African cultural traditions are alive and thriving in South America in the colorful village of San Brasilia de Palenque, Colombia. Founded by Benkos Biohó in the 16th century, the village of Palenque is a historic treasure. Biohó, a former slave, escaped from the slave port of Cartagena in 1599. The former African King, who is believed to have lived in either Angola or the Democratic Republic of Congo, eventually went on to help other Africans escape slavery. The escapees assembled at San Basilio de Palenque where they formed a small army to ward off the Spanish. In spite of a peace treaty, the Spanish captured Biohó in 1619, and he was hanged two years later. In 1691, a royal decree by the Spanish Crown freed the Africans in San Basilio de Palenque from slavery, making it the first free town in the Americas. With its rich and critically important history, San Basilio de Palenque has been declared a ‘Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’ by UNESCO since 2005.
Saving the Language of Palenquero
The people of Palenque speak a Spanish-Bantu language known as Palenquero. This language is not understood by many of the Spanish speakers of Colombia. It was therefore at risk of disappearing until the people of the city took it upon themselves in the 1980s to preserve the language. The native speakers began teaching the language at school and invited linguists to the region to come and study it. Since then, the language has taken root and is now being spoken by at least half of the residents of Palenque despite outside pressure to assimilate with the rest of Colombia.
Traditions and Festivals
Despite influences from other cultures, the Palenqueros have maintained most of their musical and oral traditions. In fact, they still practice their African burial traditions and wear colorful traditional dresses. They also still use their traditional musical instruments to create music. The origins of champeta music are traced back to Palenque. This music has permeated the whole of Colombia and spread to the rest of the world. The Festival of Drums and Cultural Expression, celebrated every October, is the most famous Palenque festival.