A “Que Onda Con Donna” Voyage To The Sister City

I remember the excitement I felt when I first heard that Pawtucket was going to have a sister city in Colombia. I had been to Colombia several times, I knew several “Colombianos,” and I learned a great deal of my Spanish from them. I wondered how this came about? Who is responsible? What city in Colombia would be our sister city?

I called Mayor Grebien who told me about this guy named Juan Pablo Barrera and how he would not rest until his native city in Colombia joined his adopted City of Pawtucket as sisters.

I asked the Mayor, who is this guy? Not long after I had him on the Que Onda couch. If you want to know more about this amazing human, a politician who stood up to the “narcotraficantes,” check out my in-depth interview of him right here at Yurview.com/donna. You won’t be disappointed; his story is one of bravery, intrigue, romance, political asylum and love of country: new and old.

After speaking with the mayor, I called Juan Pablo and got an earful about all of the reasons why “sister cities,” makes sense and why the mission of our sisterhood should be bilingualism. I must admit, he sounded pretty persuasive.

Fast forward several months, I heard that some dignitaries from Arjona, including Mayor Esther Jalilei, were visiting Pawtucket to get to know their new found sister. It was hosted by Representative Jean Philippe Barros. Although I couldn’t make it, I later called Representative Barros and Mayor Grebien for an update. They both reported that the visit had gone well and they wanted to enlist me and others to support the “twinning” of these two cities and the mission of bilingualism.

I love being bilingual. It has enriched my life in so many ways, personally and professionally. I have met so many amazing Spanish-speaking people and have helped many Spanish-speaking clients. I have traveled to many beautiful, Spanish-speaking countries, participating in their cultures and sharing ours. All of this experience has made me know in my bones the great value of interconnection and bilingualism.

Juan Pablo and the mayor both told me that they were trying to put together a delegation to travel to Arjona, to meet our new family members on their turf, to get to know the children and teachers, the business people and elected officials. I told them I was “in.“

The trip was planned for late April, 2018. We were all on our own to get to Colombia, so we all converged there at the Cartagena airport one Sunday afternoon, greeted by tropical, folkloric music, played by a live band. We were greeted as well by none other than Heiny Maldonado and her family. Heiny is the Executive Director of Fuerza Laboral, A statewide organization based in Central Falls, Rhode Island that helps immigrants deal with wage theft and many other employment related issues. As I arrived in a foreign country, it was so nice to see a familiar, friendly face.

Cartagena is a tropical Caribbean city, a city “amurallada,” meaning it is still surrounded by the original stone wall that protected it from piracy and invasion in its colonial days. The weather upon arrival was characteristically humid and warm.

When I agreed to go on the trip, I was not sure who would be part of the delegation. Upon arrival, I heard that Mayor Grebien was unfortunately involved in an automobile accident the night before the trip. For obvious reasons, he was not able to join us. The rest of the group was fantastic, consisting of Central Falls Mayor, James Diossa, our newly elected Senator who interestingly also hails from Colombia, Sandra Cano, Representative Jean Philippe Barros, Representative Carlos Tobon, and the wonderful woman who was to become my roommate, Jennifer Carney, Director of Curriculum for Pawtucket schools. Our delegation was lively, but the secret sauce was the addition of two wonderful Chinese entrepreneurs and Pawtucket businessmen, Louis Yip and Suny Ng. The synergy of the group was immediately apparent as our friendly exchanges were salted with humor and helpfulness and peppered by a little bit of sarcasm!

That Sunday evening, Arjona’s mayor, Ester Jalilei, treated us to some delicious Cartagena cuisine at a local restaurant inside the old, walled city. We feasted on fish, and we all tried several foods we had never had before. Thank God we got in a great meal and got to bed early that night, as I was not prepared for the jam packed, fast-paced wonderful trip that awaited us.

Whether you can understand this week’s show or not, I encourage you to check it out above simply for the amazing scenery. Our trip is replete with visits to their local City Hall, their State House, their schools and municipal sports complex. We also take you to the impressive, hi tech port of Cartagena, the largest of its kind in the Caribbean and the fourth largest in the world! We’ll introduce you to Arjona’s mayor, Cartagena’s dignitaries, the Director of their world renowned port, their students (young and old) and their teachers, and we’ll talk with little Camilo, the kid who stole my heart!

All of this and more on this week’s show… from Arjona!

The author, Donna M. Nesselbush, is a founding partner at Marasco & Nesselbush Law, a Rhode Island State Senator and Municipal Court Judge for the City of Pawtucket. She hosts a Spanish language Saturday morning radio show on Latina 100.3 FM and the “¿Que Onda? con Donna” TV show.