Colombia is one of the few South American countries where racism still exists. Many Black individuals were invisible under the law before the legislation was passed in the country to reflect the country’s multicultural past. Afro-Colombians are descendants of enslaved people who were taken from their homes in Africa to work on sugar cane plantations, gold mines, and other industries. They make up roughly 10% of Colombia’s population of 50 million people.
In comparison to other ethnic groups in the country, Afro-Colombians, who number around 3 million, may be denied access to basic amenities and opportunities. That has been the case throughout history. With the election of the country’s first-ever Black vice president, change may be on the way for them.
Francia Márquez, an Afro-Colombian who worked as a cleaner before becoming a politician, made history when she and socialist Gustavo Petro won the runoff election on Sunday. Petro will be the country’s first communist president, as well as a former rebel and congressman.
Márquez’s triumph is significant not only because she is Black, but also because she has risen from poverty to a position of power in a severely unequal country where political success is based mostly on links with the powerful or the wealthy. Most former Colombian leaders have ties to powerful families and were educated abroad. Márquez’s tale is unique.
Yolombo, in the Cauca area, is where the single mother of two was born. She grew raised in a war-torn region of the Caucasus, sleeping on a dirt floor. She fell pregnant at the age of 16 and had to work in the local gold mines to support herself and her child. According to The New York Times, she then worked as a live-in maid. Márquez would go on to study law and become an activist for the environment.
She became an activist when she was 13 years old, speaking out against the construction of a dam that threatened her neighborhood. Then, in 2014, she organized a campaign in the village of La Toma against illegal gold mining. She recruited a group of 80 women from La Toma, where she grew up, to embark on a 10-day, 350-mile march from the countryside to Bogotá, Colombia’s capital, in order to put pressure on the government to end the illegal practice.
The authorities listened and cleared her town of all illicit miners and equipment. Márquez received the renowned Goldman environmental prize four years after the campaign.
Her environmental work, as well as her backstory and resolve to succeed in a country where 40% of the population lives in poverty, were among the elements that drew her supporters, many of whom are Afro-Colombians. “Our governments have turned their backs on the people, on justice, and on peace,” the 40-year-old stated, explaining why she decided to run for office.
Her campaign for vice president also highlighted the country’s underlying racism. Race and class were rarely at the forefront of public debates.
Márquez has been chastised for being overly polarizing, while some have accused her of being inexperienced. Because Márquez has never held political office, Sergio Guzmán, director of consulting firm Colombia Risk Analysis, told The New York Times that there are many questions about whether she “would be able to be commander in chief, if she would manage economic policy, or foreign policy, in a way that would provide continuity to the country.”
The Afro-Colombian activist and lawyer, however, is the appropriate person for the job, according to her fans who are all for diversity and change.
Beatriz Cocino, who has marched alongside Márquez in anti-gold mining demonstrations, told the Guardian before the election, “What sums her up best is her humility.” “We cultivate the fields in the countryside to feed the city, but we’re completely forgotten.”