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The 23-year-old fashion designer dresses Colombia’s first black vice-president | Colombia




Esteban Sinisterra Paz, a 23-year-old fashion designer from Colombia’s conflict-ridden and impoverished Pacific region, hadn’t started his career long when he got a call from a historic client.

Francia Mrquez, the famous environmental activist and first black elected vice-president of Colombia, was in play, and she wanted two outfits made.

When I got her call, it was amazing, because it wasn’t just about me or her, but our whole community, said Sinistera, an Afro-Colombian who runs the bespoke label, Esteban African. It is a story written by all those who have been excluded and ignored, but who one day stood up and said: We want change for our community.

Designer Esteban Sinisterra Paz in his studio in Cali, Colombia
Designer Esteban Sinisterra Paz: No one like us and Francia has ever been considered, but now we know we can achieve so much. Photography: The Washington Post/Getty Images

Sinisterra and millions of other voters got their wish on the evening of June 16 when Gustavo Petro, 62, a former guerrilla fighter and former mayor of the capital, Bogotá, won the presidency after a long and bitter campaign to wrest power from the country’s political elites. . When Petro takes office today, it will be the first time the conservative South American country has been ruled by a leftist.

Her campaign was bolstered by the addition of Mrquez, 40, to the ticket, who made headlines around the world when she became Petros’ running mate in March. Like Petro, who was a member of the now-defunct M-19 rebel group in his youth, Mrquez is seen as an incendiary outsider. Much of her support often stems from the fact that she is not your typical politician, light-skinned and from wealthy political and business backgrounds.

Their victory really made me believe in democracy, Sinistera said. Nobody like us and Francia has ever been considered, but now we know we can achieve so much when we work collectively.

Mrquez, a single mother and former domestic worker, won the prestigious Goldman Prize in 2018 for her activism against a gold mine in her village, after leading 80 women on a 350-mile march to Bogotá.

Like Mrquez, Sinisterra has been displaced by Colombia’s conflict with left-wing rebel groups, including the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), which have rocked the countryside for decades, killing more than 260,000 people and forcing seven million people to leave their homes. Other rebel groups, such as the still active National Liberation Army (ELN), state-aligned paramilitaries and Colombian security forces, have also committed atrocities.

A peace deal signed with Farc in 2016 was supposed to usher in the development of rural communities, but instead other armed groups of left and right ideology, but united by their involvement in drug trafficking, are settled and now jostling for territory.

Sinisterra was forced to flee his home in Colombia’s southwestern Nario province as a young boy when fighting between rival groups became too intense. There were so many armed groups around, we didn’t even know who was what, but my family knew we had to leave, the designer said. I was one of those rare young Colombians able to escape the war.

The designer said Mrquez’s outfits, which were brightly colored and patterned, reflected Afro-Colombian traditions. Red is what we use when we want to create that Pacific Woman Strength Impact, Sinistera said. Francia never really had her own aesthetic because she was so focused on her wrestling, so it was great to work with her to create one without losing her essence.

Despite the wave of support for Mrquez and Petro in marginalized communities and in many cities, the couple will face an unenviable array of challenges in power.

Inflation is rising alongside the country’s national debt, cocaine production is at an all-time high and neighboring Venezuela continues to be mired in economic crisis, with refugees fleeing to Colombia every day.

Petro, known for her towering ego and authoritarian style, will also have to manage her vice president, who commands her own support base and is a political newcomer unaccustomed to the deals often required in the halls of power.

Mrquez is an activist who is used to demanding things that are often impossible, said Sergio Guzmn, director and co-founder of Colombia Risk Analysis, a local consultancy. The question, then, is how long will she wait with Petro to deliver on her promises of rural reform, economic justice and the renegotiation of the free trade agreement with the United States?

But for Mrquez’s supporters, it represents a rare chance to advance the rights of the poorest Colombians, who celebrate his intention to create a ministry of equality.

Francia is the first black vice president of a country that has long made people like her invisible, and only paid attention to white men, said Yacila Bondo, a young Afro-Colombian activist. Now the panorama is wide open.




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