Medéllin is my second home: lush, tropical and high in the Andes of Colombia – definitely not in a swamp. My two years in the Peace Corps there during the sixties, just out of Berkeley, were transformative for me. I lived in a poor barrio called Las Violetas doing community development work which meant everything from finishing a sewer project in the barrio to building a school in the small rural community a few miles above. My across the street neighbors were the Maldonado family. When I was there, the mother, Doña Mariela, had 15 children and after I left she had 3 more with her very strict husband, Gustavo, who worked in a blue collar job in the city. The kids were usually barefoot and chickens wandered in and out of their small brick house with dirt floors. During the holidays Doña Mariela would always give me some of her famous Christmas pudding called natilla. I remember that several of her children who were a constant presence in and out of the second floor of the house I rented from the Colombian family below.
The first decade after I left the Peace Corps, I returned to see my old friends in the barrio several times. By the early 1980s, Medéllin became too violent to visit and the barrio was controlled by paramilitary gangs. I returned in 1995 for the first time in 14 years and then did not return again until 2004. No matter how long it ever was, the Maldonado family, the Restrepo family, and others never forgot. They greeted me with empanadas, raspberry juice and remembered always to ask for my mother and my sister by name because both had visited me during my time in the Peace Corps. I just learned that one of the daughters even named a son of hers for an old boyfriend of mine that she only met once and who I would just as soon forget.
The kids of course, grew up and married themselves although courtship wasn’t exactly easy. Don Gustavo would not let a young man past the iron-barred windows until he had proposed marriage. Through all these years Doña Mariela and I always shared Christmas greetings and she never forgot that I loved her traditional Christmas pudding, natilla. And no matter what month I visited she would make natilla. After I founded the Marina Orth Foundation in 2005, which was first headquartered at the Marina Orth School, Doña Mariela would frequently visit me up there just to say hello and give me a big hug. Today the barrio is calm and peaceful.
Doña Mariela celebrated her 90th birthday last October and I recently heard that she had been seriously ill. So I was pleasantly surprised last Saturday to see her up and able to speak and apologizing for not having made me natilla. At her side was her parrot, Rebecca, that she had raised since the time the bird was only a few days old and had been separated from its mother. Rebecca calls Mariela “Mamma” and stayed on her bed refusing to leave her side during the dark days of Mariela’s recent illness.
During our visit, at least 6 or 7 of her children wandered in and out to say hello. They themselves are grandparents these days. Mariela, in fact, has 51 grandchildren! How gratifying it is to see that since my Peace Corps days, her oldest son, Gabriel, now an electrical contractor, is the father of the director of the famed Ballet Folklorico of Medéllin and his grandson is also a professional musician and dancer. I also met another of Mariela’s grandchildren, Isabela Cano, a radio reporter for the RCN Network, who was there with her 11-year-old daughter, Samantha, whose English is practically fluent. There are any number of professionals in the family today: nurses, accountants, photographers. The “American Dream” does not only reside in America. What a privilege to have been young, in the Peace Corps in such a beautiful place, and to have learned that lesson.