The city of Cartagena in Colombia, our destination in this episode of Race Beyond Borders, was among the main ports through which enslaved Africans were brought into Latin America amid European colonial occupation of the region. Troubled as it may be, this history gives context to the significant numbers of people of African descent in the country, but this episode’s guests, Manuel Gutiérrez and Ana María González-Forero, remind us that it does not tell the entire story.
“In Colombia, it took us almost 100 years to recognize our multiculturality,” says Ana, who works in the Mayor’s Office of Cartagena as international cooperation officer. Before that, Ana adds, the political idea of a Colombian citizen was a white man.
“In Colombia, it took us almost 100 years to recognize our multiculturality."
And while it has taken a long time for this multiculturality to be recognised, its roots run deep and are as beautiful as they are complicated. In addition to its African and European cultural heritage, Colombia has always been home to a large diversity of indigenous groups. Among Afro-Colombians, too, there is diversity, including speakers of Palenquero, said to be a creole of Spanish and Kikongo. This diversity is a product, Ana and Manuel say, of the complexities of how people choose to identity, how they are perceived, and the links between identity and social and material status.
An estimated 26 percent of Colombians recognise themselves as Afro-descendent, Manuel says, but not all of them identify as Black. There is still stigma based on the association of Blackness with enslavement and being considered “less than” white people, he adds.
There is still stigma based on the association of Blackness with enslavement.
Ultimately, Manuel says, the struggle facing Afro-Colombians at present is being who they are on their own terms, as human beings, beyond identities imposed through political categories.
“I was taught that I was white when I’m not,” Ana says, reflecting on how this struggle is universal in Colombia, “And then I had to understand that I am actually also a mestizo.”
It took Ana a long time to push past her socialisation, in order to confront how race and ethnicity shaped her sense of self and her place in Colombian society as a person with Spanish and Indigenous heritage.
The material legacies of Colombia’s history of colonialism, slavery and racism, and the struggles against them, continue to mediate how people see themselves and each other. And today, indigenous and Afro-descendent Colombians face similar struggles against discrimination and self-determination, Manuel adds. Finding spaces to talk about the politics of race, they say, will go a long way in bringing about racial equity in Colombia.