I’ll never forget the moment I truly became aware of the Black presence in Latin-America. I was around 11 on a family trip to Cancun, Mexico taking a tour of the nearby island of Isla Mujeres. As we rode the small boat back to mainland there was a Black family that I had initially assumed was also from the U.S., until I heard the mother scolding her daughter in Spanish.
“They’re from Venezuela,” I reported back to my mother after I mustered up the courage to try-out my Dora the Explorer level Spanish at the time and spark up a chat with of the children. She must have picked up on the surprise in my voice and quickly schooled me on the fact that “we weren’t only taken to the U.S.”
In theory I knew, this but years of media programming had slowly imbedded the perception that Latina equaled Jennifer Lopez, so the presence of a dark-skinned, kinky haired family from South America still brought a bit of shock.
Now, in my twenties and much more aware of the reach of the Diaspora throughout the Americas, I’ve ventured off for a months-long excursion to Colombia; joining on as a teaching fellow to assist public school children with advancing their English skills in hopes that they may secure better opportunities after high school, while also scoring gaining some international perspective and writing chops along the way. Outside of serving a need, one of the things that interests me most is exploring race and identity for Black Colombians.
Colombia is home to the second largest populations of Blacks in South America after Brazil, yet it seems as though this racial identity is not acknowledged, embraced, or celebrated as largely as in Brazilian culture.
One thing the last few weeks spent in the city of Cartagena has revealed is that identity is not perceived as Black and White as it is in the States. Situated on the Caribbean coast, Cartagena is unique hub of tourism, beauty and poverty, and is just under an hour from the town of Palenque de San Basilio, settled by escaped slaves in the 1600s.
Along the infamous streets of the Walled City, where brightly colored homes and businesses sit within the stone walls of colonial architecture, you’ll see many “Palenqueras” known by their distinctly West African features and dressed in their signature blue, yellow, and red garments selling candies and fruit. The women are often quick to smile for the onslaught of visitors requesting photo-ops, but a second-glance into their faces between the attention shows that their existence is not full of contentment.
Everywhere you look in the city there are brown-skinned people, to the point that White travellers easily stand out, yet race seems like the topic least likely to be discussed. The inter-mixing of the ethnicities does not make it as easy to group people in the “this or that” manner of the U.S. and walking along any street in Cartagena you can see a family ranging in complexions, features, and hair texture. Within the culture there’s a hesitancy to be classified in terms of race as Latin-America is Country writer, Pablo Medina Uribe explains in his article “Let’s Talk About Racism in Colombia”:
The most recent national census asked about ethnicity, rather than about race. In it, 3.43% of the country’s population identified as “indigenous,” 10.62% as “afro-Colombian” and 85.94% as “without ethnicity”. It is hard to speak about racism in such a place where “race” and “ethnicity” are, largely, not a concept. Modern Colombia lacks the vocabulary for it. “Race,” “ethnicity” and “racism” are things that only apply to others… to those who are not part of that “mixed country.”
Since my arrival a few weeks ago, I’ve been curious to see how I would be perceived as Black American woman, especially coming from a country where race has been preeminent in my identity and social interactions. Would it be the same in Colombia? Would I face the same discrimination as a Afro-Colombian or would my “gringa” status as a U.S. citizen give me a leg up?
In a country that claims racism is not an issue, there’s a push for ambiguity which socio-economic realities seemingly have not caught up to. As the Palenqueras make their living selling homemade goods, aside from school teachers, I’ve seen a greater number of darker skinned Colombians in the area working low skill jobs. And outside of the tourist lure, much of Cartagena is in economic strife.
In the middle of the city center lies the muralized image of a Black woman, Prisma Afro, painted with black female empowerment in mind by street artist Vertigo Graffiti to fight back against the negative and hypersexualized stereotypes of Afro-Colombian women in Cartagena.
At first, you might get the sense that race is not a factor, but beneath the surface there are subtle manifestations of the effects of White supremacy.
It’s in the reasons that Afro-Colombian journalist Javier Ortiz explained to VICE that the Black Lives Matter movement has resonated with many here. It’s in the question of “Would your family be mad if you came home with a boyfriend that’s dark like me?” which was posed to a White female volunteer leading a classroom in the same school as me. Or in the slight apprehension of security and business owners when I visit a place that seems out of place for someone of my complexion.
As I get more acquainted with the city of Cartagena and Colombia as a whole, the guise of colorblindness continues to be peeled away. Whether this society is ready to admit it or not, there’s clearly unspoken understanding of the differences in skin-tone and features and how it impacts you in society.
What this means for me as an ex-pat of color, only time will tell. But up to this point, while I’m aware that my appearance as a Black woman may make it easy to blend in here in Cartagena, I’m also conscious that the way I embrace my identity may ironically be the thing that makes me stand out most.
Shahida Muhammad is the creative channel for The Ahdashi Collective, loves avocado rolls, and acting like a rapper on weekends. Her musings tend to lie within the spaces of Black culture, identity, and womanhood. Follow @ShahidaMuhammad on Twitter and look out for more on her experiences in Colombia.