache stamped my passport with dark blue ink and said “Welcome to the United States, enjoy your visit” My heart was pumping out of my body while answering, but I did it! I was finally in your country. The airport was huge. As was the “small” coffee at Starbucks, which was triple the size of a small coffee in Colombia. Everything is disproportionately large here, dear America.

The flight to Portland was uneventful, time went by so fast that pretty much when I opened the book cover to start reading the Kitchen’s confidential book, the flight attendant started talking in the loudspeaker: “Ladies and gentlemen, we are close to landing, and the captain has turned on the fasten seat belt sign. If you haven’t already, please stow your carry-on luggage underneath the seat in front of you. Please take your seat and secure your seat belt”. As we landed, It was raining, expected for Portland standards. But as you know, dear America, rainy days are my favorites. While we waited in the plane to get off, the raindrops soothingly covered the window glasses. The waiting time at the luggage carousel felt like an exquisite time-lapse to reflect on these past 13 years, it felt surreal to be standing here above the colorful pattern carpet from the Portland airport. No more imagining, no more listening to others’ stories, it was time to create my own stories here with you.

The twenty days in Portland consisted of speaking English 24/7, of bus rides to the office under the gloomy Portland weather, of large coffee cups over work-meetings, of exploring Portland with new friends after work, of eating for the first time at an Ethiopian restaurant and having to eat with my hands, of karaoke and bowling nights, of lavender and salted caramel ice cream on a cold day, of ping pong lessons after work, of supermarket visits having no idea what or how to buy food because of the multiple options overwhelmed me, 40 different types of pasta, guacamole ready to be eaten and so on. Also, road trips to Multnomah Falls on the weekend, where Matthew’s car got stuck in the snow, of walks holding my camera without having to worry about getting mug, for the first time in my life. In your country, I felt safe and free at the same time. I got used to your country, dear America, after a week and felt I was home already. The farewell was a nostalgic one, I had to wake up at 5:00 a.m., and by 1:00 a.m. I was still awake, so Matthew and I decided to drive around the outskirts of Portland and enjoyed these last hours together. At 5:30 a.m., Matt drove me to the airport, and we promised to meet again in your country soon, and we made it happen.

After that trip, and for the past eight years, I’ve been working with coffee companies from your country dear America, and I’ve been coming to your country year by year, first Washington, where I experienced for the first time a snowstorm with you, dear America, and got stuck in a speakeasy bar with Joakim a French friend from my year in China and Matthew, my friend I met back in Portland. Then New York City, where I visited Central Park and Grand Central Station, two places I’ve seen in some of my favorite movies. Then Seattle, where I finally had the chance to see with my own eyes the phenomenal glass exhibition of Chihuly. Then Boston in 2019, where I stayed at the most beautiful house in the Beacon Hill neighborhood.

The plan to come to visit you, dear America, became a yearly-ritual, so I found myself on March 11th, 2020, happier than ever, traveling from Bogota to JFK airport, dear America, to meet with Kyle, an unexpected but delightful person from your country that I stumbled upon last November in Colombia. Since then, we found ourselves finding ways to meet each other more and more. So I’ve planned to come to your country for two months to confirm for myself that rather than him being a dream, that he is actually the person I described very detailed in four pages in my journal last year. Little did we know, COVID-19 was going to invite itself to this memorable time. So we found ourselves here, after almost two months, being forced to stay inside and stay there much longer than we might like or even feel possible. And yet, here we are planting seeds and unpredictably watching their progress in the right way, dear America. Borders in Colombia are closed, so my return dates are blurring more day by day. I find myself feeling content spending time in your country, dear America, looking out of the window seeing all the trees blooming and changing colors, learning a little more about life’s smaller celebrations. Kyle is becoming you, and I found myself amused by that. I read somewhere: “We don’t know until we do.” And I notice that is where I’m supposed to be, so I haven’t been asking questions or looking for answers; instead, just letting life flow.


Lucía


Using Format