Colombia is one of the South American countries still struggling with racism. Before the passing of legislation in the country to represent its multicultural background, many Black people were invisible under the law. Making up nearly 10 percent of Colombia’s population of 50 million, Afro-Colombians descended from enslaved people forced from their homes in Africa to work on sugar cane plantations, gold mines, and so on.
Afro-Colombians, numbering about 3 million, can be stopped from enjoying basic amenities and denied access to opportunities as compared to other ethnicities in the country. And that is how it has been throughout history. Change may be coming for them as the country has elected its first-ever Black vice president.
Francia Márquez, an Afro-Colombian who once worked as a cleaner, made history after she and leftist Gustavo Petro won Sunday’s runoff election. Petro, who is a former rebel and legislator, will also become the country’s first leftist president.
Márquez’s victory matters not only because she is Black but also because she has risen from poverty to a top position in a deeply unequal country where people make it in politics mostly through connections with the high and mighty or the economic class. Most former leaders in Colombia have links with prominent families and were also educated abroad. Márquez’s story is different.
The single mother of two was born in Yolombo in the Cauca region. She grew up in poverty in the war-torn Cauca region, sleeping on a dirt floor. At 16, she became pregnant so she had to work in the local gold mines to take care of herself and her child. Later, she worked as a live-in maid, according to The New York Times. Márquez would rise to study law and become an environmental activist.
She was 13 when she first became an activist, speaking out about the construction of a dam that was threatening her community. Then in 2014, she led a campaign against illegal gold mining in the community of La Toma. She organized a group of 80 women from La Toma where she grew up and started a 10-day, 350-mile march from the region to the national capital Bogotá, pressurizing the Colombian government to put a stop to the illegal practice.
The government listened and removed all illegal miners and equipment from her community. Four years after the campaign, Márquez was awarded the prestigious Goldman environmental prize.
Her environmental work plus her background story and her determination to succeed in a country where 40 percent of the people live in poverty are some of the factors that attracted her to her followers, many of whom are Afro-Colombians. The 40-year-old said she decided to contest for power “because our governments have turned their backs on the people, and on justice and on peace.”
Her campaign to become vice president also highlighted the structural racism in her country. Race and class hardly led public discussions.
Some have criticized Márquez for being too divisive and others say she is inexperienced. Sergio Guzmán, director of consulting firm Colombia Risk Analysis, told The New York Times that since Márquez has never held political office, there are a lot of questions as to 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.”
But for her supporters who are all for diversity and change, the Afro-Colombian activist and lawyer is the right person for the job.
“What sums her up best is her humility,” Beatriz Cocino, who has marched alongside Márquez in campaigns against gold miners, told the Guardian ahead of the election. “Out in the countryside, it is us working the fields to feed the cities, but we’re totally forgotten.”