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Interview: Laura Chaustre Berardinelli, Sharing Her Colombian Culture and Debunking Misconceptions

INTERVIEWED BY AMELIA ALAM


Laura Chaustre Berardinelli is a proud Colombian teenager with some distant Italian heritage living in the United States. She was born in Colombia, but moved to the U.S. when she was three years old and personally identifies as either Hispanic or Latin. After moving multiple times to several different American cities, Laura keeps her Colombian heritage close to her heart by taking regular vacations back to her country and by making sure to take a piece of it back to the US when she returns, whether that be through listening to music or through looking at photos of her memories.


During the summer of 2019, she brought her American friends along with her for an exhilarating trip to Colombia to celebrate her quinceanera, a Latin-American tradition of celebrating a girl’s fifteenth birthday. In this interview, Laura revealed how many of the misconceptions some of her American friends had about Colombia were shattered and a love for the country and the culture was founded. Cultural acceptance and the recognition and celebration of other people’s cultures and their stories are important to Laura and she highlights this throughout our conversation:



Interviewer: First of all, how was your quinceanera?


Laura: It was probably the best week of my life! So, I moved a lot in my life. I moved to New Jersey when I was three (that’s when I moved to the United States) and then, after that, I moved to Michigan. And then, I moved to Tennessee. And then, I moved to Michigan, again. And now, I’m in Pittsburgh. But, during the time we planned my quinceanero, we were about to move to Pittsburgh. So, it was my last year in Michigan and I had made really really close friends there. During that last year of living there, I got really close to everybody. And, I always knew I wanted to have a fifteenth birthday - a fifteenth birthday as in a party because I’m a very social person.


I love a good party! I love a good celebration so I always knew I wanted to have a quince and I always knew I wanted to do it in Colombia. Just because I love Colombia! Especially since I’ve moved a lot, there’s not really a place that feels like home besides Colombia. I can’t really say Michigan is my home since I’ve lived there for only a few years. I can’t say Tennessee is my home since I’ve lived there for one year. My home is Colombia and I will always consider it to be Colombia, so I thought, “Okay, let’s have it in Colombia!” The whole party took one year to plan.


Interviewer: Wow!


Laura: Yeah, our plan was to go to Colombia for a week--well, ten days. And, we were going to take some tours around the coast of the country--the northern coast--which is where I’m from. So, we rented a bus. We got around 50 people in our party. We all toured the cities, and I showed them around the country. Right before the trip, my friends had to convince their parents, obviously, because knowing American parents, they aren’t just going to allow their kids to go to Colombia without them. And, a lot of people have a lot of misconceptions about Colombia. Especially during that time. It took a lot to convince them, but I ended up convincing five of my closest friends to go without their parents.


And then, some of my friends whose parents are friends with my parents, like family friends, also went with their parents. We had a group of 20 under-eighteen kids who were hanging out the whole time. Also, we had some parents and then obviously, my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. We just had a really big, fun group of people just touring on the coast of Colombia! And then, my party was on the second-to-last day of the trip, so the whole trip was kind of leading up to the big day. And then, we had the party and it was the best night of my life! It was so fun, and my friends fell in love with Colombia.


Even now, we still talk about it all the time! They love the country, they love the cities that we visited, and that was probably the most rewarding experience ever. Just showing them around and getting rid of their little misconceptions that they had of Latin American countries.


Interviewer: So, what places did you show them around in Colombia?


Laura: So, my hometown is Barranquilla, which is right on the coast and it’s actually where Shakira’s from and it’s where Sofia Vergara’s from--she’s an actress. Sofia Carson’s parents are from there too. So a few notable people are from our city. But, Barranquilla isn’t a very tourist-y city. There are not really many historical or cool places to see. It’s a really industrial city, so there’s lots of buildings. There’s lots of chemical plants and malls and stuff like that. A lot of people live there but it’s not really a place where tourists usually go. But, Barranquilla is in the middle of two cities: Santa Marta and Cartagena, which are the two of the most tourist-y cities in Colombia. They’re all by the beach, so every day we would be around water. We were either at a beach resort, or we were taking a tour on the bay, or going to an island. It was always around the beach. But, Cartagena was one of the prettiest cities I’ve ever been to. It’s a really historical place in Colombia and they have an old town with colourful houses and flowers everywhere! They have a bunch of islands around--we saw some of those islands. We went to a beach resort in Santa Marta. It’s a beach resort that I kind of grew up going to. All our family members go there on vacations, so we grew up going there. So then I brought my friends to see it too, and it was really fun!


So, yeah those were the three cities. It was: Barranquilla, Cartagena, and Santa Marta.


Interviewer: Are the beaches in Colombia a bit different than the beaches in America?


Laura: I would say that they are. The water is definitely better than the water in American beaches, I would say. Especially the beaches that I’ve been to at least. I’ve been to beaches in California and then, in Florida and South Carolina. And, I can definitely say that Colombian beaches are much more beautiful. I’m just going to be straight-up. They’re so... the water’s so blue! The water’s clear, and I feel like Colombians are more conscious with littering and what they do with their trash and the environment because Colombians love their beaches and they love going to the beach, so they keep them clean and keep them really nice. So, I would definitely say that Colombian beaches are bigger and more beautiful and cleaner than American beaches.


Interviewer: So, you’ve also talked about how there were some misconceptions about Colombia that your friends had had? What were some of those?


So, Colombia used to be pretty dangerous in the late 1900s and early 2000s. The crime rate was pretty high. I mean that’s when my parents and I lived there--it wasn’t super dangerous, but there was definitely a high crime rate. There were definitely no tourists going there. I don’t really know much of the history of the drug cartels, but that’s also something that Colombia’s known for. I think that was early on though. I think that was more in the eighties or nineties, I don’t know. But, when I tried to convince my friends to go, my friends wanted to go, but their parents obviously were like, “I don’t know if we’re going to let our fourteen-fifteen-year-old daughters go by themselves. We had to tell them that “Hey, Colombia’s not like this anymore. Colombia’s changed a lot.” It’s true that the media and news outlets definitely pick out the worst in places that are outside of the US. Especially, Latin America. They make them seem very dangerous when they’re not as dangerous as they look.


Yeah, there was a mix of misconceptions and some people are just ignorant. They don’t take the time to understand other cultures or understand other places. They just hear what everybody else says about them without actually researching it for themselves. But, yeah, I guess the main misconceptions were just like it’s way more dangerous than it is and they did think that there are drug cartels and all of that. And, that’s not really true anymore.


Interviewer: So, you mentioned that you lived there when you were younger and you say that it’s obviously changed now with the crime rates and everything. Was there a big difference growing up there and well, living in America?


Laura: Obviously I don’t really remember much living in Colombia, but I do remember a lot of my childhood being there because the first three years after I moved to the US--I want to say from when I was 3 until I was around 6 or 7--every single summer, we would go and just spend the whole summer in Colombia. And, honestly, I was little, I didn’t really know much about crime rates and danger or anything, but I never experienced anything bad. I would just go there and hang out with my grandparents, hang out with my cousins, and go to the park and play tennis with them. I think Colombia isn’t much different than it is in the US. But, obviously there are things about Colombia that I love and that I can’t find in the US, but some people have asked me if in Colombia there’s electricity or clean water!


But, I think growing up in the US definitely has affected me. I think I’m a different person than I would’ve been if I had lived in Colombia just because I feel like growing up in the US, I have learned to appreciate my Colombian background more than I would have if I had lived in Colombia my whole life. Like, if I lived in Colombia my whole life, it would like, “Oh yeah, I’m Colombian, whatever,” but growing up, especially living in suburban and rural areas where I’m surrounded by all these white people, I learned to appreciate how different I am and what makes everybody different and everybody special. Especially me, or actually anybody, and I’m grateful to have grown up in the US, as much as I wish I had grown up in Colombia just because I love going there and it’s so pretty. Still, I think growing up in the US has helped me appreciate my Colombian culture more.


Interviewer: Did you ever struggle with balancing your Colombian culture and living in the US?


Laura: Um, I definitely did. When I was younger, I used to be kind of insecure about my parents having accents or me being a slight shade darker than my friends. Or, I had a nanny growing up. I think Colombians call them “domestic workers,” but they’re nannies, but they’re also maids, but they’re also a little bit of everything. They cook the food, clean the house, and take care of the kids. And, I guess people might have that in the US, but in the US, I feel like it’s more upper class families that have maids. But in Colombia, everybody, no matter what class you’re in, everybody has somebody that works for them and kind of helps around the house. So, um my--I’ll just call her a nanny--my nanny moved with us to the US and she was with my family since before I was born and she lived with us until I was 10.


And, I definitely did have a struggle growing up, especially around my American friends, having to explain to them about the food that we’re eating or why I have another lady living in my house all the time. Or, sometimes they don’t even understand what my parents are saying because of their accents so I have to tell them what they’re saying. There was a point in my life where I was kind of insecure. In middle school, I would straighten my hair every single day because I wanted to be more like the American girls who had long, straight hair. And, yeah, I think that end of middle school/early high school was when I realized that “Okay, this makes me different. This makes me special. This is cool and I’m unique. That’s something I should appreciate,” so now, I’ve learned to appreciate it more than ever. And, I think now I have a good balance. I appreciate my life in the US and all the opportunities that I get here that I wouldn’t have gotten in Colombia, but I also love Colombia with all my heart and I want to visit there all the time and I miss it. But, yeah, I think I have a good balance now, but it definitely took me a while to learn to maintain that balance.


Interviewer: So, do you ever plan on going back to Colombia? I’m assuming you probably do, later, after this pandemic.


Laura: To visit or to live?


Interviewer: To visit… or to live? Either!


Laura: Uh, well, to visit, well, I actually haven’t visited since that trip I was talking about because of COVID. But, hopefully I’ll visit this Christmas! I like spending my Christmases there because Colombians like to party and the New Years’ Parties are fun and the Christmas parties are fun and I have family there and I have friends there. So, I definitely want to visit during Christmas. And, I think that’s the plan, as of now. But, to live, I actually have talked to my parents about that recently.


I’m going into my senior year now, so obviously I’m not going to move to Colombia right away. I don’t think I would go to college there either, but maybe after college, I would move there for a couple years and try to find a job or I want to go into business, so maybe I’ll start some type of business there that they don't have, that we have in the US or something like that. I definitely talked about that with my parents just because, well, every time I leave Colombia, I get really sad and I’m like, “I wish I could stay here forever. It’s where I’m from and I want to spend more time here.” So, I definitely am thinking about moving there, at least for a short period of time after college.


Interviewer: And, do you have a lot of family over there? Like, are your grandparents there?


Laura: I do have more extended family there. Like, I have a grandma there. I have lots of aunts, some cousins, and lots of family friends. But honestly, when I moved to the US, (like right around when we moved from Colombia to New Jersey), some of my cousins, and uncles, and aunts and my grandparents on my dad’s side all moved to Miami. So, I would say 75% of the family that I know lives in Miami right now. And, I think that Miami is a very attractive place for Hispanics just because it’s right by one of the most southern tips of the US. It’s super close to Latin America, Cuba. There’s easy flights from Miami to everywhere. And, the population in Miami is mostly Hispanic. Like, you just walk into a store and you speak Spanish. You just assume everybody speaks Spanish. So I do have family in Colombia still, but more of my family--most of my family is in Miami. I also go to Miami a lot, obviously more than Colombia because it’s easier to get there. And, I go to Miami a lot because my family lives there and because Miami feels like Colombia, in a way. I go there and everybody’s speaking Spanish. The food is the same, even some of the little restaurants we have in Colombia, people have brought them to Miami. And, Miami is my favourite city in the US, by far, because it feels like Colombia and it reminds me of Colombia. And, I’m actually going there next weekend and I’m really excited! This is my third time going this year. I go there all the time, and I love it because it reminds me of Colombia, so I think that’s where I have the most family, but I still do have family in Colombia.


Interviewer: Do you speak Spanish?


Laura: I do.


Interviewer: That's so cool! Did your move to the US affect your relationships with the family you still have in Colombia in any way or has it been kind of the same?


Laura: Um, well, for me personally, I didn’t really have strong relationships with them before I moved because I was like two or three. But, we usually visit there on average once a year in a non-COVID year. Or maybe once or twice, but usually once. And, my parents are also really good with keeping in touch with people, not just family members in Colombia, but anytime we move from city to city, like all my closest friends are still my Michigan friends. My parents really value friendship and family and keeping those close relationships with people that you don’t see as often, so, I actually don’t think that our relationship has been stranded in any way because of me moving here. My parents and I have done a good job of keeping in contact with everybody. Obviously, it would be different if we lived in the same city, like we would see them more often. But, I think our relationship is the same, if not better, because we just appreciate each other more.


Interviewer: That’s great! So, when you were on your trip there in 2019 with your friends, what was your favourite part? Because you mentioned you went to beaches, you visited some historical sights, right?


Laura: Um, well, I would say... it’s so hard to choose because every single day was so fun. But, I would say either my party, which was the last day, just because everybody was together. Like, on the little excursions that we did, it wasn’t always all 50 of us. Sometimes, it was half of the group or these people, but my party was really just where we all came together and everybody just had the most fun. But, if it wasn’t--obviously I’m going to say my party since it was my quince, it was a big thing--but other than that, I would probably say when we went to the beach resort in Santa Marta. That was really fun because that beach resort was where I would spend my vacations growing up every single summer.


So, it was really fun to relive my childhood but with my American friends around me. And the resort has bowling! It has restaurants, it has bars, and clubs to dance in, and it has the beach and pools and tennis, and everything! We were only there for 24 hours but if I could relive one day, other than my party, it would probably be that day just because it kind of reminded me of my childhood and my roots and it was fun to show my friends around. But, honestly I cannot pick a favourite. It changes every day.


Interviewer: Were there any other memories that were kind of brought back?


Laura: I would say the restaurants that we went to. There were some restaurants in, especially in my hometown Barranquilla, which I would I grow up going to all the time. When I would be with my grandparents, my brother and I would be like “Grandma, Grandpa, please take us here!” and now we were all going with my friends. I guess also having them try the food was one the biggest things. I didn’t expect them to like it because it’s so different from American food! Not so different, but some things are. We have a lot of plantains, we have a lot of rice. A lot of fish, especially on the coast. And, they loved every single thing they tried. We still talk about it all the time! They’ll be like, “Oh, I really want this again.” And, obviously that just makes me really happy because it’s the food where I’m from and the food that I grew up eating. And, they’re all trying it and they all love it. So, that was one of the best parts.


Interviewer: What did you, yourself, take away from this experience? I think you had talked about how it was nice to have people just celebrating your culture and sharing it with others.


Laura: I think that that’s a good way to sum it up. I guess just spending time with everybody that I love the most, whether it’s family or friends--literally everybody that I was ever closest with was all around me in one place, I think that was my favourite part. And, also, like you said, showing them my culture and having everybody learn and educate themselves on the world around them. The music also! I forgot to mention that right before the trip, we all just made a playlist of Spanish songs that were popular at the time that we were definitely going to listen to during the trip. And, they still sing those songs all the time. They experienced so much culture that they would have never experienced without going there. So, I think what I took most out of it was the fun family and friends all around me experience and spending time with the people I love the most and having my friends experience something that they otherwise would not have probably ever. Like, they would not have ever gone to Colombia. That’s not really the place that people go when they’re all like, “Oh, where should I go?” Nobody thinks Colombia. But, now it’s definitely on their list again--they want to come back. We were supposed to go this summer, but COVID.


Interviewer: When you’re back in the US, do you ever try to take little pieces of Colombia and try to live it through every day?


Laura: Yeah, well, after the trip actually, I would literally just go on my phone and look at all the pictures every single day. I would just try to relive it just by looking at pictures or well, I follow lots of YouTubers or Instagrammers and influencers from my hometown. I think that’s currently my biggest way of having a piece of Colombia with me all the time. It’s like I can always see what they’re doing, “Oh they’re eating at this place or they’re doing this or going to this town that I love going to.” And, also the music, obviously. I listen to Colombian music and it reminds me of Colombia. It’s mostly the music, but also, the food. But, we don’t really eat that much Colombian food because it’s hard to find the ingredients. But, I would say the music and influencers and YouTube videos and looking back at pictures are some pieces of Colombia I take back with me.


Interviewer: Why do you think it’s important to share your story or just other people’s cultural stories in general, with others?


Laura: I think it’s really important to learn. Like, I think one of the biggest, most important things in life is to learn and to be open-minded about other cultures, about other subjects, about other ideas. I was at the airport yesterday, and I saw this quote on the wall. I’ll read it to you, “It’s not differences that divide us. It’s our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.” Which to me, that means a lot of people in the US - well the country is very divided and a lot of people are very ignorant and a lot of people only focus on their point of view or their mindset is mostly on themselves, and what they care about, and what they experience. But, I feel like if we all take everybody else into account and try to really educate ourselves and learn about other cultures and how other people live, I think that would really help anything: the country politically or the country socially. A lot of bad things happen when people don’t care to listen to what other people have to say or to how other people live. There’s nothing bad about learning about other people’s cultures.


Interviewer: Is there anything else you’d like to add on or say?


Laura: I think I said it all. I think my biggest thing is that I want people to know that they should never misjudge someone or have misconceptions about things that they don’t know anything about. But, I think that’s mostly it. Just take the time and learn about other people and learn about other cultures, and it will really help you in the long run!

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