The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Black feminist activist who could be Colombia’s vice president

Colombia's vice-presidential candidate for the Historic Pact leftist alliance, Francia Marquez (R), gestures during a campaign rally ahead of the May general election, in Medellin, Colombia, on April 4, 2022. (Joaquin Sarmiento/AFP/Getty Images)

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — As a prominent activist, Francia Márquez faced death threats, racist tweets — even an assassination attempt. Then she was named a candidate for vice president to the front-runner in this month’s election. Within weeks, the president of Colombia’s senate accused her of links to one of the country’s most violent guerrilla groups.

But Márquez was used to defending herself. Surrounded by reporters, she responded to the attack in a firm, confident voice.

“What really makes the president uncomfortable,” she said, “is that today, a woman who could have been the woman in his house, working as a maid, could now be his vice president.”

It’s a statement Márquez has repeated proudly throughout her historic campaign, reminding supporters and critics alike of who she is: An Afro-Colombian woman. A single mother of two who gave birth to her first child when she was 16 and cleaned houses to pay the bills. An award-winning environmental activist who led a 10-day march to defend her community from illegal mining.

A lawyer who could now become Colombia’s first Black vice president.

The 40-year-old, who has never held political office, stunned Colombians in March when she won the third most votes in the country’s presidential primary. She’s now one of the most visible candidates in the election, packing plazas and electrifying crowds as she runs alongside leftist senator Gustavo Petro. If they win, she would be one of only two Black female vice presidents in Latin America.

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Of the six presidential tickets in the May 29 election, four have an Afro-Colombian vice-presidential candidate — a remarkable shift in a country historically led by men from a small group of elite families.

But it’s Márquez whose message has broken through. Her straight talk and her life story are forcing Colombia to confront its racist, classist and sexist past and present.

“I’m part of a community that has historically been excluded and marginalized, a community that was enslaved,” she told The Washington Post. “It’s more than just about the color of our skin. It’s about the elite who believe they are superior, that the rest are inferior and that it doesn’t matter.”

Márquez is a kind of leader who has rarely reached the highest levels of power in the hemisphere, and not only because she is a Black feminist activist from a working-class background. Shes forcing people to question their privilege in ways few other Black politicians have.

“She’s disputing the legitimacy of a government run by the elite,” said Mara Viveros Vigolla, a professor of gender studies and anthropology at Colombia’s National University. “She’s telling them, ‘You’re speaking on behalf of a community you do not know.’ ”

Colombia has one of the largest populations of descendants of Africans in Latin America. Census data indicates Afro-Colombians make up more than 6.2 percent of the population, but analysts say the true count may be much larger.

Márquez’s talk about race is disruptive in a country that for generations identified its people as sharing a single mixed race, called Mestizo. In its 1991 constitution, Colombia formally recognized itself as multicultural, distinguishing among Indigenous and Black ethnic groups with specific territorial and cultural rights.

But Afro-Colombian and Indigenous communities continue to face disproportionate levels of poverty, violence and displacement. About 31 percent of the Afro-Colombian population are living in poverty, 11 points higher than the national population, according to government figures.

“We are not happily diverse, we’re conflictingly different,” said Johana Herrera, director of the Observatory of Ethnic Territories at Javeriana University.

As much as 90 percent of the population along the Pacific Coast is Afro-Colombian, most of them descended from people enslaved by the Spanish to work in gold mines in the region before the legal abolition of slavery in 1851. But there’s a long-held belief among Colombians that Black people live only in the remote forests of the Pacific region, Herrera says. This false narrative — along with an undercount by the census — allows local officials in some parts of the country to deny that Afro-Colombian people live in their jurisdictions, limiting the resources and land titles granted to these communities.

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Unlike in the United States, race and racism has rarely been discussed on a national stage.

“The racism that exists in the United States has been one of institutional explicitness,” said Colombian anthropologist Eduardo Restrepo. “Since there have never been segregation laws here, like in the United States or South Africa, people take that to mean there’s no racism here.”

Márquez did not graduate from a prestigious university, nor did she rise through traditional political jobs. She was educated as an agricultural technician and in 2020 earned a law degree from a university in Cali, near her home.

This is also what distinguishes her from the other Black candidates running for vice president. Luis Gilberto Murillo, the running mate for centrist candidate Sergio Fajardo, is a former environmental minister and governor who was educated abroad. Murillo “speaks in the language of the elites,” Viveros said.

Murillo, asked if Colombia is racist, responded: “I’m not the one saying it; the constitutional court has said it, many times. If I say it is, then people will call me resentful.”

Murillo always wears a suit and tie, he told The Post. “If you dress down, as an Afro-descendent man, you can be sure you’ll be stopped.”

Márquez, meanwhile, wears colorful Afro-Colombian prints and big jewelry. When she stands beside Petro, she often raises a fist — while smiling.

“The problem people have with Francia is that she is a Black woman who does not behave well, who knows she is Black, and knows what that means in historical terms,” Restrepo said. “And she doesn’t shut up.”

It wasn’t always so. As a child growing up in a predominantly Afro-Colombian community in Cauca, Márquez said, she didn’t want to be Black. She associated her roots with images of Africa she saw on television, “showing us malnourished children with flies in their mouths.”

As a teenager, she thought that dating a White man would help her move up in society. But when she became pregnant at 16, he abandoned her.

She began to connect with her Black identity as she listened to stories from her grandmother, who never learned to read and whose great-grandmother was enslaved. “She told me about our people’s struggle to protect our land,” Márquez said.

Márquez spoke out against illegal gold mining. Death threats forced her to flee her town. That same year, she led dozens of women on a 217-mile march to Bogotá to protest a mine that threatened a river on which her community depended. The Colombian government eventually responded by sending troops to push the illegal miners out.

In 2018, Márquez won the Goldman Environmental Prize, awarded to one activist from each of six regions around the world. A year later, she survived an assassination attempt.

“She forces people to wake up,” said Axel Rojas, an anthropology professor at the University of Cauca, “despite all of the real risks that means.”

On the campaign trail, she has been the target of racist attacks on social media. A Colombian singer compared her to “King Kong.” A member of her own party shared an image depicting Márquez as a gorilla, and claimed he was trying to defend her.

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Some rivals say she isn’t being singled out. Rodrigo Lara Sánchez, running mate to conservative Federico Gutiérrez, is the son of a justice minister who was killed by Pablo Escobar’s hit men in 1984.

When asked about racist attacks against Márquez, Lara argued they were no different from the threats and comments he faces as a politician.

“To me, there’s no difference between what I’ve suffered and lived and what she’s lived,” said Lara.

Márquez says racism in Colombia has long been “covered up.”

“It’s more difficult to demonstrate racism here,” she said. “But now, it’s not as difficult. And if there’s one thing that makes me happy, it’s that. That people don’t need to tell us we’re resentful for talking about racism anymore. That they’ve realized it exists, right?”