Monday, August 26, 2013

Being Black in Colombia: The curious Son de Negro of Carnaval

El Son de Negro in Barranquilla
All photos are mine unless otherwise noted

He only learned of Benkos Biohó when he was 25. An Afro-Colombian not knowing about Biohó is like an African American not knowing about Martin Luther King Jr. or an Arab revolutionary not knowing about Mohamed Bouazizi. Colombia hosts one of the largest African diaspora populations in the world. Colombia also lays claim to the only surviving village of several founded in the 17th century by runaway slaves. Despite this history, one is quick to realize that ignorance of Biohó’s slave revolt against Spanish colonial rule is no singular occurrence. To many, racism does not even exist.

A white, politically correct Canadian of Venezuelan and Colombian descent, fresh from an art history course on the image of the African American in visual culture, I arrived in Barranquilla to visit my extended family.

Driving with my cousin from the airport, meandering through the chaos created by motto-taxis and colorful chiva buses, I encountered my first peculiarity: El Son de Negro. In front of a shopping center stood a gargantuan billboard of what looked like a stereotypical "coon," a caricature with origins in the visual culture of the slave trade. Dressed up in what looked to me like his blackface best, the character’s exaggerated red lips and self-deprecating goofiness all screamed of minstrelsy.

My relatives tried to assure me otherwise. El Son de Negro simultaneously refers to a traditional dance and is the name of one of the characters prominent in Barranquilla’s bacchanalian carnival. He is regarded as a symbol of slave defiance over the Spanish conquistadors, who are represented in Carnaval by the amusing Rey Momo.

I, the gringa, found this explanation difficult to grasp, especially in the context of a culture in which terms like "negro/a" are often used to identify Afro-Latinos. My family, like most Latin Americans I have spoken to, sees nothing wrong with using terms like "negro/a" to describe black people because they are often employed as terms of cariño, or endearment: “hola mi negra bella”; “mi negro, un café, por favor.”  (As a parallel example, I was called gordita - little fat one - as a child.) My dissatisfaction with what I’ll call the cariño defense is that the use of those terms is not necessarily motivated by tenderness. Often they are used out of frustration with a black or mixed-race individual, as in “ay, ese negro!” The debate on intent is irrelevant, really, but it nonetheless was the focal point of what became nightly discussions with my relatives about what is and isn’t racist.

Afro-Latino specialist Leonardo Reales (the 25-year old who used to be unaware of Biohó) knows all too well how complicated Afro-Colombian identity can get. For Reales, to use terms like "negro/a" or "zambo" - a person of mixed African and Amerindian heritage - is to reinforce the casta system, a classification system used by Spanish and Portuguese colonials to categorize social standing by race. Why use terms to define yourself that were originally used by colonials to subjugate African slaves and indigenous peoples? It’s like that American word one dares not say.

Welcome to the Barranquilla Country Club

According to the last national census, conducted in 2005, Afro-Colombians make up 10.6% of the total population, about 4.3 million people. But these figures should be taken with a grain of salt. Colombia’s National Administrative Department of Statistics recorded only 502,343 Afro-Colombians 
in its 1993 census, roughly 1.52% of Colombia’s total population. A few years later, Colombia’s Department of National Planning said that Afro-Colombians made up 26.5% of the total population, approximately 12 million people. “There are self-identification issues,” says Reales, “The one drop rule in the United States works the opposite way in Colombia,” as in Colombians, like many Latin Americans, will cling to that drop of white blood.

After the abolition of slavery in Colombia in 1851, the state implemented the mestizaje policy to encourage miscegenation in order to dilute the Colombian nation of African blood. “Mejorar la raza” improve the race - is a common refrain said to those marrying people with lighter skin than their own.

I continued to insist that the use of terms like "negro/a" to identify a person reveals the persistence of colonial mentalities of race, regardless of whether you mean to be naughty or nice. By calling someone "negro/a," you identify another (sub)human on the basis of difference - difference to the better (read: whiter) self. I could not disabuse my relatives of their beliefs. They attempted to validate their position by informing me that black Colombians use those terms as well. Some Afro-Latinos preach the cariño defense, while others argue that it’s important to bring attention to the singular trait that unites them all. I was repeatedly told that El Son de Negro isn’t racist.
A monument of Christopher Columbus and his naked conquest in Cartagena

The denial of the existence of discriminatory processes accompanied by blatant practices of discrimination seems symptomatic of the lack of memorialization of Colombia’s slave history. Travelling to Cartagena, an epicenter of the Spanish slave trade in Latin America and the Caribbean, I realized not only was there a shortage of remembrance of the African diaspora experience in Colombia, but the civilizing narrative of colonization had settled in quite nicely. In the square where slaves were traded there is a monument to Christopher Columbus with a half-naked indigenous woman kneeling at his feet. I asked our Afro-Colombian tour guide how he felt about this memory snub, and he told me that his son of mixed race does not admit to having African heritage. In fact, many black Colombians tend to deny being black because of the negative connotations blackness – Africanness – intimates within Colombian society. I envision Frantz Fanon, psychiatrist and Postcolonialist author of Black Skin, White Masks (1952), seeing the lack of pride among Afro-Latinos about their heritage as proof of his theory that slavery obliged Africans to develop a negative self-conception, one rooted in the dichotomous negation of their blackness as inferior to the oppositional white ideal.

The monument of Benkos in San Basilio de Palenque 
Photo credit: Renzo Devia

The figure of El Son de Negro seems all the more peculiar in light of Benkos Biohó. He was the cimarron, runaway slave, who led the slave resistance movement in Colombia in the early 17th century. Under the leadership of Biohó, runaway slaves established palenques, walled villages of freed slaves, in the mountainous jungles of northern Colombia. The freed slaves were protected by the difficult topography of the area and were able to amass firearms from the farms and towns below. Biohó and his compatriots even forced the colonial Spanish government in Cartagena into a ceasefire in 1605. Captured and killed in 1621, Biohó’s runaway and resistance legacy persisted well into the 18th century. San Basilio de Palenque is the only surviving village from that resistance movement in all of Latin America and the Caribbean, and a monument to Benkos Biohó welcomes all who visit. Some streets in San Basilio de Palenque are named after African heroes – an anomaly in Colombia. Another monument to Biohó is situated in Cartagena near the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas fortress, a fitting siting.

Nonetheless, “what’s African is not appreciated,” I was told by Renzo Devia, the founder of Creador Pictures. Devia developed a documentary series about Afro-Latino history, filling a gap in the Colombian education curriculum. Finding willing funders has been a challenge.

Despite having a unique language, the only creole-based language in the Americas that has a Spanish root mixed with strong influences from Angola and the Congo, Palenqueros are mocked in the mainland for their way of speaking, Devia tells me.  

Reales speaks with urgency about the need for a “real revolution in education.” The 2005 national census suggests that the literacy rate among Afro-Colombians is basically on par with the national rate. 88.6% of the Afro-Colombian population is literate, while the national rate of literacy is 91.6%. By contrast, indigenous populations maintain a literacy rate of 71.4%. Though Afro-Colombians are literate, they are not necessarily educated in their own cultural history. (Again, these statistics cannot be considered accurate due to inconsistencies in self-identification.)

By law, schools must commemorate Afro-Colombian National Day on May 21st, the anniversary of the abolition of slavery. Schools approach this part of the curriculum in a lackadaisical manner, if at all, laments Reales.

Yet the great indigenous civilizations are lauded as integral contributors to the Colombian nation and its culture. You can’t swing your mochila without hitting a pre-Columbian something or other for sale or on display.  “When you open up a textbook of Latin American history,” says Devia, “you’ll learn a lot about indigenous culture, the Aztecs, the Incas, the Mayans.” The African diaspora in Colombia is not a focus.  

Devia believes that racism persists in Colombia because, unlike in the United States, there were no ruptures in the system, no moments of extreme discrimination that could have catalyzed radical change. “You need to erase everything you know about African American history” in order to understand racism in Latin America, he tells me. There was no segregation, no vicious public violence against black people, no civil rights movement. Old mentalities of race inherited from colonialism and slavery trudged along, from one generation to the next.

Street performers in Cartagena

"Negro/a" is an enabler of these old mentalities, and that’s why Reales advocates for the use of the term "Afro-Colombian." It encompasses all of the diverse ethnic, linguistic, and cultural components of African history and experience in Colombia without inherent subjugation. As Reales points out, while “poverty and social exclusion have a color,” the distinct challenges faced by Afro-Colombian communities can only be addressed once a fuller self-awareness and united political will emerges, one that is free of colonial baggage.

You can thus understand my bewilderment at being repeatedly told that El Son de Negro, the blackface, Latino "coon" I confronted within minutes of landing in Barranquilla, is not racist.

Devia and Reales indulged my curiosity. El Son de Negro is a mid-20th century creation, a cultural celebration of Afro-Colombian identity and history. The black paint is meant to affirm, not denigrate, blackness; those participating in the dance must distinguish their folkloric expressions from those of the indigenous peoples. Skin color just happens to be the chosen visual signifier. Students of Postcolonialism may question the correctness of El Son de Negro costume - leaves, sticks and little else - reading it as a propagation of the stereotype of the uncivilized, jungle-born-and-raised exotic African. Even the dance’s name suggests a Euro-centric intervention. Devia defends the costume as an appropriate representation of the cimarron. It’s not like runaway slaves had lots of clothes to pick from. The dance, a mix of mapalé with Bantu (central African) rhythms, is an example of pride in African history in a country where memory, consciousness and understanding of these issues is lacking. Like my relatives told me repeatedly, El Son de Negro’s role in Barranquilla’s Carnaval is to make fun of El Rey Momo.

El Son de Negro seems to encapsulate the complexities and obscurities of what it means to be an Afro-Colombian, an Afro-Latino. Carnaval and El Son de Negro are important expressions of Colombian national pride. Nevertheless, I find it difficult to fully comprehend El Son de Negro character as a benign expression of what it means to be Afro-Colombian because the character exists within the context of imbedded racist systems: discrimination through diction and discrimination through a lack of memorial and historical education and preservation. Perhaps I will only understand El Son de Negro once all other things are equal.


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    1. This article is written from the perspective of someone trying to grasp and then grapple with the concept of this celebration being Columbian culture. My family is from Costa Rica and I've always agreed that "negrito" and "gordita" and anything in that vein is not cariño. You're fooling yourself. Sure, now it's not meant with any maliciousness but it didn't start with cariño it's just been taught over and over until it became the fabric of your lives. I know many people of African descent from latino countries and they feel like you and don't identify with Africa but when It comes down to it they get looked at differently all of their lives. Maybe they didn't experience it to the level I've seen in the United States but if it is in fact a part of your ancestry why not dig a little deeper and change the conversation? I searched for articles relating to this celebration after seeing a post that looked very racist to me and then realized what it was. I don't troll or make comments to start fights on social media. I'd never post on the artist's page and disrespect them, but I think there is an interesting debate here. Thank you for this article.

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  3. Loved the knowledge! We have to spread the history with pride and persistance

  4. Once again an article by someone who wants to redefine what culturally we are made of. You weren't born in the Carebean coast of Colombia, you will never understand how we interact socially just as you will never understand that there are no Afro-Colombians, they are just Colombians.

    1. Best and only attitude for an equal society,

    2. I'm sorry but this is a very naive statement as my family is from Cartagena and I've personally seen the population not act as we are just Colombians. I have seen my cousin but let into a club because she was Afro-colombian. I've seen the face of a family member when he was told that their son had a afro-colombian girlfriend.

    3. This is a great point! The author talks about growing up in our culture yet there is clearly a difference between being born and raced in one. You are missing the point of our way to use our language. There is a clear loss in translation. Called "gordita" is also used for people who are thin. I myself was called that. " Gordis" is also used as a kind word to your partner. It does not denote being fat. Unlike what you pointed ourtI have never encountered an Afro-colombian disregard or even be ashamed of their culture. As any other Colombians we embrace all of our heritage and are extremely patriotic. Now, me using the word Afro-colombian is not even right. Like mentioned above all Colombians have black heritage, there isn't just one race, we all understand we are a mix and we are proud of it. Now if some Colombians are offended by the way people use "negro/a" in Colombia it should be up to them to change things and let the rest of the country know, it should not come from someone who does not understand our culture and who definitely grew up somewhere else where racism is a greater problem.
      In addition the situation in other latin american countries cannot be compared to Colombia, we are not all the same.

  5. This is a very interesting take on the subject. As an African American living in the coast, it is hard for me to decide what is and is not appropriate. I understand that it is another culture, but I also cannot ignore that witnessing Black face makes me uncomfortable.