My biggest fear as a child was that my mother would die. Yes, you might think––yours and everyone else’s. My fear, however, stemmed from something that seemed contradictory: I was afraid she would be murdered for doing good. When I was a child my mother started her work as a human-rights activist, spending her life empowering people who live on the margins of society and fighting injustice. She’s badass. But in a country like Honduras, where I was born and raised, women like her end up dead. 

I am incredibly proud of her now that I’m an adult, but when I was little I didn’t understand why being part of a hunger strike was more important than being home, or why she had to go on trips to places everybody knew were dangerous. Did she not value her life? Every time my mom was on work trips and the phone rang at night, I assumed it would be the call. I couldn’t stop thinking about her while watching Igualada, Juan Mejía Botero’s powerful documentary about Colombian Vice President Francia Márquez, who (seemingly overnight) went from being a countryside activist to holding one of the nation’s most-powerful positions.

Botero has known Márquez for years and has footage that almost seems prescient, as if this was her destiny. We see a girlish Márquez, circa 2009, sitting on a humble porch, looking at the camera and introducing herself and La Toma, her hometown. A curious dog shows up behind her, letting us know film cameras aren’t the norm here. Márquez talks about how much she loves living there because she gets to be near the River Ovejas, which lulls her to sleep every night. Like her parents and their parents, she says, she was born and will die there. There is nowhere else she’d rather be.

But the river and the surrounding areas, which became home to thousands of descendants of enslaved people, are also the source of highly priced minerals including gold. Over the years, transnational companies––aided by right-wing governments and paramilitary units––have bullied, intimidated, and violently forced people out of their lands so that a few can turn profits. To her people, Márquez explains, the land is not a source of riches; the land is life itself. As a 13-year-old, Márquez––opposing the building of a dam that would have seriously hurt her community––took on the role of community representative and started on the path that eventually led her to the Vice Presidency. 

Botero doesn’t have footage of Márquez as a pre-teen. If he did, I am sure we would see and hear a girl who hopes this is something she will only have to do a single time. We see this girl once, in some photographs her mother shares; she caresses them gently and says, “It’s the same little face.” But the face has been witness to unspeakable pain when we see her, circa 2020, explaining her decision to launch a presidential campaign, around the time Black people in Colombia were being massacred. “No mother should go through this,” she says. 

By this time Márquez was well-known for her activism. She received the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2018, just two years after Berta Cáceres from Honduras, for her fight against transnational companies, aided by a right-wing government and military, that wanted to build a dam which would have destroyed the ecosystem of the Gualcarque River, home to descendants of the Lenca. The history of women––indigenous women of color specifically––fighting for their right to live in their lands is the history of Latin America. Cáceres was murdered the year after winning the award. It’s a relief to watch Igualada knowing Márquez is safe.

From this moment on, the film takes a form that resembles traditional political documentaries chronicling the rise of an underdog: we see Márquez attend debates, political meetings, and react to media coverage that make her victim to sexism, classism, and racism. And then we see victory as she becomes the first Black woman elected Vice President of Colombia in a historic administration (the first leftist one in Colombia) led by Gustavo Petro, who she joined after realizing a presidential campaign of her own would not be successful. 

Some viewers will find the film anticlimactic and unsatisfying; on the surface it looks like any other political doc. It hits all the “right” notes and delivers a triumphant tale––if, and only if, they’re measuring success in hegemonic terms. If they choose to believe that being Vice President means she succeeded. I believe those who see this as an inspirational tale probably have never feared their mother wouldn’t return from a work trip because she was helping people in rural areas fight for their rights, which is to say: those who are lucky enough to equate power with success. 

And I have to confess: I envy them. I wish I could see this as “another political doc celebrating an underdog.” To me, though, Igualada is a tragedy. It broke my heart to see one of Márquez’s sons on the verge of tears wondering why he was forced to seek safety in another country and who would want to hurt his mom for doing the right thing. In the end, this is the story of a woman who gained power she only sought in order to protect her home––a place she now only visits out of fear of putting others in danger, and because she has official duties elsewhere. Igualada is the middle chapter of a story I hope ends with Márquez being lulled by her river, the place where she seemed in complete peace. In the meantime, she remains displaced––an inspiration for sure, but another example of a Black woman forced to go on a hero’s journey because no one else would endure it for her. Her return home is out of plain sight, a dream she might never fulfill. 

Igualada premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.

Grade: A-

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