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ATG Quirkies: Luis Soriano Had a Dream, Two Donkeys, and a Lot of Books

by | Nov 30, 2021 | 0 comments

Luis Soriano Had a Dream, Two Donkeys, and a Lot of Books appears on the Atlas Obscura website and is by Jordan Salama, a writer and journalist whose works has appeared in National Geographic, the New York Times, Smithsonian, and more.

Photo by Jordan Salama

(EXCERPTED AND ADAPTED WITH PERMISSION FROM JORDAN SALAMA’S Every Day the River Changes: Four Weeks Down the Magdalena, published November 2021 by Catapult Books. Copy Copyright © 2021 by Jordan Salama.)

Luis Soriano was born so premature that when he arrived into the world, everyone was sure that he would die.

He was born in 1972, in the very same Colombian village of La Gloria (Magdalena Department) where he grew up and made his life. His father was a cattle rancher, and his mother sold fruit and milk on the side of the road. They were hardworking campesino parents who emphasized to their many children the importance of an education over everything else.

Luis grew up playing in the rolling fields of the Magdalena valley. La Gloria was set inland from the river by about one hour, yet the river wielded great influence upon the town: It was built, in fact, during the golden age of river transport, when through travelers heading toward river ports like Mompox and Plato would inevitably stop in La Gloria for onward transportation, and when farmers could easily find vessels to transport their products far across Colombia. In town, it was said that the Magdalena dictated the rains and the floods of the nearby lowlands, which influenced the rains and the floods in La Gloria, and during droughts, the town felt the river’s pain. The river’s beaches and sandy islands yielded the yucca, plantains, and beans of the Caribbean diet—La Gloria is nearly 100 miles from the nearest Caribbean seaside town, but yes, its people will tell you, it is indeed a Caribbean place.

Raised in the countryside, Luis learned things from the land that people from the city never understood. In the hot, humid afternoons, a line of ants hurrying across the path meant that the skies were about to open and intense rains would fall and freshen the air; at night, the sudden silence of the frogs and the toads meant that another person was approaching in the darkness. From watching the birds, he gathered certain observations about their daily routines, like which of the trees the flocks of red-and-green macaws preferred for their nightly roosts and at what hours of the day the sirirí sang its lonely song. These were things that he learned from a very young age and carried with him throughout his life.

But Colombia’s escalating violence in the 1970s and ’80s meant that Luis would not be able to stay. When the paramilitaries and other criminal groups plagued La Gloria and the surrounding countryside, Luis’s parents sent him and his siblings to live with family in Valledupar, hours away. His life playing among the animals was replaced by the loud, gritty streets of a valley city.

By the time Luis finished high school and returned to La Gloria, he decided, maybe as a product of all of this learning and absorbing in his own life, that he wanted to become a schoolteacher. He got a job in a small, rural primary school in nearby Nueva Granada, where he taught reading and writing. At the same time, he completed a remote degree from the Universidad del Magdalena.

“None of his students did any of their schoolwork or seemed to make any progress in the first few years, and Luis blamed himself for it. He thought he was a bad teacher, that he had misjudged his life’s purpose, all because the students just didn’t seem to be learning. He realized that many of the children, living on isolated farmsteads that were several miles along narrow dirt paths from the nearest school, couldn’t practice reading at home because they didn’t have access to books. A teacher with limited resources himself, he decided to do the only thing he could: bring his own books to them…”

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