On April 28, 2021, the government of Colombia under President Iván Duque proposed to implement a series of tax “reforms” that would adversely affect the country’s healthcare system and the quality of life for all. These tax reforms were promised like a pandemic stimulus check. At the beginning of the pandemic, many countries responded to the economic crash by redistributing taxes to help citizens who were struggling. Colombia implemented this. However; congress members decided to dip into the pot of money reserved for the people and take stimulus money for themselves. This corrupt system in Colombia is not new. This stems from a long line of corrupt government officials. The majority of Colombians earn less than 90 USD per month. More than 50% of the labor force is in the informal sector, namely street vendors and day laborers. Many of those in this sector do not even earn the minimum wage which equates to 2 dollars a day for a family of 3. Meanwhile, Congress members make roughly 9,900 USD a month, which also sparked outrage among a population already hard-hit by pandemic restrictions.
El Paro Nacional, also known as the national strike, took place over months in 2021. Colombians from all socioeconomic statuses marched in main cities, effectively pausing the flow of life. Bringing awareness to the new laws that affect everyone regardless of class in addition, to expressing their anger for the murder of social leaders, which is still happening. Protestors created art to show support and resistance to the government during these marches. Colombians locally and globally showed their support for the movement by creating music, performing dances, and writing the true narrative of the atrocities committed against the front lines of the protesters. The role of art in protest is vital to the political involvement of the people, as it unifies a country through different modalities, to create change.
Everything from modern dance to traditional Colombian dance was expressed on the streets of Bogota, the capital of Colombia, and Cali, a major city heavily impacted by police violence. Marching bands played their drums as they walked on city streets. Traditional music such as cumbia and ballenatos were sung and performed in parks, and protected by the people in main intersections. Murals of social leaders who were killed by the police were painted on roads and above highways, signifying that their legacy of fighting for the liberation of Colombia is still alive. Famous artists marched in the streets and played concerts in solidarity, and actively humbled themselves to stand with the people because, in the end, this was not about socioeconomic class, this is about bringing justice to the lineage of corruption embedded in the government. Classical music of Mozart and Beethoven was orchestrated in the parks and in front of the presidential palace in support of El Paro Nacional. People from all social classes are connected under the same cause, to demand a better life, and to reform the tax bill.
Protests are often portrayed as violent in mainstream media because, in many ways, even the most peaceful protests do turn violent with the help of riot Police, or in this case, the ESMAD which is the anti-disturbance squadron. The mainstream narrative of violent protests was challenged through the pacifistic rebellion of art expressed by the people. Violence was not an optimum choice anymore as the numbers of people killed, missing, and injured by the riot police increase day by day. Art became a focal point in these protests and a catalyst for change as music and murals filled the streets to inspire people to resist the new law. Dancers performed in front of the ESMAD, and over 100 people, according to Amnesty International, lost an eye because of the excessive amount of violence by the police in these peaceful protests. The ESMAD shot rubber bullets at people’s faces, causing serious injuries. This is an international crime against humanity according to the UN. The government of Colombia lost its legitimacy by causing these war crimes.
The wide spectrum of art can be found on the frontlines of many protests, but what made these months of El Paro so important is that Colombians internationally took a stand in solidarity. Many planned and executed protests all over Europe and the Americas exclaiming they are “lejos pero no ausentes”, “far but not absent.” All expressing their solidarity in a globalized way of thinking. Some wrote literature inspired by the protests. Poetry books specifically about this movement were published by expatriate Colombians highlighting their experiences with police violence specifically and the history of the country’s corruption.
Voces en Primera Linea or Voices on the Frontline is a collection of essays and poetic pieces by multiple authors published amid the protests in Colombia during the summer of 2021. This compilation of critical literature was done in collaboration with several Colombian literary icons, including William Ospina. The contributors chronicled their observations of the protests and political unrest in their poetry and prose. Ospina and others’ words gave support and inspiration to the young people marching on the streets. Echoing support to the people, expressing their demands.
Ospina’s quote: “What do the young people want? Everything a bird wants: to fly and to sing; everything a river wants; to be able to keep going.” In addition to the poetic sentiments presented, music was a great rebellious force as songs revived themselves from decades ago. Rebellion songs are kept perfectly intact and sung with the same rigor and prestige, then there are songs such as “Bella Ciao,” an Italian protest song from the 19th century, that reinvented itself to “Duque Chao” meaning goodbye Duque, referring to the current Colombian President Ivan Duque. Reinventing itself for the cause, this classic Italian fighting song transformed into a song appropriate for El Paro Nacional, demonstrating the transcendental power of music throughout time. Additionally, lyrics from popular Puerto Rican rapper Rene Perez Holgar became protest signs. “Hay poca comida, pero hay muchas balas” which translates to “ there is little food, but too many bullets.”
The popularity of some artists declined but many artists rose to the top because of their activism in the protests. Some artists were even murdered because of their involvement. One of them was Junior Jein, a young musical icon to the people of Cali who was assassinated before a show for his activism. His murder sparked the flames of injustice, creating more awareness, especially among Afro-Colombians all over the country. These protests uncovered the deep racism Colombia has tried to cover up, especially in afro descendent provinces such as Cali. Junior Jien along with Nidia Gongora and other artists collaborated on a song that became an anthem during the protests, revealing the reality of afro-colombians. “Quien los mato?” or “who killed them?” became a national song for awareness among the afro Colombian communities, and also the song that killed Junior Jien.
New artists and gatekeepers of traditional Colombian music rose to the top of the charts as the “musical appetite of the people changed”. Nidia Gongora, a gatekeeper of traditional marimba music opened up a community kitchen called “Las Ollas Resisten”, Which is a community soup kitchen that provided food for the small pacific town of Timbiqui, a mostly Afro-Colombian and indigenous community. The murder of her musical partner, Junior Jein, ignited a stronger flame to keep the community kitchen open and help the people most affected by these tragedies. These community kitchens opened on the street and united everyone; neighbors, mothers, and grandmothers, all busy feeding bellies and receiving the support when most needed. Colombians internationally took the initiative to fundraise and show financial support for these ollas comunitarias as this was feeding the people most impacted by police violence and the pandemic. Community soup kitchens or Olla Communitarias became the sustenance for the communities who were suffering during this time and highlighted mothers who comfort one another when another child doesn’t come home. We see the great value of women as the foundation of society holding together communities in times of terror. This sentiment was communicated in the song “Quien Los Mato.” the song Junior Jein and Nidia Gongora collaborated on.
No llegaré a la hora de la cena
Aparecí en un lugar
Que no era mi hogar
Le exijo a la justicia que este caso se a clare
Y que no quede impune como casi siempre hacen
Nada, la vida de los negros no importa nada”
I will not arrive at dinner time
I appeared in a place
that it was not my home
I demand that this case be clarified
And that it does not go unpunished as they almost always do
Nothing, black lives don’t matter at all
The support of other artists in the mainstream declined as their complacency regarding the new laws was quiet and as corrupt as the people writing them. Popular artists such as J. Balvin, Maluma, Carlos Vives, and Shakira kept quiet about the protests, and artists such as J Balvin produced a music video within this time in 2021 showcasing blatant racism by portraying Afro-Colombian women as dogs in his video, leashed and chained up. This music video received global backlash and uncovered the aggressions against afro-descendent people in Latin America. Francia Marquez the vice president and an Afro-Colombian woman brings the point of racism and misogyny in Colombia to the national stage with her strong presence.
Art in revolution is a catalyst to change; it has always proven to unite humanity in an enlightened way. Artists regardless of their modalities have such an influence on society. They hold the attention of and influence thousands if not millions, and within that can empower or disempower the political and social ideas of their fans. During El Paro Nacional, the energy radiating from a young person dancing salsa on the street and chanting in a crowd serves as a reminder that through our interpersonal relations, we can empower one another collectively and use art as a revolutionary tool.
I would like to conclude, by performing a poem inspired by the protests and inspired my father, who has been an inspiration to me in the fight for justice. Thank you for your knowledge, your passion, and your constant support.
we make mountains into sanctuaries
and rivers into life supports,
but the toxic greed of the government
Our Lives are held together with fe
And our blood pumping and pulsating is unafraid
We are fueled up by strength
Today we make noise
for the mouths of children unfed,
And the names of the dead
Today we make noise para Colombia
Tired of staying silent
Because corruption has never been quiet
The revolution has been crying out for years
And yet they still make rivers from our mothers’ tears
Now is the time to reclaim what is stolen
Nuestra sangre is precious and sacred
Yet too many lives have been taken
Ya no aguantamos más
Now is the time to stand strong
porque somos Colombia
Con cada paso we will make it.
Poem by Alegria Zuluaga