When Colombians elected their first leftist president ever on Sunday, they also elected the country’s first Black vice president: Francia Marquez, a single mother who worked as a maid before challenging international mining interests as a fiery environmentalist.
Her victory marks a turning point in a country plagued by social inequalities and historically governed by conservative elites.
On the campaign trail, she was exuberant and unabashedly dazzling. In brightly coloured Afro-Colombian garments teamed with big jewellery, Francia Marquez embraced her identity, challenged the status quo and proposed a brighter future.
“It’s time to move from resistance to power,” the 40-year-old candidate would chant, raising her fist – with a smile.
On Sunday, Colombians elected their first ever leftist president when Gustavo Petro, a former guerrilla, defeated a real estate millionaire in a runoff victory that marked a seismic shift in the South American country long governed by conservatives or moderates.
With Marquez as his running mate, Petro has signalled not just a political break, but also a social one in a country that has historically denied the existence of racism.
What’s more, Marquez – with her brightly printed fabrics and the assertion of her Afro-Colombian roots – has also thrust the Europeanised elitism of Colombia under the spotlight, opening a discussion on racism in a country that overwhelmingly identifies as racially mixed, or Mestizo, sweeping racism under the table.
Marquez’s journey, from young, Black single mother to the country’s vice presidency is an extraordinary story of grit against the odds.
An activist for Afro-Colombian rights
There is nothing in Marquez’s past to suggest 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 at 16 with her first child, she was first forced to work in a gold mine a few kilometres from home to support her family and then hired as a maid.
Her environmental activism started early, in 1996, when she was just 15. Marquez learned that a multinational company wanted to launch a project to extend a dam on the region’s main river, the Ovejas, which would have a major impact on her community.
Living on the banks of the river since the 17th century, the Afro-Colombian community has been practising agriculture and artisanal mining, its main sources of income, for generations.
A 500-kilometre walk 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 land. For the past 20 years, she has been fighting 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 that time, she was targeting the illegal miners who had set up operations along the river, digging for gold and, above all, abundantly using mercury – an element that separates gold from water but also contaminates water and destroys biodiversity. In protest, Marquez organised a “turban march”, which saw a protest march of 80 women walking from Cauca to Bogota, a 10-day, 500-kilometre journey. The group demonstrated in front of the interior ministry for almost 20 days. In the end, the activists won, as the government pledged to destroy all the illegal farms around the Ovejas.
Marquez has since earned a law degree and has held numerous forums, lectured in universities and delivered speeches before political figures and NGOs. She was awarded 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 someone who raises my voice to stop the destruction of rivers, forests and moors. I am someone who dreams that one day human beings will change the economic model of death, to make way for building a model that guarantees life,” she declared on her website.
‘Our governments have turned their backs on the people’
Marquez finally decided to enter politics in 2020 and made no effort to hide her ambition: “I want to be a candidate for this country. I want the population to be free and dignified. I want our territories to be places of life,” she tweeted. That same year, she launched her movement “Soy porque somos” (“I am because we are”). In March 2022, she ran in the presidential primaries of the left-wing “Historic Pact” coalition. Marquez surprised everyone by coming in third, prompting Petro to choose her as his running mate.
She made the fight to preserve Afro-Colombian lands a central part of her political campaign, constantly harking back to her roots. “I am an Afro-Colombian woman, a single mother of two who gave birth to her first child at the age of 16 and worked in households to pay the bills. But I am also an award-winning environmental activist. 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, on justice and on peace,” she added. “If they had done their job properly, I wouldn’t be here.”
“Within the population, there has been a lot of popular anger in recent months directed towards the political class, particularly linked to the Covid-19 pandemic,” explained Olga Lucia Gonzalez, an associate researcher and specialist on Colombia at the University of Paris-Diderot. “Francia Marquez comes from civil society and not from the traditional political elite. This is an argument that she plays on, and that goes greatly in her favour.”
Marquez’s biggest contribution, according to Gonzalez, has been her ability to address overlooked issues. “But above all, she is a woman, Black, Afro-Colombian, and she brings with her issues that until now have been totally forgotten, like the relationship to colonialism, sexism, racism,” she noted.
Marquez was not the only Afro-Colombian candidate in this presidential election – Caterine Ibarguen and Zenaida Martinez also stood for office in the 2022 race. Together, they said they wanted to fight against the double discrimination faced by women who are Black. 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 that has the second-largest population of African descent in Latin America. Official census data indicate that Afro-Colombians represent over 6.2 percent of Colombia’s population, a figure demographers say is grossly underestimated. Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities continue to face disproportionate levels of poverty, violence and land expropriation. According to government 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 top echelons of actual political power. Her biggest challenges are likely still to come.