It happened again yesterday. I had been invited to give a lecture on Impact Management at a business school in Geneva, Switzerland, where I live. After the session, one of the students approached me and, with a roguish smile, asked me if I was related to Pablo Escobar. “Here we go again,” I thought. In the thirty years that I’ve been living outside of my home country, Colombia, I have heard this question more often than I care to count.
No one in Colombia would ask this because the last name Escobar is quite common, like Davis or Parker in the UK or the USA. Outside the country though, the question is raised by all kinds of people. I recall a Swiss Ambassador in Geneva asking me if I was related to the mafia boss. In Washington, the question came from a journalist to whom I was teaching Spanish, as a student job. He was preparing to travel to Panama to interview Noriega, “Are you related to Pablo?” he asked. I remember responding, “If I were, I wouldn’t need to work.” The list of people putting the question goes on and on: friends, professors, neighbours, colleagues, even my dermatologist, and of course, the incarcerated students I teach in my volunteer work. Prisoners find it hilarious, especially those detained on charges of drug trafficking: their English teacher’s name is Escobar. Mischievous curiosity respects no barriers of social class, nor educational level, and I would say gender too, but on second thoughts, I realize the question is predominantly asked by men. And here’s the thing: the question upsets me. I have never been able to brush it off lightly or find it amusing.
But why can’t I just dispel it as harmless? Why am I hurt? After all, we do share the name. Formulated in a neutral, factual way, Are you related to Pablo Escobar? What’s wrong with asking? And how come, after hearing this question so often, I still don’t have the right, quick and witty answer?
The question disturbs me on three accounts:
(i) It’s a stereotype
Type “Escobar” on a Google search engine. You will see page after page of news on Pablo Escobar, the gangster, the criminal, to some also a philanthropist. It’s all about “Pablo Escobar,” even if you only wrote “Escobar.” Apparently, he owns the entire “Escobar” domain. There are other notable Escobars, including my sister, the writer Melba…