When I told one of my PhD advisors John Betancur that I would be doing research in his hometown, Medellin, Colombia, he said among other things, “Racism is veiled in Colombia it is an ambiguous vague system of symbols and exclusions. Most people will say there is no segregation but you will see blacks in a corner of the neighborhood.” So as usual, I am watching, listening, and asking questions while taking real and mental notes. For instance: Why is it that white/blonds are called monos (which also means monkey)? Why when a trigeño (wheat or mixed person of color) greets a black woman does he say “me negra preciosa” (my precious black one), naming her race. And why does the same person later tell Allison (white, blonde/blue eyes) that he would like her to give him her blue eyes because they are so beautiful – here not necessarily naming race, but certainly offering judgment of white racial phenotypes? I have noticed, at least, that there seems to be a fascination and admiration for blond, blue-eyed people, and that both white/blonds and black phenotypes are often named (for being different or unusual?). Is there an unspoken/spoken hierarchy of race and preference going on here? How is it different from or similar to understandings of race and racism in the US?
While Allison and I have been talking about this and trying to interrogate our observations and experiences, things got a little heated towards the end of a little fiesta we had. We were moving through various youtube videos, when one guest put on a cartoon where the main character was Cirilo el Negrito (Cirilo the little black boy). While the actual
characterization is not quite as exaggerated as the Mexican Memin Pinguin, it struck me as interesting. So, I asked about the racial connotation of the cartoon, and was told in uncertain terms that it was not racist at all, and that black people like to be called black and are proud to be black. I was also told that the cartoon was very common and considered a
non-controversial kids cartoon. I was unsure, and so pressed further about the racial implications of the cartoon, specifically questioning what it meant about racism in Colombia that this was considered non-controversial. The Colombians at the party expressed that while there was definitely racism in Colombia, this cartoon was not a manifestation of Colombia’s race relations, and that (said defensively) it surely wasn’t racist. In retrospect, I think I didn’t ask the ‘race question’ in the right way. I was not trying to suggest that merely recognizing someone’s constructed “race” is racism, but I questioned what was the message about blacks being told in the story? What interests me most is the structural ways in which racism is produced and reproduced. Is this cartoon reproducing racial hierarchies? I still don’t have a clear answer.
But I pushed a little past the cartoon, asking about racial segregation in the country — specifically inquiring about the region called Chocó where a majority of the inhabitants are Afro-Colombian. One guest at the party told me that this area is poor (the poorest in the country) for two main reasons: One is that there are few roads and poor modes of transportation to these areas, a result of technological deficiencies, green movements’ desire to preserve the purest selva (jungle), and native peoples’ opposition to roads through their lands. This lack of access has made the area more isolated and prevented development. The second reason cited was that there was a “culture of corruption” in this area. That is, when resources are sent to this region, so I was told, they are spent on parties rather than education, infrastructure, or economic development. “Culture of corruption?” I questioned. I right away recalled the “culture of poverty” thesis of Oscar Lewis, which has long since been critiqued as racist. I didn’t press further, so as to not break up the party, but I went to bed with still more reservations and lost some sleep thinking about them.
The next day I was talking with another Colombian and presented the two reasons for poverty in Chocó, that I had been given the day before. He suggested that the situation was much more complicated. He reminded me that in the past decades, Japan and Canada as well as Antioquia (the state where Medellin is located) had been very heavily investing in extracting/exporting natural resources, such as gold, wood, and lead from the area (read: colonization). Additionally, this area historically was settled by escaped slaves and was considered a safe place away from slave owners because of its isolation and its difficult living conditions as a tropical area with heat and related diseases. These beginnings as an escaped slave state resulted in few resources from the federal government. This explanation more directly unveils a long legacy of interconnected structural racisms (which are certainly not unprecedented around the world.) With such a history, it seems fair to suggest that while Cirilo el Negrito may not be a racist symbol, the character could be read as a depiction of structural racism in the country. And likewise, maybe the apparent preference for blond hair and blue eyes is a manifestation of continued colonial hierarchy (on multiple levels) in Colombia. These ideas will be further developed in a future post. BETSY