Esteban Sinisterra Paz, a 23-year-old fashion designer from Colombia’s conflict-ridden and impoverished Pacific region, hadn’t started his career long when he got a call from a historic client.
Francia Márquez — the famous environmental activist and Colombia’s first black woman elected vice president — was in line, and she wanted two outfits made.
“When I got her call, it was amazing, because it wasn’t just about me or her, but our whole community,” said Sinisterra, an Afro-Colombian who runs the bespoke label. , Esteban African. “It’s a story written by all those who have been excluded and ignored, but who one day stood up and said, ‘We want change for our community’.”
Sinisterra and millions of other voters got his wish on the evening of June 16 when Gustavo Petro, 62 – a former guerrilla fighter and former mayor of Bogotá, the capital – won the presidency after a long and bitter campaign to snatch the power in the country. political elites. When Petro takes office today, it will be the first time the conservative South American country has been ruled by a leftist.
Her campaign was bolstered by the addition of Márquez, 40, to the ticket, who made headlines around the world when she became Petro’s running mate in March. Like Petro – who was a member of the now-defunct M-19 rebel group in his youth – Márquez is seen as an incendiary outsider. Much of her support often stems from the fact that she is not your typical politician, light-skinned and from wealthy political and business backgrounds.
“Their victory really made me believe in democracy,” Sinistera said. “People like us and Francia were never considered, but now we know we can achieve so much when we work collectively.”
Márquez, a single mother and former domestic worker, won the prestigious Goldman Prize in 2018 for her activism against a gold mine in her village, after leading 80 women on a 350-mile march to Bogotá.
Like Márquez, Sinisterra has been displaced by Colombia’s conflict with left-wing rebel groups, including the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), which have rocked the countryside for decades, killing more than 260,000 people and deporting seven million people. from their homes. Other rebel groups, such as the still active National Liberation Army (ELN), state-aligned paramilitaries and Colombian security forces, have also committed atrocities.
A peace deal signed with the Farc in 2016 was supposed to usher in the development of rural communities, but instead other armed groups – left and right in ideology, but united by their involvement in trafficking drugs – have settled down and are now jostling for territory.
Sinisterra was forced to flee his home in Nariño province in southwestern Colombia as a young boy when fighting between rival groups became too intense. “There were so many armed groups around, we didn’t even know which were which, but my family knew we had to leave,” the creator said. “I was one of those rare young Colombians able to escape the war.”
The designer said Márquez’s outfits, which were brightly colored and patterned, reflected Afro-Colombian traditions. “Red is what we use when we want to create that impact of the strength of a Pacific woman,” Sinistera said. “Francia never really had her own aesthetic because she was so focused on her wrestling, so it was great to work with her to create one without losing her essence.”
Despite the wave of support for Márquez and Petro in marginalized communities and in many cities, the couple will face an unenviable array of challenges in power.
Inflation is rising alongside the country’s national debt, cocaine production is at an all-time high and neighboring Venezuela continues to be mired in economic crisis, with refugees fleeing to Colombia every day.
Petro, known for her towering ego and authoritarian style, will also have to manage her vice president, who commands her own support base and is a political newcomer unaccustomed to the deals often required in the halls of power.
“Márquez is an activist who is used to demanding things that are often impossible,” said Sergio Guzmán, director and co-founder of Colombia Risk Analysis, a local consultancy. “So the question is, how long will she wait with Petro to deliver on her promises of rural reform, economic justice and renegotiation of the free trade agreement with the United States?”
But for Márquez supporters, it represents a rare chance to advance the rights of Colombia’s poorest, who celebrate his intention to create 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 paid attention to white men,” said Yacila Bondo, a young Afro-Colombian activist. . “Now the panorama is wide open.”