Learning to Look Forward, With Some Help From the Elders
Discovering family, part two: Change is inevitable, but the past lives on through food and love
This is the second of a five-part series from Mike Diago about a trip he took with his family to his ancestral home in the city of Honda, on the Magdalena River in Colombia. In this part, Mike discovers that the Honda he grew up with still exists within his family, despite the many external changes.
“I’m in Honda, Bitch.” The bed and breakfast where my cousin Angela and her husband Manuel were staying had a new bungalow on the roof, a new pool in the back, and updated rooms—one of which had that slogan covering an entire wall. Levi, the former house owner, would have cringed. But here we were.
After a quick tour of the place, the six adult family members (Zoraida, Uncle Miguel, Aunt Marta, Angela, Manuel, and me) sat at a long table by the pool under the flittering shade of a starfruit tree; Marcel and Naeem inspected just-fallen starfruit fruit on the concrete patio. Smelling the cut limes on the table, and hearing the voices of my family, it might have felt like we were at the old house, if it weren’t for the group of boarders, young men, splashing in the pool behind us. Angela had arranged a meal for Miguel’s 79th birthday: blue rice, dyed with the clitoria flower, yellow curried chicken, lentil soup, and pickled vegetables. Between spoons full of rice, I asked Angela if she had visited the old family house since it was sold. She said, “Yes, it is beautiful now. There’s a pool there, too.” Uncle Miguel nodded and added soberly, “I don’t know anyone on the street anymore.” He refilled everyone's wine glasses, moved to a seat beside me, and gave me a history lesson in his quiet, gravelly voice.
Our family had been in Honda for a long time, but for hundreds of years before they arrived, the land belonged to the Ondaimas and the Gualí, distant relatives of the Caribes. The river gave them a constant bounty of bagre, capaz, bocachico, and other fish. Yields were especially profuse during the February spawning season, “La Subienda.” They cooked fish in earthen pots buried in underground ovens, and traded them along the rivers. Of the natives, those who traveled by canoe to exchange fish and other goods were called bogas. The Spanish invaded the region in 1539, granting land to colonists and with it, dominion over the land’s inhabitants. Bogas worked along the river as indentured servants, developing Colombia’s initial commercial water routes. As they died out from the brutality of the work, they were replaced by enslaved West Africans, who continued rowing the length of the river until steam navigation came to dominate in the early nineteenth century.
Meanwhile, back in Spain, the Inquisition had already been underway for a couple of hundred years. Thousands of mostly Jewish and Arab people were being executed, driven out, or forced to convert to Roman Catholicism. The Diagos were one such family of Jewish conversos from Aragon. The Crown sent the first three Diagos to Honda in 1760 (more than 200 years after colonization), to work as merchants.
By then, Honda had become the most important city along the river. Cargo from Europe and the Americas traveled from the Caribbean port in Cartagena, down the Magdalena, to the terminal port at Honda, where it continued its journey by land, over the town’s 40 bridges, to points south in Colombia and South America. Diagos and their kin established influence in the small city over the next two hundred years. If they were still secretly practicing Judaism when they arrived, they eventually became Catholics in earnest (judging by the devoutness of my grandmother and some of her sisters); they became mestizos and morenos (judging by the skin color of my father), and they became Latinos (judging by the Indigenous, African, and Spanish influences that came to define the food, music, and customs of the family and the region.) There were tobacco transporters, merchant marines (like Jaime Diago, mentioned in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ first book), and farmers, including Tulio Varon “El Machetero,” an important guerilla general in the War of a Thousand Days between 1899 and 1902 (he was killed in 1901 when trying to drive the conservatives out of neighboring Ibague). They all had many kids, especially that guerilla general’s brother, Mardoqueo: he had 64, according to Miguel. Our family was immense.
In the generation before my father’s, as the rails replaced the rivers as the avenues of commerce, Honda’s importance was diminished. My grandfather supported eight kids as a pharmacist, but he often gave away medicine to the growing number of people who couldn’t pay. Uncle Miguel said, “Meals throughout the year were thin: arepas and stews or soups made from pigeon, yuca, potato, mazorca, or beef. But during La Subienda, we would feast.” The February spawning run, which sustained the original people of the river, became an annual town festival. Each year, the brothers helped fishermen filet and then brought home baskets full of fish—their payment. Often, my grandmother prepared the ancient native stew, viudo de pescado. Despite a lack of industry, family and social life in town was rich and convivial through my father’s generation, as I described in Part I. However, during the eighties and nineties, the family moved to Bogotá for opportunity. Uncle Miguel said, “Today, your Uncle Luis is the only Diago left in Honda.”
Luis and Miryam had moved back to Honda to live full-time near their cattle farm. Besides the new tourism industry, cattle farming is all that’s left. Luis and Miryam live in a gated community on the edge of town, between two other houses that cousins from Bogotá stay in on some weekends.
We arrived at Luis and Miryam’s place in the early evening. They greeted us in front of their small two-story townhouse—Luis in his off-duty uniform (an untucked and unbuttoned plaid shirt) and Aunt Miryam in her characteristic, long flowing garments and dazzling emeralds.