Afrodescendant Resistance to Deracination in Colombia: A Review

By Diego F. Leal 

Afrodescendant Resistance to Deracination in Colombia by Aurora Vergara-Figueroa 



Aurora Vergara-Figueroa’s Afrodescendant Resistance to Deracination in Colombia develops a theoretically and empirically rich portrait of one of the most violent episodes of Colombian armed conflict: the massacre at Bellavista-Bojayá-Chocó in 2002. The book takes the reader through a gripping yet deeply heartbreaking journey that clarifies the connections between centuries-long cycles of violence and uprooting endured by several afrodescendant communities in today’s department of Chocó, Colombia. By doing so, Vergara-Figueroa calls for the problematization of labels that try to denote these peoples as “mere” forced migrants or internally displaced peoples (IDPs). The book is based on an extended case study in which the author compiles historical and ethnographic evidence to show how 119 inhabitants of Bellavista-Bojayá were massacred, how those who survived this tragedy mourn their loved ones, and develop resistance strategies to reconstruct and dignify their lives.

One of Vergara-Figueroa’s main argument is that the case of the afrodescendant community of Bellavista-Bojayá-Chocó is one example of how generation after generation of the same extended families are forced to leave their ancestral lands. In this context, government agencies, academics, and policymakers tend to (mis)label communities like this as IDPs, yet Vergara-Figueroa provides archival evidence that allows to historicize these processes by showing that these communities have been subject to a systematic process of uprooting since the mid XVI century, hence the need for the analytic category of deracination. This category allows the analysis, and the reader, to understand how cycles of territory/homemaking and land tenure on the one hand, and land dispossession and uprooting, on the other hand, are intimately connected to long-term cycles of capitalistic exploitation, colonialization, and “developmentalization.” In a word, communities like Bellavista-Bojayá have been and continue to be deracinated from their lands, making them more akin to a diaspora than to a set of (temporary) forced migrants.

Vergara-Figueroa uses family interviews and ethnographic notes from her visits to Bellavista to create an account of the massacre entirely based on the victims’ own experiences and views. This is a collective and profoundly moving story that is impossible to summarize here in a few sentences, especially if one wants to respect the participants’ right to tell such a complex and personal story in their own way, something that Vergara-Figueroa skillfully facilitates with her writing and the socialization of her writing with her participants. I thus highly encourage the readers to get their hands on this book and read these important stories themselves.

The book also provides important information for Social Movements scholars and activists by showing the process by which, once displaced in Quibdó (the capital city of Chocó), survivors mobilized to become the first displaced community in Colombia to return to their land. For instance, Vergara-Figueroa points out the importance of the mobilization efforts facilitated through a specific organization, Acción Campesina Integral del Atrato (ACIA). According to the author, this organization served as an articulation point (a ‘mobilizing structure’ of sorts in Social Movement theory parlance) for the community to realize that the best strategy to deal with the consequences of the massacre was to return to their land. After significant struggles, the community reached an agreement with the Colombian government to return to New Bellavista, a town designed (read: imposed) by the central government and its “developmental” framework, with virtually no input from the community and their needs. Indeed, the book shows that the struggle of this community to make a home, to territorialize this space, is a continuous fight vis-à-vis external powerful forces pretending to know better how to live and make use of this ancestral land.

Chapter 4, beautifully shows a specific form of resistance the survivors developed in order to both help them process the traumatic events and make their voices be heard by external constituencies (the state, the international community, etc.). Specifically, the chapter documents the use and transformation of traditional mourning songs, or “alabaos” by a group of mostly women or “alabadoras” in the nearby village of Pogue, Chocó, where many of the victims were originally from. In a word, Vergara-Figueroa compellingly shows that in order to create resistance in the context of deracination, women transformed an ancestral practice (singing to the death) into a means of strengthening the community and regain ownership of their bodies.  The post-massacre alabaos, in the words of Vergara-Figueroa  show that “the lyrics have transformed a form of traditionally mortuary song into a memory tool of denunciation, a form of commemoration and a form of conversation with politicians.” (p. 78). The links between the tactical use of this practice and the sociology of emotions and culture in Social Movements theory (Jasper 2011; Polletta 1997) are clear and warrant further exploration.

To conclude, this book is an outstanding effort to bring to the center of the debate the voices of deracinated people in Chocó. It is theoretically ambitious since it connects the literatures on political sociology and social movements, critical and black feminist theory, forced migration, and diasporic studies. It does so by providing a comprehensive picture of the long-term processes behind the deracination of the afrodescendant community in Bellavista-Bojayá, telling the story of the massacre from the perspective of the affected community, showing their struggles to survive, mourn, and dignify their lives by resisting nefarious external interests and widespread racism. I wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone and everyone who wants to make sense of the interconnections between deracination/uprooting, forced migration, the coloniality of power, and resistance.

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