Ibagué to Astoria

Luisa Caycedo-Kimura reflects on her family’s life in Ibagué, Colombia, and their move to Astoria, New York. Luisa’s forthcoming poem “Queridas tías” in Volume 72.2 was inspired by the letters she wrote to her aunts back in Colombia following her family’s move. Luisa’s poems “Cultivo” and “Drought” appear in Volume 70.2.



Luisa (right) and her sister Margarita (left) in Astoria, New York 


When people think of Colombia, many think of the violence from its long civil war, which can be said to have begun as far back as 1948 with the decade-long political conflict known as La Violencia (The Violence) and continued with the formation of the guerrillas in the 1960s, drug cartels in the 1970s, and paramilitaries in the 1980s, and only finally ending with the signing of the 2016 peace treaty. But as a child living in a city southwest of Bogotá and away from the heart of the various conflicts, I was sheltered from these problems and allowed to enjoy the beauty of this magnificent country. Of course, in a country that has always had such uneven distribution of wealth, I had daily exposure to people struggling to get enough money to eat, like the one-handed child that I mention in “Queridas tías.”

I was born at home in a historical Spanish-style house near the center of Ibagué, a temperate and colorful city with fertile volcanic soil in the Colombian Andes. When I think of my life in Colombia, I mostly think about this house where I lived with my six siblings (all older than me), my mamá, and two of my tías. It was a house obtained through a matrilineal inheritance and fully run by women—my papá moved to the United States when I was just two years old and the tías who lived with us were single. The house had yellow adobe walls, a red clay tile roof, ten bedrooms, open courtyards decorated with potted tropical plants, a huge backyard with all sorts of tropical fruit trees, a garden with year-round flowers, and of course, lots of birds. Colombia is the second most bio-diverse country in the world, coming in second only to Brazil. People said we had a farm in the middle of the city, and I spent a large part of my early childhood climbing trees, exploring nature, and playing with my older siblings and my maternal cousins’ children, who visited often. My mother was the thirteenth of fourteen children, which means, I have lots of older cousins.

Ibagué is known as The Musical Capital of Colombia because of the emphasis placed on musical education, both classical music and traditional Andean folk. It boasts one of the most renowned conservatories in South America and is home to several music festivals, including some that are perhaps best described as carnivals. As a child, what delighted me most were the lively folk music festivals in which performers dressed in colorful traditional garb and a variety of costumes played music and danced in the streets. Since we lived so close to the city center, we had access to these festivals without the need to travel.

When I was in elementary school, papá finally managed to save enough money to send for us. However, since he was only able to get low-paying work and money was extremely tight, he rented a two-bedroom apartment in a large low-income complex in Astoria, New York, where all nine of us lived for a few years. I arrived in the U.S. in late fall ill-prepared for the weather with a suitcase full of cotton dresses and ankle-length socks. The only weather-appropriate piece of clothing I owned was a woolen scarf my mamá and tías had helped me knit. My body ached from the cold and wind, especially my bare legs, even after papá bought me a winter jacket. It was a rough transition magnified by a drab landscape with leafless trees, cloudy skies, and buildings all around us. The houses in nearby blocks were small compared to what I was used to and built close to one another, and it was troubling seeing several people in the neighborhood who had been injured fighting in Vietnam. I felt lonely in this strange city away from my maternal cousins and tías. At mamá’s insistence, I wrote letters regularly to the two tías with whom we had lived telling them about my life. “Queridas tías” (Dear Aunts), is part of a small series of epistolary poems, all with the same title, and all inspired by the letters mamá would have me write. I always wrote one letter for both tías to share.

Luisa Caycedo-Kimura is a Colombian-born writer, translator, and educator. Her honors include a John K. Walsh Residency Fellowship at the Anderson Center, an Adrienne Reiner Hochstadt Fellowship at Ragdale, and a Robert Pinsky Global Fellowship in Poetry. Her work has also been nominated for The Pushcart Prize. Luisa’s poems appear or are forthcoming in the Cincinnati Review, Sunken Garden Poetry 1992-2011, RHINO, Diode Poetry Journal, Mid-American Review, Nashville Review, the Night Heron Barks, and elsewhere.