Riding the bus through the sunny streets of Cartagena, Colombia the other day, my eyes were quickly drawn to a striking image of a dark-skinned Afro-Colombian woman against an all-black backdrop with the hashtag #SerNegroEsHermoso (to be Black is beautiful) written at the bottom. The billboard poster was both striking and intriguing, and as soon as I had a Wi-Fi connection, I made it a point to go online and find out more.
Since I moved to Cartagena in March, I’ve been fascinated and determined to learn as much as possible about the history and culture within the Afro-Latino community here, so seeing the billboard immediately peaked my interest. After some searching and Instagram trolling, I came across Edwin Salcedo of the Observatorio Distrital Anti-Discrimination Racial. Edwin is the senior advisor for the organization which works in conjunction with Museo Histórico de Cartagena de Indias. Salcedo has an extensive background in activism, advertising, and digital arts, and he has also served as a development specialist for the U.S. Embassy on Afro-Colombian issues, at times working side by side with members of the National Black Caucus as well.
His insight of the nuances of Afro-Colombian identity and culture shows that he is both well-informed and dedicated to raising the levels of consciousness and respect of his community. Although many will claim racism is not a factor in Colombian society, according to Salcedo, there are racist ideologies that have become so embedded into the culture over time that they have become unchallenged norms–or many simply choose to live in denial of their existence.
“We saw a need to launch this campaign due to the lack of self-recognition,” he shared during our recent chat. “Many people here don’t identify as Black even though they are, because they don’t see any advantage. Many have been told black equals poor, unintelligent, ugly, etc.”
Cartagena is the fifth largest city in the country, and even though it is estimated that over 70 percent of its residents are Black, only 35.6 percent of the population actually selected this as their race in the last census in 2005. Salcedo hopes the citywide campaign, which rolled out earlier this month, will change this denial of Black identity by inspiring pride through the imagery and hashtag.
“This campaign is actually a tribute to the slogan ‘Black is Beautiful,’ which took off in the U.S. during the ‘7os. We want to give Afro-Colombians a reason to be proud without those filters of negativity and stereotypes that prevent them from accepting themselves.”
Now, in just about every part of the city, you can see the posters and ads, and you can even find a traveling exhibit in the local malls, which will eventually make its way to the Museo Histórico de Cartagena de Indias. Salcedo stressed that, not only does he want the visuals to stimulate self-acceptance among the Black community in the city, but he also would like it to influence public policy and laws that will create consequences for racial discrimination.
One scroll through the beautiful pictures of Afro-Colombians proudly using the hashtag on social media, and it’s clear that the #SerNegroEsHermoso campaign has already made an impact. From selfies, to personal testimonies, to the beaming faces of children playing along the beach, it’s proven to be both an inspirational slogan and a validating declaration that is long overdue.