Updated: Nov 5, 2021
One Community's Unique Fight for Freedom
There is a woman sitting in the square, balancing a tray of fruit atop her head. She smiles for the cameras, always posing, her colorful off-the-shoulder dress billowing in a subtle breeze.
Red, blue and yellow.
She wears the colors of Colombia proudly.
You will certainly see her if you visit Cartagena, the popular seaside tourist destination. You might pose for a photograph with her, take that image home with you or post it on your social media. Say to your friends and family,
“Look, I went to Colombia!”
But do you know the true weight that this woman carries?
The struggle of her ancestors sits atop those broad, strong shoulders. The resilience of a hundred years hides just under that bright, flashing smile.
What she bears is so much more than a photogenic basket of fruit.
She might head home after a long day of hustling to wash the dust and weariness from her sun-ripened skin. She might take the colors of Colombia off as the sun sets and bask in the rhythm of her past, borne on a wind from far across the sea. She might look to that ocean and, beyond those dark waters hear the voices of her ancestors, calling her home.
Remember that she is Colombia, too.
The first thing I notice about San Basilio de Palenque, Colombia, is the heat. The sun sits close - an indignant ball of flame casting its fever on all those stuck in its path. Smothering, oppressive, utterly inescapable. It wraps itself around me like a heavy cloth and I find myself trying in vain to wave it away as I emerge from the nicely air conditioned car.
A tall, lanky young man wearing a cowboy hat and a sideways grin leans on a nearby tree, watching, waiting.
" Sangre? " I ask, anxious to meet the man whose name literally translates to Blood in English.
The man shakes his head and in a soft voice tells me that he is Sangre’s son, Victor. Since Sangre does not speak any English, Victor has stepped up to lead today’s tour.
There are four of us here today - visitors who have taken the one hour drive from Cartagena to see a side of Colombian culture that isn’t highly advertised in the tourist books.
A place with an incredible story to tell.
San Basilio de Palenque, a village of roughly 4,000 inhabitants, nestled in the foothills of the Montes de Maria just south of Cartagena, is the first known free, self-governing community of previously enslaved people in all of the Americas.
Victor beckons for us to follow him down the dusty street.
Giant amplifiers stacked one on top of another surround the town’s tiny square, providing a pulsing soundtrack to the scene. A group of men sit languidly on a bench, waiting for a bus. Children chase one another through the small square, laughing, unfazed by the relentless sun. An elderly man leads a drowsy donkey up the street and ties it to a nearby tree before stepping into one of the small, colorfully painted buildings stacked snugly against one another along the street.
In the middle of the square stands a statue of a man, silhouette contrasting sharply against the bright blue sky. He is casting chains off his wrists, throwing a hand up toward the heavens in defiance.
"Benkos Biohio", Victor says, when he see us all staring at the statue. "He is the founder of this town."
He gestures to an open doorway, welcoming us to his home, and we step into a small living space, sparsely furnished with a few chairs and a TV stand in the corner. Family pictures adorn the colorfully painted walls. A woman sits in a rocker by the room’s only window, swaying back and forth and painting her nails a bright fuchsia. She smiles warmly as we enter before returning her attention to her work.
We pull chairs up so that we are gathered around Victor like small children in a classroom, and his voice drips like honey in a thick accent as he begins to tell us the story of his village.
San Basilio de Palenque, or "Palenque" was founded in 1599 by Benkos Biohio, an alleged African king, who escaped a slave ship when it wrecked on the nearby Magdalena River.
Benkos and his comrades settled in the nearby mountain range and continued working to free other enslaved people from the nearby city of Cartagena, a major port town and slave trading location.
They eventually established a fortified settlement that provided a safe haven for those brought from Africa as enslaved people.
In 1605 the Spanish actually signed a peace treaty with Benkos that lasted 16 years, allowing the palenqueros to live as a freed people. However, in the typical violent fashion of colonialists, the Europeans eventually broke the treaty, captured Benkos, and had him hanged in Cartagena, hoping to quell the uprising his work had sparked.
But his murder only served to fuel the determination of the palenqueros as they continued their fight for freedom. A guerrilla war ensued between the townspeople and the colonialists until at last, in 1691, the colonialists accepted the palenqueros as a freed people. They have been carrying on their unique culture and lifestyle in relative isolation ever since.
"Our town is known for 5 things", Victor says, counting down the fingers on his hand.
"Music. Language. Traditional medicine. Religion. And Boxing."
He speaks so softly, so methodically, that we are all leaning in to hear him over the music blasting from the amplifiers on the street. I glance out the window and see children beginning to dance, forming a playful circle around a man with a Congo drum. The beat resounds in my own chest, matching my heart. My foot taps a response.
The music of Palenque, Victor tells us, includes everything from the popular Champeta to a unique form of hip hop, and is all deeply rooted in traditional African drum beats. These rhythms are essential to every facet of life here - from birth to death and everything in between.
Victor suddenly jumps from his chair and heads toward the door, beckoning for us to follow.
"Our next stop", he says, "is to visit a local doctor for a taste of traditional Palenque medicine".
I wave goodbye to the lady in the window, who is now blowing gently on her brightly colored nails, and we follow Victor out the door and down the street.
A toddler sits by the road, drawing figures in the dirt with a stick, pausing to stare at us intently as we pass. A motorbike drives by, a dust storm billowing in its wake. A family lounges on their porch, and they call out to us as we pass, waving a welcome. Another young boy waves me down and beckons at my camera around my neck. His face scrunches up in a goofy grimace, cheesing for the camera and so I oblige, snapping a shot.
Victor tells us that there is no police force or institutionalized law here. People tend to govern themselves and since the sense of community is so strong, crime is essentially non-existent.
The vibe is relaxed, friendly.
As we continue to walk, Victor describes another distinctive element of Palenque - its unique form of communication.
Considered the only Spanish-based creole language spoken in Latin America, palenquero is a combination of Kikongo language of Congo and Angola and various European languages including Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch. Victor explains that palenquero was created specifically to provide a way of communication amongst the Africans that was unintelligible to the colonialists. The original settlers of Palenque used language itself to evade slave traders and provide a way for enslaved people to communicate with one another and escape from nearby Cartagena.
When I ask Victor if the language is still spoken today, he shrugs solemnly.
"We are working hard to teach young people the language in school. But even so, its use is fading. "
He looks up then and smiles. "You know, language wasn't the only way we communicated back then," he says, tapping at his head. He explains that women would even braid maps into their hair, mapping out paths with their cornrows, to communicate escape routes to others.
"We used what we had to find a way to survive."
Next we are stepping onto a small veranda laced with vines and flowers, where we encounter an elderly man pacing back and forth solemnly. Behind him there is a shelf lined with various plants - both fresh and dried, and jars of liquid concoctions. When he sees us he pauses and takes our hands in his in a warm greeting. His eyes are yellowed with age but kind and sharp.
"Our people have lived to resist", the man says by way of introduction as we take a seat and he resumes his pacing. He explains that in Palenque, religion and medicine are closely intertwined and stem from ancient tradition brought over from Africa. "Through rituals and tradition, we believe we can expel the illnesses and pain brought to us by the colonialists."
He pauses for a moment and suddenly glances down at my ankles, where my skin is red and inflamed from some nasty insect bites I suffered a few days ago at a coffee farm. He walks over to his shelf, searching until he finds a tiny bottle of a clear liquid, as he begins to tell us about one of Palenque's most well known traditions, La Lumbalu.
When someone in the village dies, he tells us, the community comes together to cleanse the spirit and “release” the soul from its sad and violent past of slavery. The “death watchers,” primarily a group of elderly community members, dress all in white and honor the dead with a combination of dance, music, and celebration. This goes on for nine days, as the soul takes its journey back to Africa, where it will finally be at rest.
"Where it will be home."
As he talks he gestures for me to hold out my ankles, and dabs some ointment on my skin.
The relief is instant and my eyes widen in surprise. So far I've tried every concoction possible, and nothing has calmed the fire until now.
He grins at me, a hole where a front tooth is missing.
"This", he gestures at the wall of herbs and concoctions, " has been our ancestral resistance."
Soon it is time for us to head to our next stop, but before we leave, the medicine man places a beaded bracelet on each of our wrists. He dabbles a few drops of another tincture on each bracelet and murmurs a prayer under his breath before sending us on his way.
"For your protection," he tells us.
And then we are off, once again following Victor’s lanky shadow through the dusty streets. We cross through a basketball court, painted bright yellow, where a gangly group of teenagers are engaged in a heated game of hoop. We slip into an adjacent building, where it takes my eyes a moment to adjust to the darkness. A man emerges from the shadows, grinning widely, and behind him I can make out a boxing ring.
Victor tells us that we are here to learn a thing or two about boxing, and our teacher is not just any instructor. Antonio is the son of “Kid Pambele,” two time Jr. Welterweight champion, and happens to be a star boxer himself.
Antonio tosses us all gloves and beckons for us to join him in the ring. I can feel sweat trickle down my back and wonder if exercising in 100 degree heat is the best idea.
But too late to turn back now. Antonio has us line up and begins to teach us the basic moves.
Left, right, left, right. Left, right, hit. Left, right hit.
We then take turns facing him individually, and when it’s my turn I start bouncing and hopping. Left to right, left to right, feeling my pent up energy jittering in my veins.
Antonio puts his arms down and laughs.
"Calm down!" He says, not unkindly. Then his grin fades and he looks me straight in the eye.
"Do you want to be the hunter…or do you want to be the hunted?"
I return his stare, and in his deep brown eyes I see the history of a people who were forced to make that choice a long, long time ago.
"I want to be the hunter", I reply in a shaky voice. Antonio laughs again, raises his arms, and suddenly we are at it again. But we are not just boxing now. We are dancing. Left, right. Left, right, hit.
I am calm. I am focused. I am the hunter.
Pop! I hit him square in the jaw.
Ah, shit, I think, horrified.
But when I look up Antonio is laughing harder than ever.
Our tour ends where it began - back at the home of Victor and his family. While we have been away, Victor’s mother has been busy preparing an exquisite lunch for us. Exhausted and sweaty, we plop down before an incredible spread of fresh fish, cucumber salad, and coconut rice.
The food is delicious. Soon my belly is full and I can feel my eyelids growing heavy. Just as I think I could drift off into a little afternoon siesta, a group of young girls materialize out of seemingly nowhere and begin dancing to a rhythm from the streets that never went silent but suddenly seems louder than ever.
And these girls are good.
My mother loves to tell me that when she was pregnant she would tap out rhythms on her swollen belly so that I would feel them as I formed. As a musician, she wanted to ensure that her daughter had a sense of rhythm. I'm thinking of this now, as I watch the girls move. There is music in their bones.
They are dancing Champeta, a Colombian style with African roots. As sleepy as I am, I can’t help but to get up and join them.
We are completely lost in the rhythm when a tall, slender man steps in front of the sun and a shadow falls over us. His skin is the color of night and his eyes are a deep brown. He smiles, white teeth flashing.
He pulls out a bottle of homemade tequila and passes it around, and, following his bidding, we raise our glasses in the universal sign of a toast.
Arriba! He shouts, and we echo.
He is speaking in palenquero, and we are answering.
We tip our heads back as one, and we drink to Palenque.
Story and photographs by Teresa Schumacher