Original Article


 This Side of Paradise

Rampant violence in his barrio leads a boy to risk his life to immigrate to the United States—and inspires him to become a healer.

My brother and I were told to stroll two blocks south, enter through the main marina gate, and proceed to the dock, where a boat would beHarold Fernándezwaiting for us. The instructions were simple enough. But that walk was the scariest of my life.

No stars illuminated the sky over the tropical island of Bimini as we stumbled along in the dark; our only light came from two small lamps at the marina entrance. There we were startled to see a tall man in a cowboy hat pointing to the dock. I felt a surge of panic. He wasn’t part of the plan. Had something gone wrong?

I could feel myself trembling as we continued to the end of the dock, where another man helped us onto a boat and guided us to its pitch-dark cabin. We couldn’t make out the faces of the people already huddled there, and no one spoke. The only sounds we could hear were the murmurs of the two men on deck, the lapping of water, and our own labored breathing. Soon the boat’s engine came to life, and we began to move.

It was midnight on October 26, 1978, when my brother and I were smuggled, along with ten other illegal immigrants, onto a small pleasure boat to cross the treacherous waters of the Bermuda Triangle. Byron was eleven; I was thirteen.



Danger was not new to me; it had long been woven into the daily fabric of life in my hometown. I grew up in Barrio Antioquia, a poor neighborhood of Medellín, Colombia, with a long and rocky history. In the early 1950s, the mayor had designated Barrio Antioquia the city’s “zone of tolerance,” to allow legalized prostitution. Within days, hundreds of houses were converted into brothels, with red lights casting an odd glow over their entrances.

Although the designation lasted only a few years, it tore at the social and moral fabric of the barrio and left it vulnerable to exploitation. Decades later, when the city became home to the Medellín Cartel, one of the world’s most powerful drug-trafficking organizations, Barrio Antioquia served as a key supplier of young talent: the leaders; the sicarios, or hired assassins; and the mulas, or drug couriers. To retain their power and
gain prestige, many cartel members formed gangs; Barrio Antioquia alone had eight.

Under the leadership of the notorious Pablo Escobar, known as El Patrón, or The Boss, the cartel grew to be almost as powerful as the official government of the country. Escobar was popular with the poor because he made considerable donations to charitable organizations, established welfare programs, and built housing complexes, soccer stadiums, and churches. At the same time, the city remained hostage to his reign of brutality.

Medellín and its people suffered deep wounds from the cartel’s horrific acts of violence. During the worst years, the city had a homicide rate more than five times those of the most violent cities in the United States.

Despite this, the cartel held an allure for young people living in the despair of a poverty so deep that even toilet paper was considered a luxury. In contrast, the cocaine industry promised enormous wealth and power almost overnight. I remember spending hours with my friends gazing covetously at the flashy cars and motorcycles the drug traffickers parked outside neighborhood bars. The temptation proved too great for some of my friends; without exception, those who joined the drug trade ended up either imprisoned or gunned down.



As a boy, I spent most of my free time playing soccer in the streets of Barrio Antioquia. Many of my friends played in bare feet because they couldn’t afford shoes; on weekdays they eagerly waited for me to finish my homework, as I was the only one who owned a ball.

Although this material poverty was difficult, it was the spiritual poverty—the loss of childhood innocence—imposed by the drug trade that was far harder to bear. It even invaded our childhood sports. One hot summer day I was sitting by the side of my house, watching a soccer game, when an older player, Alvaro, started arguing with Marlon, a player from the opposing team. They began pushing each other, and Alvaro knocked Marlon to the ground. Marlon jumped up, rammed Alvaro with his head, and ran off. The game continued.

A half hour later, I suddenly heard a gunshot. I could see Alvaro, just ten feet from where I sat, clutching his side, trying to stanch the blood now soaking his shirt. Then I noticed Marlon sauntering off, a gun dangling from his hand. He neither ran nor made any attempt to hide his weapon. 
Alvaro was bundled into a car and rushed to the emergency room. He was fortunate; the bullet had missed his major organs, and he was released from the hospital a week later. No one pressed charges because no one had the courage to testify against Marlon. He was not only a member of a powerful gang, but also a sicario for the cartel. Just fifteen years old, he had already killed several people in the barrio.

A few months later, from behind the curtains of a window, I witnessed Marlon’s death. He had been staggering down the street, drunk and high on drugs, when he ran into a member of a rival gang. The argument that ensued quickly escalated into a scuffle. Marlon didn’t have a gun this time; instead, he pulled out a machete. His opponent had no weapon, but he was older, taller, and neither drunk nor high. He picked up a rock and pounded Marlon’s head until he knocked him to the ground. There he savagely punched and kicked him. Within minutes, Marlon lay motionless in a pool of blood.

Several people witnessed the fight, but no one ventured close to help the dying teen. An hour elapsed before an ambulance arrived to pick up his body. Again, no one was charged, and the crime was never officially solved.



For every Colombian who became involved in drug trafficking in those years, thousands more fled to fields and factories in the United States, seeking peace, security, freedom, and economic opportunity. My parents, who were already living in New Jersey as undocumented workers, were growing increasingly desperate to remove my brother and me from the barrio. They made arrangements, and we received elaborate instructions.

Our adventure started with what was supposed to look like a routine departure from the Medellín airport. We needed to keep a low profile; only a few people could accompany us to the airport, and we had to behave as though we were leaving for just a vacation, not a lifetime. Yet my entire extended family showed up, along with many friends. My grandmothers and aunts were sobbing, and I was terrified about what the officials watching us might be thinking.

As Byron and I crossed the tarmac toward our plane, I glimpsed the terrace where I had stood to wave goodbye to my father four years earlier and to my mother two years after that. Now I was on the other side, waving to a crowd of well-wishers. At best I would not see my beloved grandmothers for a long time; at worst I would never see them again.

The group we were traveling with stopped in Panama briefly before boarding a plane to the Bahamas. During the layover, customs officials detained one member of our group; we never saw him again.

According to the plan, we would stay in Bimini for less than a day. After arriving at our hotel, more than a dozen of us met to finalize our plans. Our boat trip would take place at night to reduce our odds of being caught by the U.S. Coast Guard. We were now only 50 miles from Florida, and the voyage would last five to six hours. I was excited; one day more, and I would see my parents.

The leader of the group collected our fees—about $600 apiece—and instructed us to wait while he met with our local contact. When the leader returned, though, he brought bad news. The sea was too rough. Even more worrisome was that our contact didn’t know when we could leave. Hurricane season was in full force. Our departure would depend on the weather.

For the next twelve nights, after our lights—and that day’s hopes—were extinguished, we would hear tapping on our door and unfamiliar voices offering us boat rides to Florida. We had been instructed to answer that we were merely on vacation and had no interest in crossing to the United States. As the days passed, and the members of our group grew more anxious, several accepted those offers. We never learned whether they made it safely to Florida.

Those of us remaining had been warned that Bimini was swarming with undercover immigration officers looking for people who were trying to cross to the United States. To avoid drawing attention to ourselves, we pretended to be tourists. But by the end of the first week, our tourist visas had expired. We holed up indoors; if caught, we could be deported.

Finally the weather broke. That night we would risk death for a chance to live in the United States.



As we huddled in the dark cabin of the boat, the reality of our situation hit me hard. I dreaded crossing the Bermuda Triangle, infamous for the mysterious disappearances of so many planes and ships. Byron and I couldn’t swim and had no life vests. The worst-case scenario was no longer getting caught by the U.S. Coast Guard and being sent back to Colombia; it was dying at sea.

The movement of the boat soon became unbearable. We felt the constant cycle of a steep climb, a sudden descent, and a bang so loud it made us shriek in terror. At the end of each cycle it felt as though the boat would split in half. We all began praying aloud.

We also began throwing up. After a while, we didn’t even try to maintain decorum. We vomited everywhere. Most of us sat with our heads down, praying, retching, and clinging to someone or something to avoid being thrown across the floor. On deck, the captain was fighting to maintain control of the vessel, while the sole crew member used a bucket to try to bail out the water sloshing into the boat.

Hours passed. Finally, on the other side of the cabin’s small door, darkness began to give way to light. With the dawn, the waves grew milder. The rocking motion of the boat eased and the thump of the boat against the waves softened. We all began to feel safer.

After hours of throwing up we were so dehydrated we could barely rise from a sitting position. Yet as we approached the Florida coast, the boat slowed, and I managed to stand up and peer through a cabin window. In the distance I could see other boats and a shoreline with buildings. I realized we were in U.S. waters.

For an hour the captain searched for a safe place to dock. Meanwhile, those of us in the cabin cleaned ourselves up as best we could and climbed up on deck. It was a beautiful, sunny day. The boat stopped at what appeared to be an abandoned dock. As we stepped off the boat, the captain handed us cards showing our location. It felt wonderful to stand on land again.

My brother and I found a public telephone several hundred yards away and called my parents’ friends to let them know we had arrived. They put us up for the night, and the next day they drove us to the Miami airport, where we boarded a flight to Newark.



Our first summer in New Jersey proved pivotal. Byron and I had behaved during the school year, enduring the taunts of classmates, who often called us refugees, and struggling to learn English, a language we had barely even heard before. But now with the summer months we savored our freedom. From the streets of Medellín we had brought not only advanced soccer skills but some bad habits as well. We smoked; we drank; we threw empty bottles at storefronts.

My parents despaired that they had waited too long to bring us to the United States. Yet they also understood that this was a critical time in our development. So whenever we visited my father at work, he would take time to show us his working conditions. He spent twelve to fourteen hours a day in a dank, dark building with no air conditioning and the deafening sound of embroidery machines. He cautioned us that if we didn’t take advantage of the opportunities this country offered, we would end up working under similarly bleak conditions.

These conversations with my father proved effective. In the eighth grade I buckled down and became a model student. My success through high school grew so much that I soon had my sights on Princeton, a university I had come to admire while competing in track meets on its campus.

But as the time to apply to college drew near, I needed a green card and a Social Security number. I wasn’t eligible for legal residency, so I bought a green card on the black market. With that document, I could apply for a Social Security card. But when I went to a local office of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, the clerk, after taking my documents, excused herself to make a phone call. I panicked. I grabbed my papers, fled the building, and ended up purchasing a fake Social Security card instead.

My family had long lived in a shadow society, ever fearful of discovery, ever conscious of dodging immigration authorities. After I enrolled at Princeton, I felt like an imposter as I gazed at the imposing gothic architecture that F. Scott Fitzgerald had so eloquently described in his debut novel, This Side of Paradise: “...topping all,” he wrote, “climbing with clear blue aspiration [were] the great dreaming spires of Holder and Cleveland towers.”


Like Fitzgerald’s protagonist, I loved Princeton from the beginning. But as I walked through campus I doubted my right to be there. For starters, I was an illegal alien; I had used a phony green card and Social Security number in my application. I also harbored serious doubts about my scholastic achievements, and I suspected my SAT scores were the lowest of anyone in my class. My accent mortified me. Whenever I spoke, I thought the other students must be wondering how anyone with such a heavy accent could possibly have been accepted.

One evening, at the beginning of my second semester at Princeton, I received a letter from the dean of my college. She wrote that my first-semester grades had placed me at the top of my class. She congratulated me and encouraged me to keep up the good work. With that letter, I began to relax. Perhaps I had earned the right to be part of this historic institution after all.



Just weeks later, that sense of belonging vanished when I found a second letter waiting in my student box, this time from the dean for foreign students. As I opened it, I assumed it would be an invitation to a social event. But instead I discovered an official missive asking me to bring in my original legal residency documents so they could be photocopied and included in my file.

Suddenly I felt sick. Years before, during my ocean crossing, the fear of discovery had compounded my feeling of seasickness. Now the fear of discovery rose again, along with my nausea. I realized how vulnerable I was; the wonderful dream that had begun at an abandoned boat dock on the Florida coast was about to end.

After agonizing for several days, I realized I had two choices. I could present the dean for foreign students with my forged documents. But I decided this wouldn’t work; I didn’t have the stomach to continue my charade. My second option was to meet with her and admit I didn’t have any legal documents. First, though, I decided to share my problem with someone I trusted.

So one afternoon, after class, I asked my Spanish literature professor, Arcadio Díaz-Quiñones, for a few minutes of his time. He replied that I could have as much time as I wanted. He closed the door and sat down with me at a table. I tried to speak, but instead, under his sympathetic gaze, I burst into tears. He put his hand on my shoulder as I wept with my head on the table. After several minutes, I lifted my head and managed to talk. I detailed for Díaz all I had done to enter this country and conceal my residency status. I told him about my fear of being expelled or even deported.

Díaz listened patiently to my story. When I finished, he advised me not to tell anyone else. Over the next few weeks, he met with several administrators. At first, he discussed the problem with them in theoretical terms, without mentioning my name. He then set up a meeting with university officials. They decided that I should meet with the dean of my college, the same woman who had sent me the encouraging letter at the start of my second semester.

Nancy Weiss was just as friendly in person as she had seemed in her letter. She told me that Princeton was proud to have me in its student body. But the university had two problems with my case. First, I had broken its honor code. Second, I had been receiving U.S. government grants. Since I wasn’t a legal resident, this was against the rules.

But then Weiss went on to tell me that both problems had solutions. For the first one, I needed to write a detailed essay explaining my understanding of the honor code, how I had broken it, and why I was seeking a pardon from the university. To resolve the second problem, the university would change my status from that of a local student to that of a foreign student. With this change, Princeton could provide all my grants and scholarships with university funds.

I left the office feeling great relief: I could square with Princeton. But this was far from the end of my troubles. Now that my undocumented status—and that of some family members—had been revealed, we had to move quickly. While the university was willing to let me stay, immigration authorities could opt to send my family members and me back to Colombia.

Princeton arranged for us to meet with one of New York’s top immigration lawyers, who confirmed what we already knew: My family didn’t qualify for any of the categories under which people already in the country could be granted legal residency. We needed a miracle.

As it turned out, our first meeting with an immigration judge was a success. We weren’t granted legal residency, but we weren’t deported, either. Instead, we were entered into a category known as suspension of deportation proceedings, meaning that although we didn’t qualify for any of the immigration provisions, the judge was sympathetic. He realized that my family was humble, honest, and hard working.

Our case seemed as if it would drag on forever, and over the next several months I spent many hours reading my organic chemistry textbook while standing in line at the regional immigration office in Newark. But in August 1986 the judge announced that he was ready to decide our fate. We dressed in our best clothes and filed into the back of the courtroom, waiting for our case to be called. When the judge delivered his verdict, my parents, who understood only Spanish, didn’t immediately grasp his meaning: He had granted us legal residency.



As a boy living with my grandmothers in Colombia, I often witnessed our doctor making house calls. The doctor would come to our house, examine my grandmothers, and provide healing advice over a cup of coffee. I also noticed that physicians, who could support their families without resorting to unlawful activities, were revered in the barrio. I wasn’t the only one paying attention; from the time I was young, my grandmothers had decided I should be a physician. They even scrimped to buy me a toy doctor’s kit.

By the time I applied to medical school, I had confidence in my ability to achieve my professional dream. I was a legal resident and had done well at Princeton. When I received a letter of acceptance to the Harvard– Massachusetts Institute of Technology program in Health Sciences and Technology, I happily accepted.

It was during my time at Harvard Medical School that I returned to Medellín for a research project. In the summer of 1992, with an education grant from Brigham and Women’s Hospital, I undertook an evaluation of the city’s emergency medical care system. My goal was to observe how critically injured patients were treated in the trauma center of the city’s main public hospital, San Vicente de Paul. I analyzed ambulance response times, transportation modes to the hospital, and the care provided.

One of my findings was that trauma victims tended not to be transported by ambulance. The injured, especially the victims of gunshot and knife wounds, were usually taken to the hospital by friends or family members in private cars. This finding didn’t surprise me; I had only to recall what happened when Alvaro had been shot on that summer’s day so long ago.

During the six weeks of my study, I stayed at an aunt’s house in Barrio Antioquia. This was the time when violence in Medellín—and my old barrio in particular—had reached its peak. Pablo Escobar had recently turned himself in to the Colombian government to avoid being extradited to the United States. In exchange, he was allowed to build his own luxurious jail, La Catedral, on a mountaintop overlooking Medellín. His confinement was widely regarded as a joke—and an embarrassment to the government. He was rumored to be overseeing the cartel from his prison and to be coming and going as he pleased.

But Escobar’s hold on the city was no joke. One evening, I was sitting on the balcony of my aunt’s house when the calm was shattered by the sound of gunshots. As I peered over the edge of the balcony, I witnessed the cold-blooded killing of a young man just a hundred yards away. The killer coolly walked away with the gun in his hand. The victim’s family rushed him to San Vicente de Paul, where he was declared dead on arrival. Before my eyes he had become one of the more than 150 homicide victims in my old barrio that year.

A week before my return to Boston, Escobar escaped from custody, and his organization started a ruthless campaign of terror against the government and the innocent people of Medellín. In the violence that ensued, hundreds of people across the city—including police officers, judges, and politicians—were murdered.

On my return flight, I thought about how dramatically my life had changed since that night in the dark cabin of a sea-tossed boat. If I had stayed, I wondered, would I have become one of the doctors working in the emergency department at San Vicente de Paul, or would I have been recruited into a short life of drug trafficking and violence? Would I have fallen victim to an unsolved murder, just as seven members of my extended family had?


Now, in my work as a surgeon, I often remember the senseless slaughter of all those young men and women. The helplessness and fear I felt when witnessing violence have since given way to the confidence and knowledge that my education and experiences as a healer have instilled. My grandmothers were right; I have found much satisfaction in a life that helps relieve suffering.

Harold Fernández ’93 is a cardiothoracic surgeon at St. Francis Hospital in Roslyn, New York.