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Photo by Anna Hiltner

Welcome Letter from Verónica

Left to right, Vivi (middle sister), Isa (niece), Me (Verónica) and Adha (niece). Colombian Caribbean sunset, a couple of weeks ago.

“Nelson Mandela once said, ‘If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.’ He was so right. When you make the effort to speak someone else’s language, even if it’s just basic phrases here and there, you are saying to them, ‘I understand that you have a culture and identity that exists beyond me. I see you as a human being” 

Trevor Noah, Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood

¡Hola a [email protected] desde Brooklyn! 

Me llamo Verónica and I will be one of your instructors for the next 9 months! As you might already know, I was born and raised in Colombia, and just had my 8-year anniversary of moving to the US. My family has been in the north a lot longer. As you would get to know me in the next 9 months, you will learn that my family means a lot to me, and probably learn their names. I also hope to learn about your story and the people who are meaningful in your lives. 

I am writing this introduction of myself from my little one-bedroom in Kensington, Brooklyn, NY. Five days ago I came back from a month trip to Colombia with my family. It has been 10 years since the last time my whole family was all together in our home country. We’ve all gone back through the years, but not all at the same time. It was a big deal, I’m the youngest of three sisters, who all live in NY, and my mom and stepdad live in Canada, but we were all born and raised in Colombia. 

I have two nieces, Isa and Adha, ages 12 and 9. Unlike my sisters and I, they were born here, in New York. They are the first generation of my family to be born abroad. They are half Indian, half Colombian, and born American. As a family, we have tried really hard for my nieces to have a strong connection to their Colombian roots and to make sure they learn Spanish. It has not been easy. We constantly remind them “¡háblame en español!”. My sister takes them to Colombia as much as she can, usually once every two years, for them to have connections to their roots, to their family, to the language. They attend dual-language schools in NY and they are indeed, fluent in Spanish. However, in spite of my family’s effort, my nieces feel more comfortable speaking in English: To each other, to their friends, to society. Yet we will keep pushing them to not forget where they came from and hopefully they won’t. 

Even though for my nieces English is their strongest suit, they have a strong connection to Colombia, they love Colombian food, they love going to Colombia, and adore all their grand-aunts and cousins who live there. They are proud of their Colombia heritage. Yet, my nieces have a very different relationship to India, because their father didn’t think Malayalam, his language, would be useful for them. They’ve only been to India once, and could not communicate with most of their family members. Although they see pics on social media of their Indian family, are told to say hi to their Amashi on the phone once in a while, and sometimes wear Indian dresses, they barely identify with their Indian half. India for them is still unknown and foreign. 

You can get to know a different culture as an outsider, you can learn about their foods, their traditions, their history, and their landscapes, but when you speak their language, when people can connect by a shared language, you can create much more significant relationships. I encourage you this coming year to challenge yourselves to connect, through language, through culture. We all have an amazing opportunity ahead of us, to get out of our comfort zone, our comfort language, and discover the many contrasts and nuances of Bolivia together. To discover weakness and strength in ourselves we did not know we had and to grow as citizens of the world. 

The first time I went to Bolivia was in 2015 with a semester Dragon’s course. After having lived in the US for 4 years, from the first weeks in Bolivia I felt more at home than I had felt since leaving my home country in 2011. Their mountains were familiar to me, their fruits, their green and dry landscapes, their language. Yet, Bolivia also made me realize how much Colombia had forgotten its indigenous past. In Bolivia, I learned more and more about Andean Cosmovision, about the significance of the mountains, I heard Quechua and Aymara spoken. Rarely in the Colombian Andes you get to hear indigenous languages. The Spanish conquest exterminated most of the Colombian Andean indigenous population. Yet, here I was seeing all these traditions and languages that survived the genocide. 

Bolivia is a country of resistance, of the resilience, of activism, a country with many languages and cultures that remind us of the past and present of colonization, and with its history, makes reflect on the past of present of current realities. As foreigners in this incredible country with such a rich past and present, we need to be ready to listen, to learn, to understand what role do we play in this globalized world, to understand where we come from and how we can shape where we are going, but most importantly to understand others: your fellow students and instructors, and the welcoming communities that are opening their lives to us. It is by truly listening that bridges instead of walls can be built through cultures, language, nationalities, and generations. 

My fellow co-instructors Pedro, Jochen -who will be supporting us for the first six weeks of course- and I will welcome you with open arms and support you as much as we can in this journey, but in the end, what you make of this journey will depend mostly on yourselves. 

In the coming weeks, as you do practical things like packing and more difficult things like saying goodbye to loved ones, I would encourage each of you to post an introductory yak. I will be posting another yak in the next few days that have some more guidelines around that, and also some resources to start learning more about Bolivia. I will also be calling each of you on the following days. 


Un gran abrazo,