Blackness in Cartagena, Colombia: A Jamerican’s Experience
By Nadine L. Leblanc
For my 50th birthday (December 2017) I wanted to visit South Africa or Cuba. However, instead, I ended up visiting Cartagena, Colombia and then Panama City, Panama for a glorious ten days with my husband for my “birthversary.” We were also celebrating our 13th wedding anniversary. Having visited some Latin American countries over the years (Mexico -several times, Dominican Republic – my husband’s home as a teenager, Puerto Rico, Costa Rica, Honduras, and Peru),
Figure 1: Artwork on the Streets of Cartagena
I was certain that I could predict the spectrum of what my experiences would be as a Black woman. I had strong presumptions of a culture that would lack representation of Blackness as experienced in the Latin American countries previously visited. I expected to see Latinos of lighter hue as the majority in Cartagena, and, I had envisioned the men of Panama (predominantly dark skinned) would be donned in Panamanian hats made from toquilla straw and Guayabera shirts singing “Day Oh.” I therefore expected a more dominant representation of Blackness in Panama than in Cartagena. This was however not my experience. Au contraire, I experienced more cultural representations of an Afro-history and culture in Cartagena. Therefore, in this article, I will discuss my experience of Blackness in Cartagena, Colombia.
Figure 2: Intercontinental Hotel Lobby Wall
From the moment, I entered the Intercontinental Hotel, I was delighted to be greeted by a life-sized painting of a Black woman (Fig. 2) as the dominant artwork on the lobby walls. The first day’s walk down the bustling San Martin street offered the varying phenotypical hues typical to Latin America. However, upon entering the colorful artisan market, the presence of a variety of artwork that depicted the Afro history of Cartagena was a lot more prevalent than I had seen anywhere else in Latin America, including in the Dominican Republic, that has a larger obvious Black population. It was evident from the artwork that Cartagenians embrace the three major racial groups (Black, White, Native American) from which they are descended, and were unashamed of displaying their African heritage; in my experience, many Latinos are ashamed.
On to Palenque
Our first tour was to Palengue, the first free town in the Americas. However, the tour company canceled because of not having sufficient people for a tour. We became even more insistent on going. We searched vigorously and eventually found a tour for just the two of us. To say that we were excited was an understatement. We traveled by bus for more than an hour to the village of San Basilio de Palenque which is southeast of Cartagena. Our Palenquero tour guide was Victor, a renaissance man, fluent in English, Spanish, French and Palenquero, he was exceptionally engaging. Victor began the tour by teaching us some practical words of the Palenquero language. Palenquero (Fig. 3) is a fusion of various African languages with Spanish and Portuguese and is the only Spanish-based creole in Latin America.
Figure 3:Palenguero Language
We learned of the village’s history, formed by escaped slaves (Maroons/Cimmaronnes) and Native Americans around 1604 under the leadership of Benkos Biojo (Fig. 4) whose statue is proudly displayed in the village’s center. Palenque’s proud inhabitants have remained isolated for the most part from the rest of Colombia and have maintained their cultural and spiritual bonds with Africa. There was absence of many physical structures within the village, the people are the village. I was transported back to my home village of Sturge Town which coincidentally is the second free village of Jamaica.
Figure 4: Benkos Biojo in Palengue Square
The Africanness of the Palenqueros was evident in their every state of being. From their dress, music, holistic approach to health in a medicine woman we sat and dialogued with, we were in Africa or at least what I think Africa feels like. My husband and I smiled at each other as we felt a connection via Jamaica, Haiti and now Palenque that only those of us whose ancestors traversed the Middle Passage could feel but could not quite elucidate as words were too simplistic.
Figure 5: The Maestro Rafael Cassiani
Visiting “el Maestro”
One of the highlights of our visit was meeting “Maestro” Rafael Cassiani (Fig. 5), the lead vocalist of the “Sextota Tabala” musical group. A tall, elegant, chocolate- skinned man, without shirt, one of the town’s most legendary musicians, sat atop his marímbula, a rectangular box instrument which he strummed melodiously as he spoke. He spent the time with us on his open patio, describing proudly the globetrotting activities of his group. He played some music for us and we danced until we were glistening in sweat with his beautiful wife and our tour guide Victor (Fig.6) to the Afro/Caribbean beats that further heightened the heart and spirit connections we were already feeling to the Palenqueros and to our commonality of African ancestors and culture.
Figure 6: Dancing with Victor
As we toured the community center, we were awestruck by a large gathering in the middle of the day that included people of all ages. Victor informed us that it was an intergenerational meeting (Fig.7) where the old and young share ideas. We paused and observed the ease of communication between all ages as teaching and learning took place, where each individual was a teacher and a student. It was inspiring and worth replicating.
Figure 7:Inter-generational Meeting
Our most memorable moment in Palengue had to have been encapsulated in our sheer delight stumbling upon the sign “I love Being Black” (Fig.9). As we were posing for pictures with fists in air, we heard some women calling us to come and visit them on their patios. They were amazed that we resembled their nephew and niece and agreed that “somos familia,” we are family. I have never felt that kind of warmth outside of my own village.
We left Palenque with joy in our hearts. A warm, f ulfilled, heartful feeling one experiences after visiting close relatives. We spent the rest of our days in Cartagena measuring each experience against the feeling of Palenque.
Figure 8: Fruit Vendors in Cartagena
In Cartagena, with each passing day of vacation, our senses were attuned to elements of Afro culture embedded in the day to day lives of Cartagenians, whether as a deliberate marketing effort or as a natural inclusion, I am unsure. Like most post-colonial countries/cities, Cartagena has its own issues with racial discrimination which our Palenquero guide explained is a lingering challenge especially for Palenqueros. However, from the colorfulness of the market women’s costumes (Fig. 8) , the cultural exhibitions through dancing in the parks, to the description of the spectrum of hues of Cartagenians by our tour guide, the billboards that exclaimed “ #SerNegroEsHermoso” and the Afro inspired artwork throughout the city (fig.1), our experience of Blackness in Cartagena, though not necessarily a binary definition, was enough to make us feel comfortable in our Black skins . I felt “Proud to be Black,” a pride I have never felt before in any other Latin American country or city, so my bar of expectation may indeed have been low. Conversely, in Panama City, driving through high-rise buildings, some emboldened in gold in quintessential Trump décor, being ignored by sales representatives in favor of white customers, I left like my vacation had abruptly ended and I was back to being Black in America.
Figure 9: Painting of a Building in Palengue
Nadine L. Leblanc