In Colombia, the city of Cali has been the site of the Andean nation’s largest and most violent public protests in recent months. If you search social media under the hashtags #ParoNacional or #SOScolombia, you will find photos and videos taken during the three-month national uprising. The protests first took place against a regressive tax reform proposal that would have added a 19% tax on many everyday goods and services, then against police violence, inequality, lack of opportunities for citizens. young people, but also social problems. , like poverty, which has only worsened as the government scrambles to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.
Tens of thousands of Cali residents – caleños – took to the streets, beating drums, shouting anti-government chants and wearing the bright yellow national football team jerseys. But how did a sports jersey acquire this meaning, or this power? How did the colors of the national team become the uniform of discontent for so many black and brown caleños?
Part of the answer lies in how Colombians – and many South Americans – view sport. In a survey, 94% of Colombians said football was “important in their lives,” said Peter Watson, a professor at the University of Leeds and a Colombian football researcher. After Colombia defeated Argentina 5-0 in a World Cup qualifier in 1993, the country’s Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel García Márquez called him one of the three most important moments in Colombian history, Watson noted. With this level of shared dedication, the Colombian national team jersey becomes a unifying symbol of “national pride,” he said.
At the same time, “football mobilizes identities” – and in the context of the Cali marches, “wearing the jersey is a form of resistance,” said Angela Yesenia Olaya Requene, associate researcher at the African Research Institute Latin American from Harvard University.
“The people of the” barras bravas ” [fan groups] come from marginalized areas, ”said Olaya Requene, referring to places such as Cali neighborhoods where protesters have practically set up camp in recent months, as they went beyond just marching and organized everything, from community soup kitchens to impromptu concerts.
Unexpectedly, at one point, protesters wearing the jersey stalked as far as possible to support the national team itself, as protesters opposed plans made in mid-May for Colombia hosts games of the continent’s 105-year-old tournament, the Copa America. “They asked, ‘How can we let the ball roll on a pitch in the midst of so many deaths? Is it ethical to enjoy football when our hospitals are collapsing, our young people are disappearing? ‘ Said Olaya Requene. On May 20, the regional sports governing body moved the matches to Brazil. Colombia lost any advantage on the pitch and finished third in the tournament, behind winner Argentina and runner-up Brazil.
Nonetheless, the bright yellow jerseys continued to pop up on the marches. When a group of nine young black rappers who call themselves “Cronic Gang” made a video of their song in support of the protests, they also carried the colors. Entitled “Policia No Me Mate” or “Police Don’t Kill Me”, the song includes lyrics such as “People are tired and our hearts are aching to see how the government treats us like garbage. ”
A 17 year old rapper named JMenny wrote and sang these lyrics. He was born in Cali and lives in Buenaventura, a town of about 310,000 people, the majority of whom are black, almost three hours by car from Cali. Although it is the most important commercial port in the country, “our schools have no drinking water and we only have one hospital, where you will die,” JMenny said during a WhatsApp call.
His band wrote the song, he said, “because of everything with the protests – in Cali, in Buenaventura. … There are a lot of ugly things going on… the police abuse their power, the president doesn’t listen to people. JMenny has also paraded in recent months.
Protesters in Cali were greeted by a force of soldiers, police and riot squads that grew to 3,000 at one point. Fifty-four protesters across the country – and two police officers – were killed, according to UN News. Another report estimates that this figure is about double that of the city of Cali alone, “the vast majority of African ancestry,” according to Amnesty International. At least 131 have disappeared from the streets of Cali, their loved ones unsure whether they are dead or alive. Public and private property, including many city buses, were destroyed. The latter pushed conservative sectors of the country, including the government, to label the demonstrators “”vandals.“
JMenny said his song did not explicitly address or name racism. He said the lyrics did so “indirectly”, especially in a verse that describes life in a racist society with the refrain, “you feel imprisoned”. In Colombia, structural racism is hardly ever mentioned as a cause of many concerns for protesters – although blacks and browns are the hardest hit. “Colombia is still a hypocritical and racist country,” said Heny Cuesta, founder of Cimarrón Producciones, a black-owned film and video company. “If you talk about racism, it’s like you haven’t understood that ‘we are all equal.’ ” she said.
As for the jersey, JMenny said his group wore it to show viewers “that we are all Colombians … and … to say something that goes against what the government was saying – that we were vandals. or criminals. It was to say, “We are young people trying to carry on with the most basic right – the right to live. “
For Olaya Requene, the rappers “reaffirm their own identity” by using the jersey in their video. Insofar as it is a “symbol of being Colombian, it shows that to be Colombian is also to be diverse, and to fight against exclusion and historical inequalities”.
The authors of a recent report published by Amnesty International claim that Cali has become “the epicenter of repression” during the protests because “the city, with the second largest Afro-descendant / black population in Latin America, is characterized by historical inequalities, exclusion and structural racism. With a black population of over 600,000, many of whom have fled guerrillas and drug-trafficking violence on the Pacific coast, Cali is just behind Salvador de Bahía, Brazil, which has a black population of around 2.4 million.
His conditions contribute to the desperation described by a protester quoted in the same report: “Those who protest… have nothing to lose… they have nothing to fear. If the state doesn’t kill you, you will starve in our neighborhoods, or in gang struggle. Indeed, youth unemployment in Cali was 27.6% in the first quarter of this year, almost seven points higher than the previous year, according to the Spanish publication. El Pais. The nationwide unemployment rate was 14.4% in June, with nearly half of the country’s workers employed in unregulated “informal” jobs such as selling cigarettes on the streets, according to the Administrative Department. National Statistics of Colombia. In 2020, the number of Colombians living in poverty increased by 3.6 million, with 42.5% of the country in this category.
“People are tired and our hearts are aching to see how the government treats us like garbage. “
The government does not take race or ethnicity into account in its unemployment data, and the most recent census, taken in 2018, resulted in what a national group of black organizations called “genocide statistic ”, after producing a final tally of nearly 1.3. million Afro-Colombians less than the previous census, carried out in 2005 – with no demographically viable explanation.
Ana Judith Gamboa, a 63-year-old singer, poet and social organizer, paraded in Cali and performed song, dance and speech rituals with a group of older black women at least a dozen times for mothers and other relatives of young black protesters who have been killed in recent months. “We offered spiritual and emotional support to the frontline protesters,” Gamboa said.
She described the marches as “young people waking up… to how we as black people have always been marginalized. We were strong behind them, seeking our rights, our dignity. “
Gamboa said the marchers wearing the national team jerseys were a symbol of “how we love our Colombia – and how young people are trying to move our country forward.”
At the same time, she and other protesters in Colombia have drawn attention to the lack of explicit support for protests by national team players, most of whom are black. The few players who have posted anything on their social media platforms have limited themselves to innocuous posts about the need for peace and prayer.
“We felt deeply hurt by this,” she said. “I don’t know why they did this, really. Maybe they don’t want their image damaged because they are public figures. They are airtight. It’s like they don’t care about black life.
JMenny noted the same lack of support for the protesters from the players. “I don’t know why they didn’t say more,” he said. “It’s not that it’s an obligation. [But] when you see things getting out of hand, if you have a sense of belonging, you say something.
With a youthful mix of conviction and innocence, he added: “The players are well known. What they say can have a big influence. If they say things are not going well, the police may be sanctioned. Or maybe even the president himself.
Until that happens, it is likely that the protests will continue in Cali and the rest of Colombia, and the marchers will continue to wear the national team jersey. By doing this, Watson says, they will demonstrate to the government that “this is something that is not yours – it is not politics, or the political class. It is not a status symbol. It is the symbol of a people.