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.
The hot sweat coming through the rugged flannel shirt Ernesto Muñoz was wearing spoke volumes about the man and his dedication to fusing power with elegance: he ripped off the heavy flannel, threw it on a giant stump, studied the piece of iron in his hands, threw the lever on a clamp to secure it, and with the fine teeth of a hacksaw, the blacksmith went into a dizzying spell of thrusts, putting all his might into the beginning of another afternoon building Cartagena.
“Of course I feel powerful,” said Ernesto. He put down the blade and took up a welder’s torch. Blinding white light illuminated his shop. Continue reading on Beacon…
published in Seattle Globalist
Once known for brothels and drugs, an old quarter of Cartagena is experiencing big changes as part of a nation-wide cultural makeover.
“Ten years ago there were robberies and prostitutes here,” says Ernesto Muñoz. “But now there are tourists.”
The stern blacksmith turns to us and shows off the iron-forged scrolls in the dim light of his workshop.
He walks down the street from his shop and points out his work: cages, door knobs, gates. He has a reputation when it comes to safeguarding the people of Getsemaní, a working class neighborhood in the old town of Cartagena, Colombia.
But the thing is, safety is not too much of a worry in the neighborhood these days.
The tourism-driven transformation of this neighborhood reflects the challenges that have come with this South American country’s changing image.
Getsemaní’s Cafe Havana, which has hosted celebrities like Hillary Clinton, is symbolic of the challenges of a changing neighborhood trying to hold on to its authentic feel. (Photo by Wesley Tomaselli)
Some travelers still come for the easy drugs and prostitutes that used to line the neighborhood’s main street.
But more and more, travelers are visiting to meet people like Muñoz and soak up the culture springing up around his workshop.
“And I have no problem with them,” he explains from a plaza outside a worn out yellow church in the center of his neighborhood, where music, soccer games, and street food take over the neighborhood each night.
With $27.8 million in investment this year, Colombia is dressing the city in tourism promotion. The amount invested in Cartagena’s tourism scene outweighed investments in infrastructure and industrial competitiveness, according to figures from Colombia’s Ministry of Commerce, Tourism and Industry.
All that money comes with a new message too.
In April of this year, Colombia announced its new slogan: “Colombia, Magical Realism”.
Del Morris, a Pacific Northwesterner in his late thirties, escaped to this city from the cold, oil sand country in Northern Canada, where he works as a welder. He came searching for travels that mirror the magical realities Colombia promises. Cartagena had just what he wanted.
“This is a place where I would love to learn ironwork,” Del says, pointing toward the iron scrolls that decorate gates, cages and door features around Getsemaní.
Tourism has helped to boost Colombia’s economy and image over the past decade. Much of the transformation is thanks to former President Alvaro Uribe, whose series of controversial hardline security policies helped turn cities like Cartagena into safe destinations for travelers.
Money is only the first step though.
Cristian Ahumada, director of Ciudad Movil, an arts & culture workshop in Getsemaní, says that there are a lot of foreigners and travelers who come to participate in the neighborhood’s flourishing cultural scene.
He thinks the Getsemaní has the right ingredients to change Colombia’s image.
“It wasn’t always like this. It used to be considered a really dangerous neighborhood.” says Ahumada, who grew up in the city. “But now the main street is filled with hotels and travelers.
But it’s still a delicate issue, he says. According to some residents the neighborhood, known for its sleepy streets drenched in beautiful colonial architecture, is in danger of being overrun by the wave of travelers.
Blacksmith Ernesto Muñoz shows Northwest native Del Morris how to craft a scroll out of metal in his workshop in Cartagena. (Photo by Wesley Tomaselli)
“There’s a local population that isn’t in favor of it. Lots of people I know complain about gentrification,” adds Ahumada.
The other problem, of course, is that there are still foreigners who come to Colombia’s Caribbean city for its vices.
In April of 2012, a scandal broke out when 13 C.I.A. Secret Service agents enjoyed a night of drunken debauchery involving prostitutes and booze during a visit by President Barack Obama for the Summit of the Americas.
Cartagena taxi drivers report that they still encounter plenty of tourists in search of drugs and prostitutes, not just beaches and historical sites.
Prostitution is legal in Colombia in designated tolerance zones. But it still taints the country’s image.
Ahumada says that for the most part, however, travelers who come to his city join in on the throng of arts, music and culture that gives it its spirit.
“It’s a point of cultural exchange,” he says.
Inside Ernesto Muñoz’s shop, Del Morris picks up the blacksmith’s scrolls and admires them. The forge is hot, and sweat pours off hard, serious faces. Muñoz is proud of his work. The pounding of the hammer against the anvil starts up again.
The Canadian welder says he feels inspired after visiting Ernesto’s forge. He wants to bring back what he learned to Vancouver and someday start his own blacksmithing shop.
Visitors like Morris may be the key to nurturing Getsemaní’s art, music and craftsmanship.
But if tourists make different choices with their money, the local culture might just fall prey to gentrification and disappear.