Four hundred years ago, Afro-Colombians living along Colombia’s Caribbean coast would cry when a child was born because the youth was destined to suffer a life of slavery under Spanish colonial rule. And when an Afro-Colombian died, people would engage in a nine-day and nine-night wake to celebrate the deceased’s return to Africa. Back then it appeared that death was the only path to liberation. But today, parents in the remote village of San Basilio de Palenque no longer cry when their children are born thanks to the bravery and resilience of their ancestors, who successfully gained freedom from the Spanish crown in 1603. The contemporary residents of San Basilio de Palenque—simply called Palenque by locals—claim to live in the first free black community in the Americas and earlier this year they sent a letter to Barack Obama inviting the first black president of the United States to visit their village. “We are inviting Barak Obama and we hope he will visit us,” explains community leader Enrique Marquéz. “We are not going to ask him for anything. We only want him, and all the blacks and all the people of the world, to learn about Palenque.”
And there is much to learn about Palenque. The name “Palenque,” which loosely translates into “walled city,” was applied to hundreds of remote communities established by escaped slaves during the 17th Century because of the circular walls constructed with tall sticks that sought to protect the villagers from the Spanish. As a result, the name itself symbolizes both the resistance and the isolation that have helped preserve San Basilio de Palenque’s unique culture, particularly its African-descendent language, through centuries of colonial repression and the country’s contemporary violence.
Many of the black slaves that arrived in the colonial city of Cartagena during the 1500s came from the west coast of Africa, particularly the Congo region. According to Marquéz, “Among them were princes and leaders, and those blacks never accepted the conditions of slavery. Many killed themselves, which is to say they were killed, and others organized and escaped from Cartagena.” During the late 1500s and early 1600s, many escaped slaves were led by an African resistance leader named Benkos Bioho, who launched repeated attacks on Cartagena until he was eventually killed by the Spanish in 1619.
It was during this period that the ancestors of San Basilio first established a palenque in Mazuna, which was relatively close to Cartagena. But the Spanish soon came after them and so they fled further inland, eventually ending up in San Basilio in the modern-day department, or province, of Bolívar. The villagers of San Basilio claim Benkos as the founder of their community and a statue honoring him stands in the central plaza.
Eventually, the Spanish succeeded in destroying most of the original palenques, with San Basilio being one of the only survivors. According to Marquéz, San Basilio “is located in a strategic place because it is surrounded by a small mountain range; therefore, it was easy to see who was coming. The people would communicate with drums when the Spaniards came down the mountains and when the Spaniards arrived in Palenque they would see the houses but no blacks.” The people would simply disappear into the hills while the Spanish burned down their houses. The villagers would then reappear, reconstruct their homes and go on with their lives. This process transpired over and over until the Spanish eventually decided to offer the escaped slaves of San Basilio their freedom.
But freedom came with conditions. The Spanish required that the residents of San Basilio adopt Catholic names, practice Catholicism and renounce their own religions. The people agreed, says Marquéz, “This is why I am called Enrique. It is not an African name, it’s a Spanish name. But black cultural practices and religion are ethereal, intangible, so it was easy to continue practicing them. Still today, the practices that were imposed on us are not well received. If you go to the Catholic Church on Sundays you will not see anybody there. The Palenqueros accepted certain conditions during negotiations in return for liberty, but never abided by them.”
For centuries, Palenque existed in virtual isolation, with only Blacks being permitted to enter the community. This isolation helped preserve many African cultural practices related to religion, music, dance and cuisine that still exist today. The Palenquero religion, reflecting African practices, is more focused on the spirits than the saints worshiped by Catholics. Meanwhile, drums are the most prominent instrument in Palenquero music and, along with dances and traditional African clothing, are commonly used in ceremonies such as marriages.
Sexteto Tabalá is the best-known musical group from this small village, which seems to be disproportionately blessed with musical talent. One such talent is Emelina Reyes, who lives in one of the village’s traditional wood and mud huts with a thatched roof. From her home, she sells copies of a CD that contains performances by her and another local singer, Graciela Salgado. On a hot and humid afternoon in June, Reyes provides a moving acappella rendition of a Palenquero song in which the melody is unmistakably African-influenced. “Singing and music,” says Reyes, “are important ways to preserve and strengthen our culture.”
The village’s isolation also resulted in the development of a unique language. Palenquero, as the language is known, is unique to Palenque and is fluently spoken by about half of the village’s 5,000 residents while the remainder can understand it. The language emerged hundreds of years ago and is heavily-influenced by the Kikongo language of West Africa as well as by Portuguese and Spanish. The African influence is evident in words such as ngubá (peanut), changama (woman) and kumina (food), as well as in expressions like kumo bo ata? (hello, how are you?). To ensure the language’s survival, the local school began teaching Palenquero in the 1980s.
In recent decades, the outside world has increasingly encroached upon Palenque’s isolation. While many villagers still survive by cultivating corn, rice, peanuts, yucca, bananas and other traditional crops on the community’s seven million hectares of land, others have sought employment elsewhere. It is believed that there are some 20,000 former residents of Palenque living and working in Cartagena, Barranquilla and other cities along Colombia’s Caribbean coast. Many of them regularly return to Palenque to visit family, bringing outside ideas and influences with them.
Increased influence from the outside was facilitated in part by the construction of a paved road that now passes within five kilometers of the village, reducing travel time to Cartagena from three days by mule to two hours by bus. Also, in the 1970s, the government brought electricity to Palenque in appreciation of the achievements of Antonio Cervantes, also known as Kid Pembelé, a two-time world welterweight champion and national boxing hero who was born in the village. A more recent development has been the introduction of the Internet to Palenque, connecting students at the local school to the world-at-large.
The improved access and visibility has led to a greater awareness both domestically and internationally of the unique history and culture of Palenque. In 2005, the United Nations listed the village as a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.” Some residents want to further build on the village’s increased exposure in order to attract tourists to both improve the local economy and as motivation for preserving its unique culture. Many youth in the village are actively engaged in music and dance projects and even perform regularly for tourists in the public plazas of Cartagena. Other residents, however, resent the intrusion of outsiders and do not wish to become exhibits for visitors.
Another intrusion that the community had to endure was that of the country’s ongoing armed conflict. The arrival of the armed groups almost a decade ago led to the displacement of many people living in the territory surrounding Palenque. “As Palenqueros, we were the only ethnic group in Colombia not to have suffered displacement,” explains German Arturo Herazo, a member of the community’s governing council. “But beginning in 2000, we began to suffer from Colombia’s violence and displacement.” According to Herazo, when the illegal armed groups arrived in the community they tried to implement “social transformation among the population; among the youth, among adolescents and among some of the adults, and this generated a problem for us.”
The villagers not only suffered at the hands of the illegal armed groups, but also from the actions of the Colombian army, which the government deployed to Palenque. In the ensuing years, ten villagers were killed and, according to Marquéz, “There are many who say that it was the government, the army, that killed the palenqueros.”
Palenque no longer suffers from the presence of illegal armed groups. It also does not contain a police station or an army base. “We protested, saying that we did not choose to enter this war, that we are a neutral town,” explains Herazo. “We do not want a relationship with the government forces nor with the illegal groups. Here we apply Palenquero law; not the national law.”
The peoples of San Basilio de Palenque have not only survived for more than 400 years, enduring slavery, colonialism and Colombia’s contemporary armed conflict, they have also managed to retain a startling degree of cultural integrity. In the 21st Century, community leaders intend to continue forging an independent path for Palenque. As Marquéz notes, “We continue with our vision to form an Africa in America. Therefore, we are creating strategies to maintain the Palenquero culture. Today we have our language; we have our hymn, our flag, our own form of private life. It is our vision to form a municipality of special character and then carry it to an independent State. It is not easy, we know that it is not easy, but we also know that it is not impossible.”