A Look Back at Bogota and Cali in the 50s and 60s

My grandmother proudly admits she was a flirt in her youth. This is her leaving a party in Bogotá in the late 1940s when she was 16 or 17. I love the puffy pantaloons type trousers these guys are wearing!

My grandmother proudly admits she was a flirt in her youth. This is her leaving a party in Bogotá in the late 1940s when she was 16 or 17. I love the puffy pantaloons type trousers these guys are wearing!

My grandmother lived with us when my siblings and I were little and took care of us during the day. This meant we spent a lot of time watching Univision. There were lots of telenovelas (Maria la del Barrio! Dos Mujeres un Camino!), talk shows (Cristina!) and variety shows (Sabados Gigantes!) in our household. Although my grandma liked some things about the U.S — especially the liberal return policy at stores — she found  the U.S pretty dull compared to Colombia.  I remember her saying things like esto parece un moridero (this seems like a place people come to die) about our neighborhood, and she just couldn’t understand how or why Americans got to be so boring. In her stories, she spoke of Colombia so wistfully and nostalgically that as a nine or ten year old, I thought Colombia must be the classiest, most fascinating place in the world and I didn’t understand why my parents chose to leave such a place and come somewhere as boring and bland as Centreville.

In my grandmother’s stories, there were always extravagant parties with live bands playing classic Colombian music, unforgettable dishes and dancing, so much dancing. The women all wore full length ball gowns, fur coats and red lipstick and the men were elegant and gentlemanly. When you weren’t dancing the night at away at some over-the-top party, you spent your days walking all over town, something that seemed entirely novel and incomprehensible to my younger, suburban self. My grandmother described a world in which you could walk to restaurants, shops, friends’ houses….as a kid growing up in the suburbs my world was limited to Centreville and the occasional educational trips to D.C, so the kind of walkable life my grandma described was fascinating. And the places my grandmother told us about — La Candelaria with its sprawling colonial mansions, Chapinero with its excellent boutique clothing shops and, of course, Usaquen (back then, a sleepy colonial town  far outside the city proper) with its “gorgeous plaza,” whitewashed church and fincas — made me envious of the life I didn’t have. Maybe it was because of my grandmother’s stories that I ended up living in Colombia for three years as an adult.

My grandmother at an embassy party in the early fifties.

My grandmother at an embassy party in 1958. She’s the one in the white hat and long flowered dress. I think she was pregnant with my mom at the time. My grandmother claims that the tall(er) woman in the satin dress (4th from the right) is Miss Universe 1958 winner Luz Marina Zuluaga, Colombia’s only Miss Universe winner. I love the hats and dresses…when my siblings and cousins and I were little, we used to play dress up in my grandmother’s old dresses. I think all of them have been donated or thrown away by now.

My grandmother at another party. She's the one on the far left.

My grandmother at another party. She’s the one on the far left.

My grandmother was born in 1932 when Bogotá was still considered a provincial “pueblo” with just over 250,000 inhabitants (estimates put the population at somewhere between 7-10 million now) and grew up in a Spanish colonial house in la Candelaria. In my grandmother’s telling, life in Bogotá in the 1940s and 50s was idyllic and thoroughly enjoyable, what with all the parties, get togethers and long trips to the countryside in tierra caliente. At 16, my grandmother was working as an instrumentadora (nurse who passed surgical instruments to surgeon back in the day) at a Bogotá hospital, where she met my grandfather, the son of Scottish and Flemish-Belgian diplomats (this is the story I’ve been told, at least). My grandmother claims she fell in love with my grandfather’s beautiful blue eyes and they were married in 1951 just after her 18th birthday.

My grandmother's wedding announcement from May 1951. I'm not sure if this was published in El Tiempo or El Espectador.

My grandmother’s wedding announcement from May 1951. Translated: Next Saturday, the distinguished Miss. Conchita Jimenez Vargas, daughter of the well-known lawyer Dr. Manuel Vicente Jimenez and Mrs. Evelia de Jimenez, will marry Mr. Guido Van Hemelryck, expert in natural sciences and a very appreciated gentleman in our society. After the religious ceremony, the bride’s parents will host an intimate reception in their home and the future spouses, who we wish our sincerest congratulations, will honeymoon in Cali. According to my grandmother, the honeymooning in Cali part was pura paja and solely for the sake of appearances; in reality, the new couple was broke and spent their honeymoon in Tunja (not exactly the most romantic of cities, if you know anything about Colombian cities). Also, at the time, my grandfather was a student and radiology technician, far from the “natural science expert” the announcement claims.

My grandparents on their wedding day in May 1951.

My grandparents on their wedding day in May 1951. They were so young! My grandmother was more than ten years younger than I am now in this picture!

My grandmother at my grandfather's graduation from La Javeriana, a Catholic University in Colombia. My grandmother helped put my grandfather through college by working as a nurse from the time she got married.

My grandmother at my grandfather’s graduation from La Javeriana, a Catholic University in Colombia. My grandmother helped put my grandfather through college by working as a nurse.

In the 1960s, my grandparents and their four kids moved to Cali — a warmer, smaller, friendlier city than Bogotá — where my grandfather worked a petroleum engineer for Shell. In her stories, my grandmother remembers her days in Cali as the best of her life. If life in Bogotá was idyllic, life in Cali was a dream; a big house on the side of a hill, flowers and green everywhere, friendly neighbors, close friendships, warm weather, and, of course, parties and dancing galore. This is, of course, my grandmother’s version of things; visiting Bogotá and Cali nowadays, it’s hard to imagine this sultry, tranquil world ever existed but it’s been over 50 years — things change, and the past is sometimes reimagined through rose-colored glasses.

My grandmother as a Red Cross volunteer in Cali. Unlike many women of her generation, my grandmother worked as a nurse (an instrumentadora) from the time she was 16. My grandmother still remembers her time as a nurse fondly. I think it's funny how all the nurses in this photo are smoking. It was definitely a different time! This was probably taken sometime in the mid sixities when my gradmother was in her early thirties.

My grandmother as a Red Cross volunteer in Cali on the far right. Unlike many women of her generation, my grandmother worked full-time most of her adult life. My grandmother still remembers her time as a nurse fondly. I think it’s funny how all the nurses in this photo are smoking… it was definitely a different time! This was probably taken sometime in the mid sixties when my grandmother was in her early thirties.

My grandmother loves looking at pictures. Whenever we come to visit, she pulls out a big box of pictures and we spend hours looking at them. My grandma narrates the “behind-the-scenes” of every moment and millisecond of her life captured through the lens of an old-timey camera, providing historical and social commentary  — who was who, how important they were, what they did, how they died (because she’s one of the last survivors in her pictures) and of course, what was going on in Bogotá or Cali at the specific moment the picture was taken.

But my grandmother isn’t one of those people who lives in the past and fears the present and future. She idolizes it, yes, but she tries her best to stay with the times. She recently discovered Facebook and asked me to post her old pictures on Facebook so “everyone can see them.” After I posted them, she asked me every few minutes if anyone had commented or “liked” her pictures, asking me to tell her exactly who commented on or “liked” each picture. Before we left, I heard her talking to a friend saying, “My granddaughters put all these pictures of me on ese Facebook and you would not believe how many people have made comments! People from all over the world, Colombia, the United States, Holland…ese Facebook es increible!” 

This is probably my favorite picture because it's just so retro, from the curled bangs to the feather hat to the button down coats. From left to right: My Great Aunt Sofia, my great grandma and my grandma. I believe she was pregnant with her first child in this picture.

This is probably my favorite picture because it’s just so retro, from the curled bangs to the feathered hat, to the dark lipstick, ruffled white collars and button down coats. From left to right: My Great Aunt Sofia, my great grandma and my grandma. I believe she was pregnant with her first child in this picture.

Not exactly my grandparents's best style moment, but this picture makes me laugh. They look like a New Jersey/Italian couple just indicted for mafia involvement.

Not exactly my grandparents’s best style moment, but this picture makes me laugh. They look like a New Jersey Italian mafia couple just indicted for mob involvement. This picture must be from the 1960s.



Categories: Bogota, Colombia

Tags: , , , , , ,

5 replies

  1. I so enjoyed this piece! Such a fascinating story–what you shared of it–and such vibrant pictures, a beautiful grandmother and rather stern-looking grandfather. It seems like a remarkable time and place. I have always been intrigued baout Columbia and South America in general. I wonder if you have written of your three years there?–You are fortunate to have such lineage and stories!

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  1. From Boyaca to Bogota to Warren to D.C « My (Former) Nomad Life

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