Esteban Sinisterra Paz, 23, in his studio in Cali, Colombia.
Esteban Sinisterra Paz, 23, in his studio in Cali, Colombia. (Charlie Cordero/For The Washington Post)

Meet the designer who’s dressing Colombia’s first Black vice president

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BOGOTÁ, Colombia — Esteban Sinisterra Paz was 5 years old when armed men told his family — and everyone else in their small, predominantly Afro-Colombian town of Santa Bárbara de Iscuandé — that they had to leave. Anyone who stayed behind, they warned, would be killed.

Sinisterra, his parents and three sisters jumped into a boat and traveled down the Iscuandé River. It carried them to a safe refuge: The home of his grandmother, a seamstress. The place where, for the first time, he saw the magic of fabric being turned into something more.

He grew up helping his aunt sew dresses, and his grandmother make blankets with the fragments his aunt no longer needed. When he was 14, he started dreaming of founding a fashion line.

Now 23, he’s the personal designer for the woman who will become Colombia’s first Black vice president. Francia Márquez, a housekeeper turned environmental activist and lawyer, will take office alongside President-elect Gustavo Petro in August.

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Throughout the campaign and since the election, Márquez has used her growing prominence to mainstream her Afro-Colombian heritage. In this, Sinisterra is her partner. The vice president-elect, working with Sinisterra and fashion consultant Diana Rojas, has drawn notice for the bright colors and intricate patterns that are unusual for the political arena here, where few Black politicians have reached national office and few female politicians wear clothing beyond traditional professional attire.

“Márquez’s wardrobe has been a vehicle for sharing her origin and culture,” said Mona Herbe, a visual artist in Bogotá. “In her speeches, she has mentioned with clarity problems her people have been subjected to, like racism, marginalization, injustice and precariousness. But, with her clothes, she sends messages of the beauty, complexity and richness of her ancestors.”

Márquez, who before the campaign was a jeans-and-shirt kind of person, described a 2019 trip she took to Senegal’s Gorée Island, a port from which enslaved Africans were shipped to the Americas.

“You see people wearing colorful clothes all the time,” she told The Washington Post before the election. “The drawings on the fabrics have many meanings. So, for me, to represent this in a political campaign is to also talk of the language of memory, which has been deleted from us, denied to us. I dress the way I do on purpose.”

And there’s the potential benefit of helping her connect with Colombia’s substantial Afro-Caribbean community — officially 6.2 percent of the population, but believed to be larger.

Márquez was also courting controversy — again. She spent the campaign discussing her Blackness and calling out Colombia’s racism. That’s disruptive talk in a country that for generations identified its people as sharing a single mixed race, called Mestizo, even as Afro-Colombian and Indigenous communities faced disproportionate rates of poverty, violence and displacement.

“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,” anthropologist Eduardo Restrepo said.

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Márquez and Sinisterra share much in common. Both are Afro-Colombians from the country’s Pacific coast; both are among the roughly 8 million people who were forcibly displaced during Colombia’s bloody, decades-long conflict. In her campaign speeches, Márquez often spoke directly to the “nobodies” — the poor, the excluded, the Indigenous, the Afro-Colombian.

“I’m a nobody, too,” Sinisterra said. “But we have risen up to resist and come to power.”

Márquez’s sartorial transformation took work.

“It was not easy to convince her to give up jeans,” Rojas said. When Márquez started the campaign as a presidential candidate, she didn’t want to wear two-piece suits. They agreed: They wanted color.

“I wanted designers from the southwestern part of the country to have a chance,” Rojas said. A large part of the population there is Black. Many recommended Sinisterra, whom Márquez already knew.

“Within our community, she has always been a leader, an inspiration,” Sinisterra said. “I had already manufactured garments for her.”

Sinisterra began working with African-inspired prints after his family’s displacement in 2004.

“People from small towns want to show our cultural expressions in bigger cities like Buenaventura and Cali,” he said, two cities where he has lived. “In my case, I wanted to show it once I realized, after being discriminated against, that I was a Black man. In my hometown, I wasn’t aware I was a Black man — I was just a regular guy.”

In Santa Bárbara de Iscuandé, a cluster of wooden shacks with zinc roofs, everyone was Black. And almost everyone was poor.

They didn’t know the armed men who forced them to flee, but they knew to heed their warning. By then, records show, illegal coca crops had begun to fill the fields of Nariño, their department on the border with Ecuador. Massacres, killings and displacements have become common as paramilitary and guerrilla groups fight for territory.

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Sinisterra launched his fashion line, Esteban African, to pay for food and other needs. His parents lacked professional training. They bought and sold items to support their four children, but money was scarce. Sinisterra and his cousins would gather bottles of the Colombian liquor aguardiente — “burning water” — to sell for change.

Sinisterra thought he could make a living from fashion. Initially, men’s fashion.

His father was not keen on the idea: Needlework is meant for women, he said. So, Sinisterra signed up for social work. He wanted peace with his father. He aimed to become the first in his family to attend university.

Sinisterra has juggled his undergrad studies and his fashion line. He has one semester left before he graduates as a social worker who happens to also be a designer, with a small workshop in his family’s home in a working-class neighborhood on Cali’s east side. That’s where he keeps his fabric, two knitting machines, an ironing table — and the bright, colorful handmade pieces ready to be delivered.

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Fabrics with African prints are Sinisterra’s raw material. “I find that the most pretty and representative fabric is the Kente print, which pays homage to Ghana’s women picking up the fruits the land gives,” he said. “It is a bit similar to the baskets made by women in the Pacific to gather up whatever the ocean provides.”

He has mostly created suits of multiple pieces so that Márquez can mix and match them in different combinations, creating the illusion of a different outfit every day. “I’m a poor woman,” Márquez has said repeatedly.

Africa and the Colombian Pacific heritage are on every skirt, top or jacket.

Sinisterra says Márquez has received donations of fabric but has paid for every finished piece. He won’t reveal how much. “She is my sister. We decided to support her political aspiration,” Sinisterra said. “It’s something that goes beyond economic issues. We have to stick up for each other.”

The work has gained attention for Sinisterra’s business. He says he’s been contacted by other politicians, artists and scholars. He didn’t give details.

He has been invited to the inauguration Aug. 7.

“The day she will take office I’d like to see Francia making all the people that are behind her, and have invested time and effort in this collective, beautiful and meaningful project, feel proud,” he said. “I hope she makes all the children who sometimes believe Black people have no opportunity to hold such positions, proud.”

He also wants to see which outfit Márquez has selected of the three he has sent her.

He still doesn’t know what he’ll wear.

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