President Valencia Meets Billy the Kid
Martin was assigned to direct USIA’s Centro Colombo Americano, a transnational cultural center. I immersed myself once more in the Latin literary world and lush South American landscape that I loved. A mother, housewife, hostess and working translation scholar, I also wrote poetry, employing the skills and energy that Donald Justice, Paul Lawson and May Miller had encouraged. First in Bogota and then in Medellín, we surrounded ourselves with artists, writers and the occasional revolutionary. I was publishing regularly in the Centro Colombo Americano newspaper, and working on my first book of poetry, Carta al Norte, which came out just before we returned to the U.S.
The Colombian years were the golden age of my first marriage. Martin acquired the status of a Foreign Service officer. We attended elegant embassy parties and the opera house, where we sat in the box next to President Guillermo Valencia for the premiere of Aaron Copland’s ballet, Billy the Kid, choreographed by George Balanchine and performed by the New York City Ballet. My household staff called me “Doña Glenna,” and I felt like a lady, dazzling in her elegance, with my respected husband, beautiful children and pretty clothes.
At night, I would go to the salon to get my hair done before a reception. Linda enjoyed going with me to see my hair swept up into a French twist. As I waited for them to put the finishing touches on my upswept hairdo, I saw a picture in a magazine which seemed to convey Linda and me exactly. It was the photograph by Gertrude Käsebier, “Blessed Art Thou among Women”, of a willowy girl getting sent off to school. I was watching Linda grow up every day and get sent off into young womanhood.
At the same time, I witnessed Colombia’s poverty and social discontent daily. Thieves slipped through the neighborhood. The children of Bogota’s backstreets, little ones who had nothing, came to our door begging with their wretched mothers. I tried not to turn anyone away.
When our household belongings were shipped from El Paso to Bogota, people lined up at our doorway to ask if they could take the packing boxes. They lived in the larger boxes, which served as houses for them.
In Bogota where children slept on streets
under bullfight posters
three figures reach out of the dark.
The woman wears herringbone. She touches
my arm. “Senora,
Senora, this is my daughter and her baby
is sick. Could you give us money?”
I am in my twenties.
if I give her pesos
she may buy aguardiente.
I take her to the pharmacy
stark with light.
It smells of ether.
The druggist gives the baby an injection.
Years later, I wonder why I didn’t ask their story.
Why were they in the street at dusk?
I had to buy meat for my family. I hurried
home to supper.
The Bogota fiesta ended abruptly. For weeks, I felt that people were watching more than just our garden—sometimes I’d see them, loitering across the street when the maids hung the wash in a second-floor room. One night, we were robbed. It was probably the men who had looked up at our drying room.
Our rule was never to leave the apartment unattended, but our cook Sylvia decided that this was a special occasion. Martin was due in after a trip and she wanted to go to the store to buy ingredients for a special homecoming cake. I was teaching and our other maid, Naomi, was taking Linda and Erich to school. Sylvia left the apartment carrying one and a half year old Gabi. As she came into the apartment, ingredients in hand, she was met with a man holding my sewing machine. He held a knife over my child and brushed Sylvia aside. He hurriedly ransacked my bedroom and ran out with my most precious jewelry, the sapphire earrings from El Paso.
By that time, everyone in the whole apartment building was screaming. The plunderer dropped the sewing machine as he ran down the hallway stairs. They say the Colombian thieves are the best in the world. But how did he know the exact spot that I had hidden my sapphire earrings? It didn’t matter, my child was safe.
We all gathered together that night, comforting Gabi. We called the police who claimed it was an inside job, but I trusted our maids. They were grateful for my stalwart faith in them, which bonded us even more closely as we moved to Medellin. That night when I went to bed, I cradled Gabi in my arms.
“Tonto papaito,” she said. That was her way of talking about that maladroit yet terrifying man who had accosted her. From then on, I lived in fear of robbery, not for my belongings, but for my children. Though only one year old, the memory of a stranger holding a knife has stayed with Gabi.
John Rechy’s letter opener gift also vanished in the thieves’ haul, but I was more upset about my sapphire earrings. Wiltz Harrison had made them for me. When we lived in El Paso, while Kennedy was still alive, Wiltz created a Texas sterling silver star for him. When we visited Wiltz and Alma Harrison, he pinned the badge on Erich, and said, “Now you can wear the badge before the President does, son.”
Wiltz also designed new wedding rings for Martin and me from the gold I had collected from old eye glasses. Those sapphires were the most exquisite jewels I had ever seen. Everyone in El Paso vied to have a piece of jewelry created by Wiltz. Lamentably, mine was now gone.
About the same time, we refused to pay rent in American currency to our landlord, who was trying to extort dollars from us. We filed a complaint with the Embassy. We were told we should have just paid and kept quiet, to promote goodwill.
It was a revolutionary time in Colombia. Students and laborers alike listened to the call of FARC rebels to join in active resistance from their base in the Andes. FARC was one of the most durable of the revolutionary movements. Fifty years later, they are still negotiating with the Colombian government for concessions to help the poor.
One summer, when we still lived in Bogota, I hosted a dinner party for the revolutionary priest, Camilo Torres Restrepo, the spiritual adviser to FARC and father of liberation theology. The evening was charged with passionate discussion about poverty and social change. Two months later, after we moved to Medellin, I saw the picture of Camilo’s dead face on the front page of La Prensa. He was killed in a battle between the FARC and the Colombian Army. With violence spiraling out of control, my parents wanted me to come home, but Medellin proved to be quieter than the capital, so we stayed.
The soil was as poor as the beggars in Bogota. Even so, I planted the seeds my mother sent me in my huerta, my garden. I hoped for fulfillment of the promise of growth and fruition. And for us at least, it arrived: Linda and Erich found a gigantic squash in the garden and brought it home to me in their Radio Flyer red wagon.
Then, one night, when all of the gourds and ears of corn were mature, poverty-stricken squatters from a corner of the city made off with the harvest, cornstalks and all. They’d been watching the garden grow, waiting for their chance. Maybe my huerta still endures somewhere in Medellín because of that theft. Perhaps the thieves’ children planted a few kernels of the corn, and their children after them. I would like to believe that they did.
We became friends with Miguel Mejia and I joined the radical art collective known as La Tertulia. Intellectuals and artists participated in the revolutionary protest through the transformational power of art, literature and poetry.
I worked with La Tertulia’s publishing group, Papel Sobrante. To save money and as a political statement, paper scraps were taken from a nearby mill to create their books, including my own collection of poems. Near the end of our time in Medellín, Papel Sobrante and the La Tertulia collective celebrated their publication of my first book, Carta al Norte.
The next morning, the local newspaper’s literature reviewer called me, “a modern Emily Dickinson,” citing my spare lines and imagery. Unadorned poetry is my style, what Jimenez called, “poesía desnuda.” Spare, unalloyed, to the point of being caustic.
Rain on the golf course
brings out the mushrooms.
Our mad tea party
in a misty country,
waterfalls and fungus
and a prehistoric fern
I get the feeling
we’re being watched.
Things we leave out
are gone by morning.
hinged at the vaults:
are the assaults
directed by the conquest?
Are we the next victims
of the dwarves with wickets?
Beyond the green
there lies the lost city
of the insects.
We will know of violence,
of the living.
We spent four years in Colombia. During that time, I gave birth to Tom, our youngest child. We named him Tomas Frederico, and called him “Fritzy.” Of all my children, Fritzy (now Tom) is most like me in his loves and interests. He inherited my passion for Latin American culture. As a professor of education, he has recently returned to Colombia, where he was born, accompanied by his Latina wife, Yasmín, and their two children. He was awarded a Fulbright to research radical theories and practices in Latin American education. In some ways, Tom’s life manifests my own dream; he’s at home in the world to which I’ve always felt I belonged.
During the Colombia years, I had everything I’d ever desired: success as a poet, a happy new baby, the elegant life of an ambassadorial wife, a group of caring, intellectual and international friends. My husband enjoyed his work and seemed proud of my accomplishments both as hostess and poet and my children were healthy, growing stronger and more radiant each day.
Then my father died. The night before I left Medellín to attend his funeral, Linda dreamed there was an earthquake and everything crumbled. All that was left was one daisy standing up in the city’s debris. Indeed there had been an earthquake, a physical one, as well as the emotional chasm I fell into when I lost my father.
At Dad’s death, grief, the strange disorienting invader, rolled in through my gates and parked in my heart. Shortly after the funeral, Martin decided that the Foreign Service was not for him. At our mustering-out physicals in Colombia, I told the examiner I didn’t know if I could re-adjust to civilian life in the United States. My father’s death had me close to tears much of the time; and now my husband was taking me from the life I’d learned to love. I no longer felt at home anywhere.
It was misery to leave Medellín, where the sun puddled soft as the cheese street merchants sold wrapped in banana leaves. We departed for the States on my 33rd birthday, February 11, 1967. Our two maids came with us as far as Barranquilla, where they put us on an airplane for Cartagena.
Because Colombia is divided by the Andes, we had to take this short hop first. The country developed Avianca, the first commercial airline in the world, in the 1920s.
From Cartagena, we flew to Jamaica to meet my mother, who had come to meet us. I’d hoped to lay Fritzy in her welcoming grandmotherly arms, but she was busy flirting with a tall, handsome Jamaican who wanted her to have dinner with him. Fortunately, a white-uniformed nurse, on duty at the airport, took Tom so I could get the other children settled.
Our Colombian neighbors, also diplomats who had returned to the U.S. ahead of us, met our plane in Miami. I fell in the airport and hurt my back, the first of several back injuries I was to endure. Then a man who offered to carry my bags dumped everything we had bought to eat into his own bag and took off. My day disintegrated into chaos right there in the baggage area. Our friends held and comforted me as I burst into tears, confessing that I feared I’d never be happy again.
The Power of Prose