Being Black in Medellin, Colombia

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One of the questions I get from time to time is whether paisas (and Colombians) are racist, or how they react (or don’t react) to black tourists visiting Medellin.

Frankly, I have no idea. I’ve heard anecdotal evidence here and there to suggest that yes, racism exists in Colombia, as it does in most parts of the world.

The question then becomes how pervasive is it? Enough to concern a black person traveling to Medellin and Colombia?

This video was shot by a friend, Jubril, who I hung out with earlier this year. You’ll notice he’s on the sweet rooftop of the Nueva Alejandria building too.

What do you think, does racism exist in Medellin?

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35 COMMENTS

  1. Of course there’s racism in Colombia, just – as you say – there is everywhere else in the world. TOURISTS regardless of race, perceived as wealthy by the mere fact that they are tourists, are treated differently and even “affectionately” when they are coded as tourists. But the fact that the gentleman in the video says Colombia has many people of African descent, but they’re mostly on the street selling strawberries in El Poblado should give you an indication of systematic socioeconomic differentiation based on a color-based class hierarchy. Certainly, Latin America’s color issues are manifest differently than those in the US/Canada because of our historic view of race being inherited versus the Latin American idea of race being tied to surface-level physical characteristics.

    I lived in Colombia from 2005-2009 and wrote about my own personal experiences dealing with race and color issues there: http://www.fly-brother.com/2010/11/repost-black-like-me-in-honor-of-brazils-black-consciousness-day/

    -Fly Brother

    • “Latin America’s color issues are manifest differently than those in the US/Canada because of our historic view of race being inherited versus the Latin American idea of race being tied to surface-level physical characteristics.”

      This is something I’ve noticed living in Colombia, by the casualness with which they’ll refer to people by the color of their skin. What I still have a hard time with is the affectionate use of “negrito” or “negrita” which still strikes a wrong chord with me, even though I know it’s not said with any malice.

      I first encountered it in South Africa though, a few months before my arrival in Colombia.

      Thanks for sharing your article…going to read it right now.

        • It’s not intended to be disrespectful, we also use “chino(a)” as a way to refer to children, or someone who’s very young, instead of saying boy/girl. But I do see you’re point on the generalization of the whole ‘”Asian” race similar to English how people say Asian in reference to all “oriental” races.

  2. I work with a few Colombians in america, and there’s always a sense of superiority about them. You’re doing things by the book, and they’ll come along saying “Let’s just try it MY just this once. I think it might work better”…and it ends up making the job take twice as long, and less safe. Also, they don’t seem to be able to complete a task alone. I don’t know if this is some 3rd-world village mentality where everyone works together for survival or something, but they always want someone to come help them, then find an excuse to go do something else, leaving that person doing THEIR task. ALONE.

  3. I’m glad someone addressed this issue. I am a Black American woman and I live in Laureles/San Joaquin. I see about three Black people a day. I’ve been here for a year and people still stare at me daily. It never feels like aggressive racism, but it does feel like “surprised to see you here.” Uncomfortable to me.

    Also, the Afro-Colombian population is around 28% which is much higher than the US. Just addressing the statement made in the video.

    • Yeah I know the feeling, I’m not black or a woman, but I lived in San Joaquin for a year as well and everyday I was in Colombia people would star at me. When I was with my Colombian girlfriend sometimes very aggressively. Defiantly makes things uncomfortable for a while… Just gotta get use to it I guess not much of an option. Quite a bit better than when I lived in Guyana though.

  4. I’m a Black-American and my fiancé is White-Hispanic. Most of his family lives abroad but the grandfather who is from Cali, Colomubia wants everyone to get together for a family reunion this winter. All of the planning is underway and his grandmother has offered to purchase tickets. The problem is, he is concerned about my going because he’s worried about how I will be treated if I go.

    His family there is very affluent and I know that they have kept to their “class.” When his grandfather was a young man (and moved to the US) he was know to dislike Black People. From what I understand he learned to adapt and none of his own children (i.e., my fiancé’s Dad, Uncle nor Aunt) were raised with any prejudices. In fact, the entire American family has been overwhelmingly loving and kind. However, his grandfather has developed dementia and has regressed, and the OTHER FEAR is that he may get upset by the fact that I am Black and disapprove.

    I’m not sure how to address this, I know that he wants to protect me and I don’t want to force myself on a whole branch of his family.

    I’ve experienced racism abroad and it’s no joke! I was more concerned with being hated for being an American until I was threatened by a man. Which brings me to another thought, Black American Men when traveling abroad are more often viewed as Athletes, Musicians, Military Personnel or some type of celebrity. I’m a polite business woman with mixed heritage and I make sure to carry myself in a respectable manner and observe local customs wherever I go. The staring doesn’t bother me, but, I’ve been treated and heard of other Black Ladies being treated and called things like “infiltrators” and “opportunistic prostitutes.”

    What to do? There seems to be no way to win. I would love to hear your input.

  5. I live in New York City part of the year and Medellín, Colombia the other part of the year, which makes up the majority nowadays. Despite my Hispanic last name, I am considered African-American in the states. In Colombia, after opening my mouth for the first time, I am instantly considered a gringo from the United States. And that’s it. In my personal experience, the thinking does not go too far beyond that.

    However, I am not an ethnic woman, nor do I know of any who has visited Colombia, but I will say this. Colombians, particularly those who have status, tend to highly respect English speaking North Americans who are clearly educated, refined and elegant. They love to converse in English, so if some know it, you’ll be a hit, because they’ll want to show and practice their skills with you. I would venture to say that you’d be just fine. Be pilot, but not like a servant. You are the well chosen future wife of one of their own. So act like that too. That is your status. Be respectful and graceful, displaying excitement to meet your new family. Do your best to ignore anything that appears a bit unwanted, but only up to a point. Simply walk away from any truly hurtful occurrence, without words or explanation (other than “excuse me” or “perdón”) and seek out your fiancé to address, rectify or ignore. Don’t be too, too, lovey-dovey as that is a sign of a pre-pago (woman for hire). Show your love and care as a business woman would at an affair. Get food, bring a drink for him. Give a light kiss on the cheek, hold his hand from time to time. These are all Ok, in moderation. But as a wife would, not as a gushy high school, love-striken little girl would. You’re a professional.

    Lastly, I would think that your fiancé can really provide the basis from which all others will take their lead. It is how he presents you, how he treats you, how he speaks of you that will dictate all. If he shows his genuine love for you without hesitation, and his gestures with you are gestures of adulation, the same is likely to flow from everyone else. He is the key, more than you are.

    So get down there and enjoy one of the most beautiful countries in the world. Good luck.

  6. Well I have been living in bogota now for about 2 years and have been all over Colombia. I’m 6’2 115kg and causation. I get noticed and stared at wherever I go so I don’t know if it’s just a black thing or a ‘your not from around here’ kind of thing. Like a few of the previouse posters have said its not done in a nasty way just your diffrent so I’m going to look. I have found most Colombians whatever there colour to be very friendly and welcoming but it’s still Colombia and you have to be careful where you go…. I will say that Colombian have a lot of pre conceived ideas about people depending on where there from with no real basis or justification. I’m British and an example of this is almost all Colombians think Europeans are cold and less careing, polite etc than Colombians. However when you ask them 99% have never been to Europe it’s just what they have been told. My Colombian wife’s family where amazed when they met me and my hole family and realized we are just as worm and as much fun as they are. Generally I wouldn’t think you would have a problem, Colombians pride themselves on being welcoming and friendly, if your family I would expect them to treat you as such.

  7. I’m a black man and I’ve been to Medellin several times. I have never experienced any racism. Definitely not enough to discourage anyone from travelling there. It has been my experience that Colombians, men and women, have been extremely friendly and helpful.

  8. The gentlemen from the USA is unaware of his privilege as a Black North American in Medellin, where his race is trumped by his passport and his wallet. Black Colombians are systematically discriminated against in education, housing and jobs throughout the entire country. You don’t see it as much in Medellin, because there is a relatively small population of Black Colombians.

    I’ve lived in both Cartagena and Medellín. The cities could not be more different, but one thing they share is racism. Cartagena was a primary entry port during the slave trade, but there was never a large population of slaves in Medellin. Slavery was outlawed in Colombia, but blacks have never been treated as equals. If you are born black in Colombia, chances are you were born poor—in a segregated barrio—with substandard education. And no chance to change that script, since there have never been federal programs in Colombia to “level the playing field” among the races.

    And crime? Give me a break. Just because the man has not had the camera lifted, does not mean he has not been staked out. It only means the opportunity (for the thief) has not been quite right. Thirty days in Medellín without getting popped does not make one an expert in crime analysis; it simply means that one has been lucky.

    • ” I’ve been here for a year and people still stare at me daily. It never feels like aggressive racism, but it does feel like “surprised to see you here.” Uncomfortable to me.”

      I get stared at constantly and I am white. If you have preconceived things in your head then you will look for them to be true. People here look at people more than the states, as many people in the states don’t make eye contact. Look how you dress for example, i know some of the people posting, and the style of clothes we use are different and also how we carry ourselves, act, etc. The black American women i know stand out compared to the black Colombian women i know(different style and look), so i think this plays into people staring, also i lived in that area for many months as well, and i rarely saw any black people, so that might play into it also. a black person with USA style walking around in certain areas is as unique as me walking around the barrios where my schools are. People are going to look, its not about race. especially in neighborhoods where they know everyone, you are a stranger,its just that simple.

      I live in a lower “class/strato” barrio, and i constantly get the looks, and yes sometimes it bothers me because i would love to blend in more at times, but at times i love the attention because it lets me meet people i couldnt meet in other more “cold” and unfriendly places. too many people have the “they are staring at me cuz i am black” or “maybe i got fired cuz i am black” thing going on.. just live life, and unless its completely clear someone is being funny towards you for a specific reason, don´t focus on it. i have been treated funny by black people and told they hated white people, etc.. i dont let it phase me, just keep moving on to people who like me..

      As for the original post, i think Olivers words were just great. i totally agree with the point about the fiance, if his actions speak “this is my better half and i respect her and you better also if you want to be in my life” then that sets a great tone. I teach kids, and some of them love me and some give me attitude. it saddens me a bit that not all of them love me 😉 i admitt it, but its life..just carry on and enjoy the people who do love you , no matter if at the family event, work, wherever.. i wish you the best..

    • Whilst I agree with the majority of your comment Vicki, you’re wrong by saying you don’t see it in Medellin. Did you ever visit the San Antonio side of El Centro or the far flung barrios in Comuna 8? Not that the majority of people reading this will ever leave Poblado or Laureles, but Villatina and 13 de Noviembre have a very large population of Afro-Colombians; both people born in Medellin or recent arrivals from Chocó. As you said, segregated and impoverished areas where life can be very cheap.

      I enjoy living here, yet the inherent racism and imposed segregation towards Afro-Colombians is fairly sickening and has always left a sour taste in my mouth. It seems to penetrate all aspects of life too.

  9. Well, I got my question answered. I was told that my “presence would create complications.” So it would be best for me to stay here. It makes me afraid of what I’d be bringing my children into. I’m feeling pretty hurt right now.

      • It was the most awesome place I’ve ever visited! The people are beautiful and hospitable. The night life was great… The atmosphere was peaceful and safe. There definitely aren’t many Black people but plenty of indigenous people in a few areas. The only way I can describe it is the same as the U.S. ratio. In fact, I didn’t feel like “the only Black person in the room”. Lol. They have enormous amounts of food for a fraction of the cost. They pride theirselves on vegetation and gardening. (You will notice because of all the beautiful landscaping, and fresh ingredients in their food and juices.) As far as being Black in Medellin… It’s the same as America. Wherever the slaveship stopped, that’s where we are most populated, on the coast. I can’t wait to visit Cali. It’s a “chocolate city”. Full of beautiful people. Same Latin hospitality and comfort. Please visit my Facebook page through my email look up: tailigon@gmail.com
        Tai Ligon. Caio!

  10. Glad to have come across this video/comments. I’m an African-American female that will be traveling with my sister and best friend in 13 days to Bogota and Cartagena. The guy I date is Colombian and he will be meeting us there for he will arrive earlier…He has told me that since I’m light-skinned that some might not consider me a “negrita”. I’m personally use to “stares” due to how my parents look.

    • It’s the same as the response from the states (if you stand out, you stand out). It’s like being the only Black person in a room full of White people. Of course racism is everywhere, but they stare because you’re foreign and probably trying to figure out why you don’t speak Spanish. My friend’s lil cousins asked me if I know famous people in Hollywood or do we dance the same dances they do out there. Lol. You will definitely be considered a “negrita”; not necessarily because of the color of your skin, but because of your features, and the dead give away is your English language. If you were Latina they assume you should know Spanish. Lol… Enjoy it there! It’s a beautiful country. Looks like pages out of a story book. But close your eyes during a taxi ride, it proves to be a roller coaster.

  11. I came across this site the other day by accident. I was looking for popular places for blacks to hangout not anything on racism. I’ve been in Medellin for a day but will be staying for a week. I’m a black American from Chicago’s Southside. I know there’s racism everywhere but one of the reasons I love to travel is to leave my comfort zone. I’ve been to different parts of the Caribbean and South America. Reading some comments on here make me laugh. I hope you really aren’t worried or so self conscious about being stared at? Hell I can go shopping in downtown Chicago and get more ‘looks’ than I have here so far. The looks I get here are curious without malice, trust me it’s not the same back home. It’s all how you carry yourself, dress, and interact with others. Also why are you in Medellin, just another tourist or do you want to be part of the culture? Have no fear or apprehension. You don’t need to constantly look around, which actually makes you look like a gringo. Relax and just don’t go lookin for trouble you will be fine.

  12. I am an older Black American woman visiting Medellin now and have not noticed any racial prejudice. I will say that I dress fairly conservatively, but I am married to a Jewish man and was concerned about the reception of mixed couples…no problems at all. We’ve travelled a lot and I’m used to states and certainly know the difference in curious vs aggressive states. So far, I’ve been completely comfortable…BTW, I naturally smile a lot and I’m convinced that helps!

  13. I’m Colombian American (mother’s from Bogota).
    Mestizo/Arabic/Mediterranean looking. (Gotten pulled over and harrassed by cops many times in the USA based on how “hispanic” I look.)
    Just got back from Colombia (Medellin) with my African American wife.
    We visited Bogota (loved it), Cali (loved it) and Medellin (loved it).
    I speak FLUENT Spanish and my wife speaks it as well, although with an American accent.
    99.9% of our interactions with Colombian’s were positive. We stayed in La Candelaria in Bogota, a mid-range hotel in Cali and a fancy hotel in El Poblado Medellin.
    We were treated very respectfully in all 3 places.
    With lots of hospitality.
    No one ever questioned our mixed race relationship.
    It was as normal as it is in California.
    We had a FABULOUS time in all 3 cities. So much so that my African American wife said of Colombia – “I could live here! and enjoy it!
    She’s well travelled and rated Colombia as her favorite Latin American country (along with Panama).
    Regarding the situation with a lighter skinned Colombian family meeting my African American wife, unfortunately I ran into that drama with one of my uncles and one of my cousins. Although the vast majority of my aunts and uncles and cousins love and respect my BLACK wife, one uncle had to make nasty comments to me as did one cousin. (Although they said nothing to her.)
    My reaction?
    I don’t need to deal with these ignorant individuals..
    They can go f themselves.
    They don’t like it, too bad.
    All my other relatives are very sweet and loving to my wife. Thank God.
    Funny thing is that some of my own relatives are on the darker side of the spectrum (tightly spun hair, darker skin etc). Some are VERY indigenous looking.
    But this ignorant uncle of mine (and his daughter) buy into the b.s. idea that you should “marry white”.
    I didn’t choose my wife because of her ethnicity. I chose her because I love her like crazy and am absolutely blessed to have met her and had the joy of spending the last 16 years with her.
    If some people are too ignorant to understand that, I feel sorry for them.
    So Black, white, green or purple, my advice is go to Colombia and enjoy it.
    But, the one thing I would stress is Learn AS MUCH Spanish as you can before you go. We had countless wonderful interactions and conversations with so many awesome, sweet, loving, friendly people and I don’t know that it would have been as awesome if we didn’t speak Spanish.

    • That was a beautiful story! I love it. I experienced an identical story during my stay in Medellin. I was treat like a long lost relative. My coworker and family invited me to a wedding. I’m well traveled and practically visited every continent on Earth, but Medellin, Colombia is the best place I’ve ever visited. Food, scenery, and people were A+.

  14. I’m a 30 year old BLACK female from the states who recently took a solo trip to Colombia where I visited the cities of Bogotá, and Cartagena. It was very interesting for me to read this thread being that everyone in fact has their own unique experience while being black and abroad, or in this instance black and in Colombia. Me personally did not run into any “racism”, nor was there anytime where I felt uncomfortable or discriminated against. It is indeed true that there are very few people of color in the city of Bogotá, and you will more than likely get the occasional double-take or stare, but I wouldn’t overthink it. Me being an “attractive” young woman who does a lot of solo traveling am having to learn to basically just get deal with it, because theres not much you can do to prevent it. Just keep it moving and go on about your day! Almost everyone I met in Bogotá was warm, welcoming, and friendly. Now I am not sure how they treat the Afro-Colombians in Colombia, but the treatment I received as an Black American woman was quite lovely.

  15. I am very thankful of this post and everyone who shared there experiences and opinions. I am a African American woman I am 24 years old and considering moving out of the country, Medellin is one of my choices. I don’t care about the stares I’m used to that of course working in my profession. But I just want to be safe that is all. Can anyone recommend the best/ safest area to settle in? also my boyfriend is also African American and will be visiting me quite often, not sure if that is relevant but that’s all thank you in advance!

  16. I been to Colombia four times.. First time to visit a fair skin Hispanic in Barranquilla.. She was a little aloaf. She value education but she am only into prestige. I’m in the military,so apparently it wasn’t good enough. Although, she expressed herself intimately. The other three times were to Bogota and Sante Fe for pure fun. I can honestly say the women were not resist, but I think a little weary of I had money.. I think Colombians aren’t aware of race, but acknowledge the lake of blacks there. Although, I am plenty blacks in Bogota and they were treated well. I love the macho culture. Perfect for black men.