Articles / Learning to Look Forward, With Some Help From the Elders


Learning to Look Forward, With Some Help From the Elders

Published November 2, 2023

Discovering family, part two: Change is inevitable, but the past lives on through food and love

Viudo de capaz with rice and arepas at El Dorado Restaurant. Photo: Mike Diago

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.

Photo courtesy Airbnb

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.

Blue rice, curried chicken, blueberry cake, and pickles at B&B Casa Amberes. Photo: Mike Diago

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.

Puente Navarro, over River Magdalena. Photo: Mike Diago

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. 

Mike’s grandfather, Miguel Angel Diago Ramirez (second from left, center row), with family. Photo courtesy Miguel Diago Ramirez

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.” 

Uncle Luis and a big plate of viudo de pescado. Photo: Mike Diago

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. 

Aunt Miryam, El Dorado Restaurant. Photo: Mike Diago

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.

We placed our bags by the doorway and sat in rocking chairs on the brick front patio. Within moments, a few neighbors walked over and sat with us, including a little boy named Joaquin. He asked Marcel if he wanted to swim in the neighborhood pool. Marcel asked me nervously, “Who is that?” My uncle told us, “He’s Ana Virginia’s nephew … you know Tulio Jr.’s daughter, the cousin of …” I nodded at Marcel to go ahead. Zoraida followed him to the pool. She returned later with a big smile, “I just met the nicest woman and her two little girls. They’re staying next door.” I explained that it was Natalia, the sister of my cousins Manuel and Guillo, the daughter of Consuelo, who was the daughter of my grandmother’s sister. “Another cousin?” she asked, laughing. 

Marcel and his cousin. Photo: Zoraida Lopez-Diago

That night, we joined a big group gathered under a white concrete pavilion directly in front of the house after dark. They were singing and dancing to Vallenato, a popular genre of Colombian folk music. I didn’t know anyone in the crowd, but one woman said, “Hola Migue, como esta Linda?” She knew my mother and explained that we had the same great-grandfather. She poured me a shot of aguardiente from a cardboard box. Her husband showed Marcel and me how to play a long, thin style of guiro (like a washboard on a stick) and hand drums. We sang, played, and danced until well after bedtime. 

The following morning, we all woke up early and joined Uncle Luis and Aunt Miryam on the patio for mangoes, yuca bread, juice, and coffee. Marcel ate a huge plate of three chopped mangoes by himself. Uncle Luis told him, waving his arm, “If you were here in season, these trees would drop mangoes all over the ground. You could have all you want. There would be hundreds of birds, too.” 

Tough to resist mango like this. Photo: Mike Diago

Each morning went roughly the same way, and each night there was a birthday party: a second one for Miguel, one for Natalia’s daughter, and one for “Bombillo,” a friend of the family who earned his nickname because his head was said to look like a big lightbulb (it looked normal to me). Each day, we took excursions: to old Honda, to the farm, and to towns along the river. We were only in Honda for four days before returning to Bogotá, but my family saw the Honda I remembered. We got lucky, though; everyone happened to be there that weekend.

Naeem and his cousin. Photo: Mike Diago

What struck me was that none of my family seemed bothered by the town’s new identity as a tourist locale. Had they wanted to grab machetes and chase out the tourists from the room with the “I’m in Honda Bitch!” mural, I would have joined them, but for better or worse, my aunts and uncles have always had a forward-looking, pragmatic sensibility. They go where they need to go to make a living. I suppose, of all the reasons to be driven out of Honda or any place, lack of opportunity isn’t the most traumatic. 

Zoraida and Naeem, B&B Casa Amberes. Photo: Mike Diago

The day after returning to my backyard in Beacon, NY,  I lounged under my pavilion on a hammock from Colombia and had a video call with my dad. I recounted all the experiences from Honda, and we spoke for over an hour, way longer than our usual ten-minute run-through. I told him, “Bombillo said ‘Hi’.” He was smiling ear to ear. He asked, “What did the kids think of all the hummingbirds in Honda? Amazing, right?” There are 167 varieties of hummingbirds in Colombia, and they all seem to pass through Honda. I told him that I hadn’t really seen many this time. He said, “At Luis’, they usually fly around in the mango trees. You didn’t see them?” He looked confused. I said, “Oh yeah, Uncle Luis mentioned that, but he said they are mostly around when the mangoes are ripe. You have to be there in season.” “Oh, right,” he said. I turned the phone to show him a birdhouse that Marcel and I had set up under the pavilion, now with a nest inside. “Hmpf, that’s pretty good,” he said, giving a nod of approval. “Your yard is coming together,” he added. 

I’ve done a lot in the house and the yard to make it feel like a home: I built a huge stucco wood fire grill, built new doors for a storage area under the porch, painted the porch lattice a bright blue, and fixed up a vintage camper as a backyard hangout. As Marcel gets older, his friends are starting to pop in unannounced, and our relationships with our neighbors are deepening. We don’t have a big family here, but each year, it will feel more like home, if we manage to stick around long enough.

Marcel and Naeem. Photo: Mike Diago