Hugo Caicedo stood beside his best friend, seasoned activist Antuan Castro Del Rio, as he led a crowd of hundreds of mostly white youth moving from Boston’s City Hall to the Ruggles metro station, screaming, “Black Lives Matter” into a bullhorn.
Moments later, Caicedo grabbed the megaphone and began his own chant, quiet but resonant: “Say her name!”
The crowd responded: “Breonna Taylor!”
“He’s never done this before,” said a visibly transfixed Castro Del Rio. “He’s usually shy, but the energy in the streets must have gotten to him.”
Caicedo, a 40-year-old Black Colombian health care scientist and one of the few Black biotechnology experts in the United States, had barely left his home in months. Like many scientists in the United States and across the world, he had predicted the global severity of Covid-19 early on. He began his quarantine at the end of February and even made his own hand sanitizer after it sold out at his local pharmacy in Watertown, Massachusetts, in early March.
“The pandemic triggered the scientific part of my brain,” Caicedo told The Intercept. “For me, protection was of paramount importance.”
But self-preservation became secondary when he watched the video of Minneapolis police killing George Floyd in late May. On June 7, when his housemate, Castro Del Rio, asked Caicedo if he wanted to attend a local Black-led rally, he decided that it was time to break quarantine. “I could no longer be silent,” Caicedo recalled. “I needed to partake.”
Last month’s wave of nationwide protests against racialized police brutality amid a global health crisis led to widespread handwringing about the spread of the coronavirus. Those concerns turned out to be overblown, as public health officials and researchers across the country have determined that the protests did not lead to a surge in cases.
The virus itself highlights racial disparities in the U.S. health care and housing systems, killing Black Americans at 2.3 times the rate of white people. And lawmakers have begun to understand just how deadly racism can be, with state and local officials declaring it a public health emergency.
For Caicedo, the pandemic of racism is far older, larger, and worthy of attention than Covid-19, he told me at the protest, where he wore two masks and regularly sprayed his homemade sanitizer onto his hands. “Black people’s oppression has been ignored,” he said. “Everyone is rallying to find a vaccine for this virus. But for so long, no one cared to find a vaccine for the racial pandemic.”
“Everyone is rallying to find a vaccine for this virus. But for so long, no one cared to find a vaccine for the racial pandemic.”
Caicedo, a self-described police survivor, does not view himself as an activist. “I just need to be impactful as a scientist, and that will help fight those perceptions,” he said. “That is my activism.”
Still, he has become emboldened by the movement to address the pandemic of racism on various fronts, including by talking to his colleagues at MIT and Harvard about the barriers Black students face, particularly at elite institutions. It is a battle he has been fighting since he was a child in Colombia, which continued when he came to the United States in 2006.
Growing Up Black in Colombia
Caicedo’s family, which hails from Barbacoas, a rural, neglected Afro-descendant area of Colombia, are among the country’s Black minority. (In Colombia’s 2018 census, 9.3 percent of respondents identified as Afro-descendant, though Black organizers have long argued that the census does not accurately capture how Afro-Colombians identify.) He grew up in Cali, the most populous city in the southwest region of the country, where he remembers feeling marginalized. “Being Black in Colombia,” said Caicedo, “was a daily confrontation with racial invisibility, segregation, and exclusion.”
As one of the few Black people in his elementary school, Caicedo initially thought that he was “mestizo,” or mixed, like the majority of his peers. But his classmates quickly taught him otherwise. “Very early in life, I realized I wasn’t part of the broader population and that the broader population didn’t like me on the very basis of the color of my skin,” said Caicedo.
To this day, it shocks Caicedo when people assume that he is the only Black person in Colombia or that “slavery was like a vacation in South America,” he said in a recent interview in his century-old home, wearing a necklace of beads with earthly tones and a wooden pendant shaped as the African continent.
His childhood experiences are rooted in what Chilean anthropologist Alejandro Lipschutz described in the 1940s as pigmentocracia, a powerful, hierarchical social system in Latin America based on skin color. Research 70 years later by the Project on Ethnicity and Race in Latin America helped quantify Lipschutz’s theory, using 2010 census data to show that Afro-descendant and Indigenous people hold the lowest levels of wealth and resources and report high levels of class-based and race-based discrimination across four Latin American countries.
When Caicedo moved to Chicago in 2006 to pursue a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering at the University of Illinois, he suspected that he would confront much of the same.
In the United States, “I meet other mestizo Colombians, which is what most people call Hispanics, and they tell me, ‘You know what, I feel like a secondhand citizen here. This country will never be my country here. We should go back.’ And I’m like, ‘What are you talking about? That’s how I’ve felt all my life.’”
Surviving the Police
Throughout his time in Chicago, Caicedo saw parallels between the bigotry he experienced in Cali and the casual racism against Black people in the United States. He recalls South American acquaintances who “for whatever strange reason” thought “that just because I am from Colombia, it was OK for them to talk disparagingly against Black people here.” He didn’t speak up, he said, but grew uncomfortable.
After earning his Ph.D. in 2012, he moved to Philadelphia to work as a research scientist and biotech strategist for Johnson & Johnson Pharmaceuticals — what he describes as a dream job. It was in Pennsylvania that Caicedo experienced racist policing firsthand, an encounter that continues to haunt him. In December 2015, Caicedo was riding his bike to a bar after work in the suburb of Glenside. Suddenly, he saw police lights flash behind him. A white officer approached and asked for his ID, and another white police officer showed up in a squad car. They asked what he did for a living. Thinking they likely had never met a Black man with his background, he said, he replied simply: “I am a scientist and I work for a biopharma company.”
“I thought by telling them I am a scientist, they would respect me, and it made things worse.”
“One officer said, ‘Yeah, OK, we’re all scientists, now tell us the truth. Your behavior is suspicious.’ At that moment, another cop car showed up. I realized they were not going to believe me,” he recalled. “I realized I was in trouble. I remembered Freddie Gray. I thought, here in the U.S., police take Blacks away and torture them to death. I decided that I was not going to get in their car.”
The conversation continued for 20 minutes in the cold. Eventually, one officer appeared to realize that they had stopped Caicedo for no reason and apologized. “On his face, it showed what he meant: ‘I did not know that Black people were intelligent enough to be scientists.’”
Caicedo said he felt sick to his stomach. “I thought by telling them I am a scientist, they would respect me, and it made things worse.”
When Caicedo told colleagues what had happened, some didn’t believe that he had been racially profiled. A friend told Caicedo that one white woman — on the diversity and inclusion committee — had asked him, “What’s wrong with the cops doing their job?”
The experience left him with a shaken faith, and he asked a version of the same question when Floyd died: “Why is it that good people need to have video proof of dehumanized cops killing a neutralized Black man begging for his life?”
“A Radical Reconstruction”
In 2016, Caicedo began a post-doctorate program at Harvard in corporate sustainability and innovation and continued to work full-time for Johnson & Johnson. His postdoc required him to occasionally travel to Boston, where he often stayed with Castro Del Rio, whom he had met through a mutual Colombian friend.
During one of those visits, Caicedo told his friend about the night with the police.
“The first thing I thought,” said Castro Del Rio, “was, ‘I’m very sorry this happened to you, but the only thing we can do is train you how to interact with the police as a person — but primarily as a Black person.’”
The Sunday before he departed, Castro Del Rio left Caicedo alone in the living room to watch a video of a social experiment that shows how differently police react to a white man and a black man who walk around with an AR-15. That video helped Caicedo “process the severity of problems in the U.S.,” he said.
Later, Castro Del Rio coached him, saying that Caicedo was not required to give his ID to the police, unless they articulated a concrete reason for stopping him. “Police are bullies and take advantage of Black people not knowing their rights,” Castro Del Rio said.
In 2018, Caicedo moved to Boston to join MIT as a strategy and innovation fellow, and he has lived with Castro Del Rio ever since. The friends often talk about racism, and Castro Del Rio said he has experienced an evolution in his own understanding of racial inequities. (As a teen in Colombia, Castro Del Rio performed standup comedy and said his anti-Black racist jokes cracked up his mostly mestizo audience. Now, he said, acknowledging his racist past and striving at all times to be an anti-racist is his raison d’etre.)
The protests they’ve joined since Floyd’s killing, with National Guard and police so often present, have reminded Caicedo of his 2015 encounter with the police. “I read his body language well,” Castro Del Rio said, “and whenever he sees the police, he feels fear as when you see a killer.”
After weeks of watching Castro Del Rio deliver “electrifying speeches,” Caicedo said, he realized his story as a police survivor might encourage others.
So, on June 12, Caicedo, in jeans, sneakers, and a black button-down, climbed onto a picnic bench in Salem, Massachusetts. He took the bullhorn from Castro Del Rio and told, for the first time in public, the story of his encounter with police.
His voice quavered.
“We need a radical reconstruction of this system. And we need to build something that includes everybody, so that we can realize once and for all that this is the land of equal opportunities, rights, liberties, and pursuit of happiness for all,” he concluded as the crowd erupted into a chorus of applause before marching to the Salem Police Department headquarters.
“The speech came from his heart,” said Matthew Balinda, 21, an activist and chemical engineering student who met Caicedo at the protests. “Hugo may not feel like an activist, but to me, as a Black man, I look up to him, because he breaks a stereotype and has accomplished so much professionally.”
A Global Movement
Caicedo’s involvement in the protest movement is an extension of the way he views himself as a scientist. While pursuing his doctorate, Caicedo began thinking seriously about something called translational biomedical research: essentially “translating” academic knowledge gained in one place (lab research) into practical use (some clinical application). Using his engineering knowledge from undergrad, Caicedo designed microfluidic devices for neurobiology studies such as Alzheimer’s disease. “His curiosity and willingness to consider new ideas served him well in my laboratory,” said Brady Scott, a professor of anatomy and cell biology at the University of Illinois and Caicedo’s Ph.D. adviser.
While on the protest scene, the scientist, just like in his lab, thinks methodically about his task for the day and how he can be of practical use. Sometimes his approach includes taking the bullhorn. Sometimes it means following Castro Del Rio as he leads chants. But, above all, it means connecting with people on the ground to learn the demands of Black organizers, so he can get a fuller picture of the city he has called home for the past two years.
“I’ve been in a bubble around MIT and Harvard, and those places are really good to me, but I don’t see much diversity there.”
“Many people think police brutality is a result of armed, criminal Black people. This is absolutely untrue. So it is important for someone like myself to show up,” he said at a black trans march in Nubian Square in the historic, majority-black Roxbury neighborhood. “I’ve been in a bubble around MIT and Harvard, and those places are really good to me, but I don’t see much diversity there. I hear Boston is really segregated and I see it now.”
Back in Colombia, Caicedo has gained acclaim for a project he was working on for the past several years, drawing together insights from top experts in multiple fields at Harvard and MIT, among others, and offering a vision for a sustainable, global health care system for those in the early stages of chronic disease. Nature Biotechnology, a top biomedical journal, published the work on May 22.
He was invited to participate in a video alongside well-known artists, singers, and Black Colombian journalists calling for justice for Anderson Arboleda, a 24-year-old Black Colombian man who died at the hands of police for violating the government curfew.
“Is there racism in Colombia?” begins the video, which went viral on social media. “We will know that Black lives matter when we can live in an egalitarian society,” one woman says, with Caicedo completing her thought: “when Black people stop being terrorized.”
The response to Arboleda’s killing is a sign of a growing anti-racist movement in Colombia. Some such incidents have gone unreported before, said Tianna Paschel, a scholar of racial ideology, politics, and globalization in Latin America at the University of California, Berkeley.
Caicedo has been inundated with other Colombian media requests since the publication of the journal article — so many that his housemate Sebastian Muñoz has become his social media manager. One day, Muñoz recalled, he was reading Caicedo’s messages to him as Caicedo exercised with a stretching band on the floor. This was a Colombian father, saying that Caicedo has inspired his younger daughter to pursue science.
“He was pulling the band, looked up, and just said, ‘That’s interesting,’” Muñoz said. “And I was like, ‘Man, you’re literally changing the world.’”