Colombian-Americans – Happy Hispanic Heritage Month!

Colombian kids

In the US, the word “Latino” is used often, regardless of accuracy, as shorthand for a region’s dominant Latino population. In the southwest it usually means “Mexican,” in the northeast it means “Puerto Rican” and in Florida, “Cuban.” Indeed, those are the three largest populations of Latino-Americanos in the country, although it goes without saying that there are many less-recognized groups of Latinos. Each have their own distinct culture, history, and place in America. This entry is about Colombians, who at an estimated 730,510 currently living in the US, make up the seventh largest Latino population, and the largest population of South-American immigrants in the country.

Flag of Colombia

The country of Colombia is home to at least 85 indigenous nations, including the Muisca, Quimbaya, Tairona, Wayuu, Arhuacos, Kuna, Paez, Tucano, Guahibo, Cauca, Guajira and Guainia. The main population of European immigrants to Colombia were from Spain. Basques, Italians, Germans, the French, Swiss, Poles and Russians also migrated in large numbers. Smaller but significant numbers of European immigrants include Belgians, Lithuanians, Dutch, British, Portugese and Croatians in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. From 1825 til 1851 the Spaniards forcibly brought uncounted numbers of slaves from West Africa. Syrians and Lebanese arrived from the Levant. Today, 58% of Colombians self-identify as mestizo, 20% as white, 14% as mulatto, 4% as black, 3% as zambo, and 1% as Native.

Jorge Eliécer Gaitán rally

Colombia’s political history is long and violent. Civil Wars began almost as soon as the country was founded in 1863. The early twentieth century was relatively stable until the 1940s, when a period known as La Violencia exploded between left and right wing forces. In 1948, pacifist Liberal candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán was assassinated by Juan Roa Sierra for unknown reasons although subsequent investigations suggest the CIA, after failed attempts at bribing and blackmailing Gaitán, launched Operation Pantomime to kill the leftist politician. In the riots that followed his death, 180,000 Colombians died, including Sierra.

Cocaine seizure in Florida

In the 1960s, various left wing insurgent groups, government forces and right wing paramilitaries began waging war in what’s now the western hemisphere’s longest-running armed conflict. That, and the bloody violence wrought between the government and drug cartels beginning in the 1970s and escalating in the 1980s provided the incentive for large waves of Colombians to immigrate to the US where the largest numbers settled around New Jersey and Miami. With them they brought their culture.

Colombian Kitchen

Colombian food is characterized by its blending of European, West African and indigenous cuisine. Popular dishes and foods include arepa, ajiaco, apple, bananas, bandeja paisa, blackberry, borojó, cazuela de mariscos, changua, coconut rice, cuchucos, curuba, fritanga, guanábana, guava, lechona Tolimense, lulo, mamoncillo, mango, mote de queso, nispero, passion fruit, pear, plantains, sancocho, sopa de mondongo, strawberry, suero, tamal, uchuva and zapote.

As with the cuisine, the diversity in musical expressions results from a mixture of West African, indigenous and Spanish influences, as well as American and Caribbean forms. Vallenato, porro, pasillo, champeta, currulao, bambuco and joropo are all indigenous forms but cumbia is the most globally popular and influential, inspiring cumbia scenes in Nicaragua, El Salvaor, Chile, Argentina, Peru, Mexico, Panama, the US and elsewhere.

Jason Castro  Billy Murcia  Soraya

Well-known Colombian-American musicians have not been known for their cumbia, however. They include include Jason Castro, the New York Dolls‘ Billy Murcia and Soraya. Singer/actress Shakira isn’t technically Colombian-American (she lives in The Bahamas), but she does frequently appear in American TV and film productions.

Actual Colombian-American actors include:

Moisés Arias  Paula Garcés

                                        Moisés Arias                                                                       Paula Garcés  

John Leguizamo

Paola Turbay

                              John Leguizamo                                                                            Paola Turbay

María Checa  Sofia Vergara

                      María Checa                                                                     Sofía Vergara

Julie Banderas  Jennifer Patino

                                      Julie Banderas                                                                       Jennifer Patino

Most American movies in which Colombia or Colombians are central involve cocaine. Consider the following: the TV series Miami Vice, Scarface, Collateral Damage, La Sierra, Cocaine Cowboys, Sins of My Father, The King of Coke, King of Coke 2, True Story of Killing Pablo, The Two Escobars, Return to Norman’s Cay, Blow, Baller blockin‘… the list goes on and on.

There are also American movies about Colombians that don’t deal with cocaine; this list includes La Boda del Gringo.

…and I leave with the requisite cute Colombian kids…

Colombian kids


Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in AmoeblogdiaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art MuseumForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County StoreSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

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