A Journey Through The Country I Left Behind
Henry Hold and Company
Silvana Paternostro is the daughter of a prominent, relatively wealthy family from Barranquilla, at the mouth of the Magdalena river on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. As a child she was sent to a boarding school in the United States, stayed here through college and became a freelance journalist, living in New York. My Colombian War is the story of her return to Barranquilla in an attempt to understand the half century of war with the FARC and it's effect on her family and her country. FARC is the acronym for Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or in English, Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
As a college student Paternostro had a Che Guevara poster on her dorm room wall. She was enamored of the romanticized image of the revolutionary freedom fighters, striking, out of the jungle, for justice. What she found in Colombia was a different story.
Her mother's family were large landowners, having a finca, a large farm, where cattle, then cotton and finally palm oil were produced. The relationship between her grandfather and the people who worked on the finca was feudal in nature. He was the patron and they the peons, yet it was also a kind of extended family, where the patron extended his influence and even wealth to benefit those peons. No social security existed, no retirement accounts, no health insurance. All this was provided, or not, through the generosity of the patron. Some members of the finca families still worked in Paternostro's grandmother's home in Barranquilla at the time of the visit described in the book.
Paternostro's uncle now manages the farm and is turning it into a modern agribusiness enterprise, with higher pay scales, retirement benefits, and medical insurance for the employees, all through the profits from the export of palm oil. He has to do so through hired managers, though, because the entire family is under threat of kidnapping by the FARC and he does not dare to travel out into the country. He and Silvana plan and execute a daring visit, flying in a small airplane, for a day on the farm, escaping again by air before the FARC can learn of their presence.
The FARC has two main sources of income, one is through taxing of the illegal drug trade, basically providing protection for the growers and dealers in cocaine and heroin, and the other is kidnapping for ransom. Silvana finds, when she arrives home that she is automatically a target for kidnapping because her matronymic surname is Montblanc, the name of her French descended grandfather. Any person associated by name with one of the large landholding families is a target. Spanish speaking people use both their father's and mother's surnames and those familiar with the system and the area can identify a person precisely by that persons two names. She is Silvana Paternostro Montblanc on her Colombian identity card.
The book My Colombina War is about the internal struggle Paternostro has over the differences between her life in the United States and the life of her family and friends in Colombia, about the feudal relationship she has with her grandmothers household staff, and with the woman who was given to her as a companion when they were both small children. It is about the romanticized ideal of the revolutionary in her head and the cruel reality of the drug dealing, kidnapping FARC, abut the fear they impose on everyone's daily life. It is about the highly stratified society she finds when she visits her parents in their home in Bogota and the relative freedom from class distinctions she has become used to in the United States.
Colombia is an oligarchic society, where the rich are richer and the poor are poorer, torn by war and crime, yet where people appear to be happy in their lives. It is undergoing change slowly, not because of, but in spite of the FARC. Sylvana Paternostro has become a Nortamericana, uncomfortable in the land of her birth, yet forever tied to it.