Somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of Colombia’s population is of African descent, one of the largest such populations outside of the African continent, just behind Brazil, the United States and Haiti.
On Saturday, the country paid tribute to that community.
“Our African heritage can be felt more strongly than ever,” tweeted President Juan Manuel Santos in celebration of Colombia’s annual Afro-Colombian Day or Día de la Afrocolombianidad.
Indeed there are indicators of progress for Colombia’s Afro community — and there is also plenty of room for improvement.
According to a 2013 from the Corpovisionarios think tank, some 3 percent of Bogotanos said they would prefer not to live next to someone of a different ethnicity. The national average was 2 percent.
Though those percentages may seem small, they add up to tens of thousands of Colombians.
The good news is that those numbers seem to be going down, at least compared to data collected when the think tank started surveying Colombians in 2003.
But there are lots of challenges remaining.
Only one-in-five Afro-Colombians obtains an academic degree beyond a high school diploma, according to the National Planning Department (DNP). And Afro-Colombians have a higher rate of informal employment than other populations, for example.
In 2013, a survey conducted by the Universidad del Valle found that only 3 percent of high-level management positions in Colombia’s labor market were held by persons of African descent, a significantly lower representation than the group’s overall proportion of the Colombian population.
“In Colombia, there is much more discrimination against persons with darker skin compared to those with ‘intermediate’ to lighter skin,” explained Sara Milena Ferrer Valencia of the Observatorio de Discriminación Racial.
The national Public Defender’s office reported on Saturday that some 700,000 Afro-Colombians have been victims of the country’s internal armed conflict, mostly through forced displacement.
The same office also received more than 800 formal complaints of racism or discrimination over the past year. Most of the complaints came from cities with the largest black populations: Cali and Cartagena.
But Colombia’s government is working to change that.
On Thursday, Colombia’s Ministry of Culture along with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Cartagena as Colombia’s first center of Afro-Colombian memory.
“This is a recognition and a valorization of a determining factor in the memory of the country,” said Vice Minister of Culture Zulia Mena García. “May our words be reflected in our actions.”
UNESCO Director of Cultural Politics and Intercultural Dialogue Ali Moussa Ily also celebrated the designation.
“Our being here is concreting everything that was represented by the route of slavery,” he said. “Cartagena is fundamental, and this symbolic act was necessary.”
National Afro-Colombian Day was first celebrated on May 21, 2001 in commemoration of 150 years since Colombia abolished slavery. The entire month of May is also celebrated as Afro-Colombian Month.