A small handful of letters written by two Columbian pen pals, Jose and German, to my mother in 1945, say a lot about how our world has changed.
The letters are fairly benign. The boys speak of their age and physical description. Mentions of the family farms that produce coffee. Classes they were taking and languages they spoke. One of Jose’s longer letters speaks of his favorite Columbian poets and his knowledge of American poets. He wished to exchange newspapers. What a great opportunity for these kids to practice their languages and gain some global awareness. The conversation about poets being similar to today’s teens discussing music artists or YouTubers. In his letter, German asks my mother to pass his name on to another girl if she doesn’t want to write him back. Sharing names and addresses much like teens today say “add me on Snap”. The endorphins teens experienced in 1945 when a pen pal’s letter arrived were probably very similar to teens today when they check their “streaks” or “likes”.
There is a sharp contrast 73 years later in how kids and teens interact with “strangers”. Every year during elementary school my kids had a unit in media (aka library) about the dark side of the internet. They were taught early not to give out their name and address and to be wary of communication with strangers. Considering the possibility of a sleaze at the other end of the pen was not on the parental radar in 1945, like the greater possibility of a sleaze at the other end of a keyboard is today. Pen pals still exist….but google “Pen Pal Safety” to see how the world is different.
Jose’s hometown today looks nothing like it did in 1945. A search of the area noted on Jose’s pictures turned up no similar pictures in Armenia, Columbia. Wait a minute…. did he just send random pictures? Sadly no. In 1999, there was a major earthquake in Columbia, centered very near Armenia. Building codes were not established until 1984. Much of the city was destroyed due to buildings that were not structurally sound. That would explain why a search of Plaza Bolivar kept coming up with a very modern church. But look just to the left of the new church, atop a tall, presumibly earthquake proof pillar…..there is Simeon Bolivar, Liberator of Columbia! So glad Jose mentioned him in his letter.
One of Jose’s letters mentions the letter not being checked by the authorities. Tape is found across several of the envelopes from him stating the letter was searched. How many war secrets were discovered in pen pal letters???
Social media is a regular part of the majority of teens lives today. They meet through mutual friends, at camps, school, work, and continue to keep in regular contact with each other. Information is abundant. The internet has plenty of pitfalls but all those questions Jose and Germain might have had, teens today just google. In the 1940’s, global exposure was from movies and the war snippets before hand, radio news, newspapers, parents, school, and books about far off lands. The world became a bit smaller and real when the letters hit the mailbox.
What were my Mother’s letters to Jose and German like? Did she write in Spanish? Pictures of herself, Aunt Boots, Mary Catherine Thilmont and Ann Birmingham most likely made the trip via the postal service to Columbia. Photos of Jose and German and friends in their suits…..today it would be a good mix of baseball caps, athletic attire with a smattering of Vineyard Vines thrown in.
Searches of these two young men, Jose and German, on Google and Ancestry have been fruitless. Who knows if they continued in the family coffee business….perhaps they were the inspiration for the Juan Valdez marketing campaign. Time for another cup of coffee……
Armenia July 18,1945
A few days ago I have received your letter and I didn’t answer because we are doing the second examination of the year. I had made the last to day and I answer you immediately. I thank you by the pictures. All are very beautiful and yours are the better. Please if you can send me one more bigger. (That is?)
You inquire of me if I speak English, French or Spanish. I speak Spanish but I am studying English, French and Latin. I had two years of English, three of French and one of Latin. I like very much to speak other languages and I am going to study Greek.
I send you in this letter some pictures of Armenia and of my parents farmer. One is my church and Bolivar’s Park. You can see there the statue of Simon Bolivar our liberator. Twentyth July is the day of independence and we are going to celebrate it with much stateliness.
A friend mine wants that you write her. Her address is
Haydee Garcia G Armenia Caldas Columbia Carrera 14 No 14-11
I’ll thank you if you write to she. She don’t speak English but I translate your letters and she write you in Spanish. Or if you don’t like I’ll translate the letters for you.
Now we are at vacation time just 7th August.
I send you a picture of me and don’t forget, send me one of you.
Write Soon, Sincerely,
Jose Jesus Llanos
Manizales, August 9/45. Mildred Kyser 300 Hyland Avenue Hamlet – North Carolina – US
A friend of mine told me you could have correspondence with me. Is it truth?
Sow, if you want to write me, my address is the following.
German Lema Colegio de Puestra Señora Manizales – Colombia – S.A.
I am sixteen and I have many brothers and sisters. I study in Our Lady’s College five years ago, this College is for us like High School is for yours. As you see, I know English only a little, but I can write and speak something.
Do you speak Spanish? Answer me in your letter.
I am hoping your answer or if you can’t do it, please give my address to a girl friend of yours.
Good-Bye Mildred, Till you answer me.