Before I got here, Colombians were Colombians. All of these latino people within these borders hundreds of miles from my home must be just like the others that look like them in the next valley or 200 miles east or down the Andes range. It’s the same country, after all. Sure I could grasp that there would naturally be somewhat of a difference between poor Afro-Caribbean Colombians and mestizo highlander Bogotá metropolitan types. But really, they’re all the same culture, right?
To Colombians, the differences between them are huge, and they remind you daily. Take the paisas, from the region around Medellin, in a pretty central part of the country. In Colombia, a Paisa is a Paisa, this fact is not to be mistaken. He’s a distinct entity, different from the rest, and remarkable for perceived differences in his character. The male Paisa is, according to these conversations, a good businessman, manipulative, even a con-artist, and the female Paisa perpetually dolled up, flirty, and possibly with plastic boobs and butt. To the rest of the world, she’s a Colombian; here she’s just a stereotypical Paisa.
And it doesn’t stop there. To live here is to hear constantly of the Costeños, those that live along the Caribbean coast, with their musicality and their loudness and their laziness (I can’t say if it’s true, but I myself certainly get lazy in their swampy weather). All people from Cali have been dancing salsa since birth. Santandereanos are feisty and eat large-butted ants like popcorn. Life is simpler and just more cowboy in the llanos, or plains. Chocó is the second wettest place on earth and gorgeous but extremely poor. And on and on.
Most Colombians, according to stats I am making up, may never leave Colombia in their lifetimes. Colombia is all they know, they speak only Spanish and live a fairly parochial life in a country separated by rough geography, poor transportation, and sporadic violence. So they see nations within a nation. I see a cooked banana where they see 19 different ways of cooking a platano. These differences obviously exist, I’m just too foreign to tell.
To be fair, my travels through the rest of the world have always been full of these same conversations. The Vietnamese talk about the cultural differences as you climb their latitudes, almost as if the country is a cultural gradient between Southeast Asian culture and Chinese culture. Half of the people we think of as Spanish think of themselves as anything but (Basques, Catalans, Galicians). You hear (bigoted) northern Italians describe southerners as uncivilized and somewhere closer to North Africa, while southerners describe their northern cousins as colder and businesslike, or essentially German. I’ve heard Germans from the south likewise decry the cold Germans from the north and Germans from the west decry the post-Communist Germans from the east, Lake District English folk badmouth cold and busy Londoners and Londoners badmouth the valley-girl Essex girls.
This regionalism, this us-vs-them-ism, these internal perceptions of differences where the rest of the world sees a single monolithic entity called Country X, is simply a part of human life everywhere.