When we cover “the Caribbean,” we often forget that there are nations on the South and Central American mainland that are also part of a geographical area often referred to as the Caribbean Basin. Colombia is one of them. There are historical ties forged via the Colombian coastal transatlantic slave port of Cartagena, and there are cultural links to the rest of the Caribbean in foods, music, and language between and among the African ancestored peoples who live there. Depending on what data one uses—and recent governmental census data has been questioned—Black or Afro-descended Colombians number anywhere from 4 to well over 11 million in number, and they were a major voting factor in this recent election. So it was a great joy to witness the election of the first Black vice president of their nation, Francia Elena Márquez Mina.
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Julie Turkewitz, writing for The New York Times, reported on Márquez’s incredible journey:
The rise of Ms. Márquez is significant not only because she is Black in a nation where Afro-Colombians are regularly subject to racism and must contend with structural barriers, but because she comes from poverty in a country where economic class so often defines a person’s place in society. Most recent former presidents were educated abroad and are connected to the country’s powerful families and kingmakers.
Despite economic gains in recent decades, Colombia remains starkly unequal, a trend that has worsened during the pandemic, with Black, Indigenous and rural communities falling the farthest behind. Forty percent of the country lives in poverty. […]
She grew up sleeping on a dirt floor in a region battered by violence related to the country’s long internal conflict. She became pregnant at 16, went to work in the local gold mines to support her child, and eventually sought work as a live-in maid.
This is not the resume one would expect to see on the national stage of Colombia, or for that matter almost anywhere else in the region. For a closer look at just who she is, this video was produced when she won the 2018 Goldman Environmental Prize.
Their website details her activism:
A formidable leader of the Afro-Colombian community, Francia Márquez organized the women of La Toma and stopped illegal gold mining on their ancestral land. She exerted steady pressure on the Colombian government and spearheaded a 10-day, 350-mile march of 80 women to the nation’s capital, resulting in the removal of all illegal miners and equipment from her community. […]
Once in Bogota, Márquez and the women spent 22 days protesting on the streets. In December 2014, Márquez and the community of La Toma reached an agreement with the Colombian government. Officials agreed to take action to eradicate illegal mining in La Toma. All machinery and backhoes found to be operating illegally in the region would be seized and destroyed. In 2015, the government created a national task force on illegal mining—the first of its kind in Colombia. As a direct result of Márquez’s work, all illegal mining operations in La Toma ceased. By the end of 2016, all illegal mining machinery operating in La Toma had been physically removed or destroyed by Colombian security forces.
Throughout the 2014-2016 campaign to combat illegal mining in La Toma, Márquez was repeatedly harassed, disrespected, and threatened. She was forced to move to Cali for her safety. Márquez continues to press the government to study the effects of illegal mining in the northern Cauca region, especially the contamination of the Ovejas and other rivers. Independent reports are showing mercury levels of up to 500 parts per billion in those critical water sources, while Colombian standards permit up to 1 part per billion in potable water. Mercury and cyanide contamination of water continues to cause serious health problems for the people of La Toma and the wider region.
In 2019, she and other activists working with her survived an assassination attempt:
This outrage was reported on many Spanish-language outlets.
Latino Rebels reported the story in English:
On Saturday May 4, armed men opened fire at a group of environmental activists in Santander de Quilichao, Colombia. Afro-Colombian environmental activist Francia Márquez was among those in the targeted group. […]
In 2018, 155 human rights activists were assassinated in the country. Many of those targeted work directly with Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities.
Márquez survived. However, others have not—like this murder she reported on social media (trigger warning: violence) the month after the attack she lived through.
Maria del Pilar Hurtado, an Afro-Colombian woman, a social leader from Córdoba, was threatened by the black eagles and yesterday murdered in front of her son who cries and screams with pain and importance… Until when President @IvanDuque ? Stop already barbarism.
(FYI: The Black Eagles are paramilitary hit squads.)
Back to the present: Reactions to her election from Black Colombians on social media have been joyous! I have to admit I had a huge grin on my face watching this tweet posted from TikTok of one man’s reaction to the news.
Election data analysts are also weighing in, pointing to the importance of her voter turnout in winning the election for the newly elected leftist President Gustavo Petro.
The area in orange on the map in the tweet below is where the majority of Afro-Colombians live.
This fact was not lost on Black Colombian observers.
(Translation: You owe Afrocolombia @petrogustavo the people expect real actions for the improvement of the Black People. We expect better material conditions, security, youth employment and infrastructure.)
One of the fascinating aspects of her campaign was how she connected to people in the Colombian diaspora, who consist of close to 5 million Colombians living abroad, which Liza Schmidt wrote about for NACLA:
An Afro-Colombian environmental activist and lawyer, Márquez is new to politics. Since announcing her candidacy, Márquez has become a rallying point for Colombian activists and youth dissatisfied with the status quo. She is only the second Black woman to run for president in Colombia and campaigned on a platform that challenges the traditional powers in a highly militarized, conservative country. Unlike other presidential candidates, Márquez is from a small majority-Black town in southwest Colombia and doesn’t have a political machine behind her. So she did something that other candidates did not: she appealed to the Colombian diaspora. […]
The belief that the work has an impact on voters not just abroad, but also in Colombia, said Castañedas, motivated the volunteers to expand their international outreach to make Márquez a globally recognized name, and, hopefully, generate more interest and awareness in her home country. And their efforts paid off.
In the presidential primaries on March 19, Márquez received 785,000 votes, the third most of any candidate from any party, including many career politicians. According to Castañedas, 28 percent of votes for Márquez were from the diaspora.
I was also following other responses, including this one from Nigerian-Trinidadian American applied linguistics Professor Dr. Uju Anya, author of Racialized Identities in Second Language Learning: Speaking Blackness in Brazil who tweeted gleefully in response to the NYT article:
She then posted several follow-up tweets that make important points:
She closed her tweet thread with a warning to racism denialists. Those of us who have studied and taught about race and racism in Latin America hear these denials and dismissals far too frequently.
I concur. Yes, racism and white supremacy is a major issue in Colombia. This short documentary with English subtitles, produced by LAPORA, the Latin American Anti-racism in a “Post-Racial” Age, which is a research project at the University of Cambridge in England, tells the story.
As the kudos roll in for the new VP, it remains to be seen what she and her presidential partner will be able to do for the Black and Indigenous populations of Colombia who have been economically and politically oppressed and suppressed for so long. A lot of us will be pulling for her!
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