In Search of the Colombian Pearl: An MSFS Student’s Perspective on Carlos Vives’s visit to Georgetown

Carlos Vives and fellow panelists Dr. Ricardo Ernst, Sergio Diaz-Granados, and Dr. Toshiyuki Yasui discuss Vives's development work during the event at the School of Foreign Service

by Manuela Hernandez (MSFS ’19)

Carlos Vives, a Grammy Award-winning Colombian singer and composer lit up the ICC Auditorium on Monday, September 24 — not just with his songs, but also with his ardent passion for social impact projects in Colombia. Vives was at Georgetown for a panel discussion — titled “Tras la Perla” (in search of the Pearl): Carlos Vives’ Social Impact Project — focusing on his not-for-profit initiative, Tras la Perla. Hosted by The Center for Latin American Studies, one of the first Latin American Studies programs in the United States, and the Latin America Leadership Program, the event featured panelists from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and Dr. Ricardo Ernst, Executive Director of the Latin America Leadership Program. 

Sometimes I forget just how many amazing opportunities we have as students in Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service. As a student of International Development (IDEV) in the Master of Science in the Foreign Service (MSFS) program, I have access not only to all the events that MSFS offers but also to those organized by all the other SFS programs. As a Colombian and longtime devout fan of Carlos Vives, I was extremely excited to see him in person and to learn more about his not-for-profit work. Tras la Perla is based in Vives’s native city of Santa Marta, in the northeast coastal region of Colombia, and aims to empower and transform Pescaito, one of the most vulnerable neighborhoods in Santa Marta. Vives is known for incorporating elements of Colombian culture into his traditional Colombian vallenato music in a way that few artists do, showcasing all regions of the country in his songs. Vives takes this same inclusive approach to Tras la Perla, which works closely with the Pescaito community. His project in the neighborhood has now become a model for urban sustainability.

Vives opened up the discussion at SFS by giving a brief overview of the history of Santa Marta, and the reasons why he became involved with the project. I learned that in this fishing town, soccer was first introduced by the British during the colonial era and it soon predominated throughout the region. The most famous Colombian soccer players were born and grew up in Pescaito: Carlos ‘Pibe’ Valderrama, Óscar Bolaño, and Oswaldo ‘Pescaíto’ Calero. The father of soccer superstar Radamel Falcao was from the neighborhood as well. Tras la Perla hopes to build upon Pescaito’s almost universal love of sports to engage citizens in developing their community. Some of the objectives of Vives’s initiative are to revitalize the area’s cultural and sporting values by creating a football museum, build up its infrastructure to attract tourism, support sports education, and create incentives for Pescaito and Santa Marta residents citizens to invest in their city. One project epitomizing Tras la Perla’s efforts to create development solutions that build on the community’s culture is the “Gol-Chair” initiative. The organization collaborated with architect Simon Hosie to develop park benches which double as mini soccer goals. The innovation helps to build community by encouraging the neighborhood tradition of adults getting together to talk on the sidewalks while their children play soccer in the streets.

The SFS event also featured panelists from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) who praised the success of Tras la Perla and mentioned a possible expansion to the D.C. area and Japan. “These are exactly the types of initiatives that the IDB needs to fund and expand to other regions of our continent,” said Mr. Sergio Diaz-Granados, executive director for Colombia and Peru at the IDB.

Hearing about Tras la Perla reaffirmed my desire to work in the development field, while also reinforcing one of the core values of MSFS: service. Carlos Vives started this foundation because he felt there was a need to give back to his community. He encouraged us all to never forget our roots, but rather look back and harness the potential in our poorest communities in order to propel them forward.