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Clemencia & Francia: In Their Words

By Kim Haas

Part Two of Los Afro-Latinos La Toma Feature

Here we invite you to listen to the interview with Francia Márquez and Clemencia Carabali in Spanish.

Aquí les invitamos escuchar la entrevista con Clemencia Carabali y Francia Márquez en español.

Have you ever felt so committed to a cause that you were willing to risk your life defending it? For most of us, it’s hard to imagine being so strongly dedicated to an ideal, principle or mission.

For Clemencia Carabali and Francia Márquez, their conviction and determination to preserve their ancestral homeland, La Toma, Colombia comes at a high price. Theirs is a life of unease, insecurity and death threats from armed groups. Many leaders and colleagues have been murdered in the fight to preserve their land.

When I ask Clemencia how she perseveres in the midst of such serious threats to her and her family’s personal safety she says, “Dios me tiene viva aqui para hacer muchas cosas por mi, mi gente, por mi familia. Yo creo que la fortaleza viene de Dios.” (God keeps me alive in order to do many things for myself, my people and my family. I believe that my strength comes from God).

The two women were profiled in last year’s PBS series Women, War and Peace: The War We Are Living. In the documentary, Francia states very frankly that she believes she will die fighting for La Toma.

Wondering if Francia feels differently this year about her personal security, I asked if she still believes she will be killed in the struggle for La Toma. Without hesitation, she says “Yes.”

Clemencia and Francia lead a precarious existence, risking their lives from moment to moment to defend and protect the rights of Afro-Colombians. It seemed perfectly fitting that I would meet the two courageous women on January 17, 2012; the day the United States honors the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Fueled by La Toma’s riches in gold, water and other natural resources, these two brave women and their daring colleagues have devoted their lives to a constant David and Goliath struggle – holding onto their land while many individuals and multinational companies have tried to obtain it. This occurs, despite the Colombian Constitutional legal protections granting Afro-Colombians the rights to their ancestral land. These protections guard against any development of the land without prior consultation and approval by the community.

La Toma, currently home to 6,000 Afro-Colombians in the country’s Pacific southwest, has been the home to Colombian slaves since 1636. Mining has been an integral part of La Toma since its inception. Francia identifies mining’s economic role as, “(Un) herramiento para sacar adelante la familia. [Es un] fuente de empleo que permite la gente de sobrevivir.” (A tool to help families get ahead. It [mining] is a source of employment to help families survive.)

From the very young to the senior members of La Toma, mining seems to touch just about everyone. Francia began working in the mines “desde los cinco años,” when Francia was taught by her grandmother. When Clemencia said her mom, 83, “es minera” I was surprised. She responded pridefully, “Los Afros, somos muy fuertes.”

From left to right: Francia Márquez, Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli and Clemencia Carabali.

When I spoke with Clemencia and Francia, they expressed a profound sense of commitment to their history and legacy. “Mi bisabuela fue esclava,” adds Clemencia. (My great-grandmother was a slave). She talks about the significance of oral tradition and the value of gathering with the elders, who pass down customs, rituals and practices from one generation to the next. Cultural traditions also provide structure for the family – passing down history from one generation to the next. Clemencia acknowledges that these were the experiences and values that were transferred to her. She fears the loss of this connection and tradition for younger generations due to television and internet usage.

“Bueno, mi familia me ensanaba mucho. Primero que todo el deseo de estar siempre luchando por sus derechos y la necesidad de valuar personas como seres humanos y no como cosas, la necesidad de que la solidaridad, el apoyo mutuo y sobre todo la responsibilidad está encima por cualquier otro valor. La honestidad, el respeto todo esto los aprendí de ellos.” (Well, my family taught me a lot. First of all, the desire to always fight for their rights and the need to value people as human beings and not as things, the necessity of solidarity, mutual support and above all else, responsibility is more important than any other value. Honesty, respect were all (values) I learned from them.)

And Francia recounts, “Nuestros ancestros y ancestras lucharon para ser libres. Mi abuelo fue un luchador en la comunidad después de la esclavitud. Fue a la cárcel para defender la comunidad.”  (Our ancestors fought to be free. My grandfather was a fighter in the community after slavery. He went to prison to defend the community.)

One of the guiding traditions from Clemencia and Francia is their sense of unity and solidarity. Both women are fighting for a cause and a purpose larger than themselves. Clemencia speaks frequently about the importance of solidarity and Francia acknowledges, “Aunque estamos luchando por un pedazo, la lucha es por la humanídad en sí.” (Although we are fighting for a piece (of land), the fight is for humanity itself.)

And humanity has been tremendously enriched by the Afro-Colombian experience. Clemencia lists the various sectors of society that have been heavily influenced by  Afro-Colombians such as: mining, agriculture, science, education, art and music – from the tambor to the marimba – and the way people dance and sing.

Me siento orgullosa de ser descendente de Africa.” (I am proud to be of African descent). And I was so moved and honored to have met them.

Watch Francia and Clemencia’s story on PBS’ Women, War and Peace: The War We Are Living here

For more information about La Toma’s case visit and search “La Toma” or read Nadja Drost’s stories here.

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