How we stay together: 'If he wouldn't dance, it wouldn't have worked'

Alexandra Spring

Names: Alexandra Garcia Marrugo and Pedro De La Rosa
Years together: 29
Occupations: Lecturer and engineer

She was young and in love but when the then 15-year-old Alexandra Garcia Marruggo discovered her 18-year-old boyfriend Pedro De La Rosa couldn’t salsa dance, she knew she had a problem. The pair grew up in Barranquilla in Colombia and salsa dancing is part of their culture. Alex remembers: “The first time I went to a party and he didn’t know [how], I was like, ‘Whoa’.” So she taught him how to dance. Fortunately he learned quickly and the couple spent much of their teens and 20s dancing in salsa joints.

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Almost 30 years later and now based in Sydney, they still salsa when they can: “We dance very close together, so I literally hang from his neck. And at this point, I can foretell his movements [and] I know when he’s going to turn around.”

Colombian salsa is very different to traditional salsa, she explains, much closer and with fewer arm movements and more hips: “You dance in the little spaces between tables and chairs, you have to dance in one tile, basically,” says Alex. “Dancing is very important,” she adds. “If he wouldn’t dance, it wouldn’t have worked.”

The couple met when she was 14 and he was 17. They joke that they raised each other: “We were basically children when we met, and we’ve grown together over time.” Pedro was working in his father’s coffee shop when Alex and a friend came in one day. He cracked a joke and she was smitten.

They hung out together with a group of friends, then after about five months, Pedro asked her out. Pedro describes her as beautiful and smart: “I always say, ‘She’s the cleverest person in the world.’ [She] always says something that is brilliant to me.”

Alex knew early on they’d be together, telling her aunt she wanted to spend her life with Pedro. “And she got scared, ‘You’re 17!’ I said, ‘No I’m not thinking about getting married now, I just know, it’s him’.” She remembers thinking: “We trust each other, and I know that he will always have my best interests at heart and I can trust him with my life.”

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The couple enjoy many of the same activities and share similar values. This includes their political views, which, in Colombia, are about more than a difference of opinion. “Coming from Colombia, the differences are life and death. Being on one side or the other, it’s really strict,” says Alex. “I don’t think I could be with a person [on the other side] … it’s not a main difference of this policy or that policy, it’s the value of a human being. You cannot be with a person that thinks that human beings are disposable. So we might disagree on the ways of getting there, or what somebody said, but the core values are the same.”

Pedro says their biggest challenge came in their 20s, when Alex moved to Liverpool in the UK for a year to do her masters. Communication was tough, with sporadic emails and only a few very short, expensive phone calls. Alex also found it hard and she couldn’t wait to return home. “It was only a year [but] it felt long, and it seemed like it was never going to end. But there were times when I was feeling really, really down and I would get an email from him and it would be OK.” Pedro remembers how much he missed her but says: “When you love someone, you give them wings.”

Fortunately neither is jealous or possessive: “We never say, ‘You can’t do this’,” says Alex. “I never nag him. So if he wants to go have a drink with his friends, fine. I say, ‘I’m not your mum, I don’t have to give you permission’ … If you don’t trust the other person, then you probably shouldn’t be with them.”

Besides, says Alex, although they were still young, there wasn’t anything for him to worry about while she was away. “He didn’t have any competition there,” she laughs. “If I had been studying in Italy, it might have been another story. But in Liverpool there was no danger whatsoever.”

When she finished her studies, Alex returned to Colombia. The couple lived together but both had busy jobs and worked long days. Then, in 2009, she decided to move to Australia to do her PhD at the University of Sydney. While she’d never visited, she imagined it would be similar to Liverpool – but with better weather.

Pedro wasn’t sure – he had a good job installing phone lines to rural banks on a government contract. Then one day while working in a small rural village controlled by a paramilitary group he discovered the line was tapped. When he was asked to find out who tapped the line, he said “No I don’t need to do that, sorry but I’m not working here anymore.” Not long after that Alex got a call: “He said, ‘I’m coming to Sydney’.”

It was a big decision. Unlike Alex, Pedro didn’t speak any English when they arrived. Fortunately, in comparison to their lives in Colombia, they got to spend more time together. “It was so relaxing,” says Alex. “I remember we watched TV until midnight and then we wake up at nine the next day. Then we had time to go to the shops, spend the whole afternoon doing grocery shopping and walking around. I think we had time to fall in love again.”

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They also fell in love with Australia and their new lives. When they were in Colombia, Alex couldn’t imagine having the time or energy to raise children. But in Australia, it looked more manageable. So in the final year of her doctorate, she got pregnant and their daughter was born as Alex was finishing off her thesis.

They were able to stay on in Sydney after Pedro was offered a permanent job. Yet that was an unsettling time for Alex, as her scholarship was finished and she was without a job for the first time in her adult life. “He would ask me, ‘Do you need money?’ And he would put money in my bag, because I was too proud to ask.”

Life with a small child was also an adjustment. As they don’t have any family here, they are mostly their own little “gang”, doing everything together. They do brunch, go for walks, even a few beers at a pub when it’s not too late. “She’s a very mature girl, probably because she’s used to being always with adults, because she’s our only child,” says Alex of her daughter.

The couple are happiest together. “When [people] discuss relationships, they talk about commitment and making an effort and how they have to compromise. We don’t feel it’s hard at all. It’s our choice, we enjoy each other’s company, we love being together … We just lie in bed and talk to each other.” Pedro recalls a colleague who rejoices whenever he “escapes” from his wife. He shakes his head, bewildered. “I’m like, ‘Why are you married?’”

And after all these years, they are still attracted to each other, too. “If that intimacy didn’t work, we wouldn’t be here,” says Alex. “It’s an important part of it. People joke and say that we’re like siblings now, because we’ve been together so long, but I say no, we’re not. If I didn’t want him, or if I felt he didn’t want me, it wouldn’t work.”

Even during the lockdown, the couple appreciate being together. “Everyone is complaining about being at home with their partners. We miss going out for brunch but we don’t hate being with each other or having more time together. We are so lucky that we had to spend this time, the three of us, with our daughter.”

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