By By Alexis Coleman
Recently, I set out for Colombia with several friends from my graduate program. The impulse to travel to South America, and specifically Colombia, came from nothing more than finding a cheap ticket.
With Colombia’s increase in popularity due to the Netflix drama Narcos, I wanted to be sure that I did not center the trip around narcoterrorism and Pablo Escobar. At the same time, I wanted to be sure to learn about this era during my trip, as it is a significant part of Colombia’s history. My other goal was to seek out and observe Afro-Colombians.
Our first stop was Bogotá, the capital city of Colombia. As soon as we disembarked from the plane, I could smell elitism and pride. It wasn’t a stench, but rather a crisp, cold breeze. Bogotá felt like a capital city. There were people in suits walking around, students, street vendors and retired women walking their dogs. When we got into Ubers no one was particularly welcoming, but they weren’t mean either. You could tell Bogotá was the kind of place that would be good for Colombians with financial means. As we traversed the neighborhoods of Usaquen and Parque 93 that were filled with trendy restaurants and shops, we did not spot a single Black person.
A traveler in my group — Black, male, and lighter-skinned — asked his Uber driver if Colombians liked Black people. As the story goes, the man sighs and essentially says in Spanglish “no.” He attempts to comfort my friend by explaining to him, that he, however, “is not Black.” As a Black American traveler, this is not a new phenomenon. Being American comes with status, and being of means warrants even more status. Undoubtedly his lighter skin also contributed to a more positive perception by the driver. Nonetheless, he was immediately excluded from Blackness. Because why would anyone ever want to be Black?
We had an amazing time in Bogotá. National museums, views, and parks filled our time. We finally spotted a Black person or two in domestic roles. We when visited a park in an affluent neighborhood it was clear that people were not used to seeing Black people there. The stares lasted several moments until they heard us speaking English. It seemed liked a light bulb turned on after we spoke. We were American. Not Black. And therefore it made sense that we occupied space.
Next, we headed to Cartagena de Indias. The warm, humid, weather felt right on our melanin. I began to sweat immediately, but the 90-degree weather seemed familiar. Black and mixed people were everywhere. Literally. Some working in the airport but others as tourists. A Black couple stood beside us as we waited for our luggage. Another group of Black women greeted us as we entered our Airbnb. It was unclear if the allure of Cartagena for Black travelers was the beach, or the rich Afro-Colombian history. Either way, there were more Black people there. We learned on a guided tour to a mud-volcano that African slaves built Cartagena. The narrative was all too familiar. They had been taken against their will and forced into bondage; they had been forced to build the city and when the city had become prosperous, they had received no credit or benefits. The Black people in Cartagena lined the streets as vendors, tour guides, tourists and citizens. They knew they were marginalized. They knew that we understood their experience being from the United States. We saw Afro-Colombian women in the walled city. Dressed in bright colors and selling fruit, our guide had already informed us that they were Palenqueras — women of a group of enslaved Africans in the 1600s that resisted conquest, refused to learn Spanish, and used their braids to make maps to freedom. Freedom.
Everyone in the diaspora wanted the same thing. To be free. The desire to be treated with dignity and to belong was written on the faces of every Afro-Colombian we met. It was clear that in Cartagena Black people were more visible. We did not receive nearly as many stares as in Bogotá. Most stares came from genuine curiosity as to where we were from—or to compliment us. Any and every conversation we had about the life of those in Cartagena came down to freedom. We recounted the history of Cartagena with many Colombians. Each one proudly told us all that Black people had done for the country while lamenting their marginalization. When we were asked to take a photo with an Afro-Colombian waiter at a restaurant inside the walled city, we knew that he knew we wanted freedom too.
My favorite city was Medellín. It was the third city on our Colombia trip and I am so glad we went. In American culture, it would be described as hipster town. It was warm with a mountain-breeze. The people had the warmest looks on their faces. They stared at us with smiles. Everyone was helpful. Even when we didn’t ask, we were met with kindness, tips, and recommendations at every turn. We tested the first couple of people who sought to help us, many of them white, and they all proved altruistic. I wasn’t sure if they didn’t account for our Blackness, or if they were simply not threatened by it. Then on our last day in Medellín, we visited “Comuna 13.” Once the country’s, and arguably the world’s most dangerous neighborhood, it was the stronghold for the operations of the Escobar-led Medellín cartel. Black and mixed children ran the streets of the neighborhood as we viewed its infamous graffiti with our guide. I was repeatedly called “mi amor” by women in the neighborhood. However as the guide explained to us the torture this neighborhood had endured, the poverty, the government’s sporadic social assistance, and the 2002 military takeover of the neighborhood that left many dead, I could not believe the joy I was witnessing. How could a community be so full of light and love in spite of such tragedy?
I remembered the strength of the African diaspora. My family laughs, we dance, we sing. We rejoice and live the fullest life possible as we cope with oppression. These families were no different. Resilience. The folks in Medellín had built the city, but were subjugated to oppression and lived in the worst conditions. Everyone knew it. Just like everyone knows it in the United States, other parts of Latin America, the Caribbean, post-Colonial Africa, parts of Europe, and anywhere else Black people have been taken. And yet, we are still fighting for recognition and honor. I saw in Medellín resilience and joy that cannot be given and cannot be taken away. At the end of our Medellín Comuna 13 tour, some Black and brown boys asked if they could perform for us. They did a little dance and collected their tips. One of my group members crossed his chest with his arms in the shape of an X—the symbol of Wakanda in the Marvel film Black Panther, and a newfound symbol of Black solidarity. The child gestured back, and without uttering a word we knew that the young boy knew of the same kind of resilience that we knew.
In broken Spanish we asked the kids to take a photo with us. Next thing I know, we are all throwing up the X. We are all longing for freedom. We are all displaying our solidarity. We did not need to speak the same language. We did not need to have the exact same upbringing. We only needed to have the same melanin in our skin. We only needed to have the peril of our ancestors running through our blood. We were not sad. We were happy. In that moment, it was as if the whole trip had been boiled into this moment. Every city made sense, every person, and every encounter. The diaspora was strong, it was resilient, it longed to be free, and it would not stop fighting.
Alexis Coleman is a Texas native residing in Washington, DC. She is the founder of Traveling Mercy, a nonprofit that facilitates international experiences for marginalized groups. Instagram.com/alexiscglobal
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