Nohora Fernández, an Afro-Colombian born in Colombia, speaks on her experience growing up in Colombia, her interest in Nigerian literature and other matters.
PT: Where were you born?
NAF: I was born in Cartagena, Colombia. Cartagena was one of the most important Spanish harbors for the slave trade in the Spanish Caribbean. A huge number of enslaved people arrived in Cartagena and were then sold to Ecuador, Venezuela, Peru and other South America countries. Today, It is considered a black city, probably about 80 per cent of the population is black. I grew up in that city.
PT: Who is an Afro-Colombian?
NAF: The Afro-Colombian experience is not widely known, and it is quite diverse. We have black people in the Pacific and Caribbean coasts. The black experience is different in each of the coasts. The black people in the Caribbean Islands of San Andrés and Providencia are Protestants and they speak Spanish, English, and Creole. We have maroon communities in the Palenques in San Basilio, close to my city. They speak a language that is called palenquero. I would say that the cultural production of Afro-Colombian is very diverse because it comes from these very different experiences. In Cartagena, which is in the Caribbean coast, we had a dialogue with Africa in the 1970’s. I am not an expert in this history but people would say that African sailors used to come to the harbor and they exchanged music, tobacco, and rum with Afro-Colombians. We received Fela Kuti from Nigeria, and Soukous from Congo. From these exchanges was born a music called Champeta. Artists like Charles King, Anne Swing, or El Afinaito, from Cartagena and San Basilio de Palenque produced this music. I grew up with it and also with African singers such as the Congolese artist, Mbilia Bel. She was very famous in Cartagena. I remember that once I was in a party in Bogota where Mbilia Bel’s music was played. There was another black girl, dark-skinned, and the two of us started singing together. She asked me where I was from, and I told her Cartagena. She was from the Congo. She translated the lyrics for me. She could not believe I knew the music of Mbilia Bel.
People don’t imagine Colombia as a black country because of structural racism and how Colombia imagines itself. We have the fourth biggest black population in the Americas, behind the U.S., Brazil, and Haiti. There is a strike that has been going on in Colombia for over a month, with its epicenter in Cali, one of the biggest Black cities in Latin America. It’s a protest against inequalities and lack of opportunities in the country, but it is also a protest against racism and oppression. An important black leader, Junior Jein, was murdered recently, probably by the paramilitary. He was a musician and social activist.
PT: What are the religious practices of Afro-Colombians?
NAF: The practice is mainly Catholicism, and more recently, Protestantism. I know that some people practice rituals related to santeria and African traditions. In the Palenque of San Basilio, for example, there are rituals like Lumbalu, that come from slavery times. Lumbalu is a ritual for the dead. The Palenque is a rural community close to Cartagena, and they considered themselves to be the first free community in the Americas. Also, Alabaos y Arrullos are religious practices connected to an African memory, they are practiced in the Pacific coast.
PT: What is the food like?
NAF: Because we are on the coasts, we have a lot of seafood. We have coconut rice, fish soups, fish and rice, fried empanadas, arepas. We use a lot of coconut milk. We have a lot of stews and soups, and cassava bread. We also have a lot of juices. The preparation is although different among the black populations.
PT: Could you tell us about your education in Colombia?
NAF: I attended Comfenalco in Cartagena. It is a private school. I attended with scholarship. Public schools in Colombia were not very good, so I had to study hard to get scholarships. I had my primary and secondary school education at the private school. I always wanted to be the best. It was a lot of pressure to keep my scholarship. In Colombia, the youth do not have access to good education. The government should make good education available to all Colombians. It’s one of the reasons for the current strike.
PT: How many black children attend this school?
NAF: Many. I never felt like the only black girl there. So many black children were from the middle class, children of professors, teachers, and other professionals. I would say that during those years, at least for me, the issue was more of class than race. Sometimes, I would go to school without breakfast. We bought our food in the school and sometimes I didn’t have money. However, I had a lot of support from my classmates and because of that I have very good memories of my school.
PT: Do you have siblings?
NAF: Two. My sister is in a Ph.D. program at the University of Connecticut here, and my brother, who is the youngest, studied architecture in Colombia. He is still in Cartagena and he’s looking for scholarship to go and study for a Master’s degree in Germany.
PT: Why did you go to Bogota to study instead of staying in Cartagena?
NAF: Since I was young, I wanted to be a researcher. I studied at the University of Cartagena for a year. It is a black university. It was hard to do research there because of lack of money and resources for research in regional universities in Colombia. I wanted to go to the best public institution in the country, and it was in Bogota, Universidad Nacional de Colombia.
PT: What was your experience there?
NAF: I studied Comparative Literature which includes French, English, Russian Literature, translated to Spanish. There was no African literature. I studied Philosophy and Aesthetics relating to Peruvian, Mexican and Colombian traditions. Bogota was a white mestizo city and I was by myself during my undergraduate studies. I had to build a network. The academic experience was fine. It was a good one. However, in terms of life experience, I had to face the reality of Colombian racism as a black woman for the first time. I was the only black woman in the Literature department. I was the only black woman in a bar when I went out socially. Later, it changed. I found a lot of black friends from the Pacific coast and I learned a lot about their culture. These friendships nurtured me. There was a black students’ organization led by black women, young women, feminists. I wasn’t an official member but I was close to them. Most of them were in Law, Sociology, Anthropology and other fields. They invited Angela Davis to speak in the University. Black feminists are doing a great job in Bogota, the Pacific coast and the Caribbean. They are fighting racism and making advancement in their professional fields. I admire them a lot. As a student in Bogotá, I had access to other resources. I studied in Spain for a year as an exchange student in Literature. Also, I had access to Affirmative Action run by the American Embassy. They gave scholarships to black students to study English in an institute in Bogota. We had to apply, present our academic work, and go through interviews. I won this scholarship and studied English for two years.
PT: Who were the teachers?
NAF: They were mostly Colombians. There were very few Americans teaching, although they were probably the administrators of the programme. That was when I started thinking of studying in the U.S. I had always been a reader since I was eight years old. I thought of studying in Latin American countries or Spain. It was the beginning of the internet. I looked for scholarships in Spain. At fourteen, I thought of studying medicine and the best place to do that was Cuba. I was always reading.
PT: What factors are responsible for your early interest in education?
NAF: You know, the saying that it takes a village to raise a child is true. My parents were, of course, very important in my early education. My Mom said I was drawing in books at age of four. Both of my parents knew education is very important and encouraged my early relationship with books. Also, at school, I had a lot of encouragement from my classmates and teachers. They all believed in me. I grow up in a working class neighborhood, but there was a social movement that funded small libraries and motivated young people to get involved with the Arts. On Saturdays, we came together to do art related activities. Children were exposed to plays, writing and different things. I feel that my community supported my creative and intellectual development. Nobody succeeds just by herself or himself. A lot of people supported me. We need to ask our governments to do that, we need to transform the system to better support people.
PT: Like most places in the Americas, is colorism a part of the Afro-Colombian experience?
NAF: I would say that, as in all racist societies, there is internalized racism. Your mother or grandmother wants you to be white-looking, to marry a white man, “to make the race whiter”. When I was growing up, some of my teachers asked me to pinch my nose so that it would be European-looking. At age fourteen or fifteen, my mother wanted to straighten my hair with hot comb. I had a big Afro, but I resisted. We had a big argument. At sixteen, my Afro was so big that my brother was embarrassed walking with me because people on the streets shouted nonsense about my hair. But things are changing now. Social movements in Cartagena are responsible for this. The internet allowed discussions to disseminate. Those situations are common in Brazil and the Caribbean nations as well. It’s structural racism, the way society sees its blackness, what it means to be black. In history classes, they tell us people arrived as slaves, but they didn’t tell us how they fought for freedom. They didn’t tell us about Haiti, which overthrew France, the most powerful military nation in the world then, and freed its people from slavery. While I was studying English on the Martin Luther King grant in Bogota, I met many young black women from Bogota and other cities. There, we started having real conversations about the racism we experienced as children and teenagers.
PT: What is the situation right now in Colombia?
NAF: It’s chaotic because of the strike and because the government does not listen to the people, but generally it’s much safer than what it used to be during the drug wars. There is a lot of violence directed at black people, like in Brazil and the U.S. There is a lot of displacement because paramilitarism and the internal conflict forced black and indigenous people to move from the countryside to the cities, without jobs and opportunities, and not cared for by the government. There is structural racism.
PT: What are the connections to Africa like now?
NAF: I haven’t lived in Cartagena in fourteen years. I don’t really know about the daily exchange on the streets, but for music, the connections are always there. I listened to a Gambian artist today, and the music reminds me of music from my country. Contemporary dances in Colombia cities are influenced by Africa. Colombia professors were trained in Europe by African professors there. I work with Brazilian and Colombian visual artists. You could see that their esthetics are influenced by Africa. There is a dialogue going on. Because of social media, black women writers know about African American and some African writers. Chimamanda Adichie is popular. The internet has made it easy. We need to be more conscious about these connections.
PT: You said you were interested in Nigeria…
NAF: I am interested in Nigerian Literature because it tells a lot of stories different from the trauma that it is so foundational for black people in the Americas. I want to learn more about literary traditions in Nigeria and create a dialogue as a Latin American scholar and writer. One of the reasons I think of Nigeria is because I discussed the sugar plantation in Brazil in my dissertation, and I want to know if Nigerian descendants of the people that came back from Brazil after being slaves have written about this. I’m open to what the Nigerian experience can offer me.
PT: You just finished your Ph.D. at Georgetown University. What’s the next step?
NAF: I have a post-doctoral fellow with the University of California, Los Angeles, (UCLA), for a year or two. I came to the U.S. on a Fulbright, so I have to go back to Colombia for one year. I’m also interested in the Caribbean. I want to do research there and in Africa. I’m currently editing and publishing a magazine on black arts in the diaspora. The magazine is called Blue/Azul Journal. The first issue will be out in December. I want to spend more time on my writing, and use my academic experience to start discussions outside the academy on black visual arts.
PT: Thank you and good luck!