It’s remarkable how easy it is to get fooled. Sometimes, clever people really get the best of me. And the hot night of July 24th was one of those times.
Much earlier that day, through a reckless series of Si Señors and No Señoras I found myself in the company of a new friend. He’s a leather smith and we were sitting in his shop. It was a sweltering night, around 9pm or so in Cartagena’s Getsemani neighborhood, and my new friend the leather smith was done for the day. So we set to drinking.
Just the thought of old Javier kills me. What a clever old ma he turned out to be. I’ve known some pretty clever folks, but Javier earned a spot right up there at the top.
The reason I knew? The old bird tricked me. You see, I met Javier on a hot July night in Cartagena’s Getsemani neighborhood. Much earlier in the day, through a reckless series of ‘yes sirs’ and ‘no mams’ I found myself in the company of a new friend. He was a leathersmith, and we were sitting in his shop. It was around 9pm or so and my new friend the leathersmith was done for the day. So we set to drinking. And that’s when Javier interrupted us.
Even though it’s a dangerous habit, I love to make judgements about people before I meet them. It makes me feel good, and as long as I don’t say my judgements out loud, it’s hard to hurt anyone’s feelings when I’m flat out wrong. So in this case, I figured Javier was probably 50 or 60 years old. Maybe even older. And since he told me his family had lived in the neighborhood forever, he must have known everything about everyone.
He didn’t strike me as a clever hawk at all when I first saw him leaning up against the cool stucco in a shady doorway in the Getsemani. He actually looked more like an old grouchy buzzard perching, waiting to clean up the remains of a kill that would never come. He had long legs and long arms and he sat with his legs tucked up to his chest and his arms hugged his legs together. Tight. And then every once in awhile he kind of sprawled out and stretched everything. He watched everyone who passed and didn’t say much of anything to anyone.
My final judgement made me sad. I couldn’t help it: Javier looked like a poor old bastard. I said hello.
It was only later that I found out that old Javier knew everything about everyone – at least a lot more than I did anyway.
Javier told me his family goes back five generations. He said the Spanish shipped over his family to be slaves. The slaves the Spanish brought from Africa built Cartagena with their hands, hauling around stones to build Cartagena’s fortress of walls. The walls the Spanish built were there to keep out pirates and competing houses of royalty. The Spanish fended off the… WHO? Buccaneers?
But some of the slaves turned into maroons and escaped. Javier said they fled from Cartagena to a place called San Basilio de Palenque.
Develop this narrative. One slave, Benkos Bioho, led the resistance and founded a village, which Javier calls the first free town in the Americas: San Basilio de Palenque. Many of Palenque’s residents say Benkos Bioho was the town’s liberator and founder. Bioho was a leader of African resistance movements during the 17th century. He even organized guerrilla attacks on the port of Cartagena with stolen arms.
The way the Palenqueros remember Benkos Bioho is the strongest of the strong. In the middle of the town, there’s a statue of Bioho’s torso shooting out of a brick wall. His arms are outstretched and his wrists are bound together in chains. When you look closely though, you can see he’s breaking free of his chains, and his face is filled with glory and indignation.
Because Benkos Bioho’s new town was made up of maroons, the language they spoke was a blend of western African languages and bits and pieces of Portuguese, the language of the slavers. The language in Bioho’s town is known as Palenquero. Many words in Palenquero come from African Bantu, a series of languages spoken by people from Africa’s western coast – from Niger to Angola.
It’s no surprise the Palenqueros have trouble expressing themselves with Spanish-speaking Colombians. The word for peanut in Spanish is mani. In Palenquero peanut is ngubá. In Colombian Spanish, you call ‘money’ plata (which also happens to be the word for silver). In Palenquero, ‘money’ is burú.
The thing is, the Palenquero language is disappearing. San Basilio de Palenque is made up of around 3,500 people, and only the older folks speak it.
What is Colombia’s history of slavery?
Javier called the town of San Basilio de Palenque a free town, and I could tell he was proud of how his ancestors liberated themselves from the ugly chains of slavery. But the people of San Basilio de Palenque live in something of an poor economy, and it’s hard to escape the poverty that comes with yam and peanut farming.
(What is Palenque’s condition? Even though the town is free from slavery, it’s subjected to a great deal of poverty. People who grew up in the village and try to find work close by sometimes cannot because Spanish-speaking Colombians discriminate against them.)
I looked at Javier. I could tell he cared a great deal about his good looks and handsomeness because he was holding a pink razor blade in his hands. And without shaving cream, he was shaving a white, bristly patch of whiskers on his chin and his throat. It seemed the sweat dripping off of him was the only thing he had for lubrication. Good thing he had something to make it smooth. He took a quick few swipes with the razor blade. I’ll admit, old Javier looked pretty suave.
But then I took a closer look. He didn’t have any whiskers. The razor was just a prop.
Javier was much more clever than I thought. As it turns out, he was a drug dealer, and you could buy prostitutes from him too, but you’d never guess he was a merchant of such things. He probably even called himself a salesman. It’s a more dignified title, and Javier kept up a very dignified appearance. Boy did he fool me.
The thought I couldn’t get off my mind was about Javier’s condition: when you’re whole race is dehumanized, illegitimized and put under the lashes of such an ugly institution as slavery, you have to be smart, you have to be clever to survive. For the descendents of Javier’s family, to survive meant being captured by the Europeans, enduring their torture, being herded into a ship, crossing the ocean and not losing the willpower to live, and – eventually – using their cunning to escape.
All along, that probably meant going against the rule of law. But it’s no surprise to me that when the rules of civilization were so cruel, so inhumane, so disgusting, the Afro-Colombians felt compelled to break them. Otherwise, they would have been screwed.
I looked at Javier. He pretended to swipe the razor against his whiskers, waiting for the night’s business to begin. To think, I had him cut out for a poor old bird.