Interview with Manolo Betancur
By Mauricio Aranguren.
Cartagena, Colombia. In February of this year, I received a call from Manolo: “Mauro, the trip to El Darien (Panama-Colombia border – Migrant Zone) got complicated, now we are going to a small town in Sucre Colombia, called Las Brisas. Do you want to join the humanitarian mission?
I wanted to know who Manolo was coming with and what we would do there. It was clear that I would accompany them to help, but I was more motivated by the end of the call:
“Arrive in Cartagena, and we will meet there. It is important to be with you there.
The last time I was in those towns was fighting for the Navy against the guerrillas when Colombia was going through the worst of the war. It was near Las Brisas in San Onofre Sucre where I decided to retire from the Navy.
And in a way, today, I close a cycle in my life, and a new one begins. I will carry a different form of peace”.
Manolo, as he often does, spoke from the heart at that moment, then I hung up and began to organize my self to meet them.
The content of this interview with Manolo Betancur, founder of Manolo’s Bakery in Charlotte, North Carolina, tells part of what we lived during three days ending the month of February in Colombia.
Mauricio: When we met in Cartagena, I met Nathan, Scott, and Will, our traveling companions—a pastor, a doctor, a financier, and a baker, a diverse mix. Tell me how the trip originated.
Manolo: The trip originated from a desire that Pastor Nahtan and I had for many years. We wanted to travel to Colombia and do something for our people. We had already been to Poland, Mexico border and Carolinas Montains together, and I always told him about my country. At first, we were going to go to Darien, the border between Colombia and Panama, where the immigrants suffer a lot. That’s why Will as a doctor, and Scott both with significant experience in Haiti and other countries. The trip there was complicated, but when we realized the need and all that we could do for the small town of Las Brisas, Sucre. So then we decide to do the humanitarian mission in this place.
Why did you decide to join this mission?
Manolo: I am Colombian. I never stop thinking about my country. I never stop thinking about my people. I have always wanted to do things for my compatriots, and I want to do more and more for Colombia. It was an excellent opportunity to turn this mission around. In the United States, I have always felt like an ambassador of my country, but this was the opportunity to start doing much more, and thank God we did it. So many people from the Methodist church and other donors must be happy today because the donations turned into many medicines needed at the Las Brisas health little care center.
What did you expect to find, and what did you find?
Manolo: I expected to find my beautiful people, my happy people, the people of the coast. And that is what I saw, but I did not expect to find so much hunger, malnutrition, and dehydration. So many sick people. And so much need. I thought that only in the most inhospitable regions of Colombia we had that reality. But, still, I never imagined this would happen in Las Brisas, 15 minutes from beautiful beaches, in a town so close to San Onofre Sucre and incredibly close to a tourist and rich city like Cartagena.
On a personal level, what did this trip do for you?
Manolo: This trip reminded me that, sadly, in Colombia, there is still a lot to do. I wanted to let the people of Colombia know that they are not alone. It sent a message to the North American community that there is much to do for Colombia and the beauty in our country amid so many problems. It is a country full of good people. My fellow missionaries felt it. They realized that they were welcome, loved, loved, and respected all the time, and for me in particular, this trip helped me to reaffirm that I have to do something much more significant for Colombia. Here is where I got the idea of creating Bread to end hunger in Colombia and why not the in the world.
Mauricio: I packed a camera for the trip, but the truth is that I didn’t use it much because most of the time, I helped you with the translation because, in the end, there were about 150 patients or maybe a little more than the doctor Will attended, and you and I interpreted their symptoms and Will with great skill managed to understand the pathology and prescribed. What do you think this mission represented – for each person we interacted with?
Manolo: They shared their thoughts with us, each person in their way. They let us know that they felt loved and respected. What we were able to see after the mission was over was that they felt valued and respected.
After each meeting with the doctor, the translators, and all the people on this mission, we could verify that they felt treated with the dignity they have as human beings. I know that they thought that the group treated them with affection. We gave them our souls. They said these were things they didn’t have very often over there and felt forgotten.
What do you think this medical and humanitarian mission represented for Pastor Nathan?
Manolo: I think that for Pastor Nathan, it represented a before and after in his relationship with Colombia. I had spoken to him a lot about my country during the missions we had shared. It was the opportunity to bring him closer to the reality of my country, and he told me that it is the only country in the world where, amid so many problems, the people have expressed so much love during a mission.
What do you think it meant to Dr. Will?
Manolo: He fell in love with Colombia and its people. For Will, it means a challenge. Just the first step of many that we will take. The Las Brisas mission represents to him the possibility of doing more incredible things for Colombia. So he already feels it as something personal. Colombia matters to him now as if it were his own country.
And for Scott, our other mission partner?
Manolo: That Colombia is a country where he can be safe, and it is a country where he can return, and it is a country that has the secret of its image because he is concerned about other ideas that he had of our country. I know he was pleased to help and continues to do so.
What did this mission mean for the Pastors of the Colombian Methodist Church?
Manolo: I think that the pastors were the ones who found the most significant meaning in this medical and humanitarian mission. The Methodist church’s separation here in the United States has affected them in Colombia. They have lost a lot of help to support themselves and to keep the church open. So when we and part of the Methodist church come to help them and tell them that they don’t have to be affected, it gives them hope to be able to move forward and to be able to keep the doors open. More than anything else, helping the people who are there in that community. If they didn’t have the help of this church, they would be starving or suffering from much more delicate illnesses than they already do.
What do you think it represented for the community?
Manolo: A lot of hope was the most important meaning of this mission for them. Faith. They now feel that they are not alone.
And for your family in Colombia, was it essential to support you in a mission?
Manolo: Speaking of my family. It is important to mention them in this interview; the family is closer to my brothers in Rionegro and Cartagena, my nephew, and Leidy, my wife, and her family. For all of them, it meant to be part of this, part of Manolo’s life, and part of the day-to-day of what we do, helping the world and helping people. It also meant something great to see my family committed to supporting and doing. I didn’t feel so alone. It also inspired them to realize that we can do a lot with little.
Mauricio: Let’s make a final reflection in this interview. What changed in you during this trip, and what is coming in the future?
Manolo: I reflect that a new Manolo was born in me after the humanitarian mission in Las Brisas, Colombia. Let me explain why: there is a Colombian Manolo who was part of the war and a Colombian Manolo who was part of the conflict as a Marine. This new Manolo wants to be part of the peaceful solutions. It is my human side. It is a Manolo who intends to build a more proactive Manolo who wants to help heal. It is Manolo who feels pain. I am in pain for my country and my people. I am working very hard in the United States and Colombia because we are at the beginning of many solutions. Today I say we will make the “Gold Pan” or “Hope Pan,” a beautiful name for Bread to unify in an initiative as many people as possible, big companies that cares for more than sustainability, the public official, and the neediest classes in a zero hunger solution in our country. If we do it in Colombia, we do it in the world.
Mauricio: There was a moment when on the road, we found armed members of the Navy guarding us. What did you feel?
Manolo: At the beginning of the trip, I felt fear because the shadows of the war were with me, the fear that I was going to be in an ambush, fear of arriving at an area with a mine, fear of finding those images that I left more than 20 years ago in that same area of the country, in that same land. When I saw the Marines on the roadside providing security in the area, I thought and said: “Glory to the Homeland and to each of the soldiers who defend it,” but I have also realized that we need to be generators of change, of peace initiatives.
The armed conflict in Colombia will continue as long as there is corruption, inequality, and poverty. But that does not exempt us from doing something, from having other types of meetings and alliances to help people. We have to create things and invent new ones if necessary.
I feel good about our work to support Dr. Will as translators because if we had not learned English, we would not have been able to serve more than 150 patients. We were the connectors, something that people always told me. So, yes, I am a connector.
Finally, what do you take away from this trip?
Manolo: I take the love, brother. I accept the love of the people in Las Brisa. The hugs. The peace and hope. It made me want to work harder because of all the love I received from all these people, and that is what I am going to give back.