When Americans think of third-world countries, many imagine jungles or deserts with small villages and stagnant economies. But in the heart of the Amazon jungle, Colombia is a country that holds cities of millions. There, traditional labels like “third-world” no longer apply.
John Brown University associate professor of Spanish Iván Iglesias has a personal history with Colombia. He spent the first thirty years of his life in the Caribbean region of Colombia, famous for its shoreside party culture.
Iglesias observed many aspects of Colombian culture that would shock most Americans. “We have to deal about these topics when learning a language,” Iglesias said. “When you learn a language, you learn a culture.” Topics range from the drug cartel to guerilla groups to the conservative Catholicism that unifies the otherwise segmented culture.
“We are the only country that I know of with so many distinctions: in the culture, the way people speak, the cuisine,” Iglesias said. “We have five different regions that are separated by geography. And that makes the culture diverse.”
Among these five regions are the northern Caribbean coast, the southern Amazon, the metropolitan Central, the cowboy Janeiro and the coastal Pacific.
“There’s the Caribbean. All the people are very outgoing, very extroverted, lovers of music and noise,” Iglesias said. “Shakira, who’s very famous here, is from my hometown, which is called Barranquilla.”
JBU is also host to many Colombian students from various regions. One of them, Santiago Vanegas Arbelaez, a sophomore international business major, spent much of his early life in a rural setting. “I was one of twelve siblings, so I have a huge family,” Arbelaez said. “It was tough growing up, because my parents didn’t finish high school.”
Both Iglesias and Arbelaez observe a particular kind of poverty present in especially the rural areas of Colombia. But both also observe a particular happiness despite the lack of material resources. “Colombia has been voted either first or second happiest in the world,” Iglesias said. “We don’t base our happiness on material things. We base it on connections.”
Among those connections, Colombians hold family as the most important. Arbelaez recalls his favorite part of being raised in a less privileged socioeconomic background: “The best thing about growing up is when we gathered together as a family and threw parties,” Arbelaez said. “All the neighborhood would come out and dance and make fires and cook outside. There was a lot of happiness.”
Arbelaez also described the celebratory aspect of Colombian culture. “Celebrating is a big part of the culture,” he said. “People are very friendly. When you go to a store, they will welcome you.”
Because most Colombians travel very little between regions or even cities, Colombian culture has condensed into localized groups. However, business owners are one particular group that travels if life becomes more profitable elsewhere. “Most grocery stores are owned by people from the Central region,” Iglesias said. “Kind of like Indian grocery stores or convenience stores in the States. More local and smaller.”
The economy in Colombia is fueled largely by agriculture. Cash crops are harvested and sold by individual farmers for profits. “Most of the stuff farmers get is for sale,” Arbelaez said, “but a small percentage is for the family. We grow beans, potatoes, avocados, corn, yucca, things like that.”
Another prized commodity from Colombia is coffee, which enables the economy to support the massive expansion of cities. Colombia, located in the Amazon rainforest, has soil abundant in nutrients necessary for growing a diverse range of crops.
Unfortunately, rich soil and prevalence of the drug cartels in the area creates demand for illegal substances like marijuana among other drugs. “Drug dealing is constant in the news,” Iglesias said. Colombia is also well-known as one of the top producers of cocaine, a favorite for the Medellín cartel, the most prevalent group of drug handlers in the country.
In addition to the drug cartel, Colombia faces rebel guerilla groups like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and controversy over the use of the dangerous herbicide glyphosate. In the past six years, Colombia has closed its status as the last Latin American country to sign a peace accord with guerilla groups to try to reintroduce these people into the community. However, there has been controversy about whether criminals should be given representation within the country.
Within the past month, President Donald Trump has gone on record, stating disapproval of Colombia’s neglect in dealing with the ongoing problem with the drug cartels. Furthermore, Trump has claimed Colombia is not meeting its drug fight obligations because of decade-high coca production. “But the Colombian government is saying it hasn’t forgotten, they’re dealing with the guerilla, and the guerilla and drug dealing go hand in hand,” Iglesias said.
“Despite the problems with the poverty and drug dealing and the guerilla, the way we interact with each other is really enriching, fun and lively,” Iglesias said. “Everyone is family. It’s like a different source of energy that we need.”
One such source of energy for Colombians is soccer. “Our Colombian team is one of the strongest in the world – we’re the fourth.” Iglesias said. “We’ll be in the World Cup in Russia next year. So that’s another source of happiness.”
Soccer is very personal to Arbelaez, who gained the opportunity to study and work in the United States through his talent with the sport. “When I was sixteen, I moved to a soccer club in a big city two hours from home, to practice,” he said. “The owner of the club made a program with someone from his college in the United States. They would send the best players who were the best people to provide an education. I was privileged with the opportunity. So it was through soccer and God’s will.”
Arbelaez is very quick to attribute his opportunities to God, exemplifying another important aspect of Colombian culture: its rich, conservative Catholic heritage. “Colombia is the most conservative Catholic country in Latin America,” Iglesias said. “Laws for abortion and homosexual marriage haven’t passed. The Pope recently visited and said that Catholicism is alive here. Many priests have committed sexual abuse and there have been a lot of scandals, but despite all that, the people remain very steady about Catholic teachings.”
Iglesias has also observed a new wave of Colombian youth who seek to forgive past grievances and move on to economic and cultural growth. “They don’t dwell in the past,” Iglesias said. “The Pope highlighted that, not only politically but religiously and economically.”
Both Iglesias and Arbelaez consider communication with and support of their family extremely important. “Being in the United States is a big challenge, but your family is what gives you encouragement to work hard because they gave you the things you needed,” Arbelaez said. “I want to help them because they helped me to be here.”