Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Latina Writer’s Perspective on Cartagena

by Debra Mares

The Mamacita Murders is partially set in the fictional Walled City. The chapters were written over my five day stay in Cartagena, Colombia back in 2011. Little did I know when I was walking through El Caribe Hotel that six months later, U.S. Secret Service men would be caught there allegedly hiring female escorts.

The U.S. Secret Service scandal has been downplayed by government officials in Colombia. The mayor of this Caribbean city has wondered what all the fuss was all about. Mayor Campo Elias has said, "it doesn't bother people at all,” pointing out, “first, because adults were involved and, second, because here, it's normal.” But I’d disagree and so would many others. Mayerlin Vergara who directs a city shelter for sexually abused adolescents and child prostitutes has said, “sexual tourism degrades Colombia and its women.”

Sex tourism runs the risk of degrading the tourist’s experience. Not every tourist that visits this culturally rich beach destination is looking for sex. In fact, some are trying to avoid it. During the evenings of my brief stay in Cartagena, my female friend and I were approached by men at bars. They weren’t looking for sex, but rather were confirming we were not sex workers. The male tourists complained about the women they were meeting would unsolicitedly discuss the price of their services. Talk about killing the romance!

Some believe the country must continue developing the infrastructure and attractions that keep a tourist entertained. A tourist should return home telling stories not about the sex, but about how beautiful the colonial architecture is, how friendly the people are, and how overwhelming the culture is. And indeed, Cartagena did just that for me. My attraction to Cartagena is three-fold -- as an American tourist, a Latina, and as a writer.

As an American tourist, my attraction to Cartagena was the beautiful Caribbean, the culture, the history, and the food. It is no different from what attracted me to other countries in South America. Walking along the cobblestone streets of El Centro, the historic part of Cartagena, flashed me back to the past. Hearing the clip clop of the horse driven carriages through the streets took me to a time I can imagine when cars didn’t exist. It’s a slower pace of life, where street vendors peddle their handmade goods and locals mingle on restaurant patios. The quaint historic hotels, churches, illustrious balconies decorated with flowers and the vibrant casitas are the same things that attracted me to San Juan, Puerto Rico. The colonial architecture is visually stimulating. And outside the Walled City sits the warm water of the Caribbean, which is far different than the cold Pacific Ocean.

The attraction to Cartagena for me as a Latina was the music and romanticism. Salsa dancing and the Caribbean inspires flute melodies that would drift me away each night. Even after experiencing the Salsa culture in Los Angeles and Puerto Rico, the live music in Cartagena filled my heart on a new level. It was so common within El Centro to stumble upon a bar and find the most beautiful sounds. The romanticism came not only from the music, but from the people I met along the way. It varied from the driver of our horse-ridden carriage to the man who serenaded me with his guitar on the side of the cobblestone street, to the Spanish tourists who we shared a drink with overlooking the Caribbean. The romantic spirit is undeniable.

The attraction to Cartagena as a writer is my favorite attraction. The mystery of the Walled City becomes a character in The Mamacita Murders. The huge stone wall, which engulfs the entire town, reminds main character Gaby Ruiz of her own walls she has forged in her love relationships. When Gaby meets her mother’s love interest Señor Santiago-Borges in the Walled City, his compassion helps Gaby deal with a past that still haunts her over her mother’s death. My attraction as a writer to Cartagena is no different from that which inspired writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The parrots still flock inside the infamous Sofitel Santa Clara Hotel, which still attract Hollywood starlights during Cartagena’s Film Festival. Although I stayed at the lower priced Hotel Monterrey outside El Centro, it’s interior lush garden provided a similar experience. The streets of Cartagena inspire film scenes from Gabriel García Márquez’ epic novel Love in the Time of Cholera. Like Gaby’s love for Investigator Dylan Mack in The Mamacita Murders, García Márquez’ novel tells the story of an unrequitted love. Florentino, rejected by Fermina, his young lover, waits for over half a century for an opportunity to win her heart again. Cartagena won my heart as an American tourist, Latina and writer. And hopefully it captures the heart of the reader of The Mamacita Murders.

What do you think about the Walled City in The Mamacita Murders? Does the writing capture the spirit, beauty, culture and people of the Walled City? Let me know by emailing me your comments to Debra@DebraMaresNovels.com. I’m looking forward to hearing from you.

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