“it was always so hot in barranquilla, the police wore sandals. they were very poor and not paid well, so, you know, they only had like one pair. they didn’t want to get shit all over their feet and their shoes, so they never wanted to walk in our backyard.” this is why, my father told me, he grew up in a house full of animals. his great grandfather had parrots, dogs, chickens, cats, sows, donkeys, “and so on and so forth.” they would keep them in the backyard and the animals would roam around cagando por todos lados. my great grandfather liked it this way because underneath the layer of animal feces, beneath the grass, and deep within the soil, was buried contraband. no cop in sandals would snoop around there.
when i was little, my father loved telling the story of how a puma or a cougar, maybe sometimes it was a tiger, got loose in his childhood neighborhood. deja, y te lo cuento…
a friend of my grandparents owned a circus; it’s a long story how they became friends. in any event, he asked them to watch some of the animals while he went away on a circus related business trip of some kind. you know how it is. there were animals all over the house! these were very exotic animals. the bathtub was full of alligators! there were monkeys in the living room! iguanas in closets! and a couple of panthers in a cage in the backyard! but then, one of the muchachas or the gardener or my father and his brothers accidentally, or maybe on purpose, sin querer queriendo, let the tigers escape! they were running all over the neighborhood! on rooftops, through backyards, in the streets! they were scaring everybody, and, of course, todo el vecindario knew it must be the crazy romano family. and then, you know, some people came and took the leopards away. end scene. i loved that story, and i still do. what i love more than anything, though, is that my father wanted to tell us about the big cats so bad he made up a completely different tale in order to do it. i would totally do that.
it’s true my grandparents were friends with someone who owned wild and exotic animals, but they were not circus animals, or at least not yet. my grandparents would house expensive animals en route to miami to be sold in the underground market. as it turns out, the bulk of the romano wealth and family business was in the importing, exporting, and selling of contraband. can you believe it? contraband. in colombia. i know, it’s difficult to process.
what you likely never knew or remembered or cared to know is that cocaine was never a main source of illegal money making in colombia until the war on drugs. prior to that, selling and buying of all kinds of goods in the underground market was commonplace, though not really discussed openly; kind of like bootleg dvds and imported marlboro’s at your local corner store. colombia is geographically located in such a way, the buffer country between central and south america en route to the states, with the caribbean on one side and the pacific on the other, that trafficking of all kinds is too good to pass up.
cigarettes and booze were their main sources of income, but they also dabbled in exotic animals, purebred dogs, and anything else you needed. they brought their goods in from aruba, and for this reason we have many 8mm home movies of my dad’s family vacationing there. they kept the goods in their house and obviously kept some for themselves. i always wondered why and how my grandparents procured a set of afghan hounds. they didn’t seem like the kind of pets a colombian family would own, but they loved them. they even had portraits painted of the two dogs. natasha and napoleon, if i memory serves.
i remember a room off the garage that was always packed to the brim with stuff, and i remember the hired guard that sat in a rocking chair in the living room all night with a rifle in his lap. much like a member of any dysfunctional family, i assumed all colombian households were like mine.
mamaia and her mother sahara, aka sara or mama sara -a half black half jew single mom who always looked like a crazy toad witch to me and who eventually fell into dementia and set her room on fire- were just as much a part of this business as everyone else. their house was raided regularly by the police, and mama sara would lie in her bed feigning to be an old invalid while the police bustled around her. what the police never found were the cartons of whiskey and cigarettes strapped to her thighs. meanwhile, my father and his brothers would throw merchandise over the wall into their neighbor’s yard, where they had paid off the muchacha to hide their things until the cops left. the neighbors did not care for the romanos, or at least the single mom head of household did not. they were a well-respected and religious family whose youngest daughter would eventually jump that fence to marry the oldest romano son. i was born of this rebellious coupling.