Ilia Calderon’s Timely Autobiography

At a moment when awareness of racial injustice is heightened, Ilia Calderón’s memoir My Time to Speak: Reclaiming Ancestry and Confronting Race has fascinating insights. An Afro-Latina herself, Calderón describes challenges people of African Ancestry face in Latin America and the United States. Ilia reports realizing as a child that the Colombians she saw who worked the hardest for the least money were of African and Native ancestry.

Ilia (eel-ya) describes growing up in the poorest department (state) of Colombia, where even in the 70s there was no electricity or running water. Chocó Department was traditionally Afro-Colombian, and the government did not prioritize modernization for this region. Calderón fondly remembers burning kerosene lamps to finish her schoolwork at night. They used an iron heated by coal to press her school uniform. Once electricity stretched to their town, very few could afford it.

Colombian Flag Image: SKopp

In the city of Istmina, she, her family, and most of the neighbors were of mixed race ancestry. That was the norm. She felt good in her skin. Unfortunately, when Ilia got to secondary school in Medellín at ten years old, she experienced racism, insults, and social stigma for the color of her skin. Several girls were particularly cruel. The opportunity to study in another city was a big honor and privilege, but once she was 15 she rebelled and Ilia finished high school back at home.

Secondary education complete, she returned to Medellín, and began modeling work to pay for college. Ironically, the characteristic for which people rejected her in the same city, her race, was now getting her jobs. Marketing had begun to realize the extent of the Afro-Latino population and wanted a Black woman to model their products. Ilia studied Social Work. Her last year, a friend suggested she read for a newscaster job. The pay was good and she would fill in for another Afro-Latina from Chocó. Ilia was hired, and found her first true love, investigative journalism.

After working several years as a newscaster in Medellín, a journalist friend told Calderón about a national news assignment in the capital, Bogotá. The trouble was, Ilia had not been invited to the interview. She was the only person her age in the business who had not been asked, and the only Afro-Colombian. Her journalist friend told the Bogotá station that Ilia was missing from their list. The station followed through and set up a time to see Calderón. She interviewed well and got the job.

Starting then, Ilia’s made a career of firsts; first Afro-Latina anchor in a Colombian national newscast. Later, Univisión came to Colombia looking for a new employee, but did not contact Ilia. So, on vacation, she found a way to tour the studio and she aced an impromptu interview. Calderón is the first Afro-Latina co-anchor on Univisión, which also makes her the first person of African descent to co-host a national Spanish-language news program in the United States.

Ilia Calderón is a very accomplished woman yet humble at the same time and grateful to her mentors. A central message of her story is people of African ancestry need opportunities; an invitation to interview started the ball rolling for her, then she started it rolling herself. Her hard work did the rest.

How can we create more opportunities for young people of color?

Gracias for reading Fake Flamenco! I appreciate your comments. ¡Olé! –Rebecca

Ilia Calderón’s Memoir  Photo: Rebecca Cuningham

P.S. The titles are fluid translations. The Spanish one says “It’s My Turn: a Journey in Search of My Voice and My Roots” –R

Rebecca Cuningham

11 thoughts on “Ilia Calderon’s Timely Autobiography

  1. Very good article about a real winner. I would just like to say, with a positive mindset and with the best intentions that one of the problems in the US that has generated the movements against racism and discrimination is the fact that in the US people are systematically classified, like beef. Some are “white”, others are “black” and those from Spanish-speaking countries are all lumped into a bag that has recently been labelled “Latinos”. I don’t like those labels because they serve only to divide, to confuse and to create stereotypes and we know that stereotypes are not real, division is a negative movement in society and confusions are a breeding ground for bigotry, racism and discrimination. Therefore, I really believe that I would simply refer to her as a Colombian woman that has triumphed against many odds. A worthy subject. I bring this up to you because I know you lived in South America and you know that people in South American countries are just like people from the US. They all came from different places, although there are many that are descendants of the original indigenous populations, most are descendants of Europeans or Africans. Great post Rebecca.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hola Francisco,
      I can imagine that as a Spaniard, you would not like to be called Latino because it refers to Latin America. However, in the case of Ilia Calderón, the discussion of race is appropriate and central to her book. It literally was her African ancestry that kept her from getting interviewed for two major news positions. They did not think they were looking for her “type ” meaning her race to represent their organization. Her book is all about more opportunities for brown and black folks to get their foot in the door for positions of power and influence. How can we ignore when it is their race that keeps them off the interview list?
      I can see that you’d like to live in a post-racial society, I think a lot of people would. But we’re not there yet. The racism inherent in a country like the US built on a slave economy and viewpoints like the classic Spanish castas race divisions in Mexico are not resolved overnight.
      The African slaves did not set up the divisions or the race divide, but they’ve suffered under them for centuries. Treating all people with fairness and respect will make the myth of race obsolete. I hope to live to see that day. Then the labels can fall away.
      Thanks for your comments, Rebecca

      Liked by 1 person

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