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Episode 56

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Translation – I’m not your Joke

Translation by Patrick Moseley

[Daniel Alarcón, host]: Welcome to Radio Ambulante, from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón.

We’re starting today in Cali, Colombia. It’s October 2015 and we’re in a theater.

[Roberto Lozano]: No, I was completely terrified. I thought they were going to…to hang me in the theater…  

[Daniel]: And this is Robert Lozano, a Colombian comedian…

(SOUNDBITE FROM PROTEST VIDEO)

[Roberto]: The owner of the theater closed the doors, came over and started crying by my side and told me: “Roberto, I’m asking you for the love of God, don’t go out there. If you go out there and something happens, my theater’s going to get shut down. It’ll be the end of the theater, Roberto.” It was a delicate situation.   

[Daniel]: They had organized a Halloween show. Several comedians were going to perform and they were all from Sábados Felices, a popular Colombian TV show that’s been on the air for more than 45 years. But that day, they had to cancel the show.

[Roberto]: I left that theater at 1 am because she opened the doors at 1 when no one was in the street. I felt like I was kidnapped.           

[Daniel]: Camila Segura, our senior editor, will tell us the rest.

[Camila Segura, Senior Editor]: The character that Robert Lozano was going to perform as is called Soldado Micolta. And he’s very well-known among Colombians.   

(SOUNDBITE FROM THE TV SHOW SÁBADOS FELICES)

[Lieutenent]: Here in the National Army, we defend the country. Soldado Micolta! Look, we’re in combat. What do we do? Pida apoyo. [lit. “ask for help”, sounds like “order chicken”].

[Soldado Micolta]: Why don’t we order Chinese rice instead?

[Laughs]

[Lieutenant]: Don’t cry, man!

[Camila]: At the time, Micolta almost always went on stage with a lieutenant…  

(SOUNDBITE FROM THE TV SHOW SÁBADOS FELICES)

[Lieutenant]: Stop being a coward. ¡Saque algo de valor! [lit. “have some courage” sounds like “take out something valuable”]

[Soldado Micolta]: Ok, lieutenant. Whatever you say, lieutenant.

[Lieutenant]: Hurry up! And why are you taking out that watch?

[Soldado Micolta]: It has a lot of sentimental value.

[Laughs]

[Camila]: Maybe you can’t understand what Micolta is saying very clearly. And here we have to explain something: the character has an accent that, in theory, sounds like and Afro-Colombian accent. But there’s something else: Lozano is a mestizo man who wears red makeup on his lips and black on his face and body.

The soldier’s personality comes through in the dynamic between him and his superior. The lieutenant is the serious one. Roberto explains it to me…

[Roberto]: The lieutenant is that one who always comes to give the orders: “Alright, Soldado Micolta, what company do you belong to?”. “Eh, I belong to Wolf Company.” “Since when?” “Auuuuuuuuuu!”

You get it? He always…he tries to answer correctly and when you think he has the right answer: bam! He pulls out the other one, with the joke.

[Camila]: The soldier is supposed to be messing with the lieutenant, making fun of him.

[Roberto]: Soldado Micolta does what everyone wants to do which sometimes is poke a little fun at authority.

[Camila]: But, sometimes that mocking of authority in the form of thelieutenant can be confused with a lack of intelligence. For example:  

(SOUNDBITE FROM THE TV SHOW SÁBADOS FELICES)

[Lieutenant]: You don’t have any ambition. Don’t you want your own things?

[Soldado Micolta]: What do you mean? I already bought my first car, man.

[Lieutenant]: And where did you leave it?

[Soldado Micolta]: I left it out there on the street.

[Lieutenant]: But…Don’t be stupid, man. Don’t you see it’s going to get stolen out there!?!

[Soldado Micolta]: You’re the stupid one, because I was the one who took off one of the tires.

[Laughs]

[Lieutenant]: And which tire did you take off.

[Micolta]: The spare.

[Laughs.]

[Camila]: To Roberto, Micolta is child-like.

[Roberto]: He’s a big kid, a big kid in a gigantic suit. He’s gentle. Micolta is very gentle. He’s naive but, oh is he mischievous! Ah at times…at times I see him as very mischievous! [Laughs] He’s a rascal. Micolta is a rascal. He’s a rascal.

[Camila]: And lazy.

[Roberto]: Micolta always likes to loaf around. He likes not doing anything. [Laughs].

[Camila]: He likes to laugh.

[Roberto]: He likes to bust out laughing all the time. Micolta likes to mispronounce words.

[Camila]: For example:  

(SOUNDBITE FROM THE TV SHOW SÁBADOS FELICES)

[Lieutenant]: What has happened to honesty in this country?

[Soldado Micolta]: Yo no sabo, Yo no sabo. [lit. “I don’t know” but grammatically incorrect].

[Laughs]

[Lieutenant]: Don’t say “sabo“.

[Soldado Micolta]: Then what should I say?

[Lieutenant]: No sé“. [lit. “I don’t know” grammatically correct]

[Soldado Micolta]: Then shut up.

[Laughs.]

[Camila]: Roberto and the man who plays the lieutenant —whose name is Alexander Rincón met in high school and became the class clowns. They did performances and impressions and they were very popular. So in 2003 they decided to audition to participate in Sábados Felices. They took a bus from Palmira to Bogotá and they performed several times as stand-up comics. Each one separately. Sometimes it went alright, other times it didn’t. Until one day they decided they were going to come up with a show that included both of them.

[Roberto]: We sat down in our office, which at the time was the sidewalkI remember—,and there we said. “Ok, let’s be two bellboys at a hotel.”

[Camila]: But they starting thinking about it and not everyone knows what a bellboy is.  

[Roberto]: Humble folks don’t go to hotels with bellboys. They go to the…the room with the key [laughs]. So, “no, it has to be something that’s in every house.” “What’s in every house?” A soldier.

[Camila]: At first it was Soldado Lozano and the lieutenant. And Roberto just went out in uniform. But later they decided it would be better if the soldier painted himself black and called himself Micolta.

I asked him how they came to that decision and he gave me several different answers…  

For one, he told me that despite living with his mom and his siblings in Palmira throughout his childhood, his dad worked as a motorcycle officer at Buenaventura port, the most important port in the Colombian Pacific.

[Roberto]: At that time, there were no white people at Buenaventura, all of his friends and acquaintances were strictly Afro-Colombian.  

[Camila]: He went to visit his dad whenever he could and he would go to work with him.  

[Roberto]: And well, the truth is…I became very attached to that culture, very attached to those people, very connected to them since I was boy, since childhood.

[Camila]: But Roberto also told me that he studied speech for radio and television in Cali. And he had an Afro-Colombian classmate whose last name was Micolta.

[Roberto]: And he was the funniest guy in class, he was…he was really funny because he didn’t speak well. At all, and he would say: “What I want is to be a public speaker.” And well, everyone spoke well. And he said: “No, I want to be public speaker,” and every day he went and he wouldn’t study, but he made us laugh. He was a riot.

So, well, that’s why I think he was my motivation to make that character at some point, you know?

[Camila]: And on top of that…     

[Roberto]: Well, you can’t deny, I have big eyes and a big mouth. So I can’t deny that the make-up looks funny on me.

[Camila]: Soldado Micolta became a rather successful character. Along with the lieutenant in a show called “Los Siameses” or “The Siamese Twins.” They won several annual final competitions with Sábados Felices and soon they became part of the show’s line-up. They were on air for 12 years when one day in October 2015…

[Roberto]: I was at home when they called me and told me: “Roberto, I’m here at Caracol, at the door, there are a bunch of Afros here, with signs and with…stuff about getting Soldado Micolta off television.”

(SOUNDBITE FROM PROTEST VIDEO)

[Protesters]: Down with Soldado Micolta! No more, no more, no more! No more racism in the media. No more, no more, no more!

Major media outlets foster racism and discrimination. Major media outlets foster racism and discrimination.

[Darwin Balanta]: Of course, I see a show like this as, well, abhorrent, and what it does is affirm the stereotypes I have fought against my whole life.

[Camila]: This is Darwin Balanta, one of the participants on the day of the protest.

[Darwin]: Those stereotypes, that the black man doesn’t know how to speak, that he’s stupid, in other words, only perpetuate malice. Nothing positive comes out it.

[Camila]: Darwin was born in Cali and is 37 years old. He studies Social Science at la Universidad de Valle and has spent a lot of time studying African history. He told me that he, personally, at this point in his life, isn’t really affected by the character Soldado Micolta.   

[Darwin]: Because I know…I know who I am and where I come from. I know that I come from a glorious African empire, that my ancestors were kings, engineers, architects, X,Y,Z.

[Camila]: But Darwin also teaches classes at primary school. The majority of his students are Afro-Colombian. And that’s why, for him, a character like Micolta…

[Darwin]: I do know the message it sends to children. I was an Afro child. I was racialized and I know the effect that has. And as a teacher, I know how Afro children always feel that fear of speaking because, the way they speak and the odd accent they have, makes everyone laugh. “Oh, little black kid. He talks like Micolta.” And you’re only good for soccer, to be strong, for sex, and to play the drum.

[Camila]: To understand what Darwin is saying a little better, maybe it’s worthwhile to know where he comes from, how he grew up. That’s also part of this story.

He grew up in a family with a single mother and three children.

[Darwin]: My mom did what women who come from the Pacific coast to the city do, think about it: domestic work.

[Camila]: In Cali, Darwin grew up in Prados del Sur, a neighborhood that he describes as hostile.

[Darwin]: A neighborhood with major safety issues, in a difficult environment, in all respects. And also a racial component, which is cultural in Colombia.

[Camila]: He and his family were the only Afro-Colombians in the neighborhood for many years. And they could feel the racism. One of his first memories of discrimination was from when he was about 4 years old. He was with his mom and two brothers in front of kindergarten, waiting for the bus.

[Darwin]: And we sat down, it was like a small diner, and a man come out like this, a paisa guy, to say that it wasn’t a place for blacks and to tell us to leave. My mom, a single woman with 3…3 kids, said: “No, then we’ll leave.” And I said: “Why is this guy saying this??”

[Camila]: At the time, he didn’t really understand what the man was talking about and his mom wasn’t giving him details either. But that phrase, “this isn’t a place for blacks,” was stuck in his memory.

By the time he got to high school, he found an environment that was, as he says, more explicitly racialized.

[Darwin]: Oh, the teachers carried racial biases, when it came to Afros…We Afros practically weren’t human beings, I mean, we were adjectives: so it was niche, or el negrito, when they meant it endearingly. But to offend is: “Kill a Negro, claim a yoyo.” “Kill a Negro, and make asphalt.” “Niche, take a bath. Niche, comb your hair.” “All blacks smell bad.” I mean, things like that and that was typical, that was normal.

[Camila]: When he entered school no one knew him by his name.  

[Darwin]: Everyone called me “niche,” “negro,” “gorillita,” “miquito“…

[Camila]: And he corrected people all the time.

[Darwin]: “My name is Darwin, Darwin, Darwin”. One day I got tired of it…

[Camila]: And one boy in particular bothered him…

[Darwin]: I took a pencil and I scratched him across the chest. It tore his shirt and it was a deep cut. I mean, I acted like I was fed up,…angry, but of course you get scared when you see blood.

[Camila]: Darwin was 8 years old. Obviously, this posed a problem for the teachers and the boy’s parents. But they didn’t expel him. I asked him if he felt bad about it later.  

[Darwin]: No. No, I didn’t feel bad. Even now I don’t because it worked. It worked.

[Camila]: And it worked because the next day at school, everyone knew his name.

[Darwin]: It was magic: “Darwin Balanta.” They said: “that guy is really aggressive and he’s dangerous, call him by his name.”

The media makes us out to be all mestizo, this is a 100% Andino-centric country.  

[Camila]: A country were the majority of decisions are made in the capital. But on top of that, a country where the regions with Afro populations have the worst living conditions. The 10 poorest municipalities have a majority Afro population. And there are places like Río Quito, in the department of Chocó, where poverty is as high as 98%.

According to the most recent census of 2005, almost 11% of the population is Afro-Colombian. Though many experts don’t trust that figure and state that the real number is higher. But let’s say that is how it is, then, at a minimum we’re talking about 4 million Colombians. But their representation in public office is very, very limited. And if that’s how it is in 2018, imagine what Afro-Colombian representation was like in the 80s when Darwin was growing up.   

[Darwin]: You can turn on the TV and never see a black man represented or…an indigenous person. And then there’s education, there’s the home, the church, all of that reaffirms it for you. When they say to you: “Being black is bad. You as a black man are ugly, your features are ugly, your hair…you have bad hair because that’s what they call it your hair is bad.”

So that chip is put in people’s DNA, saying: “No.” And that’s why the problem is self-esteem and identity in Afro communities. Because we carry a centuries old chip where everything is negative.

[Camila]: So growing up in a mestizo environment is difficult because…

[Darwin]: When I want to claim my identity, I’m ridiculed. So it’s easier to adapt to the other and take on what they are.

[Camila]: When he was 16, Darwin started working as a caddy at a prestigious club in Cali. There he met kids from Cali’s leading class and started hanging out with them and dressing and speaking like them. It was about class, but also about race.

[Darwin]: So then when I would hang out with a group of five Afro guys I was like: “Ugh, I can’t be in a pack of black guys because…what would they think of me? So it was better to hang out with five mestizos, white mestizos, ideally from higher social strata, so they would think I’m from…from that stock.”

[Camila]: But in the 90s, something changed. In the way Darwin started to see others and himself.

One day he was going to a party with his mestizo friends and he went by a nightclub. One that he always went by.    

[Darwin]: And there were always a few black people there in weird clothes: stuck up Americans with dreadlocks. And I went by there like: “Ugh, those blacks…blacks like what?” What an embarrassment, that’s why people say that blacks just make noise. Of course, because you’re turning racist.

[Camila]: A friend from school who was in the group called him over and said:  

[Darwin]: “Darwin, get over here, where are you going looking all preppy?” I was all dressed up, with clothes that were a size too small. To look sexy [laughs]. And he calls me over: “Come, come in.” And I said: “I’m not going in there. What’s up?”

[Camila]: But it made him curious and he ended up going in. It was a “reggeteca,” as they say: just reggae, hip hop and dancehall. Almost everyone in the club was Afro-Colombian and they looked at him funny because of how he was dressed.

[Darwin]: Like: “Is this black guy lost. A stable dog has more identity than this guy.” [Laughs]

[Camila]: But he liked it. After half an hour he said to himself:

[Darwin]: “Please, these are my people.” Then, of course…for me, what woke me up was the music. The music was the first part.

[Camila]: He started listening to hip-hop, rap, reggae…and when he started watching the videos he was surprised.

[Darwin]: What are these people saying? What do you mean black is beautiful? I said to myself: “But that’s…what do you mean? And how are those suits African and why? That raised fist? And why are they even proud of you hair?”

[Camila]: He started reading Mandela.

(VIDEO SOUNDBITE)

[Nelson Mandela]: I have fought against white domination.

[Camila]: Martin Luther King.

(VIDEO SOUNDBITE)

[Martin Luther King]: I look over and I have seen the promised land. I may not get there with you…

[Camila]: Malcolm X.

(VIDEO SOUNDBITE)

[Malcom X]: Who taught you to hate the texture of your hair? Who taught you to hate the color of your skin to such extent that you bleach to get like the white man?

[Camila]: And the black panthers.  

[Darwin]: And of course that changed my mind and my whole environment.

[Camila]: He also started wearing his hair in dreadlocks, wearing baggier clothes, some African clothes…but his family didn’t like it. And to Darwin, a large percentage of the Afro population in Colombia…  

[Darwin]: At some point in our lives, mostly in childhood, we’re endoracistas, that’s the word. [We have internalized racism]

[Camila]: In other words, racist against their own group. So…  

[Darwin]: When you say: “No, I’m Afro but I don’t like Afro woman? Me with a black woman? I need a white girl to improve the race because that is what…that is what they taught us.” That’s what they taught us. So I say that most Afro people at some point in their lives are endoracistas. We are. I include myself in that. I was!

[Camila]: But he took his final leap, as he puts it, in 2004 when he joined CADHUBEV: An Afro group at University del Valle. CADHUBEV stands for Colectivo Afrodescendiente Pro Derechos Humanos Benkos Vive. And this is a group that works on Afro-descendent issues…

[Darwin]: From within academia, but also in the street. They aren’t armchair academics. They do social work.

[Camila]: And it was some people from CADHUBEV who organized the protests against Soldado Micolta in October 2015. They had been trying for 6 years, but they didn’t have enough money to travel to Bogotá.

So, finally, after so long, they decided to officially put it on their calendar. They made a Facebook page called “No Más Soldado Micolta” [“No more Soldado Micolta.”] It had more than 2,000 followers. And they started to post images of the character and explanations of why it’s offensive.

One reason is the use of what’s known as “blackface.” They explained the concept in one of the first texts they published on Facebook. It says:

[Darwin]:‘Blackface’ is a practice that emerged in the United States around 1848, in which white actors put on performances with their faces painted black, thereby proliferating racist stereotypes. This practice ended in the 60s with the US Civil Rights movement. ‘Blackface’ not only stigmatizes black individuals, but also excludes them, since in a way it denies black actors the ability to play certain characters.”

[Camila]: Then it says: “Invite your friends to follow the protest #NoMasSoldadoMicolta!”

They spent three months raising money through musical performances and donations. They also paid some of the money out of pocket. They rented a bus and on October 8th, they arrived in Bogotá, at Canal Caracol. There were about 120 people there.  

(SOUNDBITE FROM PROTEST VIDEO)

[Protesters]: They are promoting racism and discrimination. Major media outlets foster racism and discrimination.

[Camila]: And the next day they protested in front of the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology, MINTIC by its initials in Spanish. Because that ministry is the entity that regulates communication policies.

(SOUNDBITE FROM PROTEST VIDEO)

[Protesters]: Joke! I’m not your joke! I’m not your joke! I’m not your joke! I’m not your joke! I’m not your joke!     

[Roberto]: They call me and tell me: “Roberto, there’s a protest going on here and people are saying they want Soldado Micolta off the air.” And I…I couldn’t believe it. They sent me videos with banners. They weren’t letting people in Caracol.  

[Camila]: And what were you thinking when they called you and told you that? What was going through your head?

[Roberto]: No, well, the truth is I was really surprised. Because I’m a comedian. I…my job is to make people laugh. I mean, there are ways to say things, and I was really surprised by that…that way which was so aggressive. Of course, a protest, I…I mean, I understand protesting…a bad person or protesting because…someone is suffering or because there’s hunger or…But protesting a comedian? That seemed absurd to me.

[Camila]: But this wasn’t the first time Roberto heard complaints about his character.

[Roberto]: First there was someone from the group Cimarrón who supposedly wanted to talk to me. But I never had a conversation with him, I was never able to meet with him.

[Camila]: The Cimarrón movement is an organization that has been fighting human rights for Afro-Colombians for more than 35 years. And from there groups like CADHUVE emerged.

Starting in the early 80s and consistently since then, Cimarrón has filed complaints and held protests against different acts of racism. Several have been made against media outlets over representations that are considered racist. Complaints about characters like el Negro Palomino, for example, a character who was also on Sábados Felices.

Let’s take a listen…

(SOUNDBITE FROM THE TV SHOW SÁBADOS FELICES)

[El Negro Palomino]: If black people realized…. Oh my god. There was this black guy with still hair —mahogany color, tone 46, watery, with extra melanin— he entered the apartment and he was carrying his nephew, the small gorilla…

[Camila]: But there are also other characters, like La Negra Nieves, Memín Pinguín or Taolamba.

But on top of that, in 1997, Cimarrón and other Afro organizations called on the UN Special Rapporteur in charge of examining different forms of racism and xenophobia.

The Rapporteur gave several recommendations after his visit. One of them was that Sábados Felices go off the air because of its ridicule of the Afro community. But Caracol never made any changes.  

I tried to speak with someone at Caracol about the Soldado Micolta issue several times, but they never gave me an interview.

So the complaints that were made to Sábados Felices about Soldado Micolta were nothing new. With regard to Cimarrón’s complaint…

[Roberto]: I ignored it because everyone makes complaints. At one point the doctor…a doctor wrote because he didn’t like people making fun of doctors…or…or well, one day someone doesn’t like that you wear face paint. Criticisms comes from all over, so a lot of the time you ignore them.

[Camila]: But on top of that Roberto thinks that…  

[Roberto]: If I’m watching a show and something seems aggressive to me, I change it. We have so many options today. So many people have got it in their heads that TV is for bringing culture, which isn’t true. TV is for entertainment. That’s why it was invented.

[Camila]: So beside the multiple complaints from the Cimarrón movement, there were other people who made complaints to the channel because of Soldado Micolta.

One of them sas Alí Bantú, a law student who’d been sick of this character for years. This is Alí.

[Alí Bantú]: Until one day it got to the point I said: “No, I have to do something.”

[Camila]: In March of 2014 he sent a right of petition to Canal Caracol. He asked them to take several characters off the air, including Micolta.

[Alí]: I took the…the necessary time to draft a right of petition with many arguments, even though one argument would have been enough, but well, we understand that we are in a very litigious country.

[Camila]: It was five pages long and it argued that characters like Soldado Micolta deepened racial stereotypes about Afro-descendant people.

Less than a month later he received an official response from the channel stating —and I quote, “racial discrimination is not practiced on the program.”

Caracol also said that Sábados Felices has been widely accepted among Colombians precisely because it portrays the country’s diverse cultural and racial expressions by way of humor. And if they did get rid of representations of Afro people, they would also have to get rid of representations of people from Paisa, Boyacá, the coast, Santander, San Juan de Pasto etc.

One of their arguments was that if these groups didn’t appear on the show, that would be discrimination.

And they end their answer saying and I’m quoting verbatim “complying with your petition would represent a violation of fundamental rights such as the rights to equality, work and freedom of expression, among other.”

But Ali wasn’t satisfied with the answer and started working on a lawsuit.

[Alí]: To continue the struggle, because I wasn’t going to end it there.  

[Camila]: Because Alí thinks that…  

[Alí]: Racism is a form of violence. And that show was a form of violence.

[Camila]: And that the issue of freedom of expression is also a complex topic.  

[Alí]: If someone decides to point a gun at me, is that freedom of expression? Then what is freedom of expression?

[Camila]: But while Alí was writing the lawsuit, the protests began. Roberto, who was living in Palmira at the time, returned to Bogotá for filming a week after the first protest.

[Roberto]: When I got there,  “What’s up, Micolta? Hey. Hey, they came to see you, Micolta.” And everyone, of course, everyone took notice of this thing. And from there it was madness.

[Camila]: They started calling him out on social media.  

[Roberto]: I got message on Facebook, on Twitter, any number of threats, ugly things, from…from people attacking me to…to others defending me, so, argh! It’s maddening.

[Camila]: And he started getting calls from the media.  

[Roberto]: I am a very…private person: I like not being recognized. I like to be alone. I like to be relaxed when everyone else starts talking and commenting and fighting.

[Camila]: He remembers that one of those days a journalist called him.  

[Roberto]: And I…all angy, I said to the reporter, all caught up in the moment, I said: “Well, if it’s such a problem I’ll stop doing it.” Do you understand? Because I’m not going to get any enemies over this.

[Camila]: 15 minutes later the headline was published. It said:

[Roberto]: “El Soldado Micolta leaves Colombian TV”. [[Laughs] when that gets out, my boss calls me right away, 5 minutes after he realized what happened he called me. “Brother, what are you doing? What do you mean Micolta’s finished.” I told him: “Boss, you have to understand everyone is calling me.”

[Camila]: But the boss said:

[Roberto]: “What do you mean? Micolta isn’t over. How are you going to end Micolta?”he tells me “How is it possible that we want…all of us want to defended the character that you created more than you do?” So he kind of shook me… like, man, what is going on?

[Camila]: He told him to disconnect with Facebook and Twitter completely and not to answer his phone.   

[Roberto]: “Get away for a week or two because this is toxic.”

[Camila]: Roberto took his advice and disconnected for a while. But about 20 days later, on Friday, October 30th, 2015, Roberto and his partner Alexander had already planned a performance in Cali along with two other comedians. That was the day we spoke about at the beginning of the story.

While Darwin and the other who had been protesting in Bogotá found out that Micolta was going to Cali…

[Darwin]: The city with the strongest base in the Afro movement, you’re going to come here, to our area and do a show? No, we can’t allow that, we need to set a precedent. If Cali doesn’t set a precedent, no one will.

[Camila]: They organized again. They put out the call on Facebook and WhatsApp. And the slogan was:

[Darwin]: “Don’t let them put on this show.” We are going make a peaceful stand in. If it’s going to happen, let it happen. But they aren’t going to put on the show.

[Camila]: The show was at 8 pm. People started showing up around 5 in the afternoon, when Roberto and the other comedians were already inside the theater.

[Darwin]: Then the first bus arrived. A few people and the more and more. Afro and non-Afro. Also Mestizo people, who are also tired of this, and a lot of people from the LGBTI community, I have to say.

[Camila]: Because one of the other characters that was going to perform is one called Mariconsuelo, who is a gay man.

By 6 o’clock, there were more than 100 people in front of the theater.

(SOUNDBITE FROM PROTEST VIDEO)

[Protesters]: I’m not your joke! I’m not your joke! I’m not your joke!

[Darwin]: And when the man comes out to that balcony, he stood there frightened.

[Roberto]: I saw them from the window, I got out on the balcony and when I did, they…they got even more furious so then I hid and looked at them from behind the window.

[Camila]: When the people who were coming for the show started to arrive, people who already had tickets or were going to buy one—.   

[Darwin]: We formed a chorus and we said to them:

(SOUNDBITE FROM PROTEST VIDEO)

[Protestors]: If you buy a ticket, you’re a racist too! If you buy a ticket, you’re a racist too!

[Camila]: “If you buy a ticket, you’re a racist too.”

[Darwin]: People got offended: “I’m not a racist!” “Yes you are.” A lot of people got mad. In fact one girl attacked me.

[Camila]: She slapped Darwin when he went up beside her to yell “racist” while she was trying to buy a ticket.

[Darwin]: I didn’t respond. If I responded to her, well, that would be damaging to the march.

[Camila]: Because, according to Darwin, the idea was to take the theater peacefully.  

[Darwin]: We’re going at it like Gandhi. There isn’t going to be any aggression, because if there is any that is what’s is going to be shown in the media.

[Camila]: But there were physical confrontations. For example:

[Darwin]: There was a man with an umbrella who wanted to kill all of us. I said: “We need to get that umbrella away from him. There are more of us.” We got him and took away the umbrella. But without hitting him.

(SOUNDBITE FROM PROTEST VIDEO)

[Protesters]: We are not violent! We are not violent! We are not violent!

[Camila]: According to Darwin there were no punches thrown, but people did shove, sometimes hard.

[Darwin]: There were too many provocations that a lot of people couldn’t…they couldn’t handle that build-up and of course, they reacted. And people were very violent. There were very violent people, like the human beings they are. It was a mistake.

[Camila]: Meanwhile, Roberto and the rest…

[Roberto]: We were all up on the 3rd floor and the truth is we looked at each other and said, “what is this? what is this madness? I mean, there are lots of people with nothing to do…”

[Camila]: According to Darwin, at 8:30 pm, the director of the theater came out and announced that they were cancelling the show. Most people stayed past 9 or 10 pm…  

Roberto, as we already said, stayed in the theater until one in the morning, when there were no more people outside.

And here we need to mention that something else happened at the theater:

[Roberto]: I was in Jorge Isaac’s theater, all nervous, very scared, when they call me on the phone: They say: “Hello, Roberto?” And I was like: “Who is this?” “This Ray Charrupí.”

[Camila]: And well, I have to explain who he is. Ray Charrupí is a lawyer and the director of Chao Racismo, an initiative that was formed in late 2011 to fight against racism. This organization wasn’t a student group, rather it had greater visibility, a more powerful voice. They had access to celebrities, people in the media, politicians and people who could organize summits and massive events with the elites of Colombia.

A few months before the protests, Chao Racismo had also filed a right of petition to the channel to have Soldado Micolta taken off the air.

To Darwin it was key for Chao to be involved…

[Darwin]: Using their influence in the media because they have it and in order to make this…this more…visible, because when Alí Bantú, brings this, it’s like “pfff, who’s this negrito?” But if Ray Charrupí brings it, he’s the black man to put in the foreground in Colombia. He has more traction. And he uses that traction in the media…to attack it.

[Camila]: So when Roberto got that call from Charrupí at the theater, he had already heard his name. Robert thought that Charrupí was the person leading the protests.

[Roberto]: He told me: “At the moment I’m in Bogotá” all of that commotion was already happening outside—,  “and right now I’m headed there so we can resolve this.”

[Camila]: And Roberto remembers what he said:

[Roberto]: “Sir, I am not going to talk to someone who is hitting me in the face. Because you are not coming to talk to me, you are first hitting me in the face and then are coming to talk to me. So I have nothing to talk to you about.”  And I hung up on him. That was the first contact I had with him.

[Camila]:I spoke with Ray Charrupí several times, but he wouldn’t give me a formal interview unless I agreed to certain conditions. And well, those conditions meant altogether giving him some editorial control.  Which neither I nor Radio Ambulante could accept.

Obviously, we would have liked to have his statement, so I’ll quote it here. What he asked me to say was that he thought the interview was  and I’m quoting here: “Counterproductive to the struggle against racism and the betterment of Colombia in this matter.”

In any case, Roberto told me that after what happened in the theater…   

[Roberto]: Then whenever I saw an Afro I would say: “My god, did they come to attack me?” There was a moment I said: “My god, what…what is happening? I need more security or more something because I feel defenseless.”

[Camila]: But it wasn’t all attacks and repudiation. One of the things he remembers most clearly was that, in the middle of all this, he was at his home in Palmira with his partner Alex. They were on the terrace…

[Roberto]: Writing scripts for Sábados Felices under all that pressure, and well, And I… at some point, I became friends with some bikers from…from Valle del Cauca. And you’re not going to believe me, but they had made a caravan of more than 500 motorcyclists. And they came to my house to show their support. [Cries]

Uff…That was really nice, feeling that support. We were writing when the motorcycles started honking their horns. They blocked off 3 or 4 blocks with motorcycles. And everyone was honking: “Micolta we love you! Micolta!”

And what really floored me was when…when I opened the door, the first person there was out there was a gigantic black man in a scarf and he says to me: “Mompa, we are all Micolta!” Ufff…

That really hit home. It was really nice to see people defending him, you know?

[Camila]: In that time, Robert spoke with the heads of Canal Caracol.

[Roberto]: And the three of them told me: “Micolta, the channel is behind you. Whatever you decide. It’s your decision.”

And I decided to do what I did.

[Daniel]: When we return, what happens to Soldado Micolta?

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[Daniel]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante. I’m Daniel Alarcón.

So, the weekend after the protests in Cali, some media outlets had headlines like:

“They Removed Micolta From Sábados Felices.”

“Soldado Micolta Will Not Air on Sábados Felices Anymore.”

Or “Colombia’s Comedic Controversy, Soldado Micolta, Disappears.”

There was also a lot of discussion on social media. People who applauded the character’s departure but many others who condemned it.

Camila continues the story.

[Camila]: Those criticizing the removal had all sorts of tones. From moderate:

[Woman]: I’m sorry, but this whole Soldado Micolta thing is a stupid mess.

[Man]: Taking Soldado Micolta off the air is a mistake. He was the best character on the whole show.

[Man]: And why not sue Chao Racismo for being racist against Micolta?

[Camila]: To more aggressive. And yes, racist.

[Man]: Soldado Micolta isn’t going to be on TV anymore because there’s no shortage of whiny blacks saying it’s racist.

[Man]: The blacks are the most racist people in the world. With this claim of racism, they’re offending and mistreating everyone else. Micolta, case and point.

[Man]: Why not go Africa and quit with all this drama?

[Camila]: That Monday, after it had been announced all weekend that the character was finished, a very important radio station, La W radio, interviewed Ray Chappurí about the issue.

And I should clarify that the journalist who did the interview is named Camila Zuluaga. It’s not me.

(SOUNDBITE FROM INTERVIEW ON LA W RADIO)

[Ray Charrupí]: Well, for starters, Camila, we have, uh, this debate has been, we’ll say, the largest that Chao Racismo has been involved in. But we are sure that this is helping, opening this debate is helping. Why? Because, today, this confirms and that’s what I’m trying to demonstrate with this interview we are a country that is consciously exclusionary and unconsciously racist.

[Camila]: Later they included Roberto in the conversation.  

(SOUNDBITE FROM INTERVIEW ON LA W RADIO)

[Camila Zuluaga]: Roberto, it’s come out this weekend that Soldado Micolta will no longer be on Sábados Felices. Is that true? Are you done with that character?

[Roberto]: That’s not true, Camila. Like… Like I…Like…I had special meeting with the directors of the channel. Given everything that has been going on, they asked me what I wanted to do. So it was my decision to stop painting my face with the face paint I had been wearing.

[Camila]: In other words the decision was to abandon the “blackface.” And from then he would paint his face in several colors. Sometimes the Colombian flag; sometimes different colors like blue, black, green and red.

When we spoke months later, Roberto explained to me how he arrived at this.

[Roberto]: So I said: “Ok, Micolta is changing: starting now, Micolta isn’t black. He’s a soldier who talks like a clown and…and is always in camouflage. Do you understand? So that’s the Micolta of the present. Now, to me, Micolta has no color. But…but the character is the same, to me it’s the same magic.

[Camila]: But when Roberto explained that on the day of the radio interview, Ray Charrupí made it clear that for him, that wasn’t enough.

(SOUNDBITE FROM INTERVIEW ON LA W RADIO)

[Ray]: But Roberto, and everyone who is listening, it goes beyond that. It’s not the simple fact of “blackface, something which I thank you for and regarding which you have done the right thing. The community thanks you that you are willing to cancel the “blackface” from the character. But don’t think that we are dumb… that if you keep saying: [imitates the accent] “We are negritos, that this and that” you are still discriminating. We don’t like it.

[Camila]: And well, I spoke with Roberto a long time after this all happened and it seems like what he took away from this is that the blackface was the offensive part..   

[Roberto]: What I understand is that anyone who paints themselves entirely black on a stage is practicing racism. So, the truth is I wasn’t aware of the issue until…until the year with the issue brought the term to my attention. And I was ashamed.. and well.. not so ashamed because the one that sins because of ignorance, ignorantly condemns himself. That is what they say.

[Camila]:But for Darwin, like Charrupí said in that interview, the problem goes beyond blackface. Because the character isn’t actually gone.

[Darwin]: Now he paints his face different colors, but the attitude the accent, the kind of malice, the gestures, the…stupidity.

[Camila]: And this is related to how Afro-Colombians are represented by the media. Because almost every time an Afro person is on TV…

[Darwin]: It’s to show that we’re…we’re just domestic workers or gardeners, thieves, and the women are prostitutes.

[Camila]: And that comes from a long tradition in the West.

[Darwin]: We see that from…from Disney. We’re raised with all of that negative iconography. And in Disney it’s always, when there is an Afro, they have a huge mouth and a bone in their hair and loin cloth, and it’s the same for indigenous people. And the Europeans are in a castle…they’re cultured. And over here…we’re uncivilized and over here we’re aboriginals.

[Camila]: But clearly, it’s not just about representation but the place one holds in society. Despite the fact that in 1991 Colombia declared itself a multicultural nation, it was only in 1993 that they recognized this population as an ethnic group and establish that they have to have mechanisms to protect the rights of this community.  

[Darwin]: Colombia was a country in the Andes, blackness didn’t exist. It’s no accident that the Pacific is so backwards. Is there corruption now? Of course, there is corruption like all over. But historically, there is a debt in the Pacific. A historic, economic and human debt.

[Camila]: So this discrimination is systematic.  

[Darwin]: Our brains were already programmed for that. Why don’t you have an Afro dressed as a doctor? “Oh, yeah, right”. Do you see your unconscious racism?

[Camila]: That’s why part of the struggle for these groups in Cali is to call for greater representation in the workplace.  

[Darwin]: Hey, here in Cali, there are black professionals, educated in the hard sciences. And why is there not a single black person working on the other side of the desk? That’s how it happens, we aren’t going to give them a chance.

[Camila]: Why do you think Roberto Lozano created Micolta?

[Darwin]: Well I…I think that…I don’t think that deep down it’s about offending people, I don’t. I don’t think he’s such…such a bad person. I don’t think that went through his head because well, he’s absorbed in his privilege as a straight, catholic man. So from that place of privilege you can’t see anything. You can’t see anything.

[Camila]: So, for Darwin, the problem isn’t Micolta, but rather a culture that celebrates a character that is so clearly racist. It’s not an issue of malice but ignorance, blindness, privilege that doesn’t let people see past the context they grew up in, much less feel solidarity for the trials and traumas that they haven’t experienced themselves.

That, obviously, isn’t just a challenge for Roberto. But for everyone. I asked Roberto if he thinks there’s racism in Colombia. And he told me he did.

[Roberto]: Yeah, there is a lot of racism. No doubt about it. And it’s not…look: it’s not just white people who are racist against black people. It’s black people who are racist against white people, black against black and white against white. It’s a general racism.

[Camila]: Well, I’m not sure about what white against white racism is. It’s more likely class-ism. But in any case, it’s not the same. Because the history isn’t the same.

[Darwin]: They weren’t uprooted from their homeland in Africa. They weren’t taken like…like animals in slave ships. And their women weren’t raped for more than 6 centuries and they were not excluded from capital means of production up until the 20th century.

[Camila]: I asked Darwin if he thinks this controversy over Micolta helped to have an open conversation about racism in Colombia to some extent.

[Darwin]: Uff, of course. That episode was… thanks to that, finally, racism became an issue to address in this country. Because it was taboo: they always talk about it in the US. There is racism there, but not here. Here we love out negritos.

[Camila]: And I asked Roberto the exact same thing. And he told me…

[Roberto]: No. No, because what they did was…was hurt me and that was it. If it had been a good cause, a reason to say: “Let’s go against racism, let’s have a campaign, let’s do something like that, we’re brothers.” That would have been good, but it wasn’t.

[Camila]: In other words, in all of this, according to Roberto, he’s the victim.

The situation with Soldado Micolta brought into the open several issues that are not often talked about in Colombia. One of these was the way we produce and consume comedy. But there were also conversations about the limits of comedy: freedom of expression, censorship. Ultimately, the relationship between political correctness and comedy.  

Carlos Gallegos is one of the comedians who created the characters of Tola and Maruja. They’re two old paisa women who make jokes about Colombian society. For him, in terms of what political correctness does in humor…

[Carlos Gallego]: Well, for me I think it gets hits a little close, but…but, it doesn’t seem bad to me. It’s like they say: Words are powerful because they become ideas. That can happen. Humor reinforces stereotypes that offend them.

[Camila]: And for Carlos, one of the great advantages of political correctness is that it’s challenging for comedians…  

[Carlos]: It’s about creating a more refined, more…let’s say difficult humor, one that…that’s not easy.

[Camila]: Because it’s lazy to make fun of someone because of the color of their skin or their physical characteristics or sexual preferences. That’s the easy road.

The real challenge would be to laugh with the other, rather than at the other.

Since the Soldado Micolta incident, Roberto told me that Sábados Felices policies have become stricter with regards to what topics can be joked about. There are limits where there hadn’t been before. They’ve banned political and religious topics and now racial topics.

And well, Roberto has feeling about that.

[Roberto]: The political stuff, it seems sad to me that you can’t make jokes about politics. Because to me it’s the most comedic thing there is. It’s the funniest thing there is here in Colombia

Well, I like the part about religion, because I like respect. I like to have respect for God our Father and we all believe in God in one way or another. It’s is important to respect what we believe, don’t you think? So, at some point I did realize that religious humor isn’t very good.  

[Camila]: Many people who were interested in the Micolta controversy said that, for the Afro community, there were problems that are infinitely more important than a Mestizo person impersonating an Afro person on TV to make people laugh. And indeed, those problems really exist… clearly… and lots of afro-colombians are fighting to end poverty, or because of the lack of access to education, or because of the corruption of the politicians that represents them…  

[Darwin]: We’re so…so messed up in this country that 12 years ago we were fighting to be let into college, we were fighting to get jobs, to not be killed in Cali.

[Camila]: But there’s also no reason to thinks that these struggles are mutually exclusive.

Protesting Soldado Micolta doesn’t mean that you have stopped calling for other rights and changes.

And, also, social movements evolve.

[Darwin]: Now we’re fighting for things that to some people are more superficial. Take for example people in the United States who before the time of Rosa Parks were fighting to be allowed to sit where they want on a bud. Don’t hang me from a tree. Don’t burn me because…because I’m black. And that, however well or not, has been…advancing. It’s like, “hey, I want to be president too.” So people can say “oh, that’s superficial.”

What do I tell them? Go to a…a school and see how those children are being raised with self-esteem issues, identity issues because their identity is a joke for everyone else.

[Daniel]: Camila Segura is our Senior Editor. She lives in Bogotá. This story was edited by Silvia Viñas, Luis Fernando Vargas and me. Sound design is by Andrés Azpiri. Daniel Villatoro did the fact-checking.  

The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Jorge Caraballo, Patrick Moseley, Laura Pérez, Barbara Sawhill, Luis Trelles, David Trujillo and Elsa Liliana Ulloa. Carolina Guerrero is the CEO.

Radio Ambulante is produced and mixed on Hindenburg PRO.

Learn more about Radio Ambulante and about this story on our website: radioambulante.org.

And join our Club de Podcast, a private Facebook group were we talk about that week’s episode with other listeners and members of our team. Search for us under: Club de Podcast Radio Ambulante. Another way to communicate with us is through our Whatsapp list. Sent a message to the number +57 322 9502192 and stay in touch. That number is: +57 322 9502192. Jorge assures me that there’s no spam, but we will keep you up to date with new episodes and you can record voice messages with comments, criticism, questions, complaints, greeting and whatever you want.

Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.

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