Many don’t know that Colombia has one of the largest Afro-descendant populations in Latin America. In fact, a census from 2005 found that the government estimated that “the Afro-Colombian population accounted for 10.5 percent of the national population.”
Although the presence of Africans in Colombia dates back to the 16th century, their descendants continue to face exclusion, marginalisation and discrimination – something that hairstylist and Colombian native Shirlene Malambo Luna can relate to.
“In Colombia, discriminatory acts are very frequent for people of Afro-descent.”
Shirlene was born and raised in Galeras, a small town located in the Sucre department of Colombia.
Sucre is the fourth most populated Afro-descendant area in Colombia (65%) behind Bolivar (66%), Magdalena (72%) and Chocó (85%), according to the 2005 national census.
Known for its coral islands, agriculture livestock and coconut trees, Sucre makes for a beautiful rural landscape and this is something that Shirlene loves about her country.
“What I like the most about living in Colombia is its natural resources and the country’s relationship with nature,” she says.
“I also love it’s cultural and ethnic diversity. I embrace everything from the music of my ancestors to the kindness of the people around me.”
Shirlene grew up in the small town surrounded by a close-knit family who she treasures dearly. “I am quite close to my family. I am inspired by their tenacity, their humility, their way of seeing each day better than the previous one and above all, the culture that they have taught me.”
To be instilled with a strong sense of culture and identity is key to Shirlene and particularly in a space where Afro Columbians continue to face socio-political struggles daily.
According to The UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), Afro-Colombians face “persistent structural and historical discrimination” which results in “high levels of poverty and social exclusion,” when compared to the rest of the population.
Additionally, a government survey conducted in 2010, found that 22.5% of the displaced population identified as Afro-Colombian.
In cities like Buenaventura, their Afro population has faced “a wave of killings, torture, sexual violence and enforced disappearances” over the last 20 years, according to Amnesty International.
While slavery was abolished in Colombia in 1851, structural racism and historical exclusion continue to be major issues within the country – like so many others – and the discrimination many Afro Colombians face ranges from overt to covert racism.
“Dealing with discrimination is frustrating but I’ve had to deal with it countless times,” she says. “It has happened to me where I’ve received comments about my hair and people saying it’s ‘unprofessional and unclean’. Many times society will try to make us believe that perfection is in combed, straight and long hair and a very particular look.”
This narrative is something all Black women can relate to. Eurocentric beauty standards continue to dominate the world and this results in an onslaught of microaggressions and racism that Black women have to face every day for simply just being our true selves.
Despite the negativity that Afro Columbians and Black people as a whole are subjected to, Shirlene uses this as motivation to succeed in life and to continue to celebrate her Blackness and Black hair – something she has been passionate about since she was a young girl.
“My interest in hair started from a very young age with the birth of my two younger sisters,” says Shirlene.
“At the age of 11, I started to learn about my hair and how to take care of it. I’ve always loved my hair and I’ve always had a quite expressive personality. To me, my hair combines perfectly with it.”
Shirlene’s passion for hair and desire to learn has seen her reach new heights as she continues to be a sought after hairstylist in Colombia, boasting over 15,000 followers on Instagram.
She specialises in African-inspired hairstyles and also educates her clients on the cultural and historical significance of the styles they wear.
“Hair is an expression of freedom. I’ve always liked to show myself as someone who is fearless and I love to do that through my work and to show the beauty of Black hair in all its glory.”