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From maid to Colombia’s first Black vice-president

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When Colombians elected their first ever left-wing president on Sunday, they also voted for their country’s first black vice president. Francia Marquez, a black single mother who worked as a maid before challenging international mining interests as an ardent environmentalist, now becomes Colombia’s first black female vice president. Her victory marks a turning point in a country plagued by social inequalities and historically ruled by conservative elites.

This is an updated version of a profile published on May 25, 2022.

On the campaign trail, she was exuberant and unabashedly dazzling. In brightly colored Afro-Colombian garments paired with large jewellery, Francia Marquez embraced her identity, challenged the status quo and envisioned a brighter future.

“It’s time to go from resistance to power,” the 40-year-old candidate chanted, raising her fist — with a smile.

On Sunday, Colombians elected their first-ever left-wing president when Gustavo Petro, a former guerrilla, defeated a real estate millionaire in a runoff that marked a seismic shift in the South American country long ruled by conservatives or moderates.

With Marquez as his running mate, Petro has signaled not only a political rift, but a social one in a country that has historically denied the existence of racism.

In addition, Marquez – with her brightly colored fabrics and the assertion of her Afro-Colombian roots – has also spotlighted Colombia’s European elitism, sparking a discussion about racism in a country that predominantly identifies as racially mixed, or Mestizo, sweeping racism under the table.

From a young black single mother to the country’s vice presidency, Marquez’s journey is an extraordinary tale of guts against all odds.

An activist for Afro-Colombian rights

There is nothing in Marquez’s past to indicate that she would embark on a political career. Born in 1981 in a small village in the southwestern Cauca region of Colombia, she grew up alone with her mother. Pregnant with her first child at sixteen, she was first forced to work in a gold mine a few miles from home to support her family and then was hired as a maid.

Her environmental activism started early, in 1996, when she was only 15. Marquez heard that a multinational company wanted to start a project to expand a dam on the region’s main river, the Ovejas, which would have a major impact on her community.

The Afro-Colombian community, which has lived on the banks of the river since the 17th century, has been farming and artisanal mining for generations, which have been its main sources of income.

Walking 500 kilometers for the environment

The Ovejas River campaign marked the beginning of Marquez’s long struggle to defend the rights of Afro-Colombian communities and preserve their lands. For the past 20 years she has fought relentlessly against the multinational companies that exploit the area around the Ovejas River and sometimes force people to leave it.

Marquez didn’t become widely known until 2014. At the time, she targeted the illegal miners who had set up operations along the river, quarrying gold and especially using abundant mercury – an element that separates gold from water, but also pollutes the water and destroys biodiversity. As a protest, Marquez organized a “turban march”, in which a protest march of 80 women walked from Cauca to Bogota, a journey of 10 days and 500 kilometers. The group demonstrated for nearly 20 days in front of the Interior Ministry. In the end, the activists won, as the government promised to destroy all illegal farms around the Ovejas.

Marquez has since earned a law degree and has held numerous forums, lectured at universities, and delivered speeches to political figures and NGOs. She got the Goldman Prize, the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for the Environment, in 2018 for her efforts. The following year she appeared on the BBC’s list of the 100 most influential women in the world

“I am one who raises my voice to stop the destruction of rivers, forests and moors. I am one who dreams that one day man will change the economic model of death, to make way for building a model that guarantees life,” she says. stated on its website.

‘Our governments have turned their backs on the people’

Marquez finally decided to enter politics in 2020, making no effort to hide her ambition: “I want to be a candidate for this country. I want the people to be free and dignified. I want our territories to be places of life “, she says. tweeted. That same year, she launched her movement “Soy porque somos” (“I am because we are”). In March 2022, she took part in the presidential primaries of the left-wing coalition ‘Historic Pact’. Marquez surprised everyone by finishing third, prompting Petro to choose her as his running mate.

She made the struggle to preserve the Afro-Colombian land a central part of her political campaign, constantly going back to her roots. “I’m an Afro-Colombian woman, a single mother of two who gave birth to her first child at age 16 and worked in households to pay the bills. But I’m also an award-winning environmentalist. And above all, a lawyer who could become Colombia’s first black vice president,” she declared at numerous campaign rallies.

“Our governments have turned their backs on the people, justice and peace,” she added. “If they had done their job well, I wouldn’t be here.”

“Within the population there has been a lot of popular anger directed at the political class in recent months, especially in connection with the Covid-19 pandemic,” explains Olga Lucia Gonzalez, an associate researcher and specialist in Colombia at the University of Paris. Diderot. “Francia Marquez comes from civil society and not from the traditional political elite. This is an argument she is capitalizing on, and it is in her favor.”

According to Gonzalez, Marquez’s greatest contribution was her ability to address overlooked issues. “But above all, she is a woman, black, Afro-Colombian, and she brings with her problems that have been completely forgotten until now, such as the relationship with colonialism, sexism and racism,” she noted.

Marquez was not the only Afro-Colombian candidate in this presidential election — Caterine Ibarguen and Zenaida Martinez were also candidates in the 2022 race. Together, they said they wanted to fight the double discrimination faced by black women. This discrimination is reflected in Colombia’s political life: there was only one black woman in the outgoing government and only two in parliament.

This in a country with the second largest population of African descent in Latin America. Official census data indicate that Afro-Colombians represent more than 6.2 percent of the Colombian population, a figure that demographers say is grossly underestimated. Afro-Colombian and Indigenous communities continue to face disproportionate levels of poverty, violence and land expropriation. According to the government’s findings, about 31 percent of the Afro-Colombian population lives in poverty, compared to 20 percent of the national population.

Petro’s victory in the 2022 presidential election has catapulted Marquez from a symbolic vice presidential hopeful to the highest echelons of real political power. Her greatest challenges are probably yet to come.

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