One of the facts I often inserted when talking about Colombia is that it has the second largest Black population in Latin America behind Brazil. I always proudly stated that fact despite the fact that I hadn’t quite seen it. Bogotá had been particularly white as had Medellín. Despite this, I had found a circle of Black (American) friends and stumbled upon a convocation of radical Black feminism. Through my time, I had always heard the name Chocó whispered. I hadn’t seen it in any of the touristy websites. But that was the purported home of the Afro-Colombians.
I was crowdsourcing information about Chocó and slowly building a list, but I kept getting a few head turns. Chocó was on strike. Yet, I was determined to visit. I have always been fascinated by AfroLatino identity and even moreso in a country that I feel primarily touts its Eurocentric standard of beauty. While freelancing at a Spanish immersion school, I floated around the idea of visiting Chocó, and luckily an African-American guy from Atlanta named Chris had wanted to go too!
Chris and I landed in Chocó on the national day of Afro-Colombian identity. It felt full and complete. The second we landed, the demographics changed from the whiteness of Paisa land. Everybody was black, and not the ambiguous mestizaje type, but blackity black.
We made our way to the town center and settled in to our tiny hotel room. We couldn’t even open the door all the way because the beds barely fit. First course of action was to scope out the town.
The strike we had heard about was real and in full effect. “Paro” (strike) was sprayed across the windows of stores and businesses. Windows were shuttered and the streets were quiet as we walked along, exploring side roads and clusters of houses. As we walked further towards the edge of the city, the road broke down and became pebbles and tufts of grass. We looked outward and there were rickety wooden boards stacked and connected that formed a precarious bridge to a set of houses on stilts above a swamp of dirty water lined with litter. We stood silent, solemn. The continuous plight of displaced African peoples is weighty – a sobering reality we are all too familiar with. See how the black and indigenous are living in a country and you’ll truly get an understanding of a country’s path to development. We hiked back up to the city square still looking for food, dehydration dragging my feet along.
As the rainy season would have it, the sky opened up. We found ourselves racing along with the rest of the community to cling to the walls of the cathedral that had a tiny awning to protect us from the downpour that was beginning to pool among our feet. I looked to my left and right and smiled as I watched the little kids race inbetween the columns, hair drenched and the women clutching their sacs underneath their arms. Others tried to shake off the rain from their belongings while the downpour raged on. There’s this curious hesitancy that exists when a downpour suddenly ends. A few folks will make the dart to their next location as the rain has already made them late. Then slowly folks will peel themselves away from the temporary shelters they have found, holding out arms and eager fingers to see if the drops are still falling.
The Afro-Colombian day festivities started back up. Groups of 10 or 15 kids danced to reggaeton with some of the similar pop-lock moves of dance videos back in the states. We met up at a coffee shop with a FB connect who gave us a quick tour of the central part of town and extensive history about the department of Chocó, its creationg from a former region in Colombia, and the government’s willingness to turn a blind eye to its problems. The road we had been walking upon was supposedly the first paved road in Latin America. She pointed to the houses that had been formerly occupied by white people and the lingering tension that remains towards the paisas, a name given to all white people in Chocó although its origin refers to a specific region in Colombia.
After a brief scavenge to find a place for dinner, we stepped out into a light drizzle on the nightfall. We congregated on the steps of the cathedral to figure out plans. Some of the typical places were closed, but we decided to ride the energy of the night. To our left, a group of folks were passing around a bottle of artisanal liquor, talking loudly and singing with the fervor of a million hot suns. We slowly scooted our way over to them and like a well-oiled door they opened their circle to us, pulling out more plastic shot cups and making the rounds.
I have always believed the call and response aspect of black and African cultures to be our most powerful strength. There is power in the swell of voices, in the strong lead, in the repetition of words, letting their meaning sink deeper and deeper rooting itself in our memory and thoughts. The voice of the song leader was deep and booming. You knew by tomorrow he would be hoarse, but in this moment his voice rung out like church bells at noon. He led the first phrase and there was an audible cry of joy as the rest of the group immediately knew which song he had summoned. You could tell by the rhythm and the words these were not popular songs. They were fables, proverbs, childhood songs taught to you by older brothers and cousins, aunties and moms, who had learned it from theirs, who had carried it across oceans, hidden in their bosom like the hope of redemption. As we sang, the men stomped a fast fierce beat and the girls shuffled their feet and hips, turning briefly to show their backside as the men jumped forward never touching, but playing this teasing game with the girls. They joined hands and danced together in an embrace – chirimiya and “bunda dance”.
I looked to the church doors behind us and thought of the rum that was heading my way. We don’t care, Nandi says, catching my gaze. They hang up stained glass windows of enslaved peoples and slave masters. Why do they keep us in chains when we are free? I lifted the shot glass to my lips.
We took the party onward. Mixing traditional rhythms with protest chants that had built upon that platform. Shouting for the freedom and liberation of Chocó as we marched just our tiny group through the streets to the local bar that was still open. We would all replay this same action 12 hours later with many more thousands of people. We arrived at the Chirimiya bar and I realized why the streets had been so quiet, and we had not had any complaints from neighbors. They had all been at this bar. A live band played in front and old and young folks alike filled the tiny space they had cleared out to dance. They brought a bottle of rum to the table. “Drink up!” Chad said. “Party tonight, because you might just get arrested tomorrow.” I paused, barely taking in the weight of his words, and lifted the shot glass to my lips.
The next morning we made our way to the main square, and there were already 5000 people from the town gathered just starting to march. We ran along the side with Nandi to meet up with Chad who Is managing the megaphone behind the main truck. His words ring sweet in my ears though they are stained with pain and disappointment. My ears perk as I remember the rhythm from last night by the church. I read the words held up on a sign by a fellow protester.
“No me trates no
No me trates de engañar
Santos vos tener la plata
Pa’ mermelada nada mas”
They sing of a president who boasts of having no money for their needs, but always finds a way to support his own projects or is known for receiving bribes and corrupted money, siphoned from the most needy of citizens.
Chris and I fell in line amongst the protesting crowd. This was not new to us. I looked around at the angry Black faces, the apathetic adults who had seen this before, the teenagers expressing angst, and the revolutionaries screaming for change. In them, I saw my college classmates, a painful familiarity. Shouting for the validation of our lives and holding hands in solidarity. I saw the numerous black faces throughout Boston that would gather in the Commons and storm Highway 93. I remembered sitting in Dhalls designing posters, hashtagging the names of fallen black men, women, children, and transpeople who had died at the hands of a racist, discriminatory system. In Chocó, we were not quite shouting for that loss, but for lives that hadn’t barely begun, that couldn’t live to their fullest because they were trapped, suffocated by the exclusion from traditional government funding and corruption that snatched the money from underneath already disadvantaged citizens. Some barrios within the capital of Quibdó don’t have running water, and even more don’t have potable water. There is no top-level hospital throughout the department and the main road connecting Quibdó to Medellín, a true economic lifeline has been in disarray for over a year. The government has backed away from its pledge to supply a fixed sum to repair it. The situation was even more severe in Buenaventura where issues are punctuated by the extreme poverty of the local people and the fact that 70% of commerce entering the country enters through its port.
That day of striking, Day 11, had been a bit more poignant than most. The capital of Quibdó had gathered together to help fund the transport to the city of an indigenous community down the river. They had come by the hundreds, dressed in their traditional “army” gear resembling camoflauge and carrying pointed weapons fashioned from wood. They marched as a unit, here to bring awareness to their own problems they suffered from down the river as well as the plight of Quibdó. Nandi held her breath as they passed, in awe. I’ve never seen this, she murmured, fighting back tears. We cause them so much pain, her voice broke acknowledging Quibdó’s negligence in supporting its indigenous communities. In the end, we gathered in the square to finish out the march singing a traditional indigenous hymn. And with the swell of the energy, came a stumbling crash. A young indigenous boy lashed out a police officer who then proceeded to beat the child. Screams ran out and the crowd dispersed causing a rush. The indigenous peoples leaned together and used their weapons to protect the young boy while other police officers and protesters pulled the cop away. The beauty of the day had been broken.
Our experience in Quibdó, although marked significantly by the strike, was not solely concentrated on that. Our second night we went to Yirsew’s house for dinner. As none of the stores were open and we were now four mouths to feed, we had to take alternative measures. Yirsew called a friend who called his grandmother who used to run a store. She agreed to sell us some sausage so we walked by the guidance of the few street lamps and knocked on a shuttered window. Yirsew called out to the grandmother and the door slowly slid open. We counted our coins and took the sausage, longaniza, grateful for the food. On our way to get the longaniza, we ran into one of Nandi’s friends who owned a shop of ice cream made from local fruits. He agreed to sell us some ice cream from his hsop and so we met him under a streetlight. Despite the strike, business must go on.
Yirsew hooked up the speakers once we arrived to his house. We started with 90s Colombian rap, and made our way through some pop and Chocquibtown. Then Chris and I took over as our Atlanta hip hop roots emerged. Young Jeezy, Soulja Boy, DJ Unk, some artists and even some old school Tallahassee rap I had never heard. Then I played a bit of dancehall, soca, and Chris, a Q, even showed us a step. We were gradually working our way through time and the diaspora. The rest of the night we spent sharing music and life, bringing just a whisper of life to the still, sleeping clustered houses on this dirt road.
I didn’t get to see the typical Quibdó. There were no crazy nights at JenniLao, no chaduro juice by the river. Instead, I was injected into the heart of Quibdó with its pain, and its hope, and its fervor. I see potential, drive and people who love this town. I see blackness in its many and similar forms. And I love it, my blackness and yours, and theirs.