170 years after the abolition of slavery in this South American country, the Black and Indigenous communities are raising their voices about a history of racial discrimination. Cali, with the second largest Black population in Latin America, has turned into a center and a symbol of the citizens’ frustration.

By Camilo Sánchez, EL DIARIO (Spain), June 5, 2021

(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

Bogotá—In the marginal Marroquín neighborhood in Cali, they are familiar to perfection with the meaning in the word “resistance”. Long before the country went on the Strike that has been going on for a month, this suburb, made up almost entirely of Black neighborhoods, they had already figured out how to devise ways to shake off the misery of daily life. That’s why the demonstrations—that in an instant were transformed into certifiable orgies of violence—have turned into times of social catharsis for a population oppressed for generations.

Marroquín is situated in an eastern part of the city, where the simple act of entering feels like foolhardiness for many. It’s Aguablanca, an enclave of some 800,000 inhabitants, of whom 70% are Afro-Colombian, and who year after year accumulate the highest rates of murder, the highest unemployment figures, and the highest rate of coronavirus infections in the country’s third-largest city.

“The majority of the young people that have been killed and disappeared (they say 27) during this Strike in Cali are Black,” says Vicente Moreno, a teacher and social activist who directs the Chontaduro[1] House of Culture. It’s a project centered on arts as a tool for pulling lost kids away from the violence. He also laments that up to now there has been no “reading of the events” where you see evidence of the “impoverishment and being forgotten, through a racial lens”.

The protests, which exploded at first as a response to a tax reform bill that had a harsh effect on the middle classes, have stirred notice of a reality that has received attention as minimal as the attention to racism. That is, in spite of the fact that around 13% of the Colombian population is made up of Black citizens (10%) and Indigenous people (3%), the social and political representation of these communities has been miniscule.

Professor Edward Telles, of the University of California, described this in a 2012 academic work as “pigmentocracy”, meaning a society where skin color determines your place in the world and the opportunities in the course of your life. Other studies and researchers like the sociologist and Doctor of Philosophy Aurora Vergara, support that. “It’s been demonstrated,” Vergara explains, “that Black men in Colombia live an average of 66 years, a decade less than the rest of the nation, where it’s 75 years.”

And she underscores that it has nothing to do with “genetic predisposition”, but rather with the “social determinants of a country that make it possible to speed up the death of some of its inhabitants,” she concludes.

Cali, a city of 2.2 million inhabitants, concentrates the largest Black population in Latin America after the Brazilian city of Salvador de Bahía. The main body of the Black community in Cali has settled on the eastern fringe of the city. Many of them have been displaced by the violence in the remote villages on the Pacific coast, just a hundred kilometers from Cali.

In spite of the promise of a better outlook, the social ladder hasn’t functioned for the great majority. Professor Vergara says there are studies that have established direct connections between the Black people living in a situation of extreme poverty now in Cali, and some enslaved families on the sugar cane plantations during the time of the colonies. Comparing the information, the concordance between present-day misery and the worst maltreatments of long ago is clear.

Racial Silence

In the middle of May, right in the midst of the protests, a newscast published a conversation with a surgeon in Cali on WhatsApp where she had suggested, as a solution to the chaos, the intervention of squadrons of “self-defense” in order to “literally finish off some 1,000 Indians, just a few, no more, so they understand”, she wrote.

The epidemiologist Yoseth Ariza confesses that he was shaken when he realized the lack of interest in discussing the subject by some of his colleagues. For Ariza, who coordinates the area of racial and ethnic studies at ICESI University in Cali, after violent speeches like that one, and their ensuing trivializing, he can see some keys to understanding racism in Colombia.

The doctor surveyed more than 3,000 students at 72 public schools in Cali to examine aggression in speech. Among his findings, prepared for an official assignment, he collected a “cloud of nicknames” that “sexualized” and “animalized” Black people. According to Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, who received his doctorate in sociology at the University of Wisconsin, there is an “insidious” racism, as much in Colombia as there is in the rest of Latin America.

He believes that the countries in the region assume that racial discrimination disappeared once slavery was abolished (in 1851, in the case of Colombia). “We invented a history,” suggested Bonilla-Silva, “and we glorify the idea that since were are mostly mestizo, the cosmic race of which the Mexican Vasconcelos spoke, therefore we don’t have to dig any deeper.”

The truth is that not just the mentality, but also the collective practices, aren’t much different. The academic describes an evident imbalance in the midst of 2021. “Black people have worse salaries, lower representation in industry, government, or banking;

 there are fewer professionals, access to health care is more limited, and their presence in prisons is greater.”

Discrimination against Indigenous people in Colombia, with some historic and political dynamics, revolves around the same logics, in spite of the fact that the Constitution of 1991 recognized that the Colombian State is “multi-ethnic and multicultural”. But, for the Dominican anthropologist Ochy Curiel, based in Colombia for 15 years, the hierarchies of “structural racism continue intact”.

And the health crisis caused by the coronavirus, which resulted in more than 90,000 deaths in this country, took charge of striking the final blow to scaffolding that was already vulnerable in itself. Cali went from having 558,360 people in poverty to 934,350, according to official figures. Today, a third of Cali residents–of whom 20% are Black—lack the money to pay for the basic shopping basket.

“The Strike is uncovering all of that,” admits the Dominican academic. “It’s what the rest of society doesn’t want to see: the pain that springs up from a deeply entrenched racial segregation, from an economic, political, and religious system that continues to exclude the Indigenous and Afro-Colombian citizens from real participation in building a state that, on paper, calls itself multicultural.”

It’s also true that discrimination is frequently concealed in daily behaviors that have been normalized. It’s a phenomenon somewhat devious, softer than in the case of the United States, where confrontation and violence commonly result in more brutal episodes such the murder of George Floyd.

That’s why the Yoseth Ariza research centers on peeling off the subtleties in the use of language. Among the phrases repeated most often by the students, for example, is a popular saying: “have to improve the race”. The physician explains that that’s a formula used by parents to suggest to children that “you should find a whiter girlfriend or boyfriend, with blue eyes and straighter hair.”

Ariza describes that as a “19th century” attitude, reflecting an ancient desire to “whiten and homogenize”. He also relates that in the course of his work, he had “very unfortunate” differences with the principals of public schools that discriminated against the people doing the surveying. Are you really studying to be a teacher? Or: Do you really work in a University? were some of the questions framed by teachers that “couldn’t imagine that a Black woman could work in a University like ICESI.”

The Story of Many Female Servants

The case of domestic employees, who, according to academic research in the case of Cali, are 90% black women, is devastating. The majority of them work from childhood onward in the homes of the most affluent, in a practice that until very recently, because of legal loopholes, was marked by every kind of worker abuse.

The political scientist Sergio Sierra, who did the research, explains ”it’s that the women are subjected to a system of enormous inequality,” with unfair pay and important emotional repercussions. He also mentions frequent situations of sexual assault, apparently invisible, because of the lack of data.

It’s a way of “reproducing a system of enormous inequality,” says Sierra. In his work he describes how certain privileged houses employ young Black women from a single family, through several generations, in a situation almost hereditary. Because of that, it’s not unusual to hear about the workers almost turning into “part of the family.” That tiny word “of”, asserts Sierra, makes all the difference.

The magazine HOLA! in Colombia published  a picture in 2011 showing three distinguished Cali society women posing next to the swimming pool at their house, with two Black maids in the background, dressed in immaculate white and holding big silver trays. The photo aroused a passing, vague indignation, rather timid compared to the debates that arose years later in Mexico about the role of the Indigenous maids in the movie “ROMA”, by the Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón.

In any case, the problem, as compelling and profound as it is, has never occupied an important place in Colombian public debate. As the sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva states, it’s an absolute “racial silence”. In the same way, he laments that there still is not any willingness to recognize it. “Typically, they limit anything racial to a series of individual, unconnected, events, isolated, that are not representative of the reality of the majority of the population. Especially from the elites. And it’s obviously false.”

The Puerto Rican professor concludes the electronic interview with a rhetorical question, halfway between the serious and the mundane. “When, perchance, have you ever seen a Black or an Indigenous person as the main character in a TV show? Never!”

[1] Chontaduro is a tropical fruit.

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