Palenque town in Colombia is known as the first free town in the Americas. The Palenque people are known all over the world for their ability to preserve African customs and traditions. The town was founded by Black people who fled slavery and understood the true meaning of both freedom and survival.
I had the pleasure of visiting Palenque Town in July of 2021. However, before stepping foot in the town, I encountered many palenqueras (women from Palenque) selling food and taking pictures with tourists in the streets of Cartagena. They were amazing. A group of women guided my friend and me around the city, danced with us, and even ate with us. I enjoyed learning from them and they encouraged us to go back to their hometown.
When we finally got to the Palenque town we ate food, walked around the neighborhood, and learned a bit of the Bantu language. The experience was amazing and hit so close to home. The moment we arrived in Palenque we were greeted with smiles, and the moment my friend and I mentioned that we were African, the smiles widened. It was the first in my life that I had witnessed such a reaction. Growing up in the states as an African was an uphill battle. People would call you names like "African Booty-Scratcher" and say you were starving. I had never experienced such a warm response from BLACK people about my African ancestry.
Taking us through the town was a guide who spoke Spanish, English, and Bantu. We talked to him for hours about the similarities between our origin countries of Nigeria, Senegal, and Colombia. There were so many similarities from the way we washed our hands to how people were traditionally buried. The guide mentioned that the love for the African continent had never been lost and that the Palenque people still believed that they would return to Africa, if not in this life then in the afterlife.
As the guide continued to speak, we learned more about the history of the leader and the race to free enslaved people in Cartagena. I was super impressed by how the leaders of the community chose to govern. One of the most memorable experiences was walking past an empty jail and hearing the guide mention that the jail is practically always empty and the officers do not carry guns. I loved that. I felt so full of life walking around the community. Yet, there was a part of me that was sad about the living conditions. No matter how spectacular the community was, it still felt like Colombia had abandoned them. There seemed to be a trade-off...if the Palenque wanted to maintain their freedom, they would have to do it with no financial assistance from the Colombian government. Nonetheless, I think the people of Palenque should be applauded for their resilience.
In 2005, UNESCO declared Palenque a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.