This past weekend I went to a surprise birthday party for a woman who will turn 80 on Christmas Day. Don’t be fooled, though—it was no ordinary party, and she is certainly no ordinary 80-year-old. Yaya, my boyfriend’s grandma, is a very spirited, very feisty lady who can outswear and outdrink any 20 year old boy you know. The surprise party we threw in her honor, with 30 Colombian guests (costeños, no less) was not exactly a nursing-home experience—it was a dance-filled festival of food, music, and laughter. (If you have any Colombian friends or family, you know what I’m talking about.) What struck me about Yaya’s 80th birthday party was the sheer number of families from my boyfriend’s neighborhood in Cartagena who have migrated to the Chicagoland area--it's as if the whole neighborhood has been transplanted into Chicago.
Intrigued by the idea of Colombian immigration to Chicago, I found an article at the website of the Encyclopedia of Chicago about Colombian migration patterns. Colombians first began to immigrate to Chicago in the 1950s, during La Violencia, a period of extreme civil unrest. The first groups to come were the professional classes (doctors, lawyers, etc) in the 1950s, followed by costeños (people from the Caribbean coast—Cartagena, Barranquilla, etc) in the 1960s and 70s. In the 1980s and beyond, Colombians of all classes and from all regions moved into the Chicagoland area. My boyfriend’s family was among the many families from Cartagena that came to Chicago in the mid-1990s.
According to the Encyclopedia of Chicago, “Chicago's Colombians have been atypical of the city's immigrants and of Colombian Americans elsewhere [in the U.S.] in their pattern of settlement. Rather than form neighborhood enclaves, they have tended toward a dispersed residential pattern. While they initially settled in apartments on the North Side, where many of the city's Puerto Ricans also lived, as soon as their earnings allowed, most Colombians moved to private homes in such northern suburbs as Skokie, Evanston, and Arlington Heights.” Much like their residential patterns of settlement, Colombian businesses are dispersed throughout the city, with no centralized Colombian community.
There are numerous Colombian social clubs throughout the city to unite Colombians, despite their dispersal all over the area. They include Club Colombia, Club de El Dorado (which are social clubs that organize dinners and other events), CartaMed (Cartagena Medical Alumni Association), and Colombianos Unidos para una Labor Activa, whose mission is to help new immigrants transition to life in America.