Voices of el pueblo: the road to the Colombian elections

‏On June 19, los y las nadies/the nobodies of Colombia represented by Gustavo Petro as president elect and Francia Elena Márquez Mina, or just Francia, as vice-president elect ruptured politics as normal in Colombia and arguably more globally. This is the first government of the Afro, Indigenous, Mestiza-subaltern majorities on the peripheries in the history of electoral democratic politics in the country. These majorities are composed of formally organised social movements in urban and rural movements, radical elements of combative unions like the teachers’ unions. and the non-formally organised working classes and informal poor. It is Francia, AfroColombian single mother, displaced activist-lawyer from Cauca department in the southwest of the country that is at the heart of the roots and soul of this historic rupture. She enfleshes a politics built around the three threads of soy porque somos (I am because we are), hasta que la dignidad se haga costrumbre (until dignity becomes the norm) and vivir sabroso (living pleasureably).

These three threads emerge from the black intersectional feminisms forged through the lineages of struggle and resistance and of the ancestors which Francia embodies and who she walks with. However, it is precisely her presence that is negated, devalued and cruelly ridiculed by Colombia, Western, Australian media and political analysts both mainstream and ‘progressive’. Why? Because she is the embodiment of another Colombia, of another project of life, pleasure, dignity and liberation that has been emergent and co-woven over decades in the underside of the peripheries in regions like Cauca, Valle de Cauca, Choco. As she declared in her and Petro’s victory speech ‘after two hundred years we have achieved a government of the people … of the nobodies. Now we will live with dignity.’

The enormity of this political victory and its revolutionary potential is embodied through Francia’s role in it.  It can be fully felt if we understand how Colombia’s economic and political elites through their control over the state and political institutions have treated its majority peripheries with contempt and a strategy of extermination.  These racialised peripheries have been relegated to disposability and dereliction, and have suffered a massive process of dispossession and violent political silencing.

Colombia has one of the highest rates of murder of social leaders and of displacement due to the violence of the war on drugs and purported peace process. These have been used to clear the way for transnational capital and Colombian elites to violently displace Afro, Indigenous and peasant communities from their lands.  The other(ed) Colombia has been subject to ongoing violence of a modern colonial-capitalist project tied to the project of blanqueamento (whitening).

Independence from Spain in 1820 saw the configuration of the great mestiza-nation presumed upon the heralded disappearance of Indigenous communities and the erasure of the presence of Afro Colombians of slave descent. All would become Mestizo now, a process of blanqueamiento in which, as Christian Gros has written ‘there was no place or future for the Indigenous population … except as a legacy from the past, as a ‘stain’ that had to be cleaned … in the republic of liberal dreams.’

Strict frontiers were drawn throughout the late 1800s and into the 20th century in the ‘lettered city’ of civilisation and modernity embodied in the capital Bogota, in which the Indigenous, Afro and mestiza peasant were rendered uncivil, dangerous, dirty yet able to be super-exploited as labourers, domestic workers, racialised mothers separated from their babies and kin caring for the babies of Criollo women. Whilst in the countryside—that wild, untameable tierra so rich in minerals and resources—indentured slavery reigned, as did ongoing militarised and violent policing by a para-military state. This was a key US ally in the region, exercising its violent power over campesino, Indigenous, and Afro communities, their ways of life and relationships of kin, and forms of social economy (on this, see Margarita Chaves and Marta Zambrano).

The political and economic project of Colombian elites has thus operated through the nexus between whiteness, masculinity and modernity. These three categories are converted into urban middle class, masculinised and mestiza (as in white) as the only social group with the right to govern, the capacity to make democratic political proposals, the duty to overcome and eradicate the backwardness associated with the racialised peripheries, and the knowledge of what is better for communities to which they don’t belong.

This explains the most common violent insult that is thrown at Francia and all who she walks with politically, socially and culturally is la igualada—a derogatory racist, classist and sexist term directed by urban white elites towards those from the racialised peripheries. A term implying she is someone from the peripheries who acts above her station and believes erroneously she has a right to the privileges, political rights and resources of the ‘civilised’ elites.

Francia’s presence is a direct rebellious challenge to the terms of the political conversation of Colombia hetero-patriarchal capitalist-colonial nexus of power and its reign of terror.  Francia won her place as vice presidential candidate without giving any political concession, radicalising the reach of the political project: and making proposals that made visible the violent racist, sexist and classist co-constitutive and ongoing foundations of Colombia’s state and political-economic project.

Soy porque somos means recognition that it is impossible to talk about Francia without acknowledging the lineages of struggle that she comes from—born as she was in the Toma outside of Suarez, in the department of Cauca of South west Colombia, into an Afro-colombian community with one of the fiercest histories of resistance to slavery and indentured labour. This is one of the only communities where people have maintained their African surnames. Soy porque somos also signifies an extended sense of kin, in which all of the community are family: not only through blood and not only as human kin, but through the shared occupation and defence of territory and community against the encroachment of multinationals, the paramilitary state and illegal mining (on this see Mábel Lara and Francia’s own speech upon receiving the Goldman Prize).

Soy porque somos also means recognition of the lineage of Black feminism and of the tri-cultural feminist movements in Cali, where she was displaced in 2014 after receiving death threats against her and her family (on this see Norma Bermúdez; Sara Motta). Here, Francia took up studying law at Univalle public university at the behest of her community, so she would be able to defend them in the halls of juridical power.

Soy porque somos is why Francia organised her campaign through circles of comadrazgo or comadreando/comothering. In these circular and participatory forms of political organising all have the right to the word, the knowledges emerging from the lived experiences of multiple violences and displacements are centred, and proposals emerge from the weaving of communitarian political organising across the racialised and feminised peripheries.

The second thread of the project, hasta que la dignidad se haga costumbre, means to live lives that are free of fear; free from the threats of displacement, the threat of assassination and the violent negation of lifeworlds, kinship relations, and the knowledges of racialised peripheries. But this dignidad is also the dignity that comes from standing up against the violences upon which the elite project of modern Colombia has been premised. It is a standing up for life and an embrace and remembering as embodiment of the dignity that Francia walks in the relation of soy porque somos. Of a dignity that remains and is present in the long lineages of resistance and rebellion from which her appearance into political history has been made possible and of which she is the enfleshment.

As she describes in her speech at winning the International Goldman Prize in 2018 for her struggle in defence of land and against illegal mining in Cauca,

they teach us (all who come before/kin) that dignity does not have a price, that to resist is not to endure. They teach us that it is to love and value land as a space of life, to fight for this, even if this means putting our own lives at risk.

There is dignity in resisting. There is dignity in Francia’s presence, which stands in resistance to the terms of politics, democracy, and the political subject in Colombia and arguably of modernity/coloniality as a global project of anti-life.

Vivir sabroso, or to live pleasurably, is an Afro-Colombian concept which—as Mena Lozano and Meneses Copete articulate—is shared and travels with inter-cultural kin in these struggles for a politics of life. It emerges from the lived experiences of dignity and/as resistance, or survival and defence of territory of lands and bodies from the lineages of black, and intersectional feminisms of her comadres, elders and kin/familia. Vivir sabroso is to live in peace and responsible relationship with human and more than human/non-human kin.

As Afro-Colombian journalist Mábel Lara describes:

Our peoples there have lived historically sabrososVivir sabroso means to wake up and fish … It means have the peace of sharing in community a land where everyone is family: the neighbour is tia/auntie, the kids are cousins, the abuelas/grandmothers the highest authorities, and everyone weaves threads together, not because of blood but because they coinhabit as family in relation for centuries.

Vivir sabroso means to sing to the rivers and honour the mountains as ancestors. As I have illustrated, it means to co-weave a politics of life which defends the territories of body and land, develops pedagogies and practices of healing from the ancestral and ongoing wounds of state and everyday gendered violences that result . It means taking seriously the politics of social reproduction—of health, education, water, housing—and co-managing, co-envisioning and co-enfleshing their organisation otherwise. As I argue with my comadres NL Bermudez and EM Figuerao in a forthcoming piece entitled ‘An Erotic and Poetic Political Subjectivity of the Sacred Enfleshed’ it means centering the ancestors and  the knowledges of the enfleshed of the land, body in communion and collective liberatory praxis.

Francia and the racialised and feminised communities and movements of the peripheries who walk together are a beacon of hope and inspiration for the possibilities of an emancipatory politics of the nobodies for the 21st Century. For like this we all, Black, Indigenous, colonised communities and others who are systematically violently negated refuse our erasure and eradication with pleasure, pride and dignity.

A vivir sabroso!

Sara C Motta

Sara C Motta is a proud Indigenous-Mestiza of Colombia Chibcha/Muisca, Eastern European Jewish and Celtic lineages currently living, loving and re-existiendo on the unceded lands of the Awabakal and Worimi peoples, NSW, so called Australia. She is mother curandera, poet, bare-breasted philosopher, popular educator, and Associate Professor at the University of Newcastle, NSW. Sara has worked for over two decades with raced and feminised kin in resistance/re-existencias in, against and beyond heteronormative capitalist-coloniality in Europe, Latin America and Australia and has published widely in academic and activist-community outlets. Her latest book Liminal Subjects: Weaving (Our) Liberation (Rowman and Littlefield) was winner of the 2020 best Feminist Book, International Studies Associate (ISA).

More by Sara C Motta ›

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  1. Excellent, informative, incisive and hard-hitting analysis of momentous events in Colombia – ignored or belittled by western media outlets.

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