She looked out at the snow-covered landscape that surrounded us as we traveled down a treacherous two lane highway. Suddenly she spoke, and thus brought an end to the arduous hour-long silence that had enveloped the car.
"How did we end up here?"It was a perfectly good question to ask, and an unusually lucid one for my elderly grandmother to put forward. I had often asked myself the same thing. How had we, two Colombians, ended up here? What were we doing driving through the snow-covered American midwest, a place that looked (particularly during the winter) unlike anything we knew back home. Why were here, surrounded by people with whom we often had so little in common, and who looked unlike us? At that moment, the snow-covered fields of the United States looked even more foreign than they had in the previous winters I had spent in this country. For some reason, hearing my grandmother ask that question had a substantial impact on me, and thus I continue to ask myself the same thing rather often. How on earth did I end up here?
Although generally coherent at that point in her life, my grandmother's rational thoughts by then were already fleeting. As the years had passed, her hearing had gradually diminished, and thus our conversations lacked any sort of meaning or depth. I had only really met her when my family moved to the United States, and I had thus never developed the strong bond that many kids have with their grandparents. To hear her ask that question during the lengthy drive, and then have her continue a conversation about the very subject was an unusual moment of clarity for her. I was amazed because she went on to express a range of emotions that I often felt about living in this country. She had been living here a substantially longer amount of time than me, so I had always incorrectly assumed that she wouldn't feel this way. I always assumed that she had finally settled into life in the United States and that she felt at home. I was wrong. How could she? She had never learned to speak English, and had always lived in tiny American towns with no latino population to speak of. As a result of similar circumstances, we both felt isolated, culturally disconnected, and often found ourselves longing for home. But as we both went on to discuss, we had partially lost track of where "home" was. By that point in my life, I felt out of place in the United States in many ways, and considered myself (as I still do now) to be completely Colombian. At the same time, however, I was also slightly out of place when I went back to Colombia. I was a gringo, a sell out. I had left my friends and family behind, so I was stuck in the middle. Not at home here, a sell out back home. As it happened, that feeling was not foreign to anyone in my family. Not only was it something my grandmother felt, but she reminded me that I came from a long line of individuals who had probably felt the same way.
My father's family fled Nazi Germany in the late 1930's, and ended up in Colombia. My grandmother was Jewish, and my grandfather was Protestant. The mixed marriage, along with my grandfather's activity in the German Resistance made them less than desirable back in the old country. Similarly, my mother's family had been forced to move out of their native city of Ibague (Colombia) due to the political pressure and ongoing bloodsheed commonly referred to as La Violencia. My grandfather had been targeted for his political affiliations, and thus had to leave the radio station he owned, his home and his life behind in order to flee with his family.
Similarly, my parents had opted to move our family to the United States as drug and guerrilla-related violence continued to permeate the Colombian landscape. Although they had applied for our immigration papers many years earlier, and the final decision to leave was not made strictly because of the violence in Colombia, leaving Bogota certainly felt like we were turning our backs on and fleeing from a burning building. A building with friends and family still trapped inside. The result had been the same as with prior generations. We ended up in a foreign place, we struggled to adjust, and always remained partially loyal to our place of birth. As my grandmother put it that day, our body is here, but our heart and our mind are still back home. We were split in two.
It's precisely that sentiment that I feel connects me (however loosely) to Colombia's cycling greats. You may disagree with my assessments, you may find my reasoning to be overly dramatic...I fully understand. I assure you that it wouldn't be the first time I've been called "overly dramatic." You see, while the severe circumstances under which members of my family became émigrés has little to do with cycling, I would argue that the end result, which is a feeling of being out place, is in some way related to Colombian cyclists. I don't say this to make light of the political struggles that members of my family have faced, but rather to understand my own feelings, and the tumultuous relationship I have with the country where I now live.
Through my years of living in the United States, I've often had an unwavering sense of isolation, and one of longing for home. While others in my situation (having moved here from another country) have managed to simply move on with their lives and become more integrated within American culture and society, I simply haven't. Perhaps this speaks more about me as a person than it does about my situation as an immigrant. I simply don't know, but the end result has been same. It's for this reason that I have always felt a certain kinship with individuals in similar circumstances. I have also seen small parts of my struggle reflected in any number of individuals and situations. It's for this reason that I seem to seek out tales and circumstances that feature emotions like my own, chief among these is the struggle of Colombian cyclists from the 1980s through today. While many admire, and at times identify, with the physical pain and toughness of cyclists in general, I identify and admire the cultural isolation and struggles of Colombian cyclists specifically. I internalize their difficulties, I augment their hardships. I know their difficulties, for they are mine. Do I sound crazy or stupid for thinking this way? Probably both.
Most Colombian cyclists come from towns in the cooler climates of the country, in the regions that surround Bogota. These are tiny municipalities largely made up of impoverished farmers. For many such people, the thought of going to Bogota (the big capital city) is beyond comprehension. Traveling to another country would be the equivalent of going to Mars. The level of poverty and isolation that exists in rural Colombia is impossible to understand by anyone who has not lived or spent a significant amount of time there. Having traveled to many countries in the world, I can still say that the isolation and poverty that is common in Latin America is nearly impossible to find in most other places (although I suspect that it's rather common throughout places like Africa). It's that type of cultural solitude that has largely shaped the reality of those who grow up in such places. For cyclists from these small towns, it's been the limitations that surround them (not the possibilities of what could be) that have shaped their lives. Unlike athletes from most other parts of the world, their options are incredibly limited, as are their means, and their connections to cultures other than their own. While I know and understand that hardship and isolation is not unique to Colombia's impoverished population, it's the only one I know and partially understand. So while much has been made of and written about the manner in which Americans like Greg Lemond moved to Europe in order to pursue a life in cycling, little is ever said about those from other nations who underwent far more radical transitions, and thus faced substantial hardship.
In the case of the first Colombian cyclists who made it to Europe, they often spoke about the levels of isolation they endured. They were misunderstood, they felt radically out of place, and in some cases they were openly mocked within the peloton. Their dark complexions, indigenous features, and short statures made them stand out in a sea of light-skinned Europeans and Americans. In the 1984 Dauphine Libere, which Colombian Martin Ramirez won, Bernard Hinault openly mocked Ramirez as TV cameras were close by, screaming out "Cocaine, cocaine!" as he pretended to sniff and point at the Colombian during the race. The peloton laughed. This exchange was widely reported in the Colombian press (first by the Espectador newspaper, and later in the book Escarabajos De la Vuelta A Colombia). Although this could be taken as an isolated case of simple joking around within the peloton, Lucho Herrera believed otherwise. In a recent interview he explained the following in reference to the treatment they received from European riders, Fignon in particular:
"He always spoke badly of us, and always said that we were inferior them [the French/Europeans]"
It's with this in mind that I often stare at pictures of races from that era that contain any Colombians. Their bikes and clothing were different, often sub-par (particularly in the early 80s). Their team cars were staffed by their mothers. Culturally, they were out of their element, and many of the other riders let them know this. Notable exceptions to this kind of treatment were always hailed by the Colombian press, and its for that reason that Andy Hampsten continues to be thought of so highly by Colombian cycling fans. He famously treated Colombian riders with respect, spoke to the Colombian media and even referred to the Colombians by name...a rarity even to this day. The media noticed this, and praised Hampsten accordingly.
I remember hearing mentions about the fact that Colombian riders were often not referred to by name in the international media back then. Sure enough, as I was watching the TV coverage of the Coors Classic races from back then just weeks ago, I noticed how they generically spoke of "the Colombians" in the race, even when a single rider was in a breakaway. No names were ever used. They were simply "the Colombians." Perhaps I'm oversensitive (I'm open to that possibility), but this was consistent with the media reports I heard as a kid, and proved how one of the symptoms of the lack of respect that riders experienced was in fact correct. Similarly, Bob Roll generically refers to "some Colombians" at races like the Coors Classic in his second book many times. Everyone else in his accounts has a name, but not the Colombians. They are a generic mass, a faceless group. While this could be attributed to their relative newness to the peloton, one has to keep in mind that this was the attitude at the Coors Classic by the mid and late 80s, when Colombian Patrocinio Jimenez had already won the race in 1982. They were not new within the peloton, and their victories had accumulated impressively trough the years by that point.
So while many identify with or admire the pain that professional cyclists endure, I identify with the hardship and isolation that some of them felt (and continue to feel). Perhaps this is foolish on my part. Perhaps its no different than idolizing professional cyclists due to their "epic" struggles, but I identify with the cultural and ethnically-derived hardships that Colombian professionals often spoke of during the 1980s. Is this a reflection of how I elevate individuals to a god-like status far too easily? Does it speak volumes about my tendency to see the hardships and not the beauty in life? Am I making childish connections between human experiences that don't really need to be made. Maybe. But I will continue to do it, because like me, they longed for home. They too looked and felt different from those around them at times. They too felt out of place in regions of the world that were culturally different from their native Colombia. They too felt isolated. They too went back to Colombia changed by what they had seen in far-away lands, and often wondered where "home" was.
Most importantly, I suspect that they too looked out of the window of a car during their years abroad and inquisitively asked each other:
"How did we end up here?"