Camila Diaz was born in Cali, Colombia, where she lived until age 14. Camila moved with her immediate family to Bolivia, where she lived for 5 years, then moved to the United States at age 19 to study at the University of South Carolina, where we met. She currently lives in Chicago and works for Maestro Cares, a nonprofit that builds orphanages and brick-and-mortar structures to help Lain American children.
Her childhood in Colombia and Bolivia exposed her to extreme inequality. Political instability, rampant corruption, and poor policies have produced an environment not found in the United States, a reality Camila recognizes. “In the US, you are not exposed to what poverty really looks like. In Colombia and Bolivia, people living a comfortable life are right next to someone struggling to feed themselves.”
Latin America Recap
Beginning in October 2019, violent, intense protests broke out across South America. From Ecuador to Colombia to Chile, Latin Americans are responding to their inequality and government corruption. They are demanding new leadership, government systems, and constitutions. Bolivia just overthrew their leader, Evo Morales, after his second attempt to change the Bolivian constitution to stay in power. The Bolivian people, now free of Morales, are facing severe food shortages.
Venezuela is in a global crisis, where 80% of people do not have enough food. People are dying of starvation, lack of access to medical care, and violence. Caracas, which 30 years ago was called the gem of Latin America, was announced as one of the 10 most unlivable cities in the world, in company with cities in Syria, Zimbabwe, and Bangladesh.
Nationalist Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro continues to exploit the Amazon and the indigenous communities who live in and off the rainforest’s land.
In Central America, El Salvador’s poverty, inequality, and extreme violence continue from their 12 year Civil War. The U.S. funded, armed, and trained civilians in this war, even placing a death squad in El Salvador. (U.S. death squads have been placed around the world and their recruits range from clergymen to children soldiers)
The BBC called Nicaragua’s 2018 crisis a downward spiral, it continues to this day (and yes, the U.S. played a large role in funding Nicaragua’s rebels and fueling the instability). Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world (Venezuela is second, followed by the U.S., Belize, El Salvador, and Guatemala). Finally, Mexico has rampant corruption with drug cartels holding immense power over their government. With the 15th largest world economy, it is arguably the most stable country in Latin America, a title formerly belonging to Chile.
Programs like Maestro Care are more important than ever as the suffering grows in response to the protesting. However, the Latin American people are fighting for the prosperity they were promised, but never received.
The economic systems of Bolivia and Colombia, for example, perpetuated inequality and made the rich richer and the poor pooerer.
Poverty in Colombia and Bolivia
Each country’s problems are different, so their poverty manifests differently. “Colombia has homeless people, of course, and a large population of people who support entire families on less than $1 a day. Colombia’s poverty, however, is most pronounced in rural areas, while Bolivia’s poverty is everywhere, even in the cities.”
Bolivian Poverty in Hospitals
At age 14, Camila began involving herself with Bolivia’s poorest citizens by volunteering in hospitals. “Every Wednesday for two years, I went to a low-income hospital’s oncology room, where children sometimes spent years of their lives.” Camila’s role was to spend time with the kids, help them with home-schooling homework, and keep them company. She celebrated birthdays, told stories, and provided support for the children and their families.
Bolivia’s socialized health care makes medical care somewhat-more-accessible to the extremely poor. However, Camila reflects, “No hospital is enough in Bolivia, even for the people with money. Everything is crowded and full of beds. There is no privacy and it is not clean. Try to imagine one small area in a U.S. hospital, like a single emergency room on a single floor. That was the entire space of a Bolivian hospital. Additionally, we have only a handful of big cities, which is where the hospitals are. However, at least the hospitals exist.”
The Road to the Hospital
It takes families days of traveling to reach these hospitals. The route is challenging and indirect, so families rely on buses, trucks, and hitchhiking for transportation. They leave family members and businesses behind and, upon arriving in a city, have little to no income. Many parents sleep on the floor next to their sick children, sometimes spending months and years on the hospital floor.
As a volunteer, Camila made sure to the parents a few hours of free time by taking care of other tasks for them. She brought basic care items like toilet paper or snacks, considered luxury items to the poorest Latin Americans. Despite their hardships, the families remained open, warm, and conversational. “We were like a little family, the volunteers and the families.”
These experiences shaped Camila, “I try to be mindful of my purchases. We do not need much. Being face-to-face with this level of poverty makes you appreciate things more.” In her work, she wants to reduce this suffering in Latin American and help mend the inequality gap.
Camila’s Colombian Culture
Camila has seen a lot of suffering, but she remains an overwhelmingly happy person. She believes her happiness is largely due to her culture and family. Camila credits Colombian culture for forming her personality, a country routinely voted one of the happiest countries in the world. Culture, Camila feels, plays a large role in happiness. She believes that the average Colombian, Bolivian, or Latin American is happier than their U.S. counterpart.
U.S. v Latin America: Cultural Differences
“I have a hard time grasping U.S. people. Americans are friendly, but I feel that Latin Americans are more authentic. In the U.S., people are friendly to be polite, but they do not care about you or what you are saying. In Latin America, we care.”
Reflecting on this, Camila notes that wherever she has lived or traveled to; Thailand, Japan, Latin America, South Africa, Europe, or North America; the people are generally nice. “In Colombia, we are nice on a different level. People get involved with you even if they do not know you. This is not true in the U.S. or even in Bolivia.”
Latin Americans: Thicker Skin
“Additionally, people in Latin America have thicker skin. We brush things off easily. U.S. people get caught up in small things for the sake of being right. In Colombia or Bolivia, we keep going with our days and do not let things get to us.” She wonders if U.S. people struggle with mental health because they are overreacting to their environments (examples: microaggressions and call-out culture).
“I say to myself, ‘I could take this wrong, but it would be a waste of my time. Eh, I am going to put it behind me and keep going on with my day.’”
Camila does not believe this internal dialogue is common for U.S. people to have. “In America, with so many cultures mixing together, there can be a lot of sensitivities. We need to learn to brush things off sometimes. It is not worth being right by aggressively correcting people.” Both aggressions and corrections close off conversations and make people defensive of their viewpoint. We cannot grow or learn from each other when we are defensive OR when we aggressively claim we are right. Camila feels that by examining interactions for potentially “politically incorrect” or offensive comments, U.S. people are becoming hyper-aware and taking everything as an attack. Micro-aggressions, or passive-aggressive comments and behaviors, are an example of potentially offensive behavior . “People may disagree with me, but I don’t see micro-aggressions as worth fighting for. I pick my battles.”
Fighting v Educating
“Why fight or take offense when we can educate? If someone does not know what they are talking about I directly talk to them. For example, people often ask me if I have cocaine because I am from Colombia. Obviously, no. When I am having a bad day, I simply walk away from these people. But I never fight. Most often, I show people that there is more to my country than cocaine. Would everyone in the US like to be called a mass shooter? Probably not. There is always more to a country than its scandals.”
Camila talks to people about Colombia’s coffee, world-renowned artists like Fernando Botero, acclaimed writers like Garcia Marquez (100 Years of Solitude). Colombia’s vibrant art culture, like most of Latin American culture, is frequently ignored and goes under-the-radar. “There is so much more to my culture than cocaine or Narcos.”
The Problem with Narcos
Narco’s glamorized portrayal of Pablo Escobar is a point of tension in Colombia. While Narcos grew the reputation of Colombia, fans of the show forget that the show is based on real suffering. Tourists are coming to Colombia for Narco tours, calling Escobar ‘their man’. Meanwhile, Colombians refer to Pablo Escobar as their Hitzler; he terrorized citizens, killed politicians, journalists, and policemen, and stopped at nothing to accrue power. The Pablo Escobar tours currently given in Medellín support Escobar’s kin, put money in corrupt and exploitative hands, and celebrate Escobar as a hero.
“People died because of Escobar; there were wars, bombs, and violence. I know Pablo Escobar had a charismatic side to him, he was caring of his people, but of his people. The rest could die. However, for a lot of people Narco’s is their only education on Colombian history, so they do not understand what they are doing when they celebrate Escobar.” Camila encounters these people everywhere. She does not get mad, she educates them on why this is wrong.
This consideration Camila gives to strangers is crafted by Colombia.
“We have a gift of making people feel like we have known them for years. We call strangers ‘mi amor, mi amorcita/o, lindo/a, mi corazón, mi vida, mi reina’ (my love, my little love, my beauty, my heart, my life, my queen) and joke around with random people on the streets. We are very caring and affectionate and it is important to us that we show our affection.”
Being Colombian in the United States
She brings her Colombian personality wherever she goes, but cultural differences can cause problems. “In Colombia, everyone stands close to each other, giving nonverbal feedback and letting people know we care by touching them. I did not know people ‘had space’ until I came to the United States. I would stand close to everyone, breathing down people’s necks. Then I learned that American people ‘need their space.’ I thought to myself, ‘What is space? There is an imaginary bubble that surrounds somebody?'”
While she has learned to read US social cues, she still tries to be affectionate and engaged in conversations. Sometimes, this is interpreted at flirty, but it is her way of showing interest and staying true to her nature.
Detallista as Showing Love
Camila shows love like a Colombian as well, “We have a word, detallista, which does not translate in English. It is a way of keeping someone in mind. For example, if I go to the grocery store, I will buy the specific kind of chocolate I know you like and gift it to you. In the morning, I will make you a cup of coffee just the way you like it. To ser detallista, you do not need money or grand gestures. Leaving a note is detallista.”
Camila went back to Colombia last year and noticed how her cousins left notes for each other around the house, saying things like ‘Have a nice day’ or ‘Remember you are beautiful’.
“It is small, but it makes your day. This level of consideration is not a trait you are born with, it is a skill that is trained into us. My mom was adamant that I ser detallista.”
Telling + Showing Love
“It is easy to say you care, but not actually show it. You must ‘walk the talk’ by being there and being supportive for others, sometimes selflessly. If you are really being selfless, it can hurt. I am also very vocal about saying ‘I love you’. I will say it a thousand times to make sure you know. I have an irrational fear of dying and people not knowing how much I love them. I noticed that U.S. people are afraid that by overusing the word ‘love’, it will lose meaning. But then you miss the opportunity to say it because you are afraid! I want to know that you love me and show my love through words and actions.”
Camila has had a difficult time adjusting to U.S. friendships and relationships because of the cultural reservations in showing affection. As we discuss these cultural differences, Camila reflects on traveling, “When you are born and raised somewhere, you are always doing something in a certain way. When you go somewhere else, you realize, ‘Oh shit, their way of doing things is different.’ It is funny, but it is also awkward. I remember when I first got here, I was giving people kisses, or dar un beso. One time, I tried to beso a new acquaintance in class and he panicked. I did not understand what was wrong, so I kept going for the beso and he kept swerving me. It was awkward as hell, so I stopped doing it.”
Just as our cultural habits are reflections of our upbringing, and not absolute ways of doing something, Camila reflects, “Beauty is subjective and a social construct. You must ask yourself: what is beauty and how is it defined? First, there are different types of beauty, physical beauty being one type. Second, what we consider beautiful in the U.S. is not what we think is beautiful in Japan or Thailand or Colombia. Beauty standards are what you are raised to believe is beautiful.”
“ However, it is B.S. when people say ‘everything is beautiful’. At any point in time and space, there is something (people, places, things) that is more beautiful than something else. You have to assess beauty in relation to the location, culture, and era.”
Beauty in Its Complexities
“Beauty is complex. Instagram, for example, does not capture the complexities of beauty. I have a love-hate relationship with Instagram because I do like it, but it has its problems. This is another thing my Latin American self does not analyze too much. I like it, so I use it. I do think beauty’s representation is getting better; we are opening up to what beauty can be. There is an Instagram fashioner blogger I love, Fat Pandora; she is, well, fat. There is no way around it. She knows it and she says she is fat. She is reminding us that fashion is not just skinny, fashion can be fat, too. It opens up my world-view because she is right, I couldn’t care less if she is fat or not. I like her outfits.”
Freedom Speech + La Vida Color Rosa
“Actually, I am afraid to say something is not beautiful to Americans, which is ironic because this is supposed to be the land of freedom of speech. We are set on thinking that everything is beautiful, but sometimes you have to embrace the ugliness. For example, being sad is not the prettiest feeling, it can be ugly. You should still feel it, embrace it, know it, and own it. Then, deal with it. We are trying to see everything in one color pero, la vida no es color rosa. Life is not pink. When you are trying to see ‘la vida color rosa’, you are trying to see everything as pretty. Let’s not try to paint everything pink, there is black, green, and purple too.”
Las Cosas Son como Son
“In South America, we believe las cosas son como son. Things are how they are. We have our problems, like we are machismo, but whatever. American gets in its bubbles, seeking equality for all, but equality is also complex. Equality does not mean we need to all do things the same. I like being taken out by a guy, I appreciate a man’s self-assuredness and I am attracted to confidence. These are my preferences. People are different and we can want different things.”
Reciprocity + Equality
Outside of equality in romances, friendships demonstrate different types of equality. The U.S. way is typically this: when you are eating with friends, you split the bill evenly each time. Or itemize your bill so everything is “perfectly fair”. Or there is an explicit conversation about how this transaction will be paid back, maybe a later Venmo request. The focus is on money.
Camila feels that a relationship’s point is not tic-for-tac reciprocity. Reciprocity and equality can be taken in a holistic way, rather than focusing on minute details in exchanges, money, or actions. For example, I pick up this bill and you cook me dinner next time. Or I pick you up from the airport and bring you soup because you are sick. Someday in the future, you help me move. I left my wallet at my house, so you find the spare key and bring it to me. There is an implied understanding that kindness, favors, and giving are balanced out over time. People are free to show love and care how they show it best and money becomes a secondary act.
“I do x, y, and z for you, and I do not expect you do to the same things for me, but I trust that you will pay them back differently. As long as you don’t feel obligated to do something, I think reciprocity becomes natural. We should move away from roles and transactional interactions, and towards freely giving.”
Beauty for Herself
Camila practices this free-giving, holistic approach in all of life. “I feel the most beautiful when I have a balance in my life. When I am eating healthy, staying active, learning, socializing, and creating. I like so many different things; music and art and sports and food; and I need to get a little bit of all of them. This affects how I feel and influences my outer beauty. Additionally, I am a very happy person and I don’t let things get to me, which I think makes me beautiful. It is not something I fake, I am just genuinely happy. I am so thankful because I know people struggle with that, and not by choice. Some people just have a harder time being optimistic, with mental illness playing a big role. My normal state is just happier.
“I laugh and smile a lot, both qualities that I think are universally beautiful.”