HOW LATIN AMERICAN ACTIVISTS ARE HARNESSING THE BLACK LIVES MATTER MOVEMENT

The same week that George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis, allegations arose that Anderson Arboleda, a twenty-one-year-old Afro-Colombian man, was killed by police on Colombia’s Pacific Coast. Outside the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá on June 3, local protesters burned an American flag and decried police brutality and the deaths of Floyd and Arboleda. 

On June 12, Arboleda’s community in Puerta Tejada gathered to demand justice; weeks later, hundreds gathered in Bogotá’s central plaza to protest various causes including racial equity.

With protests recorded throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, the Black Lives Matter movement has increased visibility of anti-racist and Afro-Latinx organizations and collectives. As Dr. Aurora Vergara, director of the Center of Afro Diasporic Studies in California, said in an interview with La Silla Vacia, “For Colombia, George Floyd leaves the message that racism kills, and it kills in different ways.”

The Spanish colonies, just like their British counterparts, enslaved millions of Africans through the Atlantic Slave Trade. More than 1.1 million enslaved Africans entered Colombia before slavery was outlawed in 1852, thirteen years before the United States. 

Unlike the United States, Colombia and other Latin American countries did not implement discriminatory laws that legalized racial segregation. Instead, many Latin American countries became “racial democracies” that included vows of multiculturalism. But such policies, while ostensibly anti-racist, had the effect of making racism less apparent. 

“This myth of multiculturalism erases racial differences and inequalities to justify that social conflicts are economic, not racial,” says Angela Yesenia Olaya Requene, a researcher at the Afro-Latin American Research Institute at Harvard. “With this they deny that Afro-descendents are victims of structural anti-Black racism that limits their human rights.”

This refusal to recognize present-day racial disparities is part of why so little progress has been made in Colombia. “We have founded social relations on a systematic denial of the existence of racism,” Vergara said in her interview. “In 169 years, the living conditions of those human beings who are the descendants of those who were enslaved have not changed much.” 

From racist jokes to erasure in education, Afro-Latinx populations in Latin America face both racism and colorism. Some families want to “better the race” by marrying into lighter-skinned families, while a majority of advertisements portray white bodies with European features.

Afro-Latinx communities, statistics show, are disproportionately impoverished, lack education, and are vulnerable to armed conflict and police violence. While white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan aren’t active in Latin America, racial hate crimes still occur. 

Last year, in Medellín, Colombia, a Black man was brutally assaulted after being suspected of committing a robbery. NGOs have denounced a series of murders of young black people in the margins of Bogotá, with allegations they are racially motivated. In Brazil, 75 percent of victims murdered by police are Black—and Indigenous and Black social leaders are disproportionately killed by police officers, paramilitary groups, and the national army. 

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Across Latin America, the Black Lives Matter movement “is forcing [conversations about racism] and is increasing visibility for the ones that have already existed,” says Olaya. “In Colombia, since the 1990s, Black communities have been organizing, denouncing racism as an ideology and practice that justifies and produces inequality and privilege.”  

By harnessing the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement created in the United States, anti-racist collectives in Latin America and the Caribbean are furthering their agenda and initiatives. 

Collectives like the Process of Black Communities in Colombia fight for protection on ancestral lands, political autonomy and increased cultural heritage, celebration and acknowledgement. The National Association of Displaced AfroColombians is dedicated to “leading processes of cultural identity,” and digital magazines like Vive Afro have created projects including “Silenced Bodies” that collect the stories of Afro-Colombian and Black women who have been displaced by the armed conflict. 

Activists are also emphasizing the need to include Black history in schools and education curriculums. For example, Mirian Díaz, a teacher at the Educational Institution of San Jose in Barranquilla, Colombia, has created centers and programs to teach Afro-Colombians about their culture and heritage. 

In addition to educational reforms, Olaya says Latinx people should “strengthen movements that already exist, and position racism as the backbone of conflict and inequality in Colombia in the national agenda for the government and social organizations.”

While the Black Lives Matter Movement has empowered Afro-Latinx organizations, Olaya notes that “some white and mixed sectors” have only condemned racial inequality in the United States and “still deny the prevalence of racism in their own country.”

On July 10, a coalition of Black and Indigenous social leaders arrived in Bogotá for the “March for Dignity.” Walking hundreds of miles from the country’s Pacific Coast, they journeyed to the capital to demand protection for their ancestral lands. 

“Racism keeps holding its foot to our necks,” said Francia Márquez, a social leader from the Process of Black Communities, in a Twitter video. “It’s time to take off the knee we have on our neck, because they keep suffocating us. It’s time to raise our voices in this path to life, solidarity, and the collective construction of our communities.”