Torn Between Two Countries
By Sammi Richardson
For 35 years Ernesto Tono grew up in Cartagena, Colombia in the lap of luxury. He had nannies as a child, chauffeurs to cart him around, and a carefree childhood. Tono describes Cartagena as a beautiful city where life was much simpler
“I am blessed that I have gotten most of what I have wished for in life,” says Tono, 46. “I experienced wealth, as my father was a well known architect in my country. He made a lot of money and also lost it all. I went from a lifestyle of advantage to quite the opposite,” he said.
Ernesto Tono says he is
grateful for opportunities in
the U.S., but misses
Life in for Tono Colombia is different than in the U.S. There are a lot of similarities but the social classes are very distinct. The U.S. has a huge middle class that lives pretty well, while Colombian middle class can barely make ends meet. The poor population is substantial. The family structure is also vastly different.
“I grew up being taken care of by a nanny while my mother played cards most days,” says Tono. “I loved my mother very much and this was the norm there. I raised my own two young girls with nannies the same way until I moved to the states.”
Everything changed for Tono when Colombia’s internal war began. Guerrilla groups, such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (RAFC), began fighting to help the poor and end corruption and targeted wealthy land owners. Now, these guerrilla groups have become corrupt and are violating human rights. They have teamed with the country’s drug lords to finance their underground activities and use kidnapping as a means to raise money.
The RAFC attempted to kidnap Tono’s uncle and several of his friends. His uncle was shot at a country club while playing golf and feigned death, which saved his life. Tono’s cousin wasn’t as lucky though. He was kidnapped and held for almost seven years. Last year the government helped rescue him.
Life was very uncertain in Colombia and Tono felt the best chance for his family would be in the U.S. His brother lived here and he decided he would too. Tono applied for a visa and 13 years later he was finally granted one. In June of 2001, Tono moved to Maryland. His first day of work was September 11, 2001. Although Tono had finally made it to the U.S. seeking safety for his family, when the 9/11 attacks occurred he was within miles of the Pentagon.
“I questioned myself daily wondering if I made the right decision,” he said.
Life was not easy at first. Tono left behind his mother and sister and many other relatives. Cartagena was a place that filled his heart with joy and beauty. He lived in a beautiful apartment building overlooking the ocean. In fact, he traveled to work by boat every day.
Cartagena has magnificent architecture, landscapes, climate, and
a party atmosphere.
Tono longed for the beauty and to be close to the water. In addition, his family name is well known and respected. Tono was a successful bank executive in Colombia, but when he arrived in the U.S., he had to start all over. Cartagena has magnificent architecture, landscapes, climate, and a party atmosphere. Finding a job was not easy, and the small amount of savings he brought was dwindling.
Eventually, Tono landed a modest position that didn’t compare to his bank management job in Cartagena. “I was lonely, scared and wondering what did I do?”
Tono was lucky that his brother helped him to get on his feet. “My brother lent me money to purchase my first house. Without his help I don’t know how I would have achieved the American dream,” he said. Eventually, Tono became a mentee for Nationwide Insurance. He worked as hard as he could and it paid off. He completed the program in one year instead of the usual two and was given his own insurance agency. In four years he became very successful. In June 2007, Tono and his wife became U.S citizens, but he didn’t give up Colombian citizenship. ”I could never give it up,” he said.
Even though Tono is doing well in his new life he is still very torn and misses Cartagena. He longs for the water and scenery of his homeland and he misses his family. With the luxury of having a maid cook and clean the house, and people coming in to provide manicures and pedicures, who wouldn’t be a little homesick?
Tono still has trouble with understanding the English language, and he doesn’t always understand the translation from Spanish to English. But he is truly grateful to the U.S. for his opportunity, but his heart will always be in Cartagena. When asked about retirement, Tono smiles and says, “I dream of returning to my country to spend the rest of my life there.”