Historically, the Afro-Colombian community has infused national folklore with its music, dance and other artistic expressions.
Afro-descendant communities spread across Colombia’s 32 departments and represent just over 4 million inhabitants. Historically, they have infused national folklore with their music, dance and other artistic expressions.
However, discrimination and racism have rendered them invisible in areas such as the legislative, scientific and academic branches, making them one of the most vulnerable in the country.
AFROCOLOMBIANS, A VISIBLE MINORITY
In Bogota, for example, 110,000 Afro-Colombians are a visible minority amid the 8 million people who live in the capital city. One of them is Natalia Santiesteban Mosquera, author of “El Color del Espejo” or the Color of the Mirror’, a book containing the stories and experiences of five Afro-Bogotans in environments where racism, sexism and inequalities converge.
She was born in the 80’s in Bogota, where she endured misunderstanding and a sort of tokenism since she was the only black person in her undergraduate and graduate class and the only black tenured professor at the university where she worked.
This is why she believes it is urgent for the efforts of people of African descent to be made visible in writing and in academia. “We need to learn to approach the issue with equity and equality”.
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ETHNOEDUCATION IS THE KEY TO UNDERSTANDING THE AFROCOLOMBIAN FOOTPRINT
She believes that an ethno-education program, not only for ethnic groups (black and native) but all Colombians, “will allow the creation of new spaces for educational and social participation”.
Although there is a long way to go for afrodescendants in the aforementioned fields, in the artistic and cultural arena they are conquering spaces throughout Colombia.
We toured the country to discover those artistic footprints being stamped by renowned Afro-Colombians
CONTROL FINA: MUSIC OF THE “Comuna 13”
More than 400 kilometers from Bogota, “Comuna 13” or the 13th borough, builds a new image as the cultural and artistic district of Medellín, leaving behind its dark and violent past.
Here is where Yaren and Jordakix create, amid gigantic open-air graffiti, urban music. In 2016 they created “Control Fina”, a duo that promotes the “urban fusion” genre, which is a studio mix of saxophone and clarinet with dancehall and trapetón (latin trap).
Both are from El Chocó, a territory in the Colombian Pacific historically besieged by armed groups and illegal mining, and home to more than 200,000 Afro-Colombians and hundreds more who, like Yaren and Jordakix, have moved to the Colombian metropolis in search of new opportunities.
From their own studio called 24.7, they have recorded themes like Tic Tac and Durísimo, obtaining the Afro-urban prize for best artistic group, awarded by Medellín Joven or the Medellin Youth movement in 2017.
This place has also served as classroom for teaching music production to about twenty neighborhood youngsters, who due to their social conditions are unable to attend the university for formal training.
“We want them to work hard for their dreams and engage in social and cultural processes in the borough, regardless of their race or past. We believe that with perseverance, sacrifice, effort and desire, we can have a better future”, claims Yaren, who has experienced discrimination during part of his life, not only because of his skin color, but because of his origin.
“The people who discriminate against us are the same people who like how black people dance and paint. This is a clear indication of the following: Black people from the borough are no longer equated with the thief, but with the artist, affirms Yaren.
In Medellin, afrodescendants make up 10% of the population (about 235 thousand inhabitants). Since 2017, the local government has promoted a public policy in the city’s development plan, which is the first of its kind in Colombia to encompass social campaigns that seek the same end: respect for differences and diversity.
ANTONIO JIMÉNEZ TRIUMPHS IN COLOMBIAN TV
Actor Antonio Jiménez lived his childhood and teenage years in Chapacuá, a humble neighborhood of Cartagena, a city erected on the shores of the Caribbean Sea, famous for being a great tourist asset in Colombia and the world.
From his Afro-Colombian father he inherited the blackness of his skin, his smile and his joy; from the native Colombian ancestry of his mother, her slant eyes and solidarity. These distinctive elements “have opened doors for me to do the things that I do in Colombia”, he emphasizes.
For the past 17 years, when he left his hometown to settle in Bogota, Antonio has built a solid career in television and theater that has even led him to be the lead role in several productions. In 2014 he embodied the great footballer Freddy Rincón, in the telenovela (soap opera) “La Selección”.
Last year, Antonio played the villain in “La mamá del 10” or Number 10’s Mom, a fictional story developed in El Chocó and in the outskirts of Bogota, with a black cast. This production not only led the ratings in Colombia, but is currently a success in African countries like Angola and Mozambique.
This Cartagenean proudly recounts how “in early March (2019), the CEO of that broadcasting network came to Bogota and told us that she was very interested in continuing to take these telenovelas to Africa because for them, Colombia is the only country in Latin America that casts people of color”.
Given his experience, the 34-year-old artist thinks that racism is nothing more than ignorance. “Black people in Colombia also deserve to be called ‘king’, ‘queen’, ‘precious’ (…) not ‘dirty blacks’, as some ladies still refer to us in Cartagena. That can only be achieved with education and an understanding that the world is open to all, even people of color.
MISS BALANTA AND THE PROMINENCE OF TURBANS
Doris Balanta, an Afro-descendant teacher, of quaint character and an infinite love for turbans, has always been an inspiration for her daughter, the Cali designer Angelica Castillo. That is why she adopted her mother’s surname to name her brand of accessories: Miss Balanta.
During her childhood in Cali, the city with the largest population of people of African descent in Colombia – more than 600 thousand according to the Office of Ethnic Affairs – Angelica used headwraps for practical reason… she “was lazy to comb her hair”. But with the brand, she came to understand many things behind this piece of cloth with flashy prints.
“It is a cloth of resistance for black women that also has spiritual and religious power. In each country, different meanings and deference are accorded to it, “said the young black-skinned publicist, who was also a catwalk model.
Her designs have toured different fairs organized by the Colombian textile industry and, as a promoter, she has taken her lectures to different stages.
With her designs, Miss Balanta has achieved several things: “People now understand that this is not just a rag for the head, but a symbol of my culture. In addition, this garment has served to empower thousands of Colombians suffering from cancer or alopecia”, as explained to PanamericanWorld.
But what is most significant for Angelica, Colombia’s Miss Balanta, is when her clients tell her that her turbans are able to bring bright energy to their lives. “And that is something I have always believed”, she stresses, “attracting positive energy and feeling proud of my African origin“.
BELKY ARIZALA’S SOUL HAS NO COLOR
Cucuta is the birthplace of 41-year old model Belky Arizala. Her family settled in this city bordering Venezuela, where the Afro-Colombian community is one of the smallest in the country (about 30 thousand people).
Like many girls, she dreamed of being crowned Miss Colombia but, because she was black, she claimed to have been discriminated against in beauty pageants, fashion runways, and even college, where several classmates shaved her hair, as a form of joke.
Those sad episodes were no obstacle for her to make a name for herself in the fashion world. Belky says “I had to work double and show a lot discipline to gain a spot in the market. Since few were the hair stylists who wanted to deal with my hair, I decided to shave it. To my surprise, that move opened doors for me”.
Magazine covers, catwalks and some roles in soap operas paved the artistic road for Belky, who in 2004 saw the need to create a foundation with a humanitarian content for the population of African descent. “The soul has no color” was born out of her desire to make a difference and she set out to manage projects for this vulnerable population group”.
Last year she returned to television. This time as one of the directors of “The Agency”, a modeling reality show in which Arizala managed to get her two apprentices, Jhan Mena and Andrea Rubio, to win the grand prize of 400 million pesos (about 135 thousand dollars).
After this experience, Belky has continued working from Bogota to achieve her next goal: becoming Colombia’s Oprah Winfrey with her own talk show.
In parallel, her foundation continues to defend the fact that in Colombia “an ethnic-oriented education is necessary so that we understand that Afro-descendants have a historical and cultural identity that must be promoted and that, like mestizos and whites, we have the same rights as citizens of the world “.
RESCUING AFRICAN RHYTHMS WITH PABLO “TAMBOR”
The Department of Arauca is another border region between Colombia and Venezuela. It is the oil and farming engine of the country, but for decades, it too has been besieged by paramilitary groups, such as FARC and the ELN.
There, in the municipality of Saravena, more than 700 kilometers from Bogota, is where Pablo Jiménez was born and raised, a cultural manager who, through drumming, teaches music and dance to both children and adults. And with his basketball academy, he trains hundreds of young people in this discipline.
From his parents who hailed from the Caribbean and the Pacific coasts, Pablo inherited this love for music. “My brother Carlos and I spent hours creating rhythms on the kitchen table, with knives and utensils. Nobody taught us percussion. We learned by listening to songs and by watching videos on television”, said Jiménez, who is known in his community as Pablo “Tambor”.
Cumbia, bambuco, mapalé and other Afro rhythms can be heard throughout Arauca thanks to the group “Tambor Urbano” or Urban Drum, formed by Pablo and his brother Carlos with other Colombian musicians of the region. “The drum communicates what we are. It’s the sound connection that makes us understand that we are all the same”.
Three years ago Pablo received, for his work in favor of the arts in his homeland, the Titanes Caracol Prize in the Culture category, an acknowledgement that made him commit even more to serving his community.
As far as the presence of black people in civic settings is concerned, he says “although we are acknowledged for our achievements in sport and the arts, we need to be active in other scenarios, such as the political and academic arena, in order to build a new Colombia”.
Article written by Alicia Pepe