Ethnicity is more than just an identity issue; it’s an ethical one. José Santos Caicedo, a national coordinator of the Proceso Nacional de Comunidades Negras (Black Communities Process— PCN)—an umbrella group of more than 110 Afro-Colombian grassroots organizations that seek to defend the territorial, cultural and human rights of Afro-Colombians—is a vivid example: “You do not work in the PCN, you are the PCN,” he says, effectively merging his life’s calling with his activism. PCN’s mission is to bring the full benefits of citizenship to Colombia’s Afro-descendant community—representing over 10 million Colombians (20 percent of the population).1
Santos, 44, is from the rural municipality of Tumaco, on the Colombia- Ecuador border. He credits his parents with instilling in him a deep sense of solidarity. He learned at a young age that the welfare of his community depended on everyone working together, from clearing the well-worn village paths to cooking collective meals and celebrating important moments with dance. Those principles, he says, have guided his efforts to help minority communities think and act collectively. The PCN works to do just this. When he isn’t organizing farmworker strikes or speaking out against racial discrimination, Santos spends much of his time visiting communities along Colombia’s Pacific coast—where over 80 percent of the land is collectively owned by Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities—to help them form rural, ethnic community governing councils.2 Santos’ organizing work is crucial in such communities where residents have been displaced by violence.
Afro-Colombians along the Pacific coast live at the flashpoint for the two- decades-long conflict between the Colombian government and the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—FARC). Today, the area is one of the targets of post-conflict peacemaking, and Santos has called on the FARC and the government to incorporate the issue of ethnic identity and integration of Afro-Colombian rebels into the ongoing peace talks in Havana.
Displacement of communities is one of the biggest threats to the cultural heritage of southwest Colombia’s Afro-descendant communities, which Santos works to preserve through his role at PCN. His own ethnic awareness was sparked by childhood exposure to the arts and discussions about identity at the Festival del Currulao—launched in Tumaco in 1987 to celebrate and rediscover Afro-Colombian heritage through dance, music and theater. The cultural movement that gave birth to the festival inspired Santos to develop mobilization techniques aimed at making visible those who had been invisible to most Colombians.
Santos dreams of a future when Afro-Colombian communities can reclaim their territory and live without the fear of violence, and he believes these communities won’t experience true freedom until the unity that was once destroyed by slavery is restored. This is his struggle: to reclaim spaces of freedom that are not only at the epicenter of Colombia’s conflict, but have been lost over centuries of racial discrimination and bigotry.