“This is the first time we feel like we can have a link with Colombia,” Gabriel Marimón, an Afro-Colombian, tells me as we walk through his town, San Basilio de Palenque, near the Caribbean coast.
This was the first free town in the Americas: the first place where, in 1691, a community of African migrants declared themselves free from slavery. There is no corner of this district of 5,000 inhabitants, 50 kilometers from Cartagena, in which there is not some manifestation of black pride: graffiti, statues, cultural centers.
And Marimón, a young activist of Afro folklore and culture, gets emotional when I talk to him about the presidential elections on May 29.
“At last we feel identified,” he says, referring to France Marquezvice-presidential candidate Gustavo Petro and Afro activist for the rights of communities that, he denounces, have been discriminated against for centuries. They are “the nobodies,” she says.
But Márquez, who leads all the polls with Petro, is not the only one: of the seven candidates, four have an Afro-Colombian person in their letter to the vice presidency, an unprecedented facet of this campaign that made Colombians talk about racism and reveals an opening towards socio-cultural problems that for decades were absent from the electoral agenda due to the war.
“Racism in this country has always been underhanded, but with these elections it has come to the fore“, says Manuel Pérez, professor of Biology and speaker of palenquero, the native dialect of this community.
To find out what blacks think about racism and the elections, I visited other Afro communities in the department of Bolívar, on the Caribbean coast, and spoke with representatives in Chocó and Cauca, Afro regions near the Pacific Ocean.
Racism in Colombia?
The Colombian population of about 50 million is predominantly mestizo.
Although the official census of 2018 estimated that Afros are 10%, there are versions —among them, from the Ombudsman’s Office— that establish the number at double, due to distortions generated by displacement.
A quarter of the population displaced by the armed conflict, in fact, is Afro.
And the poorest population in the country is also African, for the most part: general poverty is recorded at 40%, but in its regions it exceeds 50%, reaching 64% in Chocó, where two-thirds of the people are black. .
Not all Colombians consider that the vulnerabilities of this population are caused by racism.
One of them is the Afro politician Miguel Polo Polo, who at the age of 26 has become a media figure due to his controversial right-wing views.
“There are a number of lifelong problems that now they want to attribute to racism,” he says. “Forced displacement was done because of violence, not because of skin color.”
The influencer it was launched to Congress, but it is not yet known if it entered. And he says: “It’s cool that there are this many Afro candidates, but the important thing is the capabilities (…) Racism in Colombia is an exception that is only practiced by some idiots.”
Pérez, the professor from Palenque, recalls a historical fact when I ask him about Polo Polo: “Endorracism is a practice that originated in slavery, when black domestic servants, who had privileges, discriminated against black slaves.”
The rise of Afro candidates has made it possible to see the diversity within the black population: there are left and right, rural and urban, academic and empirical, poor and middle class.
Luis Gilberto Murillo, for example, grew up in a small Chocó town, studied in the Soviet Union and the United States, and was Governor of Chocó and Minister of the Environment. He is running for vice president on the formula Sergio Fajardofrom the center left.
The Afro boom, however, has also unleashed racist attacks. Marquez, among others, was called King Kong by a famous singer.
“With so many Afro candidates, it is normal for racism to arise. But, in any case, the debate is significant because we are not going to turn the page if awareness is not raised,” says Velia Vidal, a writer and cultural manager from Quibdó, the capital of Chocó.
“People, and not just black people, are having the conversations at home and trying to understand the phenomenon“, celebrates.
The story of a “conquest”
In 1861, Colombia had its only black president: Juan Jose Nieto Gil, a writer and military man born on the Caribbean coast. The mandate lasted six months, during a power vacuum in the midst of civil war.
His presidential portrait, which featured a light-skinned person, was absent from the Casa de Nariño for years, until in 2018 the president Juan Manuel Santos He ordered a representation to be made according to his skin color and put it in the famous gallery of the former presidents of the government palace.
The political history of blacks in Colombia has a turning point in 1991when a Constitution was signed that, for the first time, gave them political recognition and laid the foundations for their historic demands to be, at least by law, made.
“It has been 30 years in which the popular sectors have united and organized in search of a common good,” says Hoovert Carabali, an activist from Cauca who has led one of the most important “conquests” of the community: the Law 70which gave them collective property over their ancestral territories and forced the State to consult them about any concession in the areas.
with the law, a space the size of Costa Rica went from having no owners, from being “uncultivated”, to being considered the source of identity for thousands of communities.
“The government gave concessions to anyone for their extractivist activity, which generated dispossession of territories, lack of compensation, impact on the environment due to mercury, and affectation of the health of people and animals,” says Carabali.
Law 70 changed that, according to María Alejandra Vélez, an environmental expert economist: “It gave them the possibility of excluding people who were not part of the community (such as the logging companies) and of investing in their physical capital, reducing overcrowding and improve home conditions.
“But in addition, deforestation and poverty were reduced and a process of claiming ethnic identity began,” he adds.
Therefore, says the expert, the emergency current of black candidates to vice president “It is not understood without taking into account Law 70”. And especially in the case of Petro’s running mate, Francia Márquez, a social leader who confronted mining companies to protect her land and her people in Cauca.
Some Colombians, however, are against Law 70, either because it has not fully achieved its objectives, or because there have been irregularities in the adjudications, or because, supposedly, it affects the economy.
“It’s not how they paint us”
In Cartagena, the port city through which the slaves entered Colombia, racism is daily bread. Complaints of rrestaurants that refuse clients, hotels that deny employment and young people abused by the police are reported from time to time with the apparent cause of racial discrimination.
But nowhere in Colombia’s most famous city has racism had, according to many locals, as many effects as in the mouthpiecea community of 20,000 inhabitants located between a privileged beach and a lush wetland just 10 kilometers from the center of the tourist city.
The collective titles of Law 70 were delivered to the boquilleros by Barack Obama and Juan Manuel Santos in 2012.
But here, as well as in other lands considered ancestral in the Caribbean, the success that occurred in the Pacific is pending: the communities are still divided, their action on the land is limited, and informality is the only way to alleviate poverty.
In 2020, in addition, a lawsuit against the collective title endangered the communities’ ownership of La Boquilla.
“That’s why we need someone in power who has experienced racism firsthand, to stop this attack that wants to expel us from our home,” Hernando Ortega, “Nando,” a charismatic fisherman and storyteller from La Nozzle.
Hoovert Carabali, the activist in Buenaventura, analyzes the situation from the other coast of the country: “In the Caribbean, the process of appropriation of rights has been crossed by the interests of capital and that has weakened society and that is why they are in a condition more depressed”.
During the pre-campaign, Petro was in La Boquilla. He is the only candidate who traveled this far. He packed the beach with people, put on a typical African hat called a kufi and gave an effusive speech about land and the “capitalist threat.”
Four years ago, when he lost the second round with Ivan DukePetro won in practically all the populations of black majority, both in the Pacific and in the Caribbean.
“No one here says that development is bad,” argues Albeiro Carmona, a social leader from Boquillero. “But it is believed that development has to be white and that we are not only not part of it, but that we have to leave for there to be development.”
Since the beginning of the 20th century, tourism in Cartagena has been displacing the native communities, mostly Afro, to the outskirts of the city. And in the north, where the best beaches are, a hotel zone is being developed that, according to the boquilleros, threatens to drive them out.
“There is a belief that the lands of black communities should be outside the city; as if they were saying, ‘we are going to recognize their rights, but far away, not in the cities,’” says Carolina Bejarano, a lawyer who advises the boquilleros in defending their collective title.
Although there are areas of Cartagena with a higher number of homicides and robberies, La Boquilla has a reputation for being dangerous and inaccessible, a “stigma” that the boquilleros see as a strategy to justify their expulsion.
In front of the beach, the Tambores de Cabildo Workshop School teaches hundreds of children the science of the drum, the tambora and the alegría, the three distinguished percussion instruments of Afro-Colombian culture.
Waidis Ortega is one of the professors, a young mouthpiece who supports Francia Márquez, the vice-presidential candidate whose slogan is “live tasty“.
A campaign phrase that many, like Polo Polo, interpreted as a quest to dedicate oneself to leisure instead of work.
But for Ortega, and many boquilleros with whom I spoke, “living tasty” is “living freely, in connection with your culture”.
The percussion teacher notes: “They sell us like they dock here, that you can’t come here, that it’s all disorder, but what they don’t understand is that there is a culture here, a root for the land, a way of seeing the world ”.
That’s why the whole neighborhood reads the same phrase. In the restaurant on the side of the school it is seen even in the speakers of the beak —the sound system—, where it says, in giant multicolored letters: “La Boquilla is not as they paint it.”
If Afro-Colombians have been trying to erase the stigmas about their community for at least 30 years, the 2022 presidential elections can already be considered a historic moment.
Now you can receive notifications from BBC World. Download the new version of our app and activate it so you don’t miss out on our best content.