Champetas, Feminism & Racial Identity in Colombia

Interview by
Diane Danvers Simmons
Natalie Simmons
Published on
June 23, 2020

In this episode...

In discussion with proud Cartagena tour guide and Afro-Caribbean researcher, Marcella Diaz, Natalie & Diane discuss and learn about the history of liberation and enslavement of Africans in Colombia, the true definition of the word “Champeta” beyond a musical genre, and racial identity as a self-described “mulatta” woman.


Marcella "March" Diaz

March is a passionate tour guide & Afro-Caribbean researcher; born in Cartagena, Colombia. She was raised in a household committed to explore, teach and share the importance of Columbia’s history, ancestors and the often overlooked role they played in the history of the world we know today.


2:00 Natalie and Diane introduce the episode and share how they met guest, Marcella “March” Diaz, on their travels in early March to Cartagena, Colombia when she guided them around the neighborhoods of Getsemani & La Matuna. 

3:45 Natalie shares the intention for this episode: to explore a parallel conversation on the dialogue around race and being Black currently occurring in the United States as it relates to the broader Americas, focusing in this episode on Colombia, where there is a similar history of enslaved populations of African descent. 

4:30 Diane & Natalie articulate how this episode shines a light on powerful, African women called “champetas” and their influence on Colombian history and the liberation of enslaved peoples as far back as the 1600s. 

5:30 Marcella shares her heritage, being of African and indiginous Colombian descent as she shares alongside her pride in being a Colombian woman and growing up the daughter of a travel guide, a role she has now taken on herself. Recently, she has also been studying Afro-Caribbean women in Cartagena and their role during Spanish inquisition and the times of African enslavement. 

7:45 Marcella describes the history of enslavement in Cartagena as one of the largest ports of enslaved people in the new world in the 1500s and 1600s. 

9:30 Marcella defines “champetas” for Diane and Natalie making the distinction between the style of music, most notably popularized  by Shakira in SuperBowl 2020 (1), and the enslaved women from which the word originates. Breaking down the word, “cha” is defined as “mother or strong African woman” and “mpeta” which is “a blunt knife.” She describes these “rebellious” women and their role in African liberation in great detail and how little has been known about these women until recently.

14:45 Marcella shares the creative uses of braiding that champetas and African resistance used to record maps to the palenques (or free towns), to store seeds for planting or even tip off other women to those of their group who were most vulnerable and required protection.

17:30 Marcella describes the organization and negotiation of the first palenque, or group of legally-recognized free town of once enslaved people, founded in 1601 by Benkos Biohó, who was a strategist, military man and member of African royalty. Today, this town is now San Basilio de Palenque though it was originally El Limón. 

19:00 Marcella describes the ways that the Spanish enforced their holy days by requiring free populations to have their holidays land on important days of the Catholic calendar related to patron saints.

20:00 Marcella shares how historically El Limón was considered an African tribe and that, in fact, the first “cha” woman on record was a woman by the name of Leonor who was the queen of the palenque for 40 years. 

20:45 Natalie brings the conversation to today and asks Marcella what is like to be a “mulatta” woman today. 

21:00 Marcella points out the difference in perspective on race and racism in varied cities across Colombia speaking to Bogota and regions in the Andes as being predominantly white and of European descent. She shares that as a mulatta woman she has not faced racism herself in Cartagena but has friends of African descent who have faced this often. 

22:00 Marcella describes her own heritage and her pride in being a mix of indigenous, African and european. She also uncovers how conversations about race have been little discussed in Colombia until late, but that there is progress as media, films (i.e. Hair Love (2)), and popular culture have featured more women of African descent. 

24:00 Natalie asks Marcella to elaborate on the divisions of race in Cartagena. She speaks of the more unspoken and subtle racism, but that she is seeing increased multiculturalism. She even posits that a level of racial acceptance may be due to increased tourism in the area. She says that through the country being discovered there has been increased pride in being Colombian overall whether it is race-based or not. 

26:15 Natalie picks up on the parallels in the rise in conversation on race in Colombia as it is similarly happening in the United States. Marcella considers the history and state of Colombian race relations currently in comparison to the U.S speaking especially to Colombian’s new sense of pride in their heritage after generations of wars and the shame attached to that.

31:00 Marcella reflects, “so I do think that beyond race and history and everything, what makes me a Colombian beyond my skin color, is the fact that I don’t want to let go of that past like it never happened, no I want to use it to nurture a whole new view of Colombia.” 

32:00 Diane gets emotional about the power of our words and using them positively to create change and Marcella reinforces that message and how she hopes to be a steward of that.

34:00 Natalie asks what is the one final message March would like to share with Americans and she states that, “every 100 ft the world changes and the best way to educate ourselves is to travel.”

1. “Shakira Brought Afro-Colombian Dance to the Super Bowl.” OkayAfrica, OkayAfrica, 12 Feb. 2020, www.okayafrica.com/shakira-afro-colombian-dance-champeta-to-the-super-bowl-performance/

2. Cherry, Matthew. “Hair Love.” Sony Pictures Animation. December 5, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kNw8V_Fkw28

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