By Lou Baldwin
Special to the CS&T
“Just call me Jose,” the muralist said, “no last name.”
Well, that’s about as generic as you can get for a man from Colombia. But it’s understandable for someone who was kidnapped and held captive for a couple of days, not knowing if he would live or die, then escaping by sheer luck and coming to the United States with his wife and kids. His enemies have long arms, even in the U.S.
The mural Jose is painting which depicts the final appearance of the Blessed Virgin at Fatima, Portugal. It’s on the wall of the new sanctuary for Our Lady of Fatima Church, Bensalem, a parish which is dear to his heart for good reason.
His personal story goes back seven years. Jose was 39 at the time with a wife, daughter, 15, and sons, 14, 10 and 7. Although his primary degree was in accounting his real talent was the arts, painting, dancing and especially music, both vocal and instrumental.
Colombia, the northernmost country of South America, was and is infected by a rampant drug trade, with competing drug cartels funding revolutionary movements, according to Jose. “You can never find a single leader of the revolutionaries,” he said. “The revolutionaries are political, but they are controlled by the drug cartels.”
In 2002 he was director of a cultural center that brought outreach enrichment programs, such as music and dance, to rural villages. Along with the programs there was a message to the campesinos, or farmers, “Don’t get involved with the drug lords or the revolutionaries.”
Because of this he was targeted by a revolutionary group and captured. While being transported to another location, potential execution upcoming, the group was attacked by rival revolutionaries. During the melee, the man who was guarding him was killed, and he managed to escape in the confusion.
He trekked all night to the outskirts of Bogota, where he managed to place a call to a brother-in-law, who came to his rescue.
But Jose knew he was a marked man. He called his worried wife and told her he was safe but she should gather some clothes and the children because they would have to flee the country. Luckily the family had previously visited relatives in the U.S. and had passports and visas because they were already planning a return visit.
After arriving in Miami, they made their way north to Pennsylvania, where Jose had some contacts, but his position was precarious. They had brought a little money with them though not enough to live on, and their visas only covered a visit.
On a previous visit Jose had sung at Our Lady of Fatima Church. With nowhere else to turn, he went to the pastor, Father John Meyers, who in Jose’s words, “was like a saint to us.”
Father Meyers and his parish helped the family’s immediate needs and, most significantly, put him in touch with Catholic Social Services. This connection got the wheels in motion for more assistance and they received refugee status, which enabled them to stay in the country.
“They came in need and the folks rallied around them,” Father Meyers said. “Ironically many of the people who supported them are undocumented themselves and have needs.”
Father Meyers was also struck by Jose’s great talent and integrity, “You don’t always see both of them together,” he said. “The whole family is very devout.”
With limited English skills, Jose took whatever work he could get, including construction. At this time he is doing some work for an investment company and, yes, side jobs such as mural-painting.
For the past two and a half months he has been painting a large mural that will be the background for the new sanctuary at Our Lady of Fatima.
The arts, especially music, are in Jose’s family genes, and they all perform together in a band started by one of his sons who is drummer and lead singer.
The family, which has citizenship in process, has adjusted well. Will Jose ever return to Colombia? He doesn’t think it would be safe for himself or his wife, but the children will probably visit.
He misses his parents and what property he had in Colombia is gone. Just thinking about the harrowing experience which forced him to flee is difficult.
“I would love to go back and visit, but I’m in love with the United States and I’m happy. Maybe this is what was meant to be,” he said.
Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.