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Colombia: Living Without Fear - Francia Márquez and Black Feminist Politics in Colombia

Nadia Mosquera Muriel | April 5, 2022

With her message of inclusion, the Afro-Colombian environmental activist—who earned the third most votes in the March primaries and a VP nomination—is making history.

Come on Colombia! From resistance to power until dignity becomes customary!” were Francia Márquez Mina’s closing words in her first public speech after hearing the results of the March 13 presidential primary elections. Although she is not the first Black woman to run for the Colombian presidency, that day, Márquez, an award-winning grassroots leader from Suárez, Cauca made history.

Márquez’s successful campaign has made her a strong contender to become Colombia’s first Black woman vice president.

Out of 15 pre-candidates for Colombia’s presidency, Márquez came in third. With a campaign executed in record time, she obtained the third highest turnout—783,160 votes—outnumbering former governors, mayors, and senators with longer political trajectories in Colombia. Márquez’s successful campaign has made her a strong contender to become Colombia’s first Black woman vice president. On March 23, Gustavo Petro, the winner of the primary elections and leftist candidate for Colombia’s presidency, selected Márquez as his running mate.

Márquez is a 40-year-old Black woman, environmental grassroots leader, and lawyer whose rapid rise is expanding a new political Black feminist perspective in Colombia and Latin America. As a political figure, she is often rendered by the media as a “body out of place.” The focus on her identity as a Black woman and her socio-economic background position her as an outlier among Colombia’s traditional political figures. Márquez is mobilizing a radical political project whose anti-racist, anti-commodification of nature, and anti-patriarchal stance runs in opposition to and outside of the colonially entrenched masculinity and whiteness of Colombia’s political institutions. In particular, she challenges the uninterrupted history of male conservative, pro-security politics, now notably embodied by the candidate Federico Gutiérrez. In contrast, Márquez has introduced vital discussions about constructing a national agenda that takes economic, environmental, and socio-racial justice seriously.

As a Black woman, who formerly worked as an artisanal miner and domestic worker, Márquez has made a point to include the structurally excluded. Her campaign explicitly appealed to “Los nadies” (the nobodies): women, Indigenous peoples, Afro-descendant peoples, campesinos, LGBTIQ+, and “la generación del aguante,” the disenfranchised youth whose lack of opportunities was exacerbated by the pandemic. Through her political movement "Soy Porque Somos" (I am because we are), Márquez outlined a politics that draws on the African Ubuntu philosophy. She weaves together intersectional anti-racist feminism, and Indigenous and Afro-Colombian epistemologies of “care of life, and territory” to address the environmental racism that affects racialized ancestral territories where impoverished populations often live.

Márquez’s call for change builds on the turmoil that has erupted in Colombia over the last year. Between April and June 2021, a nationwide uprising occurred, led by Colombian youth and diverse grassroots movements. The protests were triggered by a tax reform bill that proposed raising taxes on everyday items during the pandemic. The demonstrations were violently suppressed by the state, especially in Cali, the epicenter of the uprising.

“People want change, in terms of justice, equity and to root out the logics and structures of coloniality, racism, patriarchy,” said Márquez during an interview in 2021. Protests, she added, are not a just response to recent events but to the country’s systemic inequality. “And that social upheaval led by the youth in 2021—and in which I also took part—is also an example of that historical burnout.” President Ivan Duque’s unpopular government was finally forced to negotiate with diverse grassroots actors to stop last year’s uprising, which enabled the rise of Márquez as a political alternative.

From Grassroots to Politics

Márquez’s unprecedented popularity is the result of her political project that embodies her praxis. Márquez was born in Yolombó, a town in the corregimiento (district) of La Toma, Cauca, an area with an ancestral Afro-descendant population. Cauca is an area with entrenched racial divisions. Its capital, Popayán, known as the white city for its white-painted colonial architecture, is politically dominated by men and by white, former colonial families who support a racially divided Cauca. It has the highest rate of murders of social leaders in Colombia and is undoubtedly the most dangerous place to lead the defense of social, political, environmental, and human rights in the country.

The people of La Toma have had a deep relationship with their lands since the 17th century. La Toma’s residents traditionally survived on fishing and small-scale artisanal mining, using bateas, almocafres, and medicinal plants to extract gold.

Since 2004, the Colombian government has granted gold mining licenses for the area to multinational mining companies without consulting the population. Their actions displaced over 5,000 residents, and poisoned the town’s only water source, the Ovejas River, with mercury. Also, countless poor, Afro-descendant women in La Toma were sexually abused by multinational workers, illegal miners, paramilitaries, and state militaries.

The multinational mining disrupted the community’s practice of small-scale artisanal mining to support their families. The government concessions also emboldened multinationals, in collaboration with paramilitary groups, to violently grab large swaths of La Toma’s lands, through threats, forced evictions, and massacres for large-scale gold extraction between 2004 and 2014.

In response, Márquez organized and led the 2014 Marcha de los Turbantes in which, over a 10-day period, 80 women wearing head wraps walked the 350 miles from La Toma to the headquarters of the Ministry of the Interior in Bogotá. Márquez, alongside about 20 women from the Marcha then occupied the Ministry of the Interior for five days. Their protest forced the Colombian government to halt mining activities in the area.

Márquez’s activism made her a target for assassination. In 2015, death threats from paramilitary groups forced her to move out of La Toma in 2019. During a 2019 community meeting in Santander de Quilichao, Cauca, she was almost killed when the meeting house was attacked with gunfire and grenades.

For her leadership in La Toma, Márquez was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2018, and her activism gained national and international attention. The fight against multinationals, paramilitaries, and illegal miners in La Toma propelled Márquez’s involvement in the formal political arena, expanding an environmental, political movement rooted in Black feminist theory and praxis.

Márquez maintains a powerfully curated political image. Most of her outfits are made of bright Afrocentric prints that pay homage to the Colombian Pacific coast and Kente cloth, a Ghanaian fabric signaling African diasporic politics. Also, she frequently wears her afro-textured hair in natural styles, a statement in a national context where Black women oscillate between embracing their natural hair and fighting the pressures of gendered, anti-Black messages to straighten it.

“I learned to proudly identify myself as a Black woman, to recognize my hair, my Blackness,” Márquez said, adding that “this country has made us feel ashamed of Blackness and has made us feel that we are solely responsible for the conditions in which we live in.” Her image contests the Eurocentric aesthetic norms Black women are forced to adopt to enter politics.  

Márquez’s message emphasizing “living in peace and without fear” particularly appeals to the impoverished communities affected by the Colombian conflict. She has criticized the limited impact of the 2016 peace accords and the structural racism embedded in the anti-poor, necro-politics of the Colombian state and long worked for grassroots change. Márquez follows and builds on the steps of poor, Black women activists, anti-racists, and environmentalists who have tried to position themselves in the political sphere. Her agenda involves environmental justice and the defense of ancestral lands, food sovereignty, legalization of ancestral yet criminalized illicit crops like cannabis and coca, the decriminalization of abortion, gender equality, and the intersectional struggle against patriarchy.

Trailblazing for Future Black Feminists

Márquez’s presence in Colombian politics exposes the challenges faced by Black women seeking political participation.Márquez’s presence in Colombian politics exposes the challenges faced by Black women seeking political participation. 

On July 21, 2021, Márquez’s Soy Porque Somos movement allied with the Historical Pact, a coalition of center and left-wing parties. Despite joining forces with the leftist Historical Pact, Márquez often receives racist abuse online from supporters, leaders, and opponents of the Historical Pact. Notably, elite white women in Colombia have been vocal in trying to keep Márquez in “her place.” She is often disparaged as having no political experience, despite more than 27 years of grassroots activism and leadership experience in the Proceso de Comunidades Negras (Black Communities Process).

Márquez has also had to navigate the media’s marginalization of her political campaign from the outset, revealing the systemic misogyny, classism, and racism that keeps Black women out of politics. Until January 2022, the polls, media outlets, and televised debates gave little attention to her campaign, excluding her from televised debates. However, social networks helped spread her Black feminist message amongst young and disadvantaged voters. When she was featured, the media often described Márquez as a political outsider.

In the primaries, Márquez finished second to the Historic Pact’s leftist Gustavo Petro. Most of her votes were geographically located in Bogotá and Antioquia. She received support from the Antioquia-based party, Estamos Listas (We are ready), the first feminist political party in Colombia. Feminist alliances with Estamos Listas, as well as other feminist movements such as Artemisa and Mujeres Diversas, contributed to the votes won by Márquez in the primaries.

Now, after years of on-the-ground struggles, Márquez’s revolutionary political stance is finally visible. While there is no guarantee that Márquez will become Colombia’s first Black woman vice president in May, her work so far has already blazed a path for future Black feminist politicians and created new space for people who have been historically excluded from Colombia’s highest political institutions.