Colombia Finally Recognizes Its First and Only Black President, Juan José Nieto Gil

Juan José Nieto Gil's presidency was erased from history on account of his race, but his legacy is finally being recognized.

This August, OkayAfrica shines a light on the connections between Africa and the Latin-American world. Whether it's the music, politics or intellectual traditions, Africans have long been at the forefront of Latino culture, but they haven't always gotten the recognition. We explore the history of Afro-Latino identity and its connection to the motherland.

Afro-Colombians account for around 5 million of Colombia's population. Still, black people n the nation are widely marginalized and underrepresented in political life. It's been this way throughout history, and nothing makes this reality more clear than the story of Colombia's first black president, Juan José Nieto Gil who, despite the odds, went on to lead the country during one of it's most divided periods in history and fight for the abolishment of slavery. He's gone largely unheralded until now.

After centuries of being unrecognized for his contributions, the Colombian government has unveiled a portrait of the country's first and only black president in the presidential palace, following an extensive investigation carried out by veteran Colombian journalist, Gonzalo Guillén.

Guillén made a promise to his late friend, the Father of Colombian Sociology, Orlando Fals Borda, that he would see to it that the country's black president, be given his rightful place in the Nariño Presidential Palace, reports Colombian publication The City Paper Bogota. According to the outlet, Guillén first brought the matter to the public's attention when he published an article entitled "Obama was not the first black president of the Americas. The title rightfully belongs to Juan José Nieto Gil," after Barack Obama won his presidency in the United States in 2008.


Prior to the efforts of Guillén and Borda, Nieto Gil's legacy as the first Afro-Colombian to hold political office had been virtually erased from Colombian history, in fact when an original portrait of him from the 19th century was first discovered in a basement, in 1866 it was whitewashed and his skin was made to appear white. "No one wanted the original painting. It was found in a basement, piled up with junk and rotting," Guillén tells The City Paper Bogota. The portrait was rediscovered by Borda in the 1970s and the true color of Nieto Gil's skin resurfaced. Even then, some still attempted to deny his African ancestry.

In 2008, an investigation led by Guillén confirmed Nieto Gil's status as Colombia's—then known as the United Provinces of New Granada—42nd president. Nieto Gil served as the country's leader from January 25 to July 18, 1861. He ruled during a politically divisive periods and worked as a novelist and geographer, who advocated for the abolishment of slavery.

The Colombian government held their own investigation into Nieto Gil, following a 2014 petition from Guillén.

On August 2, Colombia's former president Juan Manuel Santos unveiled a replica of the original portrait in the presidential palace with leaders from the Afro-Colombian community in attendance. After centuries of intentional erasure, the country's first and only black leader finally received his rightful recognition. While it's a major step in the right direction, the act doesn't erase Colombia's negative history with its large black population.

The prolonged recognition of Nieto Gil's contribution to Colombian history, highlights the ongoing struggle for Afro-Latino rights and representation in Colombia and beyond.

During the month of August, OkayAfrica is exploring Afro-Latino identity and highlighting the stories and experiences of Afro-Latinos throughout the diaspora, keep up with more of out stories here.

(From left to right) Stéphane Bak and Marc Zinga in 'The Mercy of the Jungle.' Photo courtesy of TIFF.

Congolese Actor Stéphane Bak on His Intense Experience Shooting 'The Mercy of the Jungle' In Uganda

We catch up with the actor after the film made its North American premiere at TIFF.

When actor Stéphane Bak first got the script for The Mercy of the Jungle (La Miséricorde de la Jungle), he knew there was one person he had to consult: his father. "My dad did school me about this," he says. While Bak was born and raised in France, his parents had emigrated from what was then Zaire in the 1980s—before the events of the movie, and not exactly in the same area, but close enough to be able to pass on firsthand knowledge of the simmering ethnic tensions that underpin the action.

The story takes place in 1998, just after the outbreak of the Second Congo War—which came hot on the heels of the First Congo War. Two Rwandan soldiers find themselves separated from their company and have to make a harrowing trek through the jungle to link back up with their regiment. Bak plays Private Faustin, the young recruit hunting Hutu rebels to avenge his murdered family, a foil to Marc Zinga's seasoned Sergeant Xavier. As a Congolese militia swarms the area, and it becomes increasingly difficult to tell enemies from friends, the two are forced off the road and into the thick vegetation.

Their journey is physically difficult, but the jungle also nurtures them, providing food, water, and shelter. "The title is very explicit in a way," says Bak. It is the human beings they encounter, from rival soldiers and militiamen to the hostile security forces guarding illegal gold mining operations, who bring sudden danger and violence. The challenges are conveyed as much through the actors' physicality as through the minimal dialogue. As for the strain on his face, Bak says it was all real. "To be honest, it was very difficult," he says of the shoot, which took him 25 days. "I had to learn my accent in two weeks." Prior to commencing, there was training with the Ugandan army for realism. Due to the ongoing conflicts in the DRC, the movie itself was shot in Uganda.

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Brazil Has Made Yoruba an Official Language

The language will also be incorporated into primary and secondary school curriculum in the country, says the Minister of Culture.

Yoruba history and culture has an undeniably strong presence in Brazilian society, due of course, to the Transatlantic slave trade which brought millions of enslaved West Africans to the Americas. Despite the inhumanity they faced, many managed to keep their ancestral culture and traditions alive.

Centuries have passed, and Yoruba influences still continue to thrive in various regions of the country, as many Brazilians maintain a strong relationship with the language and religion. Its influence can be seen through the music, food and spiritual practices of various communities. Last month the Ooni of Ife—the spiritual leader of the Yoruba people—visited the country, where he was met by crowds of Black Brazilians who turned up to pay their respects.

This connection will likely remain strong for future generations, as the language has now become an official foreign language in the country.

WATCH: How Ilê Aiyê Brought Blackness Back to Carnival

Brazil's Minister of Culture, Dr. Sérgio Sá Leitão, has said that the language will now be incorporated into primary and secondary school curriculum, reports the Nigerian Voice.

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This EP Blends the Afro-Brazilian Rhythms of Bahia With Bass Music

Get into Telefunksoul and Felipe Pomar's Ré_Con Ba$$ EP.

Brazilian producers Felipe Pomar (of TrapFunk & Alivio) and Telefunksoul come through with a dizzyingly energetic EP in the form of Ré_Con Ba$$.

Telefunksoul, who happens to be one of the main promoters of Bahia Bass music, came up with the concept of exploring the rhythms coming out of Recôncavo of Bahia and showing how they can fit into bass music.

Through the 7-track Ré_Con Ba$$ EP, him and Pomar mold and transform the diverse music of Bahia, fusing its rhythms with afrobeat, future house, deep house and much more.

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