The signs started appearing again, and with them, the dreams that Soledad thought had disappeared the day she finally left Colombia. She didn’t realize until much later how wise the universe could be, dropping gentle hints everywhere, willing her to pay attention. Somehow she had always known that the ghosts of her past would come back.
It was a Saturday afternoon, and she was returning from her yoga class in Manhattan on her way home to Forest Hills. At the intersection of Broadway and Queens Blvd, she saw a NYPD cruiser with its lights flashing and orange signs with black arrows. The police, dressed in fluorescent yellow vests, waved the traffic along, forcing her to slow down. The traffic headed left on Broadway and she had no choice but to follow the detour. She rubbed her temples and pressed her fingers against her forehead, sighing.
She ended up in Jackson Heights, on Roosevelt Ave and 74th Street. She played with her long ponytail, pulling on it, as if trying to jerk awake from a bad dream. Wasn’t this the Colombian neighborhood? Soledad drove past rows of Colombian businesses – a string of restaurants with names like Colombia Tierra Querida and Pequeña Colombia. The businesses were nestled together with bright neon signs on their front entrances. A short woman with a tightly wound bun at the nape of her neck bent over a broom and swept the scattered September leaves to the side. The neighborhood had somehow retained its Colombian character over the years despite the fact that other immigrant groups had moved in since the 80s—the Indians and Pakistanis—who had set up shop with corner stores steeped in curry and boutiques with elaborate Saris. Soledad hadn’t been to Little Colombia in years, and she wasn’t about to start changing that now.
After a few blocks, she pulled her Toyota Corolla over on the corner and rolled down its windows. The air still had a hint of summer to it, and she gratefully rested her head against the seat, breathing in and out, as if she were still in her yoga class. Then she heard some old-school cumbia blasting from a bakery with an OPEN: ABIERTO sign in red gleaming letters. A man’s raspy voice with an unmistakable accent from Colombia’s Caribbean coast burst over the steady staccato of accordion and drums.
Eyes closed, she listened to the music, remembering a trip to Cartagena and how she had stood watching the cumbia dancers in La Plaza de Santo Domingo. The women wore bright red skirts and white frilly tops, their navels exposed. Each carried a lit candle. And the men, who wore white linen pants with red handkerchiefs around their necks, courted the women by dancing with one hand behind their backs. Both the men and women were barefoot and took small, precise steps to simulate the shackles that the African slaves had been forced to wear. In their other hand, the men carried a vueltiao hat made of caña flecha, with woven black and white stripes. She remembered negotiating with the street vendors en la ciudad vieja, trying to get them to lower their astronomical prices so that she—the girl from Bogotá—could get her hands on the vueltiao hat, and wear it firmly on her head as she walked down the cobblestone streets, pretending to be a local.
Soledad opened her eyes when the song finally ended and stared at the bakery, at the people walking inside, some of whom had the same straight black hair and mestizo look to them that she did, as if they all had an invisible Colombian stamp. No matter how many years passed or how far away she was from Colombia, she could always spot her people, especially the ones from Bogotá: their silky white skin, straight black hair, and cacao eyes. And then there were the ones who had more of the indio in them, who bore olive skin so smooth it looked like someone had rolled a dough pin over their faces.
When she had first arrived in New York in 1970 after fleeing Colombia, she had felt relieved to find few traces of her homeland in the city’s cold concrete streets. But as the years wore on and she grew more comfortable in her new city, people around her started to bear the familiar faces of home and suddenly the bumper to bumper traffic, chaotic cabs, and the Spanish spoken on the streets made her think of Bogotá; strangled by endless mazes of traffic, with stray dogs littering downtown, and the intrepid gamines—the street kids trained to steal. Sometimes in places like Kew Gardens or even in certain stretches of Forest Hills, where she had raised her daughter, Catalina, Soledad marveled at the Spanish-style stucco homes that looked so much like the ones found in the upscale neighborhoods of Bogotá’s el Norte.
She took English classes and made American friends, befriending people with names that did not roll easily off her tongue and whose smiles she never quite knew were genuine. “My name is Soledad,” she said whenever she met someone new. But soon she resorted to the nickname her family used in Colombia, Sole, which seemed easier for Americans to say, as long as she pointed out that it was meant to be pronounced “Solay” and not like Sole, the fish.
Sole quickly parked the car, scanning the street signs to make sure she wouldn’t get a ticket, and then got out. She walked up to the bakery window, but hesitated at the door. Inside, rows of fresh almojábanas and arepas sat on silver platters. She thought fondly of the times she had gone to Abuelita Alicia’s house for onces for their tea-time ritual of tea or hot chocolate, accompanied by the cheesy texture of the almojábanas or the flat cornmeal arepas with melted cheese on top. As the door kept opening and closing, Sole breathed in the familiar smells of home. A large clock hung on the wall above the bakery counter. It was already past two o’clock and she had time.
The bakery was clean but simple, with small red tables that were covered in lime-green flowered tablecloths and plastic lining. A group of older men with leather jackets stood to the left side of the glass display, sipping espresso in Styrofoam cups. They eyed her, reminding her of the unabashed, unapologetic way Colombian men looked at their women. She had forgotten what that felt like. Sole couldn’t help feeling slightly smug; she was nearly sixty, but looked much younger. Years of yoga and meditation, organic food, a lot of water and little makeup had helped.
She walked up to the glass display and looked longingly at what remained of that morning’s baked goods.
“Señora, can I get you anything?” A woman was waiting behind the counter.
The woman was short and stout and was wearing a button-down red sweater and skin-tight black cotton pants. Sole sat down, fumbled with her wallet, and mustered a smile.
“Un tinto por favor,” she said, placing a five-dollar bill down on the counter. “And an arepa con queso.”
As the woman poured the cup of espresso, Soledad looked at a painting that hung in the corner. The painting showed Colombia’s mountains—it looked like Antioquia or someplace in Cundinamarca—amid a lush landscape of green plains. The brushstrokes were so fine that the painting almost looked like a photograph.
The espresso was overly sweetened and tasted like the kind sold in Bogotá, where countless times she had grabbed a quick tinto before jumping onto one of the crowded busetas pushing through the clogged city streets. The woman put a paper plate in front of Sole with the arepa, and Sole cut it in half with a plastic fork and knife. Bits of melted cheese clung to the fork.
A DJ’s voice came on over the radio—he had one of those singsong paisa accents from Medellín—and played a Joe Arroyo song that Soledad knew had been a hit all over Colombia’s stations a few years ago. Sabré Olvidar, he crooned. I will know how to forget.
Sole sipped her coffee. The painting reminded her of Colombia’s rural landscape, the kind you saw as you left the capital and ventured to one of the little towns or fincas sprawled among the green valleys. As a girl on family trips, before the violence—before you couldn’t take a road-trip because you would get kidnapped—Soledad had gazed for hours at the thick purple mist that surrounded the mountains like a protective blanket. A tight knot formed in her throat.
“Gracias,” she said, and left, the men’s eyes steadily following her.
When she finally made it back home, she made a quick lunch—Greek salad with a side of hummus and pita bread and a glass of Pinot Noir left over from the previous night. Sole checked to see if her husband, Thomas, was home. When she realized that he was still gone, she went into her art studio and closed the door. She stood for a moment, breathing in the strong, chemical smells of paint and varnish, and then walked over to the blank canvas sitting on an easel. For weeks, she had been agonizing over what to do for the group show she was going to be in with her fellow faculty members at Pratt. They were supposed to submit new work, but Sole had been in an inspirational slump for months.
She stared at the blank canvas, and an image of Cartagena came to her: the cumbia dancers. She reached for a sketchpad lying on the floor and a charcoal pen resting in front of the canvas. The wine seemed to have gone straight to her head and soon she felt her hands take control, flying over her sketchpad like a fluttering bird. A vueltiao hat began to emerge as her hand swept across the page, forming black and white woven stripes made from cane fibers, raised in an arc. Different images popped into her mind: the hat, a pair of silver shackles, the central plaza, and palm trees swaying under the harsh Caribbean sun.
The next morning, she drove to Pratt for her class. She fiddled with the radio dial, flipped through the stations, and tried to find something worth listening to. She didn’t want NPR or talk radio or salsa. She surprisingly longed for cumbia—she hadn’t heard it for so long, or even vallenato. Her fingers stopped when she heard a familiar melody coming from the car speakers. First, came a soft guitar. It was familiar, so familiar. Then, “de tu querida presencia, Comandante Che Guevara.” Sole slammed her foot on the brake, nearly grazing the grey sedan in front of her. Her hands felt moist and slippery on the steering wheel. She listened to the song until the end. “That was Carlos Puebla on 88.7,” said a male voice. “That concludes our program for today on Latin American revolutionary music. Tomorrow we continue with Cuba’s Silvio Rodríguez.”
All day at work, the Che song replayed in Sole’s head. She hadn’t heard it since her days as a student activist yet she remembered all of the words. While she sat at her desk grading art history papers, her mind kept wandering to the bakery in Little Colombia. It had to be a sign.
Novel Excerpt, The Land of Demons and Dreams
Image Credits: Anthony John Coletti