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‘Never look back’: Colombian immigrant shares how he fell in love with Petaluma

Before I emigrated from Colombia at the age of 21, my dad told me, with tears in his eyes, “Never look back. That was my mistake.” It is, to date, the best advice he has given me in the history of our complicated relationship.

In the quintessential migrant’s journey to a better life, it is so easy to become homesick.

How can you not?

Carlos Garbiras
Carlos Garbiras

As you are growing up, you are not contemplating the prospect that the norms you are learning, the customs you are adapting to, the language you speak will one day (not too far away) be a thing of your past. Then they are, and those realizations come rushing in all at one time. Why would you want to dwell beforehand on the soul-crushing feelings that come with leaving behind romantic relationships, your childhood best friends, your family members?

Even those people you don’t like as much become more likable when you realize you might never see them again.

Our decision to move to the United States in December of 2005 happened rather quickly, and the planning up to it was kept private. My mom, my sister, and I knew what we were organizing, but we didn’t talk about it with anyone.

When people finally found out, they didn’t have nuggets of wisdom like my dad had. They were just in disbelief. Maybe they even thought that this was just a phase, and that we would be back soon.

Before leaving, a family friend told me a story of Alexander the Great. On a war expedition, Alexander ordered his men to burn the ships they had used to arrive at their destination. He told his men, “We will either return home in Persian ships or die here.”

I think about that story often.

When things got tough, and they did, I never thought about going back. Not when I got mugged in 2005 in front of my house in San Diego. Not when I had to work two jobs — I’ve been a barista, a sales rep, a French restaurant waiter, a clerk at a bookstore and other seasonal assignments — all while going to school at San Diego Mesa college, then San Diego State university. Not when all of my Industrial Engineering credits from Universidad del Norte in Barranquilla were rejected. I had close to 120 credits in Columbia, but the UC system did not accept them. I had to start school all over again, this time choosing Communication Studies.

Through it all, I never thought of going back.

I had burned my ships.

I was staying here.

In the middle of this journey, I never stopped to think of the city I was in. Cities are, in their weird way, witnesses to the story of our lives. They stand in the background impassively looking at everything we go through. I never allowed myself to think much about the city I left behind in Colombia for fear that I might want to run back. I left Barranquilla for San Diego, and I was fortunate to have landed in a city that was sunny. It was a small but essential palliative for leaving behind everything I knew.

I met my wife there, when we were both taking Italian classes at San Diego Mesa College.

After we got married, she wanted to be closer to her family before we started our own, so in the winter of 2014, I moved once more, this time to Petaluma. It was the wettest and darkest winter I had ever experienced since I moved to the States. I struggle with the dark and short days of winters. I don’t mind the cold as much, but the darkness gets to me. The darkness of that winter also coincided with what felt like winter in my personal life.

I was going through a tough time in my business. I was a project manager for a family-owned construction company. The project I had given a few years of my life to, a land development project, was going sideways. I had to commute from San Diego to Petaluma every week, so I would spend Monday through Thursday in San Diego and return to Petaluma for the weekend on Thursday night. It felt like I was spending more time in airports, planes, and buses than I was with my wife.

I came to appreciate Petaluma slowly, at first. My wife was enamored by the town. Even though she herself had once left it for college, she always dreamed of coming back. I eventually came around, deeply appreciating Petaluma’s foundry district, everyone’s obsession with the West Side, the Petaluma River, the town’s spotty zoning that flippantly alternates between residential and light industrial.

It is a city of character, and imprinted in that character is the generosity and loveliness of its citizens. There is so much art, beauty and generosity everywhere I look, that it would be hard to imagine that I would ever want to live in any other city.

Still, it wasn’t until my daughter was born 22 months ago that I completely fell in love with my new town. Now, if it’s not raining, the two of us are on the go. No matter how cold it is, I’m out there walking with my daughter, so she sees the world, and she learns that our four walls are not all there is to our universe.

And the more I walk, the more I find evidence of the generosity of the people who inhabit this charming city. There are acts of generosity everywhere I look. Art on display for all to see. Even the utility boxes are decorated with whimsical scenes. And what about the thought and work everyone puts into their gardens, or the murals gifted to us by our talented homegrown artists?

As an immigrant, I marvel at the courage of those embarking on similar journeys. Early on, I never thought I would be an immigrant myself. I always assumed I was going to live my life in Colombia, where my roots were. When you have moved so much — even if you didn’t want to — there is sometimes a hesitancy to putting down new roots. You grow them, but you also know you might need to pull them up and get walking again.

But now, I think I will continue planting my roots here in Petaluma.

As for my sister, after years of being in San Diego, she felt she could no longer afford paradise. So, in 2017, she moved to Texas, where she has enjoyed the upswing of a buoyant economy that seems to be welcoming and rewarding to hardworking young people.

It was hard to see her go, even if it is only a four-hour fly and a cultural gap away. I’m happy to see that she found what she was looking for.

But I’m sad that we are not closer.

As sad as it makes me, though, it is not as terrifying as the prospect of my daughter one day telling me she needs to move to find herself. What can I say? I know I did the same thing at her age.

I imagine she will say something like, “I have to leave. I am going to Paris.”

And, with a broken heart, I will tell her, “Ah, Paris! C’est vraiment incroyable. J’adore Paris! Je comprends, mon trésor. Brûle tes vaisseaux.”

“Ah, Paris! It's really unbelievable. I love Paris! But I understand, my darling. Burn your ships.”

Carlos Garbiras oversees business development for a local risk management company. In his free time, when he is not walking around Petaluma taking pictures, he likes to write. His essays and poems have appeared in Scribe Magazine, The Haven and others.

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