Widely decried, in Colombia 'blackface' celebrates diversity

The practice of blackface is denounced as racist in the United States and many other countries. In Colombia, it is a key element of a festival to celebrate diversity.

The Carnaval de Negros y Blancos (Carnival of Blacks and Whites) gathers thousands of revelers from December 28 to January 6 each year in Pasto in southwest Colombia.

Billing itself as a celebration of equality, it has been held for more than a century in a region home to many Afro-Colombians and Indigenous communities heavily marked by racial and economic inequality.

"Welcome to the only party where painting one's face is World Heritage!" the festival website proclaims.

The carnival, one of Colombia's biggest, is inscribed on UNESCO's "Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity."

Every year, celebrations kick off with giant water battles followed by bonfires on December 31, the burning of wooden or straw puppets, and a costume parade.

- 'Human brotherhood' -

"The main days of the carnival are the last two, when people of all ethnicities don black cosmetics on the first day, then white talcum on the next to symbolize equality and integrate all citizens through a celebration of ethnic and cultural difference," according to UNESCO.

"The festival is especially important as the expression of a mutual desire for a future of tolerance and respect," states its website.

Unlike in the United States or elsewhere, the carnival's practice of blackface elicits no controversy.

Quite the contrary.

Toby Boecker, from Germany and in blackface, said he had asked around whether the practice was controversial so as not to fall foul of local mores. "I was told: 'No, it's part of the local culture.'"

The carnival is a relic of slave festivals of the 17th and 18th centuries, allowed by Spanish colonists in a bid to stave off revolt.

"The Carnival of Blacks and Whites celebrates human brotherhood. We are one people," said Milton Portilla, culture director for the Narino department of which Pasto is the capital.

For Leonardo Sanson Guerrero, a former organizer of the event, it is an important "expression of a cultural identity."