Editor’s note: This story is the first in a three-part series looking at the fight for rights of black people in Colombia. This first piece explores the history of Afro-Colombians and the impact of the recently ended war with the FARC. Subsequent stories will examine the current political environment.
Black activism started in Colombia when Africans arrived in chains.
Spaniards were early kingpins in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, first importing kidnapped Africans into what was then New Granada in the 1520s—a century before the British brought this epic crime against humanity to North America.
Concentrated along the country’s Pacific coast, enslaved people were forced to do agricultural labor and, primarily, to mine gold. This region became majority black during colonial times. It still is.
“The cimaronaje, the palanques, was one initial way of organization and resistance,” says modern-day Afro-Colombian freedom fighter Charo Mina-Rojas. She’s referring to Africans who escaped slavery and formed self-sufficient Maroon colonies that successfully beat back those who tried to recapture them.
One, San Basilio de Palenque, still exists. This all-black village in Colombia’s Caribbean region has retained its own creole language and African-derived cultural traditions. Small, modest, colorfully painted homes and businesses line its dusty roads, including a braiding salon called Reina del Kongo (“Queen of the Congo”).
“In the Pacific [region] … there is also a rich tradition of Maroon colonies, which was, in fact, a strategic feature of the liberation struggles throughout the colonial era,” says black cultural activist Angel Perea.
The struggles of Afro-Colombians didn’t end with abolition. To the contrary, the movement is now undergoing a resurgence. For several weeks starting in May, black Colombians shut cities down with massive protests and forced their government to negotiate with community leaders. It’s being recognized as a new era of black Colombian activism, and it has a hashtag: #ElPuebloNoSeRindeCarajo (#ThePeopleDoNotGiveUpDamnIt).
Colombia never had legal segregation after slavery, like the United States. The national narrative of Colombia, like most of Latin America, has been that inequality is economic, not racial, and that significant racial mixing throughout the country’s history proves that racism doesn’t exist. According to Perea, Colombians have gone so far as to say that “racism was solely an expression of North American culture.”
Meanwhile, the largest numbers of black Colombians have been isolated, abandoned by their own government, without educational or employment opportunities, living in poverty.
There are four main black ethnic identities in Colombia: palenqueros, the people of San Basilio; raizales, the English-speaking African descendants of a small island called San Andrés; Afro-Colombians, who live in urban centers like Bogotá and Cali; and the greatest concentration of black Colombians in the Pacific region, known as ancestral territories.
Living off the land, rivers and ocean, Afro-Colombians developed a deep communal relationship with nature and their territories. It’s arguably one of the most distinctive characteristics of the black Colombian population. When that territory is made inhabitable by violence, when your loved ones are killed or forced into illegal armies, when you’re kicked off the only land your forebears have known for hundreds of years, the result is a special kind of pain.
Ancestral territories have been under cruel and unusual siege. The main culprit has been the blood-spilling of a recent civil war. And black territories continue to feel like conflict zones.
“Thirty years ago, we weren’t the center of the national economy, much less the international economy,” Victor Vidal, a Buenaventura, Colombia-based activist with the Black Communities’ Process, or PCN, organization, says of the Pacific region. “When the economy began to turn toward here, well, that’s when the war arrived.”
The most recent war started in 1964 with the demand by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or the FARC, for land redistribution from the government because of severe economic inequality. A year later, the National Liberation Army, another guerrilla group, joined in. Years later, elites created paramilitary forces to protect their businesses and control areas that they could exploit for profit.
The 52-year conflict came to an official end on Nov. 30 when the Congress of Colombia approved a peace agreement between the government and the FARC, the largest guerrilla army. The war disproportionately victimized black citizens, but activists aren’t celebrating the conflict’s end just yet.
“In a world where economy comes before everything, we have two problems in the case of the Pacific because nearly all of Colombia’s black community [is here],” says Vidal. “Abandonment by the government. The government has never been present in our zones. Thus, when they go to look at the indicators, we always have the worst ones: the fewest resources, the worst health, less education, the worst housing, etc.”
For anyone counting on TV or movies to accurately depict the communities decimated by narco-trafficking, Hollywood has failed you. Beginning in the late 1980s, black territories became the predominant sites of war-related violence. Guerrillas and paramilitaries overtook swaths of ancestral territories for battlefields, coca crops and cocaine labs. And national and multinational corporations pillaged natural resources like coal and gold, damaging the environment.
By the end of the war, Colombia had more internally displaced people—nearly 7 million—than any other country, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency. A report published last year by Colombia’s National Center for Historical Memory states that approximately 220,000 people were killed because of the war, and 81.5 percent of them were civilians.
“In addition to having been victims of land seizures, these communities have been harmed by the illegal and arbitrary use of their lands by armed groups and foreign and national investors,” the report reads. “Due to their particular relationship to the land and sociocultural characteristics, indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities have been especially harmed by the dynamics of the war.”
A classic example is the Bojayá massacre. During a FARC-paramilitary battle in this small black Chocó village, a cylinder bomb exploded in a church, killing 79 civilians, including 48 children.
Sexual assault, often used as a tool of war, also disproportionately affected Afro-Colombians.
Says Vidal, “The government’s historic neglect [got] added to the presence of the war. That has taken us to a place where, obviously, our most fundamental rights are being violated, like to have a place to live, and to keep living.”
Even though the war has officially ended, black struggle continues. According to Mina-Rojas, “Peace is just an illusion right now. That’s why we don’t talk about post-conflict. We still are in conflict.”
Lori S. Robinson is an award-winning journalist and the author of I Will Survive: The African-American Guide to Healing From Sexual Assault and Abuse. Her work has been published in the Washington Post, Ebony.com, the Detroit Free Press, the Chicago Tribune and several national magazines. In 2016, Robinson was selected as a Bringing Home the World fellow by the International Center for Journalists.