Understanding and Reinterpreting Colombian Stereotypes

This comment is a continuation of the YIRA Winter 2016 International Trip Group’s Bogotá, Colombia Trip Summary.

A number of stereotypes regarding Latin America continue to endure in the consciousness of the United States and many of its citizens. Unfortunately, a number of US citizens view Latin America as backward and dangerous, characterizing the entire region with one broad brush. These persistent stereotypes lead to countless misunderstandings, poor policies, and even worse campaign tactics to win over racist or ethnocentric voters. To ameliorate the situation, the US and its citizens need to be better informed with access to greater, more accurate information. The best way to accomplish this: personal experience. While the learning process begins in the classroom and continues with the media, the experience of traveling to a country in Latin America can provide an individual with first-hand insight that corrects for the years of socializing that imbued him or her with the previous negative tropes. For this reason, I relished the opportunity to travel to Bogotá, Colombia. With this as my first trip to South America, I hoped to not only personally learn about the country’s (and region’s) history, people, and culture, but to also share my experiences with others and in so doing break down their harmful, inaccurate beliefs about Colombia or Latin America.

First, we must recognize that one term cannot perfectly capture an entire region; instead “Latin America” refers to a number of unique and varied countries each with distinct demographics, traditions, and ways of life. Each country has a different past with colonization, immigration, liberation, and development, leading altogether to the diverse outcomes that exist in Latin America today. With this in mind, Colombia, and in particular Bogotá, was a beautiful, safe, and unendingly fascinating place – in some ways similar to an average American city, but in other ways completely different. The beauty of Bogotá came out in both its streets and its people. A graffiti tour of the historic Candelaria showed a city abundant in art and one that provided artists with large canvases for average citizens to easily access. More than the art, it is easy to find a beauty in the people. While simply walking around streets, people are eager to help if you are lost and willing to go out of their way to offer assistance. Contrary to popular stereotypes, Colombia – and Bogotá within it – is safe. A mix of common sense and general awareness, as in any urban area, is all that is needed.

Next, the conflict in Colombia is largely misunderstood outside of its borders. Unfortunately, too many within the United States have frozen Colombia in their minds, viewing it as if it remained in the 1980s – run by drug kingpin Pablo Escobar and filled with violence, cocaine, and corruption. Media outlets and the entertainment industry consistently perpetuated this image through countless articles, movies, and television programs – mostly recently Netflix’s Narcos. The general conscious may be in the past, but Colombia has very much moved forward. While other essays in this packet may go more in depth, we must note that violence in Colombia has plummeted, the drug trade is not what it used to be, and peace negotiations are poised for success. As the nature of Colombia changes, our understanding of Colombia must change as well. As the peace negotiations wrap up, Colombia will officially be a post-conflict country with the potential for huge economic growth as newly available tax dollars can move from military to social spending. Hopefully, both the media and entertainment industries will begin to reflect this change. However, the only way to truly understand the current state of Colombia is by visiting and dispelling stereotypes and myths firsthand.

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