Updated: May 21
Season 1 - Foundations
Episode 11 - Know La Lucha: The Art of Identity en Colombia
Available on Spotify, Apple Podcast, Google Play & more.
“While I try to explain who I am, I'm reminded that the search for identity is always an unfinished process, one that never ends up being known. That unfinished process is where my true freedom lies: in being able to define myself as I choose, under my own terms and under my own aesthetics.”
When tracing your ancestry, it’s important to know la lucha – the struggle. Today, we continue our exploration of the African Diaspora by learning about slavery and race in Colombia. Specifically, we will examine the country’s history with the peculiar institution and get a modern take on inequality for Afro-Colombians from a writer, poet, & artist who is devoted to fighting injustice.
Ana Luisa Muñoz Ortiz is a self-described social communicator, writer, & artist. Her incredible talents have always stemmed from the passion inside of her. Or, as her mother describes, it comes from la candela viva. There is a fire that burns inside of Ana, and you recognize it the moment you see her. She is stunning - usually crowned with a giant fro, or flowing curls, sometime adorned with a flower behind the ear, always dressed magnificently, and smiling with genuine love from ear to ear.
The Face of Cartagena (2016) x Fin DAC for Dia de Afrocolombianidad
Ana exudes confidence now, but it has not always been easy for her. Yet, to fully understand this, we have a to take a few steps back. We must consider the history of the country that shaped her.
Caribbean Colombia is often left out of the conversations on the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, but in its prime it was the most important port for Spanish-American colonies. An estimated 1 million enslaved Africans are believed to have come through the port (compare that to the estimate of just under 400,000 that came to the U.S.).
However, when you examine the world map and consider each leg of the slave trade - Africans to the Americas, American exports to Europe, European Slavers to Africa and repeat - you can see that Colombia is a central point within the triangular shape of the market flow. The Spaniards were able to use the port at Cartagena to restock supplies, unload (human) cargo, and even trek deeper into South America using the Magdalena River.
The Founding of Cartagena
In the 1500s there were several attempts to colonize Caribbean Colombia but many failed. One successful expedition was helmed by Spanish conquistador Pedro de Heredia. He was aided by an indigenous woman named Catalina (now known as "Indian Catalina"), and she provided guidance and translation for truces with the locals.
Still, Heredia proved to be a typical colonizer. Three times he was accused of misdeeds in Americas including embezzlement of public funds, nepotism, and extreme abuse of the indigenous people. The first trial led to dropped charges, the second a guilty verdict with no punishment, and on the way to his third trial, the vessel capsized and Heredia drowned in the shipwreck.
And yet, the colonization of Cartagena continued in his absence and thrived. Heredia's city, founded in 1533, over the destroyed native village of Calamari, went on to be the most important port in the Spanish America's.
At first, the indigenous were used for labor, but then the populations dropped dramatically due to overwork, abuse, and foreign disease. So Africans were imported in the slave trade as the next main source of labor. Like in Brazil, Africans worked in many different fields such as mines, cattle ranches, mills, textiles, tobacco, cotton, and more. The most dangerous areas and those with the largest concentrations of enslaved workers were mines & plantations.
Slavery gradually declined in Colombia. In 1821, a law was passed to begin the official abolition including laws that made children of enslaved people free (once they reached adulthood) and allowed other avenues for manumission. And in 1851, slavery ended, with over 70,000 Africans freed (compare to the 4 million enslaved in the U.S. during emancipation).
But just because freedom from slavery was granted doesn't mean equality came too. Black, brown, and mestizo (mixed race) people, have struggled with a complicated system of inequity. Ana discussed this in her interview.
"Cartagena is a city that suffers from terrible tensions between the rich and poor, black and white, mestizos and white-mestizos, and indigenous people. Corruption and violence from the lack of opportunities and hundreds of other conflicts only adds to that tension. Imagine the corruption it takes to have more than 14 different mayors in a 7 year period.
I remember that my mother had three jobs: as an accounting technician at the City Hall, as a housewife and as a woman, while my father worked nights as an accountant and bartender for a bar/restaurant. When he returned home everything was already done, he only had to be the man of the house, the rest of the domestic work had already been completed by that domestic figure that was my mother."
Race was complicated when she was growing up. On the one hand people knew that they were different, and that darker skin meant lower status.
"In Cartagena people know that they are black, people have always understood that they are black. They understand it not because they were asked, but because of their day-to-day experience with a racist system, because of their direct connection to the history of a community that’s been impoverished and assassinated. I never asked myself if I was black, I never saw my father or my grandparents wondering if they were black, they knew it because they saw themselves, because the situations they faced in life made them understand that blackness. ...the word "negro" or "moreno" —which is a euphemism for black— has various connotations that not only mark your image, but also your identity, daily life, style, neighborhood, economic class, your life. It has become naturalized in our language as you walk down the street to be called “negro” or “negra”, even by people who don’t know you and are simply using it because your characteristics are not white or white-mestizo."
But on the other hand, introspection like "am I black" seemed like a luxury people in Ana's community could not afford. They were focused on survival.
"In Cartagena nobody asks you if you are black, when you realized that you are black, or when you realized that you were categorized within that social group. There, people don’t have the opportunity to question life through social configurations that go beyond their own worries on how to survive. In Cartagena, blackness is a way of living within a history that inherited the pain of race and poverty; life is marked by the conditions and circumstances in which you are born."
There are many categories in Colombia that denote race, like:
Yet, growing up, Ana did not think of race in the concrete terms used in places like the United States.
"As a young child, I wasn’t aware of that notion in the city or within the country, we were all the same, poor and black, Afro or mestizo, our city was the neighborhood. There was nothing else outside of those limits because nothing outside belonged to us. Centro, which is the epicenter of national and international tourism, was alien to our lives."
Ana discussed the ways in which tourism has damaged the lives of people like those in her community.
Above is an image of Cartagena, listed on the blog LonelyPlanet. It is described on the blog as follows:
"Cartagena de Indias is the undisputed queen of the Caribbean coast, a historic city of superbly preserved beauty lying within an impressive 13km of centuries-old colonial stone walls. Cartagena's Old Town is a Unesco World Heritage Site – a maze of cobbled alleys, balconies covered in bougainvillea, and massive churches that cast their shadows across leafy plazas."
Below, is Ana's view of her neighborhood from grandmother's porch.
Indeed, the history of the city is rich. The colonial stone walls were built by enslaved people. The town sits atop the ruins of Calamari. And, to achieve a city fit for tourists, Afro-Caribbean, mestizo, and indigenous people were exiled to villages without the same infrastructure or leafy plazas.
"When Cartagena became one of the most important tourist destinations in Colombia and the Caribbean, it was recreated with a marketing and economic objective to attract tourists to the image of being in a Spanish colonial city suspended in time. Many people from all over the world travel with the idea of fulfilling some desire or checking off some box, whatever that may be. They travel without knowing, for example, in order for Centro to become the epicenter of tourism, there were two great Exiles of black settlers."
"In my neighborhood, families lived among the government's help, fighting the eternal heat while struggling to find work day after day, and asking for reliable food in the neighborhood stores because even a monthly salary wasn’t enough to eat. Families pleaded for help that never arrived when mudslides and heavy rains destroyed the hills where they lived. There was no time for rest, but there was always room to enjoy life. I think smiling and dancing was our way of surviving so much fatigue."
Ana is devoted not only to leaving room for joy, but also to changing the world for the better. When I asked her how she will make a difference, she was clear - with her candela viva.
"Speaking, writing, and creating connections with communities. For me, writing is another way of speaking, of being a witness to the experience of life as a black woman, Afro-Caribbean and immigrant. It is also important to me share the untold stories of marginalized groups, especially women."
Ana has had to deal with the intersection of race & gender discrimination. She spoke intimately about how her sense of self was once impacted by the gaze of others.
"I remember while I was in university, I started to work in Centro and had the opportunity to travel. That was when it became very clear that my characteristics were very different. The gazes of others became a type of mirror that assaulted my own perception. I felt not only observed, but confined in those reflections — in desire, taste, exoticization, mockery, rejection, hatred, envy, violence, and racism—I always avoided being seen, I kept a minimal profile, I felt guilty for what I thought I caused. I tried to affirm myself in those eyes. I would hide, only to return later like a public exposition, like a painting or an artwork."
But she has reclaimed her sense of self, her identity.
"The woman that I am now has learned to appreciate those looks. I feel that they fill me with power, not reaffirmation. Those glances have opened spaces for me to be heard or to be a guide for other black, African, Caribbean, Latin, white-mestizo and African-American women. I have learned to embrace this difference, and to not be ashamed of my lineage, my ethnicity or my huge afro. Not to be afraid of being a black and Afro-Caribbean woman, because that is exactly what the system wants: that you don’t feel ownership of your life and your body."
So for Ana, both gender and racial equality are paramount in true equity.
"I think the important thing right now is to understand that black, indigenous and mestizo women are still very low on the totem pole and we need to unite. There can be no revolution without the union of women and without their liberation."
And, on that note, she left me with a quote she loves.
"The revolution and the liberation of women go together. We do not speak of the emancipation of women as an act of charity or by a wave of human compassion. It is a basic necessity for the triumph of revolution. Women hold the other half of heaven."
La Candela Viva x Ana Luisa Muñoz Ortiz
I pray to my ancestors, I plead to them, I confide in them.
I invoke them every night as I depart before I dream so that the poisonous arrow heading towards me, from the gaze of oppressors, does not pierce me.
I summon them and they wrap me between their sheets of water. They save me from the nightmare of the genocidal abuser, who with his white hand threatens to erase from me all traces of blackness, all elements of difference, all signs of resistance, all rights of freedom.
They open their doors of fire and convert me to air so that I do not burn. They protect me in their memory so that death does not reach me and fear does not stop me; so that deprivation does not reach my door nor the door of my brothers and sisters; so that their words are an eternal armor of infinite light of my days, and the violence that is wielded against me and mine does not exterminate us.
They, who are everywhere, who speak to me in all languages in their thunderous voices proclaim:
"Ana Luisa, Let the sea write your name in the sand and may your face be the moon for the fisherman. Let your body be reflected in the mirror and that your figure become a multiple portrait of you. Let your voice become waves, stones, lightning, weapons, screams, and echoes for when you fall into the traps of the white hunter, protest and form revolts and rebellions that destabilize their serenity and their power; so he knows that you will not hold your tongue, that you do not shrink, that he cannot erase you from the story, because we are with you."
Cuerpas. Music from this live performance is featured on the episode.
To hear Ana share her words, listen to the episode. And be sure to rate, review & subscribe if you enjoy!
Ana Luisa Muñoz Ortiz
"I am a social communicator, writer, and artist. I was born in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia and raised in the torpor of an eternal summer in a peripheral black neighborhood known for its love of salsa, stories, and popular traditions. All elements that, among other things, have led me to develop a special interest in black culture, feminism, literature, poetry, and for everything human, which is by definition universal.
While I try to explain who I am, I'm reminded that the search for identity is always an unfinished process, one that never ends up being known. That unfinished process is where my true freedom lies: in being able to define myself as I choose, under my own terms and under my own aesthetics. I am substantially from the Caribbean, its music and its prose."
Photo Credit: Joaquín Medina
Learn more about her work at LaCandelaVivia.com.
Episode Art Photo Credit: Fabian Álvarez