The first fact about the vice president-elect of Colombia, Francia Márquez, is her African descent. However, her origins are more relevant than what is evident at first glance. It was her history as a human rights activist and lawyer for social causes that led her to where she is today.
Márquez was born in 1981, in the village of Yolombó, located in Suárez, a town in the department of Cauca in south-western Colombia where mining is the main factor of economic dependence and social struggles.
A history of militancy against extractivism
Márquez’s family depended on the mining industry. While her mother was a midwife in the small local healthcare system, her laborer father worked in the mines and she herself had her first job as an artisanal gold miner. She later became a domestic worker, and at the age of 16 she had the first of her two sons.
As a teenage mother, Márquez studied at the University of Santiago de Cali and graduated as a lawyer. At the same time, the environmental damage due to mining and forced displacement of hundreds of inhabitants of her hometown was growing. These two were the triggers for her social and political activism.
She opposed the indiscriminate extractivism, caused by the granting of mining titles to companies everywhere, and made her own the defense of the environment as well as of human rights that were also damaged by that industry.
Her activism began in 2009, during protests to save the Ovejas River from the contamination caused by mining, and since then she has received several recognitions for her work. One of the milestones of her lifelong social struggle was receiving the Goldman Environmental Prize, considered the environmental Nobel Prize.
In 2014 she participated in the interethnic and intercultural roundtable that demanded the Colombian government to stop illegal mining and the granting of mining titles without prior consultation in the territories of indigenous communities. She became a target of paramilitary groups that regularly harassed villagers.
A fighter, a victim
That year Márquez was forcibly displaced from her home. Later she organized, together with some 70 Afro-descendant women, The March of the Turbans, an event that was also known as Black Women for the Care of Life and Ancestral Territories. On November 17, the group left Suarez for Bogota. They traveled 600 kilometers to demand from the government a solution to the problem of illegal mining.
Márquez also traveled to Cuba during the peace talks between the government of Juan Manuel Santos and the leaders of the now dissolved FARC. In 2015, she participated in a community assembly in northern Cauca to demand the Colombian state to guarantee protection for social leaders who are continually threatened.
However, her ethnic and peasant activism earned her several new threats, and even an attempt on her life by paramilitaries in 2019, while she was the legal representative of the Community Council of La Toma de Suárez, a position she held since 2016.
A symbol of marginalized communities
Márquez being a woman, and her African descent were other fronts of battle for her. Moreover, these were the topics for which the most conservative right-wing sectors of Colombia questioned her competence for her position as Gustavo Pertro’s running mate.
However, Márquez, dressed in colorful costumes typical of her region, and with her ability as a speaker, captivated the electorate, especially women and the youth. She became a political phenomenon and a symbol of the communities traditionally marginalized in politics, and opened a space for the hope of representation of those who had none.
Another front of attack against her during the electoral campaign was her lack of experience in the partisan political arena.
“Many say that I have no experience to accompany Gustavo Petro to govern this country, and I wonder why their experience did not allow us to live in dignity?” Márquez responded in one of her speeches.
“Why has their experience kept us subjected to violence for so many years, which gave us more than eight million victims?” she questioned. “Why did their experience not allow all Colombians to live in peace?”
To whom Márquez dedicated her victory
Márquez dedicated a special part of her first speech as vice president-elect to social and minority struggles.
“We women are going to eradicate patriarchy from our country, we are going to fight for the rights of the LGBTIQ+ community, we are going to fight for the rights of our mother earth, the home of all of us,” Márquez said in her speech after the election results became known. “We are goint to take care of our home, of biodiversity, and let us fight together to eradicate structural racism.”
Her message, she added, was for the “social leaders who sadly were murdered in this country, for the youth who have been murdered and disappeared, for the women who have been raped and disappeared. To all of them who I know are accompanying us from somewhere in this historic moment for Colombia.”