Things best learned on an empty stomach…..


In the eyes of Raul Cuero’s high school basketball coach, everybody is born with one particular attribute. And, according to Raul Cuero’s coach, Raul would never be anything more than a big and burly guy who could play sports. Why would anyone expect anything else from a guy whose grandmother couldn’t even speak Spanish. Here was a 109-year old woman who had lived in Buenaventura, Colombia her whole life and still could only speak an African language that wasn’t spoken by many people in Buenaventura. The change of house and language did provide Raul with a break from the regimented household of his parents.
Living in Buenaventura in the 1950’s makes Steinbeck’s Oklahoma dust bowl in Grapes of Wrath set during the Great Depression look like Melrose Place. In Buenaventura, during the 1950’s, 30% of all children died before the age of 10, due to parasites, malaria and other tuberculosis. Of those who did survive, only 30% of them would ever learn how to read or write. The only black people who ever left Buenaventura were the coffers and truck drivers. Buenaventura, like many other parts of Latin America, depended on the assistance of the USA. So, school children like Raul enjoyed the cheese that was sent to Colombia by the Alliance for Progress program in the USA. In addition to the cheese, powered milk was also shipped to Buenaventura for the poor school children. Unfortunately, once the powered milk was mixed with the unsanitized local water, the milk became undrinkable. So the people adapted. Instead, the people would mix the USDA cheese with the powered milk and created a kind of “jungle yogurt,” called Kumis that school children like Raul enjoyed very much. Interesting enough, Kumis happened to be very nutritious and had a high protein content.
In addition to Kumis, many school children (including Raul) in Buenaventura, would eat natural products; such as guava, mangos, banana and others fruits that they collected from food markets (galleria) and/or from the nearby tropical forest. And the minority of the other kids with a slightly better economic situation used to buy a “bonbon” for their school break. Not wanting to miss out on a chocolate “bonbon,” Raul used to do the homework for the “rich” kinds in exchange for a “bonbon.”
When Raul finished school, he would hang out with a Pastuso auto mechanic who saw promise in the boy and taught him to work on carburetors and weld radiators.
Despite his two jobs, Raul still didn’t have extra money to go to the movies or buy comic books. Instead, Raul actually spent most of his afternoons in the hut of his great grandmother who was over 100. Raul’s great grandmother, Petrona, was even poorer than Raul’s mother and father. Despite there being not much food around, the house was always filled Raul’s aunties who provided plenty of laughs and happiness.
Instead of toys, Raul had to use his creativity to find something to occupy his time. So, instead of playing with toys, he observed the roaches on the floor in the hut of his great grandmother as a way to fill his time. He observed them so often that he learned that during the hottest times of the day 11am-3pm, the roaches would actually disappear into the holes in the hut. When they came back out at 4pm, Raul, full of joy would celebrate their arrival and continue observing them. Through observation, he learned that there were more roaches in his great grandma’s hut than in his wood and brick house. The reason for this, Raul learned one day while watching a roach eat the bamboo in his great grandmother’s hut. He learned that day that roaches need wood (which contains cellulose) to survive.
Raul’s family, seemingly, was very similar to the other families in Buenaventura. His father used to work on the docks, loading and unloading cargo from the ships. And later, he worked as a seamen for the main shipping company. Despite Raul’s father’s modest income, his father was able to build his own house in Buenaventura. Raul’s father was the first black man in Buenaventura to have his own house. At the beginning, the house was made of wood only, and was later made into a combination of brick and wood. The house took his father 40 years to build and there was more than one night when Raul didn’t eat because his father used the grocery money to buy bricks instead. Determination and resiliency are qualities Raul learned with any empty stomach.
The completed house, actually caused quite a bit of resentment from his neighbors. So much so, the neighbors would actually walk up to the house at night and spit on the ground around the house as a way to curse the Raul’s family for having the nerve to build their own home.
As a 7-year old boy, Raul would wake up every morning at 4 am to study, play basketball and bring the family his its morning breakfast from the neighborhood bread maker. Raul would then go to school. It was during the times after school that Raul has his fondest memories, from his childhood. These times were spent walking with his elderly great grandmother and picking herbs to be used as remedies for many different ailments. These walks stimulated Raul’s interest in plants and inventing things that would make people more health.
On other afternoons, Raul would hang around the Buenaventura docks where he would search through the piles of rubbish looking for magazines and books. It was during one of these visits when he found his most enduring memento of the USA in the form a dime that was sitting on the dock. He couldn’t believe his luck, in a town as poor as Buenaventura, no many people had the luxury of misplacing ten cents. He held on to this coin and made a plan to one day spend it in the USA.
When not observing roaches, searching through the rubbish for books or welding radiators, Raul would play soccer with the neighborhood kids. Until one day when his brother was kicked in the leg and suffered a deep cut from a metal soccer cleat. Regrettably for Raul’s family, the soccer cleat was tainted with tetanus and Raul’s brother died shortly there after. It was at this point when his family banned Raul from playing soccer. Instead of playing soccer, he switched to basketball. And, due to his size and hard work he excelled. At age 17, he became a member of the Colombian National Basketball Team.
Raul then made the decision to then focus on academics instead of sports. He decided to study at Universidad del Valle in Cali, which at that time was one of the best universities in Latin America in academics. It was at the university where Raul met a visiting professor of plant physiology, Percy Lily. Lily was so impressed by Raul’s his first discovery, which was in plants. He successfully found a way to raise a parasitic plant without its host. Raul really didn’t have much time to sit around at home., that he offered Raul an academic scholarship to Heidelberg University in Ohio, USA. He would finally be able to reunite his American coin with its original home, but more importantly he would be able to continue his work in plant pathology (the study of plant diseases caused by infectious organisms and environmental factors) and show that a poor Afro-Colombian basketball player from a obscure South American city could be a valuable part of the scientific community. Or as Raul Cuero likes to put it, “It is good to be good.”
Despite the fact the United States was suffering from widespread racially-fueled violence due in part to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Raul never felt threatened by racism.
To the contrary, there were many Goodwill Hunting moments where Raul was actually able to entertain and impress his fellow students and teachers with his vast knowledge. He found that many of the students were very respectful and even more willing make friends and interact with him than what he expected.
Raul obtained his Bachelor of Science from Heidelberg University in Biology and “For the first time, I finally felt like I was going to make it,” recounts Raul. One day, while at Heidelberg University, his entire class was given a question to solve. The question had to do with the concentration of a molecule. As soon as the question was given, Raul looked around the room as all his fellow students took out their calculators and began working on the problem. Raul didn’t have a calculator because he couldn’t afford one. So he just sat there in a stupor, wondering what to do. Finally the teacher looked over at Raul and asked, “Cuero, do you understand?”

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