Working at a Manhattan jewelry store, the last thing my friend Claudia expected was confronting a new stereotype about her native Colombia.
"For many years, whenever some people discovered that I'm Colombian, I would have to put up with stupid comments," she says. "They would ask me, 'Do you know Pablo Escobar?' or 'Do you know where I can get some cocaine?'"
Yet she finds the new stereotype even more offensive. She says some people now think they have a license to question whether she is a prostitute.
"Oh, you are Colombian?" she says people ask her. "Are you from Cartagena?"
Thanks to the U.S. Secret Service and a tantrum by an unpaid prostitute, decent Colombian women — even in the United States — are being asked to answer for a prostitution scandal. It's terribly unfair, especially for a people who thought they were finally winning the war against negative stereotypes.
And the city of Cartagena, one of the brightest jewels of civilization, has had its image unfairly tarnished.
When members of President Barack Obama's advance security team were caught paying for prostitutes in Cartagena — as they could have been in any other city in the world — the news media not only dropped the story it had gone to Colombia to cover but created a whole new headache for the Colombian people.
Instead of benefitting from hosting the Summit of the Americas, April 14 -15, Cartagena's reputation was dragged through the brothels — as if prostitution was the only thing you would see if you went there. In fact, you can go to Cartagena, have a wonderful family vacation and not see it at all.
Instead of reporting on the many topics that were discussed by Obama and more than 30 other world leaders who attended the summit, most of what we got were reports on the warped morals of prostitutes and their rules of operation.
Unfortunately, we are likely to get much more of it, as the Pentagon, the Secret Service and at least four congressional committees continue investigating the scandal — and inadvertently promoting Colombian prostitution.
These congressional hearings are not likely to cite the fact that Cartagena, flanked by so many Spanish castles and fortresses, was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1984 or that it's remarkably well-preserved "Ciudad Amurallada" (Walled City) takes tourists back to the 16th and 17th centuries or that its architecture and culture are much bigger tourist attractions than its prostitution.
A few years ago, even when other parts of Colombia were considered dangerous, especially for tourists, because drug-trafficking guerrillas were taking hostages and killing innocents, Cartagena still was considered a safe haven.
Facing the Caribbean Sea on the northern coast of Colombia, Cartagena's great distance from the mountainous jungles where guerrillas thrive still made the city a popular destination for tourists who went there to behold the majestic beauty of the Spanish gateway to South America in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Yet the Secret Service scandal has managed to divert all attention to Cartagena's sex tourism and to severely damage the reputation of a city that has thrived on wholesome, family-oriented tourism.
Back in Colombia this week, visiting family while vacationing from the Manhattan jewelry store, my friend Claudia (not her real name) reports that while most Colombian men blame the Secret Service for the damage Cartagena has suffered, Colombian women detest Dania Suarez, the 24-year-old prostitute who triggered the scandal, for what she has done to their reputation.
"In Colombia, it's not like in the United States; it's not just about the Secret Service agents who got fired because of her." Claudia tells me. "She threw a tantrum in a hotel hallway because she wasn't paid her $800 sex fee, and then she made it seem as if this was normal and justified behavior for Colombian women. She is the most hated woman in Colombia."
And soon, when Claudia comes back from vacation, in a Manhattan jewelry store, and many other places, decent Colombianas will project a much more positive image.
To find out more about Miguel Perez and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.