Francia Márquez, first black vice-president of Colombia, dressed by Esteban Sinisterra

Esteban Sinisterra Paz, 23, in his studio in Cali, Colombia.
Esteban Sinisterra Paz, 23, in his studio in Cali, Colombia. (Charlie Cordero/For The Washington Post)

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BOGOTÁ, Colombia – Esteban Sinisterra Paz was 5 years old when gunmen told his family – and everyone else in their small, predominantly Afro-Colombian town of Santa Bárbara de Iscuandé – that they had to leave. Anyone who remained, they warned, would be killed.

Sinisterra, his parents and his three sisters jumped in a boat and went down the Iscuandé river. He took them to a safe haven: the house of his grandmother, a seamstress. The place where, for the first time, he saw the magic of fabric transform into something more.

He grew up helping his aunt sew dresses and his grandmother make blankets from the scraps his aunt no longer needed. At 14, he began dreaming of founding a fashion line.

Now 23, he is the personal creator of the woman who will become Colombia’s first black vice-president. Francia Márquez, a housekeeper turned environmental activist and lawyer, will take office alongside President-elect Gustavo Petro in August.

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Throughout the campaign and since the election, Márquez has used his growing notoriety to incorporate his Afro-Colombian heritage. In this, Sinisterra is his partner. The vice president-elect, working with Sinisterra and fashion consultant Diana Rojas, drew attention to the bright colors and intricate patterns that are unusual for the political arena here, where few black politicians have reached office national and few female politicians wear clothes beyond the traditional ones. professionnal clothing.

“Márquez’s wardrobe has been a vehicle for sharing his origin and his culture,” said Mona Herbe, a visual artist in Bogotá. “In her speeches, she spoke clearly about the problems that her people have been subjected to, such as racism, marginalization, injustice and precariousness. But, with her clothes, she sends messages about the beauty, complexity and richness of her ancestors.

Márquez, who before the campaign was a jeans-and-shirt person, described a 2019 trip she took to Senegal’s Gorée Island, a port from where enslaved Africans were shipped to the Americas. .

“You see people wearing colorful clothes all the time,” she told The Washington Post ahead of the election. “The designs on the fabrics have several meanings. So, for me, representing that in a political campaign is also talking about the language of memory, which has been suppressed to us, which has been refused to us. I dress like I do on purpose.

And there’s the potential benefit of helping him connect with Colombia’s sizeable Afro-Caribbean community – officially 6.2% of the population, but believed to be larger.

Márquez was also courting controversy – again. She spent the campaign discussing her blackness and speaking out against Colombian racism. It’s a disruptive rhetoric in a country that for generations identified its people as sharing a single mixed race, called Mestizo, even as Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities faced disproportionate rates of poverty, violence and displacement.

“The problem people have with Francia is that she’s a black woman who doesn’t behave well, who knows she’s black, and who knows what that means in historical terms,” ​​the statement said. anthropologist Eduardo Restrepo.

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Marquez and Sinisterra have a lot in common. Both are Afro-Colombians from the Pacific coast of the country; both are among some 8 million people who were forcibly displaced during Colombia’s bloody, decades-long conflict. In his campaign speeches, Márquez often spoke directly to “dummies” – the poor, the excluded, the indigenous, the Afro-Colombians.

“I, too, am nobody,” Sinistera said. “But we rose to resist and come in power “.

Márquez’s sartorial transformation took work.

“It wasn’t easy convincing her to ditch the jeans,” Rojas said. When Márquez started the campaign as a presidential candidate, she didn’t want to wear two-piece suits. They OK: They wanted color.

“I wanted designers in the southwest to have a chance,” Rojas said. A large part of the population there is black. Many recommended Sinisterra, which Márquez already knew.

“Within our community, she has always been a leader, an inspiration,” Sinistera said. “I had already made clothes for her.”

Sinistera began working with African-inspired prints after her family moved in 2004.

“People from small towns want to show our cultural expressions in big cities like Buenaventura and Cali,” he said, two towns where he has lived. “In my case, I wanted to show it once I realized, after being discriminated against, that I was a black man. In my hometown, I didn’t know I was a black man – I was just an ordinary guy.

In Santa Bárbara de Iscuandé, a group of wooden shacks with zinc roofs, everyone was black. And almost everyone was poor.

They did not know the armed men who had forced them to flee, but they knew how to heed their warning. At that time, according to records, illegal coca crops had begun to fill the fields of Nariño, their department on the border with Ecuador. Massacres, killings and displacement have become commonplace as paramilitary and guerrilla groups fight over territory.

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Sinistera launched his fashion line, Esteban African, to pay for food and other necessities. His parents lacked professional training. They bought and sold items to support their four children, but money was scarce. Sinisterra and his cousins ​​were collecting bottles of the Colombian liqueur aguardiente — “hot water” — to sell for money.

Sinistera thought they could make a living from fashion. Initially, men’s fashion.

Her father was not enthusiastic about the idea: needlework is for women, he said. So Sinisterra signed up for social work. He wanted peace with his father. He aimed to become the first in his family to attend college.

Sinisterra juggled between her undergraduate studies and her fashion line. She has a semester left before she graduates as a social worker who also happens to be a designer, with a small studio in her family’s home in a working-class neighborhood in eastern Cali. This is where he keeps his fabric, two knitting machines, an ironing board and the bright, colorful handmade pieces ready for delivery.

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Fabrics with African prints are the raw material of Sinistera. “I find the prettiest and most representative fabric is the Kente print, which pays homage to Ghanaian women who pick up the fruits that the land gives,” he said. “It’s a bit like the baskets made by women in the Pacific to pick up whatever the ocean provides.”

He primarily created multi-piece suits so that Márquez could mix and match them in different combinations, creating the illusion of a different outfit every day. “I am a poor woman,” Márquez repeated several times.

Africa and Colombian Pacific heritage can be found on every skirt, top or jacket.

Sinisterra says Márquez received fabric donations but paid for each finished piece. He won’t reveal how much. “She is my sister. We have decided to support her political aspirations,” Sinistera said. “This is something that goes beyond economic issues. We have to stick together.”

The work has attracted attention for Sinistera’s business. He says he has been contacted by other politicians, artists and academics. He did not give details.

He was invited to the inauguration on August 7.

“When she takes office, I would like to see Francia make all the people behind her proud, who have invested time and effort in this collective, beautiful and meaningful project,” he said. “I hope she makes all the kids proud who sometimes believe that black people don’t have the opportunity to hold such positions.”

He also wants to see which outfit Márquez picked out of the three he sent her.

He still doesn’t know what he’s going to wear.

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