Esteban Sinister Paz, a 23-year-old fashion designer from Colombia’s conflict-ridden and impoverished Pacific region, had barely begun his career when he received a phone call from a storyteller’s client.
Francia Marquez – the famous environmental activist and Colombia’s first black female vice president – was on the line and wanted two dresses made.
“When I came to call her, it was amazing because it wasn’t just about me or her, it was about our whole community,” said Esteban African, an Afro-Colombian Sinistra. “This is the story of all those who were excluded and ignored, but one day they stood up and said, ‘We want change for our society.'”
Sinisterra and millions of other voters got their wish when 62-year-old Gustavo Petro – a former guerrilla fighter and mayor of the capital Bogotá – won the presidency in 2011 after a long and bitter campaign to seize power. The political elite. When Petro takes office today, the conservative South American country will be the first to be led by a leftist.
The campaign was bolstered by the addition of Marquez, 40, who made international headlines in March when she became Petro’s running mate. Like Petro – who in his youth was a member of the now defunct M-19 rebel group – Marquez is considered a firebrand. Most of her support comes from her non-typical politician, fair skinned and wealthy political and business background.
“Their victory made me believe in democracy,” Sinisterra said. “People like us and Francia weren’t considered, but now we know that when we work together we can achieve a lot.”
Marquez, a single mother and former domestic worker, died in 2011. In 2018, she won a Goldman Award for leading 80 women on a 350-mile trip to Bogotá for her activism on a gold mine in her village.
Like Márquez, Sinestra’s conflict with leftist rebel groups in Colombia, including the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), has roiled the countryside for decades, claiming 260,000 lives and forcing seven million from their homes. Other rebel groups, such as the still-active National Liberation Army (LN), government-aligned paramilitary forces, and Colombian security forces have also committed atrocities.
In the year The 2016 peace accord with the Farc was supposed to bring development to rural communities, but instead other armed groups – left-wing and ideological, but united by their involvement in the drug trade – have moved in and are now vying for territory.
Sinisterra was forced to flee his home in Colombia’s southwestern Nariño state when he was still a child when fighting between rival gangs intensified. “There were so many armed groups in the area, we didn’t even know which one, but my family knew we had to leave,” the designer said. “I was one of the few young Colombians who managed to escape the war.”
The designer says Marquez’s clothes, colorful and patterned, reflect Afro-Colombian traditions. “Red is the red we use when we want to create the strength of a woman from the Pacific Ocean,” Sinisterra said. “Francia was so focused on her fight that she never had her own beauty, so it was great to work with her to create one without losing her essence.”
Despite support for Márquez and Petro in marginalized communities and many cities, the pair face insurmountable challenges in office.
Inflation is rising alongside the country’s national debt, cocaine production is at an all-time high, neighboring Venezuela continues to suffer an economic crisis, and refugees are fleeing to Colombia every day.
Known for his big ego and high style, Petro will have to manage his vice president, a political newcomer who commands her own support base and is often unfamiliar with the compromises required in the halls of power.
“Márquez is an activist who often asks for the impossible,” says Sergio Guzman, director and co-founder of Colombia Risk Analysis. “So the question is, how long will he have patience with Petro to fulfill his promises of rural reform, economic justice and renegotiating the free trade agreement with the United States?”
But she represents a rare opportunity to advance the rights of Colombia’s poor, where Márquez’s supporters respect her desire to establish a ministry of equality.
“Francia is the first black vice-president of a country that has long decided to make people like her invisible and only focused on white men,” said Yasila Bondo, an Afro-Colombian youth activist. “Now the panorama is wide open.”