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A tale of two cultures: Colombian woman merges homeland, U.S. experiences
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Photo: Todd Welvaert
Luz Upegui talks about her culinary heritage in her Coal Valley home on Monday, Sept. 17, 2012. She came to the U.S. from Colombia more than 20 years ago and since has become an American citizen.
COAL VALLEY -- When she moved to the United States, Luz Helena Upegui brought along some things from her home in Colombia, including her university diploma, wedding dress, art, and pictures of family and friends.

As for her heritage, "it goes with me everywhere I go because it shows in the way I talk and the way I remember things about my education, my beautiful parents and the values they taught me, my precious family, my food, my love for the land I was raised on and my culture," she said.

"I am very proud of this culture that shaped me good enough to be accepted and incorporated into this new one, my new culture, my new country, the United States," Ms. Upegui said.

She is from Medellin, the capital of the Colombian State of Antioquia, and she now lives in Coal Valley with her husband, Jose Manuel Upegui. They have been married for 26 years and have two children, Luz Angelica, 19, and Jose Luis, 22.

They moved to the Quad-Cities in 1991, and Ms. Upegui and her husband have become American citizens.

Ms. Upegui was the director of financial literacy for the Central Bank of Colombia when she left her job in June 1986 to marry Jose and move to the U.S. He also is from Colombia, but he already had moved to the U.S. and was working in Memphis, Tenn.

Once in the U.S., Ms. Upegui took some university classes to improve her English, but she said she still suffered moments of frustration, such as when people did not understand her. "I looked at them as my new challenges, and I was determined to overcome each and every one of them. Tears? Yes, there were some, because no matter how well prepared one may be, there is always something that can be misunderstood by you or others about you," she said.

Ms. Upegui took on work tutoring, teaching private lessons, translating and doing voice-overs. She and her husband also taught Spanish to travelers and ran a family real-estate business.

"I owe a great part of my learning the English language to these types of jobs and opportunities," Ms. Upegui said. "I saw them as learning experiences and as a strong base that would help me to build confidence for what I do today."

Since 1997, she has worked at the John Deere Pavilion and Deere & Co. as a bilingual tour guide. Ms. Upegui also designs Spanish classes for business people; belongs to the Women's Connection; is president of WINGS Investment Club; and participates in library, church and community activities.

She also continues to manage the family real-estate business based in Memphis.

She said her job as a tour guide motivates her to stay informed and updated.

"It has been a wonderful experience for me," Ms. Upegui said. "I like talking about the company and the Quad-Cities. People come to the John Deere Pavilion from all over the world."

Ms. Upegui has traveled extensively with her husband, who has worked for KONE (formerly Montgomery Elevator) for 21 years. She said she uses what she has learned traveling to reach out to the tourists, to surprise them with their cultural greeting or talk about their home.

"I love all of the cultures in the world. I love people," she said.

Their two children share the same trait, Ms. Upegui said. "They are very much like us. They are both open-minded and internationally inclined," she said, adding the two siblings were raised to be not only bilingual, but bi-cultural, too.

Ms. Upegui's family travels toColumbia at least once each year to visit family. She said it was important for the children to see, hear, taste and experience both cultures.

"They love both, their own country (the U.S.) and their parents' country, Colombia," Ms. Upegui said. "Our children are very much family-oriented and have a balanced love for both countries and cultures."

Ms. Upegui always has encouraged the children be open to new people, cultures and experiences, she said.

"You are always reaching when you meet someone new," she said, adding that listening to other people's feelings is very important, too.

"We want them to know the world, to see what is there for them, and to know they can learn so much from others."




Colombia

-- Location: Northern South America, bordering the Caribbean Sea, between Panama and Venezuela, and bordering the North Pacific Ocean, between Ecuador and Panama.

-- Population: 45,239,079 (July 2012 estimate). No. 29 in the world.

-- Languages: Spanish (official).

Source: CIA World Factbook.


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