Alright. So I have landed in Cartagena–a port city on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. Intentions are simple: Enjoy some much needed beach time and island food during my two-month vacation from Oakland life. The Bay Area is wonderful, but the community, the shared spaces, the continuous astrology references (“rising,” “setting,” “Venus returning,” “Orisha’s awakening”) can all get a bit overwhelming after four years.
I step off the plane and I am immediately greeted by the heat I oh so missed back during my Miami days. The sarcasm is almost as suffocating as the humidity. Still, right away, I can tell this is going to be a place I will be spending much more time than planned. Maybe it is all the black and brown faces populating the crowds or the reggae, dancehall, soca, even Lingala music blasting down the streets. Honestly, I haven’t heard Lingala music since I was living in Kenya. The Nigerian music didn’t surprise me…but Lingala?! Oh, we are going to be very good friends, Cartagena.
I am greeted by my host family–three brothers in their late 20s, their mother and their father. They are warm, inviting, and beautiful. Thankfully 10 years living in Miami blessed me with enough Spanish to get by because the family doesn’t speak a lick of English, and frankly they don’t seem interested in learning today. I am captivated by the mixture in this one nuclear family. One son is a black Colombian, darker than me, and immediately he calls me sister. His two brothers are fair-skinned with soft bouncing curls. The pictures on the wall are of the oldest brother who is currently traveling Europe. He is another Afro-Caribbean with beautiful indigenous features. Breathtaking. Um, why is he not here this summer?!
I go to unpack and immediately feel safe, whole, and accepted. I am nothing to gawk at in this home. I would be lying if I said I didn’t pick this family on purpose based on photos I stalked online. I saw brown faces and immediately made up my mind. I was not expecting all this though. The home, the music, the family, the aromas all took me back to living in Nairobi. I was home.
Later that night, the brothers take me out to a friend’s house for some beers and the first Copa America game of the season. It’s Colombia vs. U.S. Perfect. In the background is Mavado and Popcaan playing on a huge 90s old school boombox player. After a couple beers I am a little more comfortable with my Spanish, and a lot more comfortable with my company. I ask: “So am I the only African here? Is there a community of Kenyans like myself, or people from other African countries? Or Africans don’t really visit Colombia?”
The whole room finally starts laughing. One of the men finally looks at me and says, “We are African. We just don’t know what country we come from in Africa because of the slave trade. But we are African.”
Now. This is the answer I clearly know to be true, however, this must be my first time in my entire life that I actually sat in a room full of Latinx men and women and actually heard that response. I actually heard them not only accept, but proudly embrace their African heritage.
Growing up in Miami, unfortunately, I had a very different experience with the Latinx population. There was a lot of separatism between the shades and hair textures. I was rarely considered worthy enough to date one of them unless it was winter time and my skin was just the right shade of “light-skinned, red-boned, you-barely-black” and my hair was straight with the most expensive extensions attached and the “good hair” baby hairs peeking out. It was a privilege to date a white-skinned Latinx person if you were black. I remember that a black Jamaican friend of mine, intending to give me a compliment, said, “Rachel, you are so pretty. You can even get a Spanish guy if you wanted to.” Aw, how sweet of you! Am I really that pretty! [Maaaajor eye roll.] The colorism was blinding.
So hearing this response, this was the beginning of my deep journey and investigation into the Afro-Caribbean culture of Cartagena. I mean, as I write this I am sitting in a café jamming to deep underground reggae music while an elderly brown-skinned woman plaits my hair. In public. Without even one side eye shot in my direction. This trip has become a study into the African roots and cultures that still survive in the Afro-Caribbean culture of Cartagena. This has become a study that will take a peak at the African cultures that still survive in the Afro-Latinx cultures as I make my way out of Cartagena and the Caribbean and into the rest of Central and South America.
I expect class to play a major role in all of this as well. A few days after the soccer game, I was invited on a yacht for a party. Now this crowd was much better off financially and it was alarming, yet totally expected, that the boat probably had about four black people out of 50 on it, myself being one of them. Race, class, culture, sexism, acceptance, assimilation. I want to take a look into how all of these factors play out in Central and South America, beginning with the Caribbean coast of Colombia. Is this just “privileged” treatment I am experiencing as an American visiting Colombia? Do local black Colombians feel the same acceptance? Is Africa as alive as it seems as I walk down the streets of Cartagena? I plan to share space with Africans in Colombia and find out.
Rachel Wangeci Kigano is a queer black woman “living” in Oakland. She spends much of her time traveling abroad, including many months in Southeast Asia and seven years in Nairobi, Kenya. Rachel is currently in South America with plans to continue traveling over the next year. She documents her experiences as a queer woman of color traveling the machismo-laden fields of South America. All her traveling has been solo, which is how she enjoys it. Rachel wants to continue advocating for more solo female travel across the globe.