Being black in Colombia: A daily confrontation with racial invisibility
January 31, 2016 at 12:30 am
Last year, I made a life-changing decision. I moved to Colombia to teach English and expand my creativity in a new culture. After contemplating on the experience of living abroad for some time, I finally packed 50 pounds of my life into a suitcase to embark on a journey that would shape me in ways I never imagined.
Outside of serving Cartegena (one of the poorest cities in the country) through teaching, I was also very interested in learning more about the Afro-Colombian community.
I’m happy I moved, but doing so has come with an unfamiliar set of cultural challenges. Learning how race and identity come into play in South America has been eye-opening; for the first time in my life, I’ve been confronted with a sense of racial invisibility.
I’m realizing, more and more, the importance of representation and recognition in media – especially for marginalized groups in the Diaspora.
Even though Colombia is home to the third largest population of Afro-descendants after Brazil and the U.S., flicking through local TV channels or the pages of magazines, you probably wouldn’t get that impression. Everything from television to billboard ads depicts mono-ethnic, Eurocentric images.
This depiction hardly mirrors the racial makeup of the people.
Cartagena — estimated to be 70 percent afro-latino, is an interesting juxtaposition of picturesque tourist lore and striking poverty. From the colonial streets of the Old City to the garbage-filled barrios that travelers tend to avoid, everywhere you look in the city, there are brown people. Still, many of the darker-skinned Cartageneros work low-paying jobs and the socio-economic state of the city is very telling of how Afro-Colombians are prioritized in society.
Although the U.S. is far from a paradise of racial acceptance, it’s an environment that, even with its faults, seems to have produced a larger presence of black public figures. As I reflect on being able to relate to the young black girl woes of characters like Moesha, being exposed to prominent TV families on the Cosby Show and Fresh Prince of Bel Air, or seeing myself in the beauty of trailblazers like Iman, Naomi Campbell and Tyra Banks — all coupled with a cultural sense of “blackness” in America — I believe the lack thereof might be why many Afro-Latinos feel forced to choose between two identities — black or latino.
In Colombia, the black demographic often feels tucked away in a social system and culture where ingrained casts and colorism make the opportunities for upward mobility very limited. It seems even the idea of discussing racial injustice is shunned.
People are quick to deny racism as a factor but will easily do a double-take if they see an Afro-Colombian in an expensive establishment. I’ve experienced this first-hand while shopping in pricier stores, and being watched closely until answering my phone in English or until my “gringa” accent calmed the fears of store attendants.
As a black American, typically the first question I’m asked after stating my nationality is “Where are your parents from?” Of course, this assumption that all black people from the States have immigrant roots is nothing new. It’s similar to what goes on in the ethnic pool on college campuses across the country, where suddenly just being black or African-American becomes odd or inadequate. Dealing with this questioning abroad is often due to a lack of awareness of American history. Afro-Colombians, having a similar relationship to the Trans-Atlantic slave trade as black Americans, go largely unrecognized or celebrated in mainstream Colombian culture.
Yes, people might mention or brag about San Basilio de Palenque (a town outside of Cartagena settled by escaped slaves in the early 1600s) being the first free town in the Americas or maybe even detail how much they encanta Celia Cruz.
But outside of grassroots efforts, you get the sense that black Colombians are still left out of a lot of historical contexts and social discussions.
The awkward pause when people ask for my nationality and then wait for me to explain with “…but my parents are from….” has become predictable. It emphasizes the invisibility that many Afro-Latinos express and how those of other ethnicities and racial identities tend to see blackness as “other” — even when our roots in the Americas run deep.
It goes without saying that American is usually synonymous with white, and Latino is associated with Pitbull, J. Lo or Eva Longoria-esque physical appearances. If you don’t fit the bill, you have some explaining to do.
Of course, things are changing. Colombia in many respects has been a leader in racial equality movements within Latin-America and there is currently a social campaign called #SerNegroEsHermoso (black is beautiful), which plans to spark a greater level of pride and self-recognition in the Afro-Colombian community, beginning with the coastal cities, which are home to the majority of the demographic.
Beauty standards are also shifting, as the natural hair movement has encouraged many women in Latin-America to embrace their hair textures.
You can even catch newscaster Edna Liliana Valencia Murillo sporting a fro on RCN, a national television network.
Yet, it takes time for any social change to translate into greater mainstream consciousness and tangible political gains. I try to remind myself that I will never have a full understanding of the nuances of Colombian culture because my viewpoint will always come from my socialization as a black person in the United States.
Still, whenever I’m confronted with these kinds of questions regarding my background, I feel as though I’m obligated to use it as an opportunity to highlight Colombia’s racial diversity and history and align it with the diaspora as a whole.
A simple breakdown along the lines of: Yes, ethnically my family descends from Africa; however, due to nature of the slave trade, I can’t say exactly what part my ancestors were from but most importantly we’ve been part of America as long our European descendent counterparts … just like the Afro-Colombian population here — usually does the job.
“Being Black in Colombia” is a column exploring the spaces where culture and identity collide as a black American Muslim expat living in Latin America.