“En los E.E.U.U. por que no se puede llamar ‘negro’ a una persona negra?”
In the US, why can’t you call a black person a negro?
This was a question posed to me by one of my students that I was not quite sure how to answer, so I went textbook:
“In the United States, we have a long and complicated history with race and racism. In Latin America, it is very common for people to describe each other based on appearance. The history of slavery and social inequality has added negative associations to harmless sounding words—’negro’ doesn’t just mean ‘black’ “.
In retrospect, I can see how silly it must have sounded to explain to someone known as ‘gordo’ (fat man) that it is rude to call someone with dark skin ‘dark-skinned’ or an overweight woman ‘fat’. Though Americans have the stereotype of being overly direct and insensitive across the globe, we have a very delicate and complicated relationship with our own diversity—too complicated, perhaps, for many foreigners to understand, especially when our country has modeled itself as a post-racial society to the outside world.
I arrived in Colombia on December 29th, 2013 as a member of a national initiative to improve bilingual programs nationwide. Being born and raised in South Florida and going to college in Orlando, where I minored in Spanish, I liked to think I had more insight into Latin-Caribbean culture than most Americans. Long and short: I’ve been eating ‘platanos’, drinking rum and aguardiente (sorry mom), and dancing salsa/bachata since before I could drive. Throw in the fact that my brother married a ‘Paisa’ (a term for people from Medellin) and you’d think that I had this whole thing figured out, perhaps much more than I actually did.
After living in Northeast Colombia for about 8 months, here’s how the cookie crumbled:
My first day at work, a colleague and I walked through the front gate. In mid conversation, I heard someone say, “señor!”. I turned around to see security guards motioning for me to come over to search my bag. School protocol. While completely ordinary in and of itself, I couldn’t help but notice that my coworker had breezed right in, almost unnoticed. I should also note that my coworker is blond-haired and blue-eyed.
During the next few days, we were paraded around the school and randomly stopped and questioned by nearly every student in the academy, of which there are about 1,500. “De donde viene?” (Where do you come from?) was about as commonplace as ‘hola’ during this time period. “Son los extranjeros, ¿no?” (You guys are the foreigners, right?) As expected, it was naturally assumed that my co-worker was ‘Americano’, but when it came to me, I was either from Africa or some other Caribbean nation, or I was just asked where my parents migrated from. I should note that my family has been in the US for easily the last five or six generations, while my coworker’s grandparents are from Holland. Perhaps the most shocking experience is being in the Western hemisphere and still presumed to be African because my skin is so dark-northeast Colombia just doesn’t have many blacks and not everyone makes the Obama connection immediately. Shit happens.
“Oye mi negro!”
became a phrase I grew quite accustomed to hearing. Be it on the way to work, heading to the store or giving change to the homeless. I quickly learned that being addressed purely by my physical appearance was part of daily life here. I even made it a point to create nicknames for other people. Being called ‘negro’ or ‘moreno’ happened so often that I, in a way, became adjusted to it. I found the experience a bit refreshing after coming from a place where everything is so racially charged. This is not to say that many Colombians aren’t racist; some will try and say that there is no racism in Colombia but don’t be fooled—discrimination just functions a bit differently here. Until I mention that I’m from the U.S. (and don’t just say “America” because there’s more than one), most people assume that I’m from the coast or somewhere like Cali because that’s where they know black people are. Either way, unless I’m being addressed by my friends or students, I am most likely being identified by my skin color and will be treated according to my perceived birthplace. Sometimes, I don’t lend it a second thought, while other times, it may very well rub me the wrong way. Perhaps the worst assumption that can be made in Santander is that I am from anywhere in the Pacific region. This is because, in my experience, the name Chocó elicits either a blank stare or a look of repugnance in this neck of the woods. The 50+ year paramilitary conflict between the FARC and the FLN further compartmentalized an already regional society. “Santander is for Santandereanos”, and likewise for each and every region unto itself. Up until the last 15 years, most people couldn’t even travel outside of their own department by road for fear of kidnapping and murder. When you throw in the fact that the Pacific coast is known for corruption and poverty (usually associated with darker skin) most Santandereans have no desire to find out anything else about the place. So little, in fact, that one woman thought I was crazy for going somewhere so dangerous for any reason other than to be with ‘negritos’. The more time I spent around various cities in Colombia, the more I saw parallels to my own country.
While the police are much less aggressive here, Being perceived as Black Colombian, I’m initially seen as lazy and unmotivated or a criminal. I have seen women clutch their purses upon seeing me and have had people ask me if I had drugs for sale. Outside of school, “Are you an athlete?” or “Do you play basketball?” are still among the first questions posed to me. If I happen to walk into a particularly fancy establishment, I receive more than a few confused “what are you doing here?” looks until, of course, I pull out my ID (they ask you for your ID for EVERYTHING here), and they realize I’m from the US. It really does change people’s entire disposition towards me within seconds. I’m no longer thought of as intimidating or dangerous because I come from a richer country. I am now welcomed company. Folks are liable to ask me to take a picture or go have a beer with them. At the opposite end of the spectrum, I had some very confusing conversations with people about why greeting me with the phrase “Whats up my nigga” just wasn’t a smart idea. As it turns out, rap fans exist worldwide. A considerable amount of whom are not Black, but have literally been itching to use rap lingo in real life. Who knew? Colombia’s race dynamic was further illuminated however, upon my ventures out west.
By being in a place with more of “us”, the disparities become much clearer. Take Cali, for example. It’s a considerably developed city with the reputation of being the capital of Salsa music and dancing; they’re REALLY good at it. Cali’s population is considerably more diverse than Bucaramanga’s, however, the vast majority of its Afro residents reside in a single district called Aguablanca. Spoiler alert: it’s the most impoverished/drug-infested district in town. Aguablanca is overpopulated and underserved. It’s pretty easy to find at night because it’s the only section of the city skyline without streetlights. The trick is finding a cab willing to drive you there. The district is lacking in quality schooling and healthcare, and the cops are MUCH more heavily armed.
Moving along to Quibdo, Chocó’s capital, you would think you’ve been transported to the West Indies or West Africa. Its population is roughly 90% Afro with some leftover indigenous tribes mixed in. The topography is pure jungle, and most of the roads aren’t paved; it’s accessible by air and sea, exclusively. If you ain’t flying or sailing, you ain’t getting there. Though this region of Colombia is quite literally the wettest place on earth (Google it sometime), you can’t drink the water because they don’t have an efficient sewerage system. One need not spend too much time there before realizing that the Pacific is the place that time forgot. Most structures are old and in disrepair, and most of the population lives off of tourism, subsistence fishing, and moving contraband. There is nothing else. The newest building I saw in Bahia Solano was the naval base for the military police. Aside from policing and tourism, little investments are made in the region, and blacks weren’t even allowed to own land there until about 1993. Unfortunately, some landowners have been displaced by land grabbing (Colombia has one of the largest internally displaced populations in the world) and are forced to work in horrid conditions, mining for platinum and gold. In case you were wondering, they don’t have great salaries, nor are they given benefits. Being raised in a traditional southern family, I couldn’t help but think of my father’s and grandmother’s stories of working as sharecroppers on labor farms in Delaware. I felt as though I had stepped back in time, just dubbed in Spanish. I had the chance to speak with some locals. They were in shock when they discovered that we ‘mezclar’ (mix) races in the US. “That would almost never happen here” is more or less what I got. This was the side of Colombia that no one had ever mentioned to me, a far cry from the racial harmony projected via the smiling ‘morenitas’ and ‘palenqueras’ of Cartagena, which really only perpetuate stereotypes of sex and servitude. Either your ass looks nice in a bikini or you’re wearing traditional garb and selling fruit. The men? Either committing crimes or playing sports (think Colombia’s national team). There is no middle ground. Everything started to sound too familiar in ways that I, quite frankly, was tired of.
So what are the positives?
In any and every society, there are grassroots movements. Fortunately enough, Colombia is no different. I managed to come across a group called AfroEstilo. Founded in Cali, they work in the primarily Afro and grossly underserved, you guessed it, Aguablanca district. They provide educational workshops and create partnerships with cultural centers to give the arts a chance to flourish in a place that is currently dealing with a rate of homicide that would give crack-era Chicago a run for its money. Additionally, the group works with political aficionados to enact change from the top down, while also highlighting the contributions Afro-Colombians have made to science and mathematics and spreading awareness of political corruption.
Much like it has with social movements in Gaza, Venezuela, and Egypt, social media has had a big impact on grassroots mobilization worldwide. To put it into perspective, people in Palestine are showing solidarity with the residents of Ferguson, Missouri via Twitter and vice-versa. In order to get a good idea of the future, sometimes we need only see the past. Knowing how much has happened in my own nation in the last 50 years and applying that same time frame here in Colombia, one can’t help but be optimistic. Nations, like people, have their own natural processes. Part of my contribution to that process is reminding people that they should always be mindful of how they address others. A color really can just be a color, but if the fact that I don’t look like you is the only thing you pay attention to, then you likely aren’t paying very much attention. Conversely, I think it’s good for us as Americans to be reminded that race need not always be such a serious issue. In light of police brutality and remaining social tensions that have racked this nation since it’s inception, maybe it’s time to reconcile with our own history and create a new perception of how we look.
I don’t have “negro” printed on my birth certificate. When you consider that my mother does and that my grandparents never received birth certificates at all, it lends credence to the transformative power of time. Today’s ignorance may indeed become tomorrow’s awareness.