Known as the first free town of the Americas, San Basilio de Palenque lies 30 miles away from Cartagena, Colombia. This tiny village in the Caribbean coast has kept its century-old traditions almost so intact that it was recognized by UNESCO as an Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2005. Despite its relative isolation, its people have relied on a small economy and tourism for many years. Learn about this interesting Colombian town in this article!
To understand the history of San Basilio de Palenque, we need to go back to the colonial period, when enslaved Africans were brought to the Americas. Cartagena, controlled by the Spanish at the time, was one of the main destinations of the slave trade in what is now Colombia. Those who managed to flee from the Spanish rule came to be known as cimarrones. To protect themselves, they built palenques, small towns enclosed by wooden poles or stakes (note the similarity of the word palenque to the word palo, “wooden stick,” in Spanish).
Although there is no scholarly consensus on the exact date of its foundation, most research traces it back to the early 1600s. In those years, Benkos Biohó, a West African brought to Cartagena as a slave, led a group of escapees 60 miles inland and into the foothills of Montes de María. After having fled and established their own settlement, Biohó and his people were given the right for freedom in a decree signed by the Spanish Crown. This way, this palenque became the first free settlement in the Americas. Many years later, the town added San Basilio to their name, in remembrance of their Catholic patron saint, so it is common to find San Basilio de Palenque, Palenque de San Basilio or even just Palenque.
Because of the way it was founded and how isolated it remained for centuries, Palenque grew as a community that was “detached from the political, social and economic changes taking place in the rest of the country.” Palenqueros, as they are known, learned to rely on a small-scale economy and farming to survive. Nowadays, however, many of them end up leaving the town to study and work in neighboring cities like Cartagena, keeping the population just behind the 5,000 mark.
Palenquero traditions are proof of their African roots. Music, for example, represents their collective identity as a free people. The traditional son palenquero combines African, Caribbean and indigenous rhythms, although more contemporary music genres such as champeta (mostly from Cartagena) have entered the daily mix of Palenque’s sound systems.
Traditional medicine is still practiced, usually through shamans who treat curses or maleficios. Another important ritual for Palenqueros is the lumbalú, a burial ceremony with origins in West Africa, which involves singing and dancing around the dead body and keeping nine days of mourning.
“Esta tierra no es mía” performed by Sexteto Tabala is an example of Son Palenquero.
One of its most interesting traditions, though, is its language. Lengua (as they call it) or Palenquero is the language spoken there. It is the only Spanish-based Creole language in Latin America: it draws its vocabulary mostly from the Spanish and Portuguese spoken in the colonial period, but its grammar, though, comes from West African languages like Kikongo (spoken in Congo and Angola).
This means that its written words might be recognizable to Spanish speakers, but when heard out loud, it is almost unintelligible to its neighboring villagers. Some words in Palenquero that are similar to Spanish are ngaina (gallina), posá (casa/posada) and mai (madre, but more similar to the Portuguese mãe).
All of the traditions that make Palenque such a particular place helped the town to receive the recognition of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2005. Being only two hours away from Cartagena, Palenque receives many visitors, most of which are interested in ethnic tourism.
Tours include visits to the key spots of this small town, one of which is the Benkos Biohó statue, the little creek where people wash their clothes and socialize and the cultural center. Music and dance performances, such as the Festival of Drums and Festival of Expression, are commonplace. Visitors can also enjoy local food and interact with Palenqueros, who usually enjoy telling ancient stories of their foundation.
Despite its size and small population, Palenqueros are widely known in the Caribbean Coast and throughout Colombia. Antonio Cervantes (also known as Kid Pambelé), probably the most famous Palenquero, is a two-time world champion boxer. The hype around his fights in the 1970s were the reason that the little town received electricity, and thus radio and television, as a gift from the Colombian government. Palenqueras (women street vendors) are also recognized throughout Cartagena and Barranquilla for their curious way of selling sweets. They carry wide bowls on their heads, where they put fruit and candies, and walk around the city calling the names of what they are selling (usually alegría, cocada and caballito, sweets made with coconut, corn, cassava flour, anise and sugar).
For more than 400 years, Palenque has been a bastion where much of the Afro-Colombian heritage is protected. They have successfully maintained their African roots in spite of the influence of its close neighbors. It is no surprise, then, that Palenqueros are proud to call themselves the first free people of the Americas.
My name is Javier Cataño García and I am pursuing a M.A. in Spanish, with focus on linguistics and literature, at the University of South Florida, Tampa, where I also teach undergraduate Spanish courses. I was born and raised in Colombia, but I have lived in the United States since August 2021. I have always had a special interest in foreign languages and geography, and I am looking to channel that interest through Latina Republic. I also have some training and experience in English-Spanish translation and interpretation. Although my professional career has been centered in teaching, I enjoy delving into other areas such as music, cooking and journalism. I hope to find new directions in my career through Latina Republic.