This story will not be erased.
by: uma ramiah
You should ALL know my friend, Paula Marcela Moreno Zapata: not just because was the youngest and first Afro-Colombian woman to be appointed to cabinet - as Minister of Culture - in Colombia’s history. (*Scroll down to my very professional footnote for just a sprinkling of her accomplishments*) She’s fighting for visibility, representation and access for long marginalized - and invisibilized - Afro-Colombian communities, laying down tracks for younger Afro-Colombians, and connecting them to the larger might of the African diaspora. She’s a fucking badass.
I had an unexpected few weeks in Colombia earlier this year, and the pleasure of a few days with Paula. At lunch with her one afternoon, up on a Bogota mountaintop (hashtag out of breath), I tried to grab the bill from our waitress, who’d been generally dismissive during our meal. Paula’s eyes widened with mock affront. “We will not stand for this, Uma. No? You cannot pay - we are in Colombia, this is our home. We are Colombian women. We two are Colombian WOMEN.”
She said it a few times - the waitress, at first taken aback, each further time slightly disarmed, finally nodding effusively in agreement. I don’t know if it was her intent, but I saw her firmly, without question, placing herself within the definition of “Colombian” in that woman’s eyes. Seems like a small thing, but it’s not: Afro-Colombians continue to face rampant and systematic discrimination, displacement from their lands, and erasure. Activists have been decrying “geographical apartheid” for years - and while the government has made strides, institutionalized racism continues to permeate Colombian society.
In the midst of this, Paula’s made it her business to push towards a new world in which, as she says,“ you are in me and I am in you, where ultimately we can find in the mirror someone just like ourselves.”
From her auto-biography, El Poder de lo Invisible:
“At twenty-eight,” she writes, “I became both the first woman of African descent and the youngest person to be minister in the history of Colombia. It is a country of close to forty-five million inhabitants, ten million of whom are black men and women whose place in the country’s history has been limited to a few spheres of life, including making music, performing dances or sports, as valuable as these contributions may be, stereotypes preclude black Colombians from contributing in other areas such as economic development, political office, scientific research or health care.”
To be sure, upon her appointment she was met with the ignorance of direct, and indirect, racism. In the face of all of this, and with the deep support of family and community, Paula pushed forward as in her work as Minister of Culture in the best way. Dr. Gilbert Shang Ndi wrote a piece I really think is worth reading - a review of Paula’s book - and he outlines her methods:
“[Paula] redefines the whole notion of culture as a minister. Culture is considered beyond custom or folklore and is rather defined by the author as the emotional infrastructure of the nation and the vertebral colon of its self-imagination. It is viewed as a crucial aspect in the inclusive redefinition of Colombianness. Her approach underlines the relation between culture and other spheres of life such as the economy, politics and education. Cultural diversity ceases to be an impediment to nation-building in a nation where many are poised to stress the European heritage to the detriment of the African and indigenous contributions to society. The author’s redefinition of the notion of culture both through her discourses and projects brings the ministry closer to the people, building partnerships with communities and working together to redefine priorities of community development. Her approach constitutes a radical break with a patriarchal perception of power where communities are imposed projects from above. Her willingness to learn, to work through teamwork and to consult others prove to be invaluable resources for her as a minister.”
In her work as minister and and now as leader of a national NGO, Paula’s always has been a sort of paver of roads: you cannot be what you cannot see. Now, she runs (and founded, in 2010) Manos Visibles (MV), an organization training grassroots leaders to change the power relations in Colombia: she’s built this vibrant, multi-faceted platform. I spent a half a day with her at her offices in Bogota, and Cultural Manager Erika Cruz gave me a rundown of their efforts. The Literature Laboratory (Laboratorio de Literatura Africana) brings top applicants through a training and a full syllabus of curated African diaspora literature: Taiye Selasie, Richard Wright, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Wole Soyinka. The graduates go on to be teachers in the Veni y te Leo (Come and Read) program, promoting literacy and writing in Afro-Colombian communities.
“We have many musicians in our community,” Erika told me. “and they might not read literature that moves beyond their own circumstances. But when you read Afro-futurism, for example, your world just gets bigger. You see possibilities that might not have been there for you before.”
And Manos Visibles’ Black Narrative initiative addresses lack of access to libraries and bookstores by distributing thousands of copies of Paula’s own book. It’s like sharing a blueprint.
“Prior to my swearing in as minister, I searched for biographies of black and young Latin American leaders with similar life paths,” Paula writes. “I did not find any. I understood the urgent need of reconstructing my story, writing it myself and sharing it with others in order to form a chain of learning based on personal experiences.”
Bigger picture, AfroInnova is Paula’s growing initiative to connect Afro-Colombians to the larger diaspora.
”We are more than one billion three hundred and fifty million Africans and their descendants who have for centuries maintained this umbilical cord with our ancestral land and with a negritude which, no matter where we find ourselves, defines our being in the world,” she writes. “Africa and its lineage live in me and in the reality of more than ten million Afrocolombians and more than a hundred fifty million Afrolatinos. This collective consciousness that traces itself to Africa accompanies us everywhere, even if we do not know for sure which specific part of the continent we come from.”
In an extraordinary life, Paula has so often surrounded by “excellence” (in the traditional, privileged, boring sense of the word) and stands out so effortlessly in those crowds as the embodiment of warm, connected, aware, brilliance. Her story tells us why: her work is for the people around her.
A translation to English of Paula’s book, by Dr. Ndi, is in the works - non-Spanish speakers will have the change to read this vital blueprint. I’ll be sure to share it with you, as soon as we can all get our grubby little hands on it.
* In 2010, Paula was selected by the Council of the Americas as one of the most influential young leaders in the region for her work on effectively understanding diversity. She received the Unita Blackwell Award in 2009 from the National Conference of Black Mayors of the United States as one of the most influential Black leaders in the world. For her service to the Government of Colombia and the nation as Minister of Culture, Paula was awarded the Order of Saint Charles in 2010 by President Uribe, and in 2011 she was awarded the Order of the Aztec Eagle by President of Mexico Felipe de Jesús Calderón Hinojosa for her contribution to the improvement of Colombia/Mexico relations during her term as Minister of Culture. Paula holds a Master’s Degree in Management Studies from the University of Cambridge, she was a United States Fulbright scholar for the program of urban and regional planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Yale World Fellow 2014. More recently, she was selected as 2014 BBC Women leaders in the Word. She is currently a board member of the Ford Foundation.”