Who are the privileged? Refugees, the Indigenous, and white people in La Guajira, Colombia
This article is also available in Spanish.
In the above graphic, I present three images together. The first photo shows a large group of Venezuelan refugees standing out front of a Colombia Migration office. They wait for the governmental agency to hand them their new identification cards, which are administered under a new programme designed to register more than 1.8 million Venezuelan refugees living in Colombia and give them access to basic health, education, and other services in the country. In the second image, taken at a distance and blurred to avoid possible identification, five Indigenous Wayúu children hold their hands out and ask for water, panela, or other food staples as cars pass them on the unpaved desert road. Both of those pictures were taken in the Colombian border state of La Guajira: the first taken in the state’s capital city of Riohacha, and the second in the Alta Guajira desert near the Venezuelan border. The final image is of my Colombian visa, which authorized my move to La Guajira for ethnographic fieldwork. While these images might seem unrelated, the connection between them is clear for many of those living in La Guajira: we are the privileged ones here.
Such a conclusion might make a few heads turn. How are displaced Venezuelan refugees and the poor, politically marginalised Indigenous possibly considered privileged? And more surprisingly, why are they being grouped together with white people, with gringos like myself, living in La Guajira?
For context, La Guajira is among the most diverse states in Colombia. Although there is plenty of mixing, locals describe the population to me as follows: the mestizo Colombians of mixed Spanish descent, the Afro-Colombians who reflect histories of trans-Atlantic slave trade, the Venezuelan migrants fleeing the political-economic crisis in their country, the non-Venezuelan and oft-white foreigners (like myself), and the Indigenous Wayúu people whose ancestral land we all live on. Unfortunately, La Guajira is also the poorest state. State abandonment and extreme poverty are lived realities here, and all of the groups stated above have suffered the brunt of this in one way or another. However, when people come to ‘help’ those in La Guajira – whether from the Colombian government, United Nations agencies, international humanitarian groups, or local NGOs – the aid and assistance programmes are rarely accessible to all.
In 2015-2016 when Venezuela plummeted into crisis and the exodus of its citizens began at scale, La Guajira as a border state was one of the largest recipients of these refugees. Various national and international groups flocked in at this time to administer humanitarian aid – at times being called el baile de los chalecos, or the dance of the vests, making reference to the multi-coloured vests these aid workers wear – and many Colombians were left wondering where this sort of help was when they were suffering. La Guajira, for example, often makes Colombian headlines for its extraordinarily high rates of childhood malnutrition and death among the Wayúu people. As one research participant said to me: ‘Dalton, I understand that the situation in Venezuela is bad. But I can promise you that in the desert, up there where all the Indigenous are dying, things are worse.’ In the eyes of many people in La Guajira, then, Venezuelans quickly formed a privileged class that received preferential treatment.
Similarly, despite recognizing the strife of the Wayúu, many non-Indigenous Colombians also see the Wayúu as a privileged group in La Guajira. Passing through the streets of Riohacha, one often sees ‘ethno-education’ and ‘ethno-transport’ vans specifically designed to serve the Wayúu. The Wayúu have been granted international protections by the United Nations for their Indigenous status and have made several territorial appeals to these diplomatic bodies throughout history, often in their favour. The Colombian government has established Indigenous resguardos, or protected zones for such groups, to preserve their territorial claims. And so the non-Indigenous, while recognising the Indigenous plight, are also attentive to both national and international discourses, laws, and governing bodies intended to protect the Wayúu.
And lastly, me. The white, gringo, American foreigner living here. Continuing with the theme of migration, perhaps one of the best examples of my privilege here is my Colombian visa and the fact I was able to come here in the first place – in other words, my American passport allowing a high degree of mobility, my economic circumstances allowing me to travel, and my whiteness giving me high levels of access to the community. For this reason, I am grouped together with the ‘privileged’ Venezuelan refugees and Indigenous Wayúu. The way our privileges manifest is undoubtedly different, but even so, we are being attended to, being talked about, and have someone that is at least attempting to care for us. That is how many people here understand privilege, and that is something that many non-Indigenous Colombians feel they have never had in La Guajira.
Conceptions of privilege are highly situated and contextual. I share these local understandings of privilege for a number of reasons, starting with the hope to characterise some of the dynamics in this oft-forgotten and abandoned state in Colombia. I also highlight this grouping of refugees, the Indigenous, and white people because of the ‘shock factor’ for many of us who are taught to see refugees and the Indigenous in terms of their precarity. Yet such ‘shock’, such differences between local discourses of privilege and the liberal, international ones with which the people reading this might be more familiar, present an opportunity for us to rethink constellations of power and privilege beyond the Western liberal framings that commonly dominate the narratives. What would it mean to take seriously these local conceptions of privilege? How might our research in these (or our) communities change if we were to follow such vernacular conceptions as opposed to others that might be more known to us? What might we learn? These are questions I think quite a lot about while here in La Guajira, and I invite you to do the same in your own work and see where it might take you.
Dalton Price is an anthropologist and PhD researcher at the University of Oxford, where he studies Venezuelan migration and the ‘social life of socialism’ in the Colombian border state of La Guajira. His previous research focused on global health bureaucracies like the World Health Organization and the unintended consequences of technical programmes designed to help populations. Outside of academia, Dalton has worked and continues to work in humanitarian, development, human rights, and governmental spaces. His writings and media contributions appear in Medicine Anthropology Theory, the New York Times, HuffPost, The New Humanitarian, and Global Health NOW.