Last Monday was a holiday in Colombia. It was dia de la raza (day of ethnicity), what the North American neighbors call Columbus day, although its origins are different. Nevertheless, as with most holidays, this has become a day for leisure rather than a day to contemplate what the realities are of ethnic minorities in Colombia that continue being ostracized.
El dia de la raza, unlike many other holidays that attempt to enforce a counter-productive patriotism, is a relatively new holiday. It was officially promoted in 1892 by a Spanish politician in light of the 400 years since Christopher Columbus’ unfortunate navigational error. But, it was not until 1912 that most of Latin America commenced to enthusiastically enforce the holiday. The holiday was deliberately marketed as a day to remember the common history embedded in the raza (ethnicity) that the peoples of Latin America shared with their motherland.
The emotive celebrations for el dia de la raza rather than Columbus day was a results of the U.S. neo-colonial role in the continent with policies such as the Platt Amendment, the Roosevelt Corollary, Dollar Diplomacy and the corresponding interventionism. But, it’s disputable the effectiveness that this holiday had in uniting the Spanish and Portuguese speaking countries in the region. What is undeniable, however, is that the holiday did nothing to unite the different races found within countries’ borders.
Colombia, is a prime example of this failure. Colombia is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the region. Of the 45 million inhabitants, 58 percent are Mestizo, 20 percent White, 14 percent Mulatto, 4 percent Black, 3 percent mixed Black-Amerindian, and 1 percent Amerindian. Yet, only a small elite actually runs the country as can be verified by checking the last names of Colombia’s past presidents. The rest of the population, especially the Mulattoes, Blacks and Indigenous are overrepresented in the poorest sectors of society as the history of Cartagena demonstrates.
Cartagena was one of the focal points of the slave trade in the Western Hemisphere. Some estimates dictate that 4,000 slaves arrived in South America in the 1600s. Even if the inhabitants of Palenque (a town 2 hours away by car from Cartagena) claim that by 1603 their ancestors were the first free Black community in the Americas, it was only until the year 1851 that slavery was officially abolished. Yet, their second class citizen status remained. While Colombia’s illiteracy rate stands at 6 percent, the Black community’s stands at 31 percent.
The lives of 1,392,623 indigenous people are even more precarious. They have been uprooted not only from their lands but also from their culture and ideals. A recent report by Aljaezera demonstrates the horrors that the real landowners of the country have to experience. But despite the high number of tribes (102), the indigenous have been the only minority united to protest the excesses committed against them by all power holders, including the army. In the most recent protest on Monday, 25,000 indigenous denounced government policies affecting their livelihood. Yet, their loud but pacific protests are never heard.
It is difficult to have definite statistics on the level of inequality and discrimination that ethnic minorities in Colombia have. But a recent report by the Inter-American Development Bank gives a general picture of the economic realities of ethnic minorities in Latin America. The report found that the ethnic wage gap (indigenous and whites) for a set of countries is 37 percent; by comparison, the same countries’ gender wage gap is 15.65 percent. The reports further asserted that even when poverty levels tended to decrease in the region, the pace was slower for ethnic minorities.
Holidays, more than building blind patriotism, ought to encourage deep reflection on the realities of the country. But since now most of the well-off people in Colombia can visit their country houses thanks to some of the government’s policies, the effects of these same policies on ethnic minorities are never considered.