CALI, Colombia — On the streets of Cali, a cradle of Colombian culture and protests, a crowd stretched to blocks, waved white campaign flags and wore T-shirts that read “the people will not surrender!”
Amid the crowd was a famous singer, an important senator, a well-known journalist, a child rapper and a cluster of local dignitaries. But the real celebrity was about to take center stage.
“We love you, Francia!” shouted hundreds of people.
Addressing the crowd, microphone in hand, 40-year-old Francia Márquez once worked as a housekeeper and is now Colombia’s top vice presidential candidate as the country prepares for elections later this month.
For the first time in Colombia’s history, a black woman stands close to the top of the executive branch.
Mrs. Márquez wore a blue-orange printed blouse that paid tribute to Afro-Colombian style and called on the country’s marginalized peoples – indigenous, black, rural – to unite. She joined the elite, who “has condemned our people to misery, hunger, desolation”, and invoked the Black Lives Matter movement by calling on supporters “to break the structural racism that has not allowed us to to breathe”.
“The time has come to move from resistance to power!” she shouted to the crowd.
Then she conjured up the most Colombian phrases as the crowd exploded in cheers: “Que viva la berraquera, carajo!”
Roughly: “Long live our power, damn it!”
In just a few months, Ms. Márquez, an environmental activist from the mountainous department of Cauca in southwestern Colombia, has become a national phenomenon. candidate, Gustavo Petro, to name her as his running mate.
During the campaign, Ms Márquez’s persistent, candid and caustic analysis of the social inequalities in Colombian society sparked a discussion about race and class in a way rarely heard in the country’s most public and powerful political circles.
Those themes, “many in our society either deny them or treat them as minor,” said Santiago Arboleda, a professor of Afro-Andean history at Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar. “Today they are on the front page.”
The rise of Ms Márquez is significant not only because she is black in a country where Afro-Colombians are regularly subject to racial insults and treatment and faces structural barriers, but also because she comes out of poverty in a country where economic class so often determines a person’s place in society. The most recent former presidents have received training abroad and are associated with the country’s powerful families and kingmakers.
Despite the economic gains of recent decades, Colombia remains widely unequal, a trend that has been exacerbated during the pandemic, with black, indigenous and rural communities falling furthest behind.
In total, 40 percent of the country lives in poverty.
Ms Márquez chose to run, she said, “because our governments have turned their backs on the people, and justice and peace.”
“If they had done their job,” she said of the political establishment, “I wouldn’t be here.”
For some of the Colombians begging for change and for a more diverse representation, Ms. Márquez is their champion. The question is whether the rest of the country is ready for her.
Her more generous critics called her divisive, saying she is part of a left-wing coalition that wants to tear apart the norms of the past rather than build on them.
“She’s part of the polarization of this country,” said Érika Ibargüen, an Afro-Colombian accountant who recently ran for Congress as part of a centrist coalition. “We are part of the change of this country, but from the center.”
She has never held political office and Sergio Guzmán, director of Colombia Risk Analysis, a consultancy, said that “there are many questions about whether Francia could be commander and chief, if she were to manage economic policy, or foreign policy, in a way that would provide continuity to the country.”
Her more extreme opponents have directly attacked her with racist tropes, criticizing her class and political legitimacy, expressing sentiments that continue to permeate and influence parts of Colombian society.
In recent weeks, a well-known Colombian singer and television host has called her King Kong; a popular right-wing senator has suggested she should be “coherent” and change her name from Francia, a nation that was a “slave colonizer”; and the head of the senate has named her the candidate of the National Liberation Army, a violent rebel group that claims to defend the poor.
“She has too much grudge to be vice president,” said taxi driver José Luis Niño, 68.
“Maybe she should run a town in Africa,” he said.
Ms. Márquez grew up sleeping on a dirt floor in the community of La Toma, near Colombia’s Pacific coast, in a region ravaged by violence related to the country’s long-standing internal conflict. She became pregnant when she was 16, went to work in the local gold mines to support her child, and eventually sought work as a live-in maid.
Her mother, a midwife, gave birth to her alone, Ms. Márquez said in an interview, because no one else was home.
Ms. Márquez became an activist when she was about 13 amid a proposal to expand a dam project that would have diverted a major river in her region, turning community life upside down. She eventually went to law school and won a legal campaign to stop major mining companies from moving to the area.
In 2014, she attracted national attention when she led a 400-mile march from Cauca to Bogotá, demanding that the government stop the illegal excavator miners who had invaded her community.
The march ended in a sit-in with the Ministry of the Interior and an agreement with the government. Márquez won the Goldman Environmental Prize, also known as the “Environmental Nobel” for her work.
Colombia’s presidential election is on May 29 and will come at a critical turning point in the country. For generations, national politics has been driven by opposition to a brutal left-wing insurgency, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
But in 2016, the insurgents signed a peace deal with the government, laying down arms and ending a decades-long conflict that had helped conservatives stay in power for so long.
The end of the war between the government and the FARC has since made room in political discourse for leftist movements that cannot be dismissed as easily as violent rebels. And it comes just as the most educated generation in the country’s history comes of age, with many young people expressing their frustration at low wages and lingering barriers to economic growth that they say they can’t escape.
So far, Mr Petro, a former mayor of Bogotá and an ex-member of a rebel group called M-19, is leading the polls against Federico Gutiérrez, a former mayor of Medellín who represents a right-wing coalition.
Petro has baffled the right-wing and parts of the center with his proposals to halt oil exploration and overhaul the pension system, while also receiving criticism from former allies, some of whom say he is an inept administrator.
If Mr. Petro wins, Ms. Márquez will certainly try to push him to a more feminist platform, and she has at times openly criticized his track record on women’s issues.
In a presidential debate, Mr. Petro to offer full support for abortion rights, instead he said he would push for pregnancy prevention programs that would take the country to “abortion zero.”
On the debate podium, Ms Márquez turned to her ally: “I ask Petro, how many women have to die, how many women have to go through these painful situations until ‘zero abortion’ comes?”
Today, for the first time, five of the country’s vice presidential candidates are Afro-Colombian, something Guzmán attributed to the rise of Ms Márquez.
“Once Francia was a candidate, inclusion became a central issue in the election,” he said.
Like many activists in Colombia who challenge the status quo, Ms. Márquez has repeatedly received death threats.
During the campaign, not far from her birthplace, Ms. Márquez stood surrounded by the Indigenous Guard, a traditional security unit that carries wooden bars meant to represent peace and strength.
Nearby was a group of plainclothes bodyguards with stone faces, and behind them a circle of police officers in green.
In the crowd, amid a marimba player and a banner that read “dare to vote,” stood a cross-section of Colombia, including many women wearing turbans, which have come to symbolize Afro-Colombian struggle and strength.
Melba Sánchez, 67, in a purple turban, said she was there because “discrimination is what I’ve experienced the most in life.”
On stage, Ms. Márquez said that if she followed the rules, she would wash the dishes in a wealthy family’s kitchen.
“Part of what bothers the elite,” she bellowed, “is that a woman who worked in their homes will be their leader today.”
Sofia Villamil contributed from Bogotá.