UMass Amherst Afro-Am Studies Professors Attend Historic Presidential Inauguration in Colombia
AMHERST, Mass. — UMass Amherst's Amilcar Shabazz, professor and graduate program director of Afro-American studies, and Agustin Lao-Montes, professor of Sociology and Afro-American studies, as well as director of the African Diaspora graduate certificate program, attended the historic inauguration ceremony for the newly-named Colombian president Gustavo Francisco Petro Urrego and vice president Francia Márquez Mina on Aug. 7. The invitation was the result of their nearly two decades of research in Colombia, and a longtime camaraderie with Márquez.
That it’s the first time in history that Colombia has elected progressive leaders underscores the significance of this moment, Lao-Montes explains.
“I see this election as a pivotal moment for Colombia,” he wrote in a recent article for The Conversation.
The inauguration, held in Bogotá, Colombia, was preceded by an Aug. 6 meeting of the international reparations conference, for which Shabazz and Lao-Montes will be members. The conference united international scholars, activists and political figures to establish a program and fund for reparations in Colombia. If developed, the fund would be the first of its kind and serve as a model for other countries.
Shabazz says it was “the honor of a lifetime to attend these important events in person.”
Fifteen Years of Supporting Afro-Colombian Students
For Shabazz and Lao-Montes, the opportunity to attend the inauguration and discuss the reparations process serves as a testament to the work and research they’ve done in Colombia over the last 15 years.
Back in 2007, Lao-Montes found himself at the University of Valle in Cali, Colombia, as part of his Fulbright Scholarship. There, he taught a course on the history of the Black Atlantic. Back at UMass he had been teaching such kind of course for years with professor John H. Bracey, Jr., who has been part of the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies since 1972.
It was the honor of a lifetime to attend these important events in person.
“Many Black and Indigenous activists took this course at Universidad del Valle,” Lao-Montes says. “UMass turned out to be a primary institution in promoting a new generation of Black intellectuals in Colombia.”
At the same time, Shabazz—new to UMass Amherst in 2007—says he found himself intrigued by the Du Bois department’s emerging certificate in African Diasporic studies.
“Through this certificate, we really began to teach on the global politics and the global experience to the African people,” Shabazz says.
Their shared interest in these topics drew the scholars together. By 2011, Lao-Montes found himself back in Colombia—this time with Shabazz, too.
Together, they toured the Pacific coast of the country to present on Afro-American studies at universities and community-based cultural centers in Bogotá, Buenaventura and Cali. It was a way to develop pathways for research between UMass Amherst and Afro-Colombian students and scholars, whose opportunities in Colombia were otherwise limited, Shabazz explains.
“We met with leadership there and we talked about ways we could support research and student and faculty exchanges,” he says.
It was during this trip that Shabazz first met Márquez, who had recently emerged as a leading Colombian activist as she fought for environmental rights of Afro-Colombians. Lao-Montes met Márquez in 2007 when he was keynote speaker of the national assembly of the Black Communities Process, a social movement organization of which she was a local leader.
Soon after, Márquez visited UMass Amherst for the first time to speak on the struggles of Afro-Colombian communities for land and life.
History with Francia Márquez
But Márquez’s first visit to Amherst in 2011 wasn’t the last.
“Vice President Francia Márquez has been to UMass several times,” says Lao-Montes. “She is a well-known person to a lot of people within the university community.”
Her 2015 talk on campus overlapped with a speech given by activist leader Angela Davis, who discussed mass incarceration in the U.S.—but also made time to give credit to Márquez for her work.
“She praised Francia throughout” the talk, says Lao-Montes. “At that point, Francia was emerging as a leader beyond her community, and her brilliance and authenticity, her ability to communicate and to create critical analysis on her own vernacular and ways of thinking pushed her to national and international leadership.”
By 2021, Márquez had won numerous accolades and recognitions for her humanitarian efforts and became a leading voice for the Afro-Colombian community, creating the SoyPorqueSomos—or I Am Because We Are—movement centered on fighting anti-Black racism and discrimination as well as for sexual and social justice
Then, after her first presidential run of her own and placing third in the national primaries, Márquez accepted the nomination for vice president on the ticket for the Historic Pact, joining Gustavo Petro in March 2022. Three months later, on June 19, Petro defeated Rodolfo Hernández Suárez in the second round of the 2022 Colombian presidential election, making him and Márquez Colombia’s first leftist president and vice president.
Though Lao-Montes and Shabazz say they did not anticipate their longtime connection with Márquez would result in an eventual invitation to Colombia’s 2022 presidential inauguration ceremony, it brings their connection to the Latin American country full circle.
Throughout the last 15 years, Laos-Montes and Shabazz have recruited several Afro-Colombian students to UMass Amherst who have gone on to work internationally and have significant global impact. After graduation, the students went on to do everything from building Africana Studies programs in Colombia to contributing to the democratic mobilization that has led to the new government of Petro and Márquez.
We are now a pillar in training for a new generation of Black intellectuals in Colombia to lead the country.
They include Aurora Vergara-Figueroa, the director of the Afrodiasporic Studies Center (Centro de Estudios Afrodiaspóricos) at Icesi University, who Shabazz described as “brilliant” and ready for her new role as the vice minister for higher education. Lao-Montes was Vergara-Figueroa’s dissertation chair. Leydi Vidal Rodriguez, who came to UMass from the Afro-Colombian Leadership and Scholarship Program of Fulbright Colombia, recently received her Ph.D. and is now working as a specialist in ethnic education at a school in Caucu, Colombia. Carlos Valderrama and Dario Vasquez, both of whom received Ph.D.s in Sociology with dissertations chaired by Lao-Montes, are now working in higher education.
“As students earn their degrees here and then go back, that has also led to people saying, ‘Oh, let me consider UMass,’” Shabazz says.
“We are now a pillar in training,” Lao-Montes says, “for a new generation of Black intellectuals in Colombia to lead the country.”
After graduation, Leydi Vidal (Perlaza), the first Afro-Colombian PhD graduate from the W.E.B. Du Bois Department, returned to Bogota, Colombia, to work in education.