San Basilio de Palenque was settled in 1603 by followers of African resistance leader, Benkos Biohó, who led organized guerrilla attacks against Spanish ships in the port of Cartagena.
Palenque is the Spanish word for a fortified village of runaway or maroon slaves. Unlike most other palenques, which were taken over and destroyed, this community has successfully survived with much of its language and culture intact.
Rocky road of survival The secret to Palenque’s survival was its isolation from the outside world. However, now one can travel there by bus from Cartagena in about two hours. The biggest threat to Palenquero is influence from outsiders.
Progress came late Electricity didn’t arrive until the 1970s when native son Antonio Cervantes (Kid Pambelé) won a world boxing title. This was followed by radio and television, and today the local school has Internet access.
Linguists discover Palenquero Palenquero was first studied by renowned Spanish linguist Germán de Granda in 1968. He concluded that it was a creole based upon Portuguese and African languages.
A Spanish-based creole? While McWhorter (2000) includes Palenquero in his list of Spanish-based creoles, he traces its origin back to Portuguese and explains that the Spanish influence came later.
McWhorter (2000) PalenqueroPortugueseSpanishEnglish tentemtienehas ele élhe/she baevaivagoes ele (pl.)êlesellosthey kucomconwith
African origins According to Monino & Schwegler (2002), Palenquero was strongly influenced by Kikongo, the language of Congo and Angola, and by Portuguese, the language of the slave traders in the 17th century. Kikongo-derived words like ngombe (cattle) and ngubá (peanut) are still used today in Palenquero.
Kikongo Spoken by many African slaves sold to the Americas. Creolized forms can be found in ritual speech of African-derived religions in Brazil, Jamaica and Cuba. One source of Gullah and Palenquero. 7 million native speakers and 2 million second language speakers today
Kikongo words in Palenquero Guanga: evil spell cast by witch doctor Balentiela: bed made of wood or metal Kañaña: strength in one’s arms Mutetes: kitchen utensils Ñango: coccyx Selelé: a big problem
Samples of Palenquero Ele kelé ba. (El quería.) I taba enfemá. (Yo estaba enfermo.) Nu i keleo nu. (No, yo no quiero nada.) Kosó mi. (El pantalón mío.) Pelo asé ndrumí mucho. (El perro duerme mucho.)
Palenquero saying Kuando a muje ase reja omble ngalalo e pokke a ngutalo. (Cuando la mujer se deja tocar de un hombre es porque le gusta.)
A language in danger The language is spoken only in the village and a few neighborhoods in Barranquilla where workers have migrated. In 1989, John Holm found only 2,500 speakers, and today, less than half of the community's 3,500 residents actively speak Palenquero, though many children and young adults have passive knowledge.
Age-graded proficiency Some older people are dominant in Palenquero and have limited proficiency in Spanish. Most community members have Spanish as their mother tongue and know only a little Palenquero.
A fight for survival Many are fighting to keep Palenquero alive. Linguist Solmery Cásseres Estrada compiled the Diccionario de Lengua Afropalenquera to be used in school. Dedicated teachers are working with the children to provide a future for the language.
Sebastian Salgado, 37, a teacher at the local public school, leads students in a Palenquero lesson.
The days of shame are over María de los Santos, a teacher at the Instituto Educativo Técnico Agropecuario Benkos Biohó, says: "A los niños hoy les hablo en lengua criolla y me entienden, pero hubo un tiempo en que nadie quería hablarla. A otros les daba pena hablarla porque la gente que los oía se reía de ellos y ellos, a su vez, creían que era un desprestigio hablarla.” (Arcieri 2007)
He is optimistic about his efforts. "Our ancestors survived capture in Africa, the passage by ship to Cartagena and were strong enough to escape and live on their own for centuries. We are the strongest of the strongest. No matter what happens, our language will live on within us."
A student walks past a wall that reads: Etuleno ague pa maana. (Study today for tomorrow.)
Involving adults in education Efforts are being made to educate the adults about their slave history to raise their awareness about the significance of the creole. Palenquero- speaking elders are also brought to school to tell stories, play music, and teach traditional dances to the children. Moraima Simarra, dance instructor
Palenque children recreating traditional dances of their people
International support In 2005, UNESCO granted San Basilio de Palenque the title of 'Masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity‘ in commemoration of its struggles to maintain its cultural and linguistic integrity.
Petition to UNESCO Local historian and anthropologist Jesús Natividad Pérez was responsible for bringing the Palenquero case to the attention of UNESCO.
Perez explains Palenque’s recognition “Por nuestro idioma, que es único, por la organización social en cuadros, por el ritual para despedir a los muertos, por la música y la musicalidad que nos inspira, por la relación con el medio ambiente y por la relación espiritual y material con la medicina tradicional."
The struggle continues Revitalizing Palenque will take considerable effort, but the results will be well worth it. Afro-Colombian children will benefit from remembering the suffering and the fortitude of their ancestors and see new value in preserving their heritage.
Newfound pride Many young Palenqueros are finding a new sense of pride in their origins. Giovanni Arias has graduated from high school, plays drums, reads voraciously, and wants to get a college degree in literature. He says he’s happy to be an Afro-Colombian.
Arcieri G., Vicente. (2007). Se habla palenquero. El Tiempo. March 1, 2007. Retrieved on October 21, 2007 at: http://colombia.indymedia.org/news/2007/http://colombia.indymedia.org/news/2007/ 03/58448.php Cásseres Estrada, Solmery. (2007). Diccionario de Lengua Afropalenquera. Publisher unknown. Holm, John. 1989. Pidgins and creoles. Vols. I-II. Cambridge: Cambridge U. Press. McWhorter, John. (2000). The missing Spanish creoles: Recovering the birth of plantation contact languages. Berkeley: University of California Press. Monino, Yves & Schwegler, Armin &. (2002). Palenque, Cartagena y Afro-Caribe: Historia y lengua. Tubingen: Niemeyer. Sources cited
Romero, Simon. (2007) A language, not quite Spanish, with African echoes. New York Times online, Oct. 18, 2007. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/18/world/ americas/ http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/18/world/ americas/ 18colombia.html San Basilio de Palenque. Retrieved: October 21, 2007 from: http://www.uncovercolombia.comhttp://www.uncovercolombia.com
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