Six things you must know about Colombia’s first Afro-descendant Vice-President
On Sunday 7 August, 40-year-old Francia Elena Márquez made history in Latin America when she was sworn in as Colombia’s first Black woman vice president, which has always been dominated by white male elites. She was elected for the position in June 2022, alongside former guerrilla Gustavo Petro, Márquez who formed the country’s first leftist-leaning government.
Picture source: Reuters
It’s an incredible feat for Márquez who belongs to less than 10% of the 50 million Colombians who recognise themselves as Black and Afro-descendants and historically have existed on the fringes of politics and economic progress. As Adama Juldeh Munu shows, here are the top ten facts about why Márquez is so badass.
- Humble beginnings
In 1981, Márquez was born to a midwife mother and agro-minter father in Yolombó, a town nestled in the southwestern department or district of Cauca, which with a quarter of a million Black Colombians, has a strong historical Afro-Colombian presence, dating back to slavery. Sadly, it is marked as one of the poorest areas in the country according to official statistics from Colombia’s National Administrative Department (2018). And it is an area that has been particularly devastated and impacted by years of conflict according to the Sustainable Development Goals Fund. She became a single mother at 16 years old and was forced to work in a gold mine to support her family. She eventually fled following violence in the region, and ended up working as a maid while she studied for a law degree! She recognises the strife and struggle attached to her history and heritage have been a huge part of her achievements. In an interview with People’s Dispatch in July, she described herself as being a “Black woman, impoverished” whose achievement is an “accumulation of many struggles, of many people who died fighting.”
2. A gun-violence survivor
In 2016, the government signed a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), ending 60 years of armed conflict with this guerrilla faction. But violence remains a constant in Colombian life, and the promise to tackle it played a key role in her and Petro’s winning their presidencies. Like her counterpart, she is best placed to speak to the crisis. In 2019, she survived an attack by gunmen who tried to kill her over her work to defend the region’s water resources against mining companies. Since April, France has received more than 1,000 racist comments and messages in the media and social media, according to the Racial Discrimination Observatory at Los Andes University. Sadly, it is an all too familiar instance of Black women politicians facing both verbal death threats for simply doing their jobs. But she’s determined to press on. As she told a rally during the election campaign: “I have not asked to be in politics. But politics messed with me and now, we are messing with her.”
3. Afrocentricity underpins her politics
“I am because we are” is the name of her movement, a translation of the African concept Ubuntu, which Francia describes in detail: “It is the philosophy that teaches us not to think of ourselves individually, that I am because you are, that we are if nature is; it is the attempt to redefine the value of life, so fractured in our country, always from the collective.” This Afrocentric philosophy has not only connected her to African roots and identity as she explains in 2013 when she was a law student, but it underpins her intersectional politics and activism (as you’ll see below).
Therefore, Francia and Petro’s success is formed in part because of their links to grassroots NGOs, feminist and antiracist collectives and other communist groups.
“No country can deny the existence of Afro-descendant or indigenous peoples, at least not in Latin America. And the country that denies it will have to demonstrate that there was no colonization and that there was no slavery. (July 28, 2022, Santiago, Chile).
4. A fighter for Indigenous lands
At the heart of Francia’s activism has been her staunch commitment to protecting the lands of indigenous people, as well as where she’s from. In 2018, she won the prestigious Goldman environmental prize for organising the women of La Toma, to stop illegal gold mining on their ancestral land. She organised the women of La Toma and stopped illegal gold mining on their ancestral land. She exerted pressure on the government and spearheaded a 10-day, 350-mile march of 80 women to the nation’s capital. The result? You guessed right, the illegal miners left. As I write this on World Indigenous Day, I salute her for her efforts. She said in Santiago, Chile in 2020, that:
“Being an environmental leader today is a threat to Colombia, it is a threat in Colombia, and it is a threat worldwide because here we are fighting two life projects or two political projects.”
5. She’s part of an Afro-Colombian Fashion movement
A New York Times feature suggests that she has “ revolutionized the country’s political aesthetic, rejecting starched shirts and suits in favour of a distinctly Afro-Colombian look that she calls a form of rebellion.” With the help of designer Black Colombian designer, Esteban Sinisterra Paz, owner of ‘Esteban Africa’, she has become a part of an exciting fashion movement that has at its heart, the colours, patterns and fabrics of the African diaspora.
During her inauguration ceremony, she wore a stunning two-piece, blue and orange patterned Ankara ensemble with a white shawl trimming that was draped over her. But according to Esteban, Francia favours wearing Kente designs, a type of fabric originating from the Asante empire in the 18th century. Because kente is often associated with royalty and well, Francia is undoubtedly making a bold statement here!
6. She set up a ministry for equality before her inauguration
Because equality is the heart of her previous activism, it’s not particularly surprising that she announced the government would create an equality ministry- but that was on August 1- before she was inaugurated, vice-president. “I come from a region that has been historically abandoned,” Marquez wrote on Twitter. “My task is to guarantee the rights of these excluded and marginalized territories, to guarantee rights for Afro-descendant and Indigenous populations. She also vowed to bring equality to women.
She hasn’t come to play.