Colombia’s presidential election is coming up in May and while there are a lot of familiar faces, one candidate stands out from the rest. Her name is Francia Márquez, and unlike most of the candidates, she’s not a career politician — she’s an activist who has stood up for the rights of Colombia’s Black communities for decades. 

Márquez, the first Black woman to run for president of Colombia, got her start as a 15-year-old community organizer in her hometown of Suarez in the 1990s.

The town in the southwest of Colombia was threatened when the government wanted to redirect the Ovejas River away from the community. The move would have left the community without a key source of water and would have caused massive environmental damage, but after pressure from Márquez and her community, the government stopped the project. 

“It was the first time I heard, as an afro-descendant girl, that we had rights,” Márquez told the BBC in 2018. “We had collective rights to define what we wanted for our territory and what we want for our development.” 

Since that protest, Márquez has dedicated her life to supporting Colombia’s black communities and fighting against environmental destruction throughout Colombia. She gained international fame in 2014 when she stood up to illegal miners polluting the river near her home by marching with 80 women over 300 miles to Colombia’s capital Bogotá.

The marchers occupied the interior ministry and demanded that the government take action to stop the illegal miners. The occupation forced the government to listen to the protesters and led the government to send troops to the area to remove the miners. 

The protest brought Márquez an abundance of attention, leading her to get threats from paramilitary groups who profited off illegal mining. In a country like Colombia, where hundreds of activists are murdered each year, Márquez took the threats very seriously and had to leave her home for safety. 

Despite these threats, the attention has also brought Márquez a lot of recognition for her work as an environmental activist.

In 2018, she received the Goldman Environmental Prize, an award considered to be the equivalent of a Noble Prize for environmental activists. Since then, she has been featured in many events with other internationally renowned activists like the American scholar Angela Davis.

In August 2020, Márquez took her activism to a new level when she announced her candidacy in the 2022 Presidential Elections, making her the first Afro-Colombian woman to run for president. Her candidacy in the left-leaning coalition Pacto Histórico has allowed her to highlight the issues that women, Afro-Colombians, and Indigenous communities face — communities that are often excluded from Colombian political discourse. 

“We’ve always been told that politics wasn’t for us. But politics is what made us go through pain and suffering. Now we’re getting involved in politics to transform it into something that works in the service of life,” Márquez told a crowd of Colombians in New York earlier this month. 

But Márquez has faced a lot of challenges from the media and other candidates. Her campaign has faced an uphill battle in media coverage with Márquez often left out of polls and her candidacy not taken as seriously as other candidates. During one of the debates, she was even subject to racism when Jorge Robledo, a white candidate, told her that the Afro-Colombian community wasn’t oppressed because they’re Black but because they’re Colombian. 

Despite these challenges, Márquez sees her political participation as a necessity in Colombia telling El Tiempo: “We live in a racist, classist, and patriarchal state, that’s not ready for anti-racist, anti-patriarchal, and anti-systemic woman like me to govern. But I can’t sit by, I have to contest for power.”