The Palenqueras of Cartagena

Mom walking across the street in Cartagena in a blue shirt and white skirt going towards a blue wall with a palenquera selling fruits painted on it

By Nneya Richards

This piece was originally published on ‘N A Perfect World…

If you’ve been to Cartagena de Indias you’ve seen the women who are icons of the city: las palenqueras. These beautiful Afro-Latinas, dressed in colorful traditional garb and often pictured selling fruit or candy, are the pride of Colombia and on much of the country’s promotional material, especially that of the city of Cartagena. Tourists line up to get that Cartagena picture with the woman whose bright smiles and deep eyes often hold the story of Colombia that many of these same tourists might not care to know: the story of the black Colombia.

palenquera woman in bright dress sitting in downtown Cartagena street with two Colombian men next to her. She's selling wrapped mangoes.

After Brazil, Colombia has the highest black population in Latin America and the Colombia population historically ranges from the white decedents of the Spanish to what they call negra negra, the African descendants of slaves that were brought to the then Spanish colony and did not mix with the indigenous population or Europeans.

Today, there are mestizos, mulattos, first nations, Europeans and every mix in between. But most of the Colombianidad we have “exported” internationally, the Colombian ideal of beauty, is seen through white Colombians, like Sofia Vergara — she’s actually a natural blonde, or Shakira, who does proudly discuss her mixed heritage, including Arabic background.

golden hour against the fort of Cartagena. A palenquera in bright green sells candies, a man walks past with greenery on his head and there are 3 large palm trees in the foreground

Cartagena de Indias was Spain’s biggest slave port in the New World and the beautiful city was built by slaves. However, as we saw throughout the US and West Indies some groups of slaves rebelled, think Haiti, the maroons in Jamaica. Before these incidents, in Cartagena it was Benkos Biohó, a former African King who rebelled, ran away and took his wife, children and 22 other men with him, eventually forming San Basilio de Palenque about an hour north of Cartagena. It was the first town in Colombia to secure their independence from the Spanish on May 12, 1851 and was home to the first free men and women of the New World. A ‘capitulation of peace’ was signed between the Spaniards and the former slaves in 1603 — after the Spanish captured and killed Benkos Biohó and, in 1713, the Spanish crown issued a Royal Decree that officially freed the people of the palenque from slavery.

The palenqueras of Cartagena, and the palenque communities around Colombia, were instrumental in helping countless slaves to freedom. While blending in with their traditional garbs and head-wraps, they braided the routes to freedom in their hair and passed along this knowledge amongst the enslaved. Those head wraps and fruit that we still today traditionally see atop their head was to hide their resistance work! Slaves were brought from different African countries, and language was made to be a barrier in their communication. Patterns of rivers, mountains and roads indicated the route to safety, stealthily and in a way they all understood. Wow!

What strength, what ingenuity! Today, the palenqueras of Cartagena wear colorful traditional clothing and sell fruits, vegetables and traditional palenque treats to make money to support their communities. Sometimes travel while black gives you the opportunity to dig deep. This is just one of the reasons that I listed Cartagena is a black friendly travel city.

two palenquera women sitting down infront of white washed wall with piles of colorful fruit in front of them. They are both in bright traditional palenque outfits

Now, given the history of the palenqueras, isn’t it almost revolutionary for them to be the city of Cartagena’s marketing symbol? What a long way we’ve come though we have much further to go.

All photos by Nneya Richards.

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