By Colton Totland

Palenquero in Columbia.jpg
The primary location of palenque culture in Colombia


The Palenque culture comprises a small ethnic group in Columbia that originated from a community slaves that escaped captivity in South America. With the word "palenque" meaning "walled city" in Spanish, their name refers to a number of defensive settlements established by former slaves throughout the 1600s.

The group is based around the village of San Basilio de Palenque in Northern Columbia, but also has a notable presence in the northernmost industrial city of Barranquilla. In all, the group only consists of about 3,000 individuals, most of whom embrace the African roots of the community and its unique language known as palenquero — the only Spanish-based creole language in Latin America.[1]

The history

Despite the continual presence of dozens of palenque settlements throughout much of the Spanish colonial era, the village of San Basilio is the only remaining community today.[2]

San Basilio itself was founded in the early 16th Century by Benkos Bioho, an escaped slave who, according to residents of San Basilio, was first brought to America through the nearby port of Cartagena de Palenque.[3] He and several others fled more than 30 miles into the foothills of the Montes de María, a nearby mountain range.
The statue of Benkos Bioho in San Basilio de Palenque
Before being captured and hung in 1619, Bioho led several guerrilla attacks against the city using stolen guns. Throughout his time as the leader of San Basilio, Bioho claimed to have been a king in his native Africa.[4]

San Basilio remained a rebel fortification after his death, and more than 60 years later in 1686 was acknowledged by the Spanish colony as a free settlement. By that point, it had grown to more than 3,000 inhabitants, with some 600 identifying themselves as warriors. For this reason, San Basilio is often regarded as the first free town in the Americas.[5]

The start of the Columbian Civil War in 1964 and the subsequent decades of violence have led several hundred indigenous individuals — many of whom are from Incan descent — to move to the outskirts of the Palanque region, in the Bolívar Province. The ongoing conflict has taken the lives of more than 250,000 people and displaced millions more in rural areas where rebel forces take refuge.[6] The Palenque community faces a barrage of threats from both Colombian national military and local guerrilla groups that draw their ire.

The language

Palenquero employs the lexicon of several African languages, mainly those of the Bantu tribes in Western Africa. There is some influence from Kongo, a major language spoken in and around the Democratic Republic of Congo. The language is different enough from Spanish that there is virtually no mutual comprehensibility between speakers of the two.
New York Times photo.JPG
A linguist speaks with an elder in Palenque. (Scott Dalton/The New York Times)

Even so, increased accessibility of the community to the outside world over the last 30 years has a trend toward the increased use of Spanish.[7] Today, fewer than half of the San Basilio population speaks the language fluently; of them, only 10 percent are under the age the age of 25. And a survey from the mid-1990s showed that 88.7 percent of high school students used Spanish as their first language, and that a mere 15 percent had frequent access to the Palenquero language outside school. [8]

Since then, the community has made efforts to protect the future of the language, only part of which includes the creation of a Palenquero dictionary based on the vocabulary known by elders. Recent research suggests a shift in the trend among the younger generations, one toward greater bilingualism in Palenquero.[9]

Palenquero is believed by many linguists to be a relative of Papiamento, a much larger creole spoken in the Dutch Antilles on the Eastern edge of the Caribbean. A fusion of Dutch and African languages, it has as an estimated 270,000 speakers; of that, some 70,000 live in the Netherlands.[10]

'A corner of Africa in America'

In 2005, San Basilio was named a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO, or the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural organization. The honor acknowledges communities that not only hold unique beliefs and practices, but also a strong commitment toward maintaining them. It is one of hundreds across the world.

The palenque culture consists of a unique religion that predates slavery in the Americas and Caribbean. A funeral procession known as Lumbalu is one of the most distinct cultural practices. It is a tradition from Central Africa which comprises mourning through a call-and-response between a prominent elder and the greater community. Women dance around the body, taking small steps, while others keep beat with drums and their hands.[11]

Music and dance is an integral part of the palenque society and accompanies a wide range of celebrations as well, including marriages and other religious activities. The palenque also practice baptism, an element of Christianity they have chosen to adopt.

The dance, like the language, is a combination of African tradition and the styles more typical in Latin America, like Flamenco and Tango. The palenque have several different dances with heavy African influences, two of which are the Bullerengue sentado and the Chalusonga.[12]
The Palenquero culture is based around the village of San Basilio de Palenque in Northern Columbia, but also has a notable presence in the nearby industrial city of Barranquilla. In all, the group only consists of about 3,000 individuals.
-which thus far has resulted in the deaths of more than 250,000 people--
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  4. ^ Heywood, Linda M. Central Africans and Cultural Transformations in the American Diaspora. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Print.
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