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Black Lives Matter

How the Colombia football jersey became a symbol of protest

The nation’s Black citizens have taken to the streets to demand change

In Colombia, the city of Cali is 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’ll find photos and videos taken during the three months of national uprising. The protests were first held in opposition to a proposed regressive tax reform that would have added a 19% tax to many everyday goods and services, and then, to police violence, inequality, a lack of opportunity for young people, and also about social issues, such as poverty, which have only gotten worse as the government has struggled to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.

Tens of thousands of Cali residents – caleños – have taken to the streets, banging drums, shouting anti-government chants, and wearing the bright yellow jersey of the national football, or soccer, team. But how did a sports jersey acquire this meaning, or power? How did the national team’s colors become the uniform of discontent for so many Black and brown caleños?

The answer lies in part with the way Colombians – and many South Americans – see the sport. In one survey, 94% of Colombians indicated soccer was “important in their lives,” said Peter Watson, a teaching fellow at the University of Leeds and researcher of Colombian football. After Colombia beat Argentina 5-0 in a 1993 qualifying match for the World Cup, the country’s Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel García Márquez called it one of the three most important moments in Colombian history, Watson noted. With this level of shared devotion, the Colombian national team’s jersey becomes a unifying symbol of “national pride,” he said.

At the same time, “football mobilizes identities” – and in the context of Cali’s marches, “wearing the jersey is a form of resistance,” said Angela Yesenia Olaya Requene, research associate at Harvard University’s Afro-Latin American Research Institute.

“People from the ‘barras bravas’ [fan groups] come from marginalized areas,” said Olaya Requene, referring to places such as the neighborhoods in Cali where protesters practically set up camp in recent months, as they went beyond simply marching and staged everything from community soup kitchens to impromptu concerts.

Unexpectedly, at some point, protesters wearing the jersey moved about as far away as imaginable from supporting the national team itself, as protesters opposed plans made in in mid-May for Colombia to host matches in the continent’s 105-year-old tournament, Copa América. “They questioned, ‘How can we let the ball roll down a field amidst so much death? Is it ethical to enjoy football when our hospitals are collapsing, our young people are disappearing?’ ” said Olaya Requene. On May 20, the regional governing body for the sport moved the matches to Brazil. Colombia lost any home-field advantage and finished third in the tournament, behind the winner, Argentina, and finalist Brazil.

Nevertheless, the bright yellow jerseys continued showing up at 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 wore the colors. Titled “Policia No Me Mate,” or “Police Don’t Kill Me,” the song includes lyrics such as, “People are tired and our hearts are hurting, to see how the government treats us like garbage.”

A 17-year-old rapper who goes by JMenny wrote and sang those lyrics. He was born in Cali and lives in Buenaventura, a city of roughly 310,000, the majority of whom are Black, nearly three hours from Cali by car. Although it is the country’s most important commercial port, “our schools don’t have potable water, and we only have one hospital, where you go to die,” JMenny said on a WhatsApp call.

His group wrote the song, he said, “because of everything with the protests – in Cali, in Buenaventura. … A lot of ugly things are happening … the police are abusing their power, the president doesn’t listen to the people.” JMenny also marched in recent months.

The protesters in Cali have been met by a force of soldiers, police and anti-riot squads that grew to 3,000 at one point. Fifty-four protesters nationwide – and two police officers – have been killed, according to UN News. Another report puts the number around twice that in Cali alone, “the great majority Afro-descendants,” according to Amnesty International. At least 131 have disappeared from the streets of Cali, their loved ones unsure if they’re dead or alive. Public and private property, including many city buses, has been destroyed. The latter has caused conservative sectors of the country, including the government, to label protesters “vandals.

JMenny said that his song doesn’t explicitly address, or name, racism. He said the lyrics do so “indirectly,” most importantly in a verse that describes living in a racist society with the refrain, “you feel imprisoned.” In Colombia, structural racism is hardly ever mentioned as a cause of many issues of concern to the protesters – despite Black and brown people being the ones who are most affected. “Colombia is still a hypocritical and racist country,” said Heny Cuesta, founder of Cimarrón Producciones, a Black-owned film and video company. “If you speak about racism, it’s as if 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 counter to what the government was saying – that we were vandals or criminals. It was to say, ‘We’re young people trying to continue with the most basic right – the right to live.’ ”

For Olaya Requene, the rappers are “reasserting their own identity” by using the jersey in their video. To the degree that it’s a “symbol of being Colombian, it shows that to be Colombian is also to be diverse, and to struggle against exclusion and historical inequalities.”

The authors of a recently released report by Amnesty International assert that Cali has become “the epicenter of repression” during the protests because “the city, with the second-largest Afro-descendent/Black population in Latin America, is characterized by historical inequality, exclusion and structural racism.” With a Black population of 600,000-plus, many of whom have fled guerrilla and drug trafficking violence on the Pacific coast, Cali is second only to Salvador de Bahía, Brazil, which has a Black population of about 2.4 million.

Its conditions contribute to desperation described by one 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 die of hunger in our neighborhoods, or in the fight between gangs.” Indeed, youth unemployment in Cali was 27.6% in the first quarter of this year, nearly seven points higher than the year before, according to the Spanish publication El Pais. The unemployment rate nationwide was 14.4% in June, with nearly half of the nation’s workers employed in unregulated, “informal” jobs such as selling cigarettes in the street, according to the National Administrative Department of Statistics in Colombia. During 2020, the number of Colombians experiencing poverty increased by 3.6 million, with 42.5% of the country in that category.

“People are tired and our hearts are hurting, to see how the government treats us like garbage.”

Cronic Gang

The government doesn’t keep track of race or ethnicity in its unemployment data, and the most recent census, taken in 2018, resulted in what a national umbrella group of Black organizations called “statistical genocide,” after producing a final count of nearly 1.3 million fewer Afro Colombians than the previous census, taken in 2005 – with no demographically viable explanation.

Ana Judith Gamboa, a 63-year-old singer, poet and social organizer, marched in Cali and, performed rituals of song, dance and speeches with a group of older Black women at least a dozen times for the mothers and other loved ones of young Black protesters who were killed in recent months. “We offered spiritual and emotional support to the front-line protesters,” Gamboa said.

She described the marches as “young people waking up … to how we as Black people have always been marginalized. We stood strong behind them, seeking our rights, our dignity.”

Gamboa said that marchers wearing the national team’s jersey 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 around Colombia brought attention to the lack of explicit support for the protests from the national team’s players, most of whom are Black. The few players who posted anything on their social media platforms limited themselves to anodyne messages 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 to have their image damaged, since they’re public figures. They’re hermetic. It’s like they don’t care about the lives of Black people.” 

JMenny noted the same absence of support for protesters from the players. “I don’t know why they haven’t said more,” he said. “It’s not that it’s an obligation. [But] when you see that things are spinning out of control, 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 that things are not right, maybe the police will be sanctioned. Or maybe even the president himself.”

Until that happens, it’s likely protests will continue in Cali and the rest of Colombia, and marchers will continue to wear the national team’s jersey. In doing this, says Watson, they’ll be demonstrating to the government that “this is something that isn’t yours – this is not part of politics, or the political class. This is not a state symbol. It’s a people’s symbol.”

Timothy Pratt has reported for 25-plus years on education, soccer, immigration, elections, the Drug War, music and more, from several continents, in English and Spanish, with work in The New York Times, The Economist, AP, Reuters, The Atlantic, The Los Angeles Times, and many others.