CALI, Colombia — At a hotel in Cali, a large city near Colombia’s Pacific coast, hundreds of people packed a ballroom for the woman in the center of the stage.
With her hand on her heart and a small gold cross around her neck, Marelen Castillo, a previously virtually unknown vice presidential candidate, explained once again that she was running for “so many women in Colombia who don’t have opportunities.”
A few months ago, Dr. Castillo, 53, a top director of a private Catholic university in Bogotá, the capital. Now she is the running mate of the anti-establishment politician and businessman who unexpectedly took second place in the first round of the country’s most sweeping election in decades.
On Sunday, Colombians will vote in the second round, choosing between that candidate, Rodolfo Hernández, and Gustavo Petro, a longtime senator who is running for the country’s first left-wing president.
Whatever the outcome, the country is assured of its first Afro-Colombian female vice president: either Dr. Castillo, an educator and religious conservative, or Francia Márquez, an environmental and social justice activist.
The two women have completely different approaches to some of the country’s most pressing problems: inequality, unemployment and the quality of the public education system.
While Ms. Márquez has made social justice and inclusion the core of her platform — speaking about race and class in a way rarely discussed in public circles — Dr. Castillo kept her message focused on improving public education and increasing economic opportunity, especially for women.
In an interview between campaign events in Cali, Dr. Castillo grew up in a blended family that went together harmoniously, with relatives gathering for every birthday, holiday, and First Communion. Her father is white and her mother is black. But race, she said, was not discussed.
“Maybe because we grew up in it, we weren’t very inclined to feel that” about race, she said. “Because of the family togetherness.”
The platform fundamentals of Dr. Castillo include raising public educator salaries, investing in athletic and arts education, and incorporating best practices from universities in other countries. Mr Hernández and Dr Castillo have said that, if elected, she will also become the Minister of Education.
She also said she would set up a working group to review Colombia’s higher education laws. She did not specify what changes she would make, but said any revision would be a participatory process.
Sandra Carrasquilla, 52, a Castillo supporter in Cali, recently began volunteering for Hernández after working on right-wing Senator María Fernanda Cabal’s campaign. She was particularly drawn to the “spectacular” resume, warmth and message of unity from Dr. castillo.
“She is a woman who is committed to education and has an amazing charisma,” said Ms. Carrasquilla, who works for a health food distributor. “That’s why I became addicted to Marelen.”
dr. Castillo grew up in Cali, the eldest of five daughters in a close-knit, middle-class Catholic family.
Education was the most important thing in their household. Her father, a former teacher, took the girls to school every day and taught them to read.
“My father always said, ‘I teach them because I don’t want them to depend on anyone later,'” said Milene Castillo, a biochemist, Marelen’s sister.
dr. Castillo took this to heart, secured scholarships and earned four degrees, including a Ph.D. in education. During that time, she also worked as a public high school teacher and later as vice chancellor of a Catholic university in Cali.
There, Dr. Castillo gained a reputation as an able administrator and “an extraordinarily intelligent person”, said: Santiago Arboleda, a professor of Afro-Andean history at Simón Bolívar Andes University in Quito, Ecuador, who taught in Cali for many years.
Fourteen years ago, she moved to Bogotá to work at Minute of God University Corporation, a Catholic university that targets low-income students in remote areas of the country with limited access to higher education. She ran the university’s virtual and distance learning program.
Education has continued to carry Dr. Castillo as she finds herself at the center of Colombian politics.
As voters prepare to cast their votes, Dr. Castillo and Ms. Márquez bridge the cultural divide in Colombia between those who demand drastic social change on the one hand and those who say such demands are divisive when the country needs unity.
The women are two of five Afro-Colombians named as running mates for presidential candidates — a record in Colombia, where top politicians are mostly white, often educated abroad and associated with the most influential families.
For many, seeing two black women so close to the halls of power “recasts the stories of what’s the right place for an Afro-descendant woman,” said Aurora Vergara, director of the Center for Afrodiasporic Studies at Icesi University. in Cali. †
But it has also raised questions from candidates who have tried to demonstrate racially diverse representation while avoiding a conversation about racism in Colombia.
During the campaign, Ms Márquez opened up the national conversation about race in a country where the topic remains largely taboo. She draws thousands of devoted supporters to her speeches calling on Colombians to tackle systemic racism and sexism.
dr. Castillo, on the other hand, acknowledges the existence of racism and sexism in Colombia, but it is not a central part of her message, unlike her left-wing counterpart. Instead, she emphasizes the idea of creating more opportunities for women.
“We have to recognize that Colombia is a machismo country, and who will give us that chance? The men,” Dr. Castillo to DailyExpertNews. “Now we have to give other women opportunities.”
One of the most common criticisms of Dr. Castillo is that she has no experience in public office and would serve as second-in-command to one of the oldest presidents in Colombian history. If the 77-year-old is elected, Mr. Hernández will serve a four-year term.
On the campaign trail, he and Dr. Castillo no longer differ from each other.
Brash, informal and unpredictable, Mr Hernández has made so many insulting statements that a local news outlet recently compiled them into a digital catalog with the caption “Look how Rodolfo Hernández insulted you”.
For comparison: Dr. Castillo is measured in her speeches and rarely strays from the party line. She has defended Mr Hernández against accusations of misogyny after telling an interviewer that “it would be ideal if women devoted themselves to raising children.”
But internally there were differences of opinion.
In an effort to distance himself from the current Conservative government, which faces dismal approval ratings, Mr. Hernandez recently a series of progressive policy positionsincluding saying that his government would support a woman’s right to abortion.
Ángel Beccassino, an adviser to the Hernández campaign, said that Mr. Hernández and Dr. Castillo disagreed on the issue, but that Dr. Castillo had ultimately come to the position that “every woman has the right to to decide.”
In the interview, Dr. Castillo said she personally opposed abortion up to 24 weeks, but clarified an earlier statement in which she said she would like the country to re-examine a recent Supreme Court decision that decriminalized the process to 24 weeks. to soften. “I’d like to review it. I didn’t say I’m going to review it,” she said. “My position is that I respect every woman’s decision.”
When she visited the neighborhood she grew up in for a campaign event earlier this month, at least one person recognized Dr. Castillo: Her cousin Iván Castillo, who happened to pass by during a trip to the bakery. He was surprised, he said, when he found her getting involved in politics, and even more surprised when Mr. Hernández advanced to the second round.
Like most townships that La Base is a part of, the 49-year-old civil engineer voted for Mr. Petro.
“Now that the family is involved, I don’t know,” he said with a laugh about the next round of elections.
“She’s very good at her job as a teacher, as an administrator,” he said, shaking his head. “But she has nothing to do with politics.”
He added: “A person like my cousin, to get into such a mess. My God!”
Julie Turkewitz contributed reporting from Cali, Colombia.