In the 16th century, Spanish conquistadors, administrators and Roman Catholic clergy arrived to Colombia looking to save the souls of the lost, native Indians while profiting off of their land and the rich resources within it. Precious metals and jewels were considered more valuable than the indigenous people who lived there. The ones who didn’t die out from European diseases like smallpox, fled to the mountains, were made into slaves or forced to be indoctrinated into the Catholic faith by missionaries. In 1539, conquistadors, Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada, Nikolaus Federmann, and Sebastián de Belalcázar divided up the newly discovered territory of what is now modern day Bogotá.
Before the Spaniard presence, none of these native groups had the ability to write. Today, there are hundreds of public and private universities in the country.
When people ask me what I do in Bogotá and I tell them that I teach English, they respond along the lines of Of course you do. After all, when young, white people want to find themselves, what’s better than to go to a third world country and teach other people to speak like they do so they can feel better about themselves? Like they’re making a difference bringing the ability to speak the MOST IMPORTANTlanguage? Like the English language, not unlike the Catholic faith, will provide them with a life that is undoubtedly better than the one they previously had?
Millions of people work and suffer so they may come to the United States and get their shot at the American dream, while mass amounts of people who were born there choose to leave. Moving out of one’s own country not to flee persecution or to live instead of struggle to survive is a luxury. I don’t deny that, nor do I deny the fact that I am another one of these stock characters who can afford to leave home to try to gain a better self-understanding by peering into the display cases of other cultures. The fact that I came here with money which I earned on my own is beside the point, because I gained that money by being born middle class, white, and with tools to succeed. In similar fashion as the Spaniards, I saw an opportunity to enrich my life by bringing knowledge to others, while also reaping financial benefits. I’m not forcing my language upon anyone and I speak Spanish too, which should be enough to overlook the fact that—in a way—the English language is colonizing the world. But I can’t. Trade and business between Colombia and other countries is making the language such an important tool that those who don’t reach for it are getting left behind. That’s where North Americans and Brits and Australians and other English speakers come in to help people in non-English speaking countries to get with the times. What of this is a choice for them?
Maybe I am no different from a colonizer, quick to hop on a boat from privilege that others drown trying to swim to because what we have never quite seems like enough; because we try to understand ourselves, flag ourselves, but end up fucking ourselves and maybe someone else’s ground will feel softer between our toes. Still, I’d like to think that I can share my knowledge without declaring it superior; that I can teach people how to make different sounds with their tongue without taking the way it rolls (like the hands of their ancestors have done for generations with masa of corn meal). Maybe I am no different from the other gringos who write about corn meal like someone else’s roots will strengthen their own, who teach their mother language to others because they don’t understand how to do much else than to echo that which was handed to them and wait for other people to call them brave for doing it far from home. Maybe I will go back to the states and say, “When I lived in Colombia…” like I have lived, like that makes me different or wiser. Maybe I will have a spiritual revelation and make art about it and call it, “The Darjeeling Limited,” and people will comment on the rich colors like I haven’t just appropriated what someone else has lived and what I’ve been privileged enough or educated enough to give a semi-remotely unique spin to.
I’m not different. I’m trying to figure things out like everyone else is. I’m teaching the structure of English like so many other foreigners have done in outside countries and will continue to do, losing ourselves in order to “find” ourselves. The best we can do is to try and learn where language ends and where another sort of communication begins, beyond claiming land or claiming to know anything at all.