Immigrant Stories: A welcome refuge from stressful Cali, Colombia
IMMIGRANT STORIESImmigrant Stories by Walter Gallacher appears on the fourth Tuesday of the month. Gallacher is a photojournalist and independent radio producer. Anyone with an immigrant story to tell about themselves or relatives is invited to email firstname.lastname@example.org. To read past Immigrant Stories, search this website or visit www.immigrantcolorado.blogspot.com
Intro: Lucy Moncada-Arcila is the Latino Services coordinator for Alpine Bank and the president of the Roaring Fork Rotary Club (Club Rotario).
Moncada-Arcila: Growing up in Cali, Colombia, was a happy time for me because my mom was a very kind person who taught us good values and showed us how to share those values with our family and friends.
Gallacher: Did you have brothers and sisters?
Moncada-Arcila: Yes, I had two sisters and a brother. My mother was married, but she divorced my father because he was very threatening. So I never really knew him. I grew up with my mother’s brothers. They were my fathers, especially my Uncle Gonzalo. He was like a father to me. Gonzalo made sure we had everything we needed. He was one of the best people I have ever known.
Gallacher: What did you do after high school?
Moncada-Arcila: I worked in a mental health clinic as a secretary for a year and a half. It was there that I realized that I didn’t want to be a secretary. I wanted to work with people. I learned a lot from the therapist there. She let me assist her and sit in on her group sessions.
From there I went to work for Foster Parents Plan International where I got to work with families, helping them build their own houses. It was a program like the Habitat for Humanity program here in the Roaring Fork Valley. The director of the program urged me to go to the University and get my degree in social work.
So I enrolled in the University and continued as a social worker for Foster Parents Plan. It was a very busy time for me going to school and working. Some times I was up until 3 studying and then going to work early in the morning, but I was dedicated.
Gallacher: So working with people has always been something important to you.
Moncada-Arcila: Yes, definitely. I have worked with all kinds of people. When I left the Foster Parents Plan, I went to work for the city of Cali working with gangs.
Gallacher: Being a social worker in the barrios of Cali was probably pretty dangerous.
Moncada-Arcila: I didn’t feel scared. I was very comfortable with the people there. It was hard to gain their trust at first, but after I was there for a few months I learned how kind and generous they were. I really liked working there but one day one of the gang leaders came to me and told me that some of the gang members were planning to assault me and my co-workers. He told me he was sorry but we had to leave because if the assault happened he would have to join them.
It was really hard for us to leave, but we didn’t have a choice. When I left there I took some time to start my family and take care of my newborn son. When I went back to work I did social work for the city government of Cali helping people with their housing problems.
I did that for six years, and then I worked for a year helping start the Banco de Mujeres (Women’s Bank). The bank was established to give women a better understanding and more access to banking.
Gallacher: You have had quite a career.
Moncada-Arcila: I have been very fortunate to work with many great people. I got a chance to work with kids on my next job counseling in the schools. I did that for six years and then moved back to social work for the City of Cali.
I was working there when I got a call one day from my Uncle Gonzalo. He told me he was very sick and he needed my help. He asked me to quit my job and help him with his business.
Gallacher: What kind of business was he in?
Moncada-Arcila: He had two general stores. I told him I needed to work because, by then, I was divorced and a single parent to my 12-year-old son. He told me not to worry, he would take care of both of us.
So I quit my job and started working for him. I took him to visit the doctors and cared for him after his heart surgery. He was never really the same after his operation. He got very depressed because he couldn’t do the things he used to do. Seven months later he went into a coma. That was a very difficult time for us.
He was in the hospital for the next three months. A month before he died, thieves came to my house. I was there with my other uncle who was disabled and my 4-year-old nephew. Fortunately, my son was at school, and my mom was with Uncle Gonzalo at the hospital.
Gallacher: Robbers came to your house. Did they break in?
Moncada-Arcila: No, they were dressed as policemen. So when I went to the door I saw their uniforms and let them in. I learned, later, that one of them was a policeman. They had a lot of guns.
Moncada-Arcila: One of them grabbed me and put a gun to my head, and the other one grabbed my little nephew and put a gun to his head. I was so scared. I was praying the whole time.
I told them, “Please don’t hurt us, take everything that you want.” They told me they knew I was the one taking care of my uncle’s stores and they wanted money. I told them that I didn’t have any money in the house, it was all in the bank.
I told them I would go with them to the bank, but they were afraid they might be seen on the bank’s cameras.
Gallacher: So what did they take?
Moncada-Arcila: They took some jewelry that my mom and I had, and they found some money my son was saving, and that was all.
Gallacher: You must’ve been so traumatized.
Moncada-Arcila: Yes, it was a very difficult experience.
Gallacher: Did you go to the police?
Moncada-Arcila: Yes, but nothing happened. The only thing that happened was that I was terrified because I knew that one of the men was a policeman, and I knew the police department was going to protect him and not me and my family.
After that, my life changed a lot. I couldn’t go outside my house without feeling afraid. I didn’t feel safe there anymore.
Gallacher: Yeah, you were traumatized.
Moncada-Arcila: Exactly. And one month later my Uncle Gonzalo died. I helped his brothers and sisters get his papers in order, and then I began looking for a job, but it was hard for me to find work after being out of the job market for a while.
When my sister Jenny, who lived in Colorado, heard what happened to us she invited us to come stay with her. She told me it was a much safer place than Cali, and it would give me and my son a chance to recover from the trauma we had been through.
Gallacher: So are you glad you came?
Moncada-Arcila: Of course. It’s very different than Cali. Seeing snow for the first time was a wonderful experience for me. It was amazing to watch the flakes fall from the sky.
Gallacher: So it’s a good life here?
Moncada-Arcila: Yes. Because it’s very quiet here, and I don’t feel as stressed or afraid. Cali is known for its salsa music. Dancing and singing is an important part of life there. It is a crazy, fun city, but it can be stressful at the same time.
I try to go back and visit family every two years. I am going in December.
Gallacher: So you’ve spent your whole career as an independent woman taking care of your son and taking care of people who have less than you do. What inspired that? Who was that person?
Moncada-Arcila: I think it was my Uncle Gonzalo. He was the kind of person who was always helping other people. He cared for his whole family and many of his friends. I grew up watching him. He has guided me throughout my life. When you see that kind of person in your life, and you grow with that person around you, you feel that you need to do something like that.
Gallacher: I think your Uncle Gonzalo would be very, very proud.
Moncada-Arcila: He told me that before he died. He said, “I am very proud of you because you are doing something that you really like to do, helping people.”
Gallacher: Well, the spirit of Gonzalo lives on in you.
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