About 30 miles southeast of Cartagena's beautiful historic center—picture Epcot Center with friendlier drug dealers—a man rides his beat-up motorcycle into a village hidden for 400 years amongst the swamps and farmland of the Louisiana-meets-Botswana countryside. As he passes between the village square and a row of simple but colorful houses, he revs the Japanese motor, lifts the front wheel, and rips a wheelie in front of the locals gathered around the square's shady spots to escape the Friday afternoon sun. It's hot here, so hot that I don't even feel the heat, just the sweat. From under the thatched roof of an open circular hut at one of end of the square, we watch a few other men ride horses bareback down the same main street. Next, a large truck with a covered bed drives past us, blaring music. A group of children run behind the truck, laughing and shouting. I turn to one of the Palenqueros next to me and ask what all of that was about. He answers, "Toros."
Atop a small hill on the edge of the village, delicious smells drift out of big pots and fryers as vendors prepare homemade food, press fresh fruit into juices, and ready the coolers of beer and soda for the 4 o'clock start of the biggest fiesta of the Palenque year, a weekend-long series of bullfights. According to the man collecting tickets, the village has put on this bullfight event annually since about 1930. A remnant of the Spanish colonists, bullfighting is hardly rare in Colombia, especially in this region of Bolivar. But in an Afro-Colombian community founded on the rejection of everything Spanish, a tiny village where two small beers from a corner store cost about $1 and the best restaurant in town is an older woman's backyard, well, an 80-year-old bullfighting tradition and enormous wooden bullring feel out of place.
Built from the ground up in 15 days, the bullfighting stadium exists only for this event—it will all be torn down when the fights are over. For now, though, it's magnificent in its own wonderfully weird way. The immense criss-cross of scrap wood and occasional sheet of corrugated metal gives it an appearance that is as ancient as it is post-apocalyptic. Imagine the first arena in Gladiator blended with the spectacle of the Coney Island Cyclone back when it first opened in 1927. Now imagine that surreal thing being constructed totally by hand over two weeks in a small village in the middle of rural Colombia. Given the context, it's huge, with premium views in the upper deck available for 5000 pesos (~$2.50), while 2000 pesos (~$1) gains access to the view-obstructed seating at ground level behind the fence. Or you can climb through the fence and into the fight, which seems to be what every man here is doing.
Crude wooden poles jut out above the upper deck, holding up metal sheets that offer welcome shade for the handful of early-arriving old guys, beer vendors, and police officers, all sitting on benches. Underneath them, children sit on boards behind the fence, eating popsicles. Inside the ring, the men gather in the shade on one side, making small talk and keeping cool. Many brought sticks to poke the bulls. A few brought sheets or blankets to wave. Some wear soccer cleats, a useful choice of footwear for escaping death. I ask someone if there's going to be a matador, a torero, for the fight. "He's coming soon," I'm told. I soon realize he is joking.
The mood is fairly light, considering the men inside are a few moments from facing their own deaths. Yes, there have been deaths here. As the very conspicuous white guy walking around in Chuck Taylors with a big camera, I receive a lot of very serious warnings about the very serious dangers of being in the ring during the fight. As one man says, "These aren't like the bulls from Spain." Then I hear the voice of someone I had met in the square earlier in the afternoon. He's sitting behind the fence in one of the lower sections. I ask him if maybe I shouldn't be out here. He responds with a wide-eyed smile, "CLARRROOOO."
Just after 4 o'clock, the gate swings open and the first bull charges into the ring.
400 years ago, long before they were fighting bulls, a group of escaped slaves led by the legendary Benkos Bioho built a palenque—the Spanish word for the many walled villages settled by escaped slaves—here to fight a guerrilla rebellion against the Spanish forces based in nearby Cartagena. For the next century, the Spanish tried to destroy the village, but never managed to overcome San Basilio's fortifications and nearly impenetrable landscape. Today, the trip from Cartagena is an hour by bus, followed by three miles down a semi-paved road on the back of a motorcycle. But in the 17th Century, the Spanish would have had to hack through jungles and swamps for days to get here. And so, finally exhausted by defeat, the King of Spain signed a royal order in 1713 that officially recognized the autonomy of "Palenque de San Basilio," making it the first freetown in the Americas.
After the Colombian government abolished slavery in 1851, San Basilio and other African communities in the region around Cartagena and Colombia's remote Pacific coast fought a cultural rebellion. As the government tried to assimilate minority populations into the dominant culture by literally "whitening" them through the encouragement of white immigration, these communities relied on the same geographic isolation that had protected them from slavery and the Spanish to protect their traditions and Afro-Colombian cultural identity. But 150 years of systemic discrimination has left Afro-Colombian communities today with weak infrastructure and limited access to both education and economic opportunity, resulting in the vast majority of the country's five million Afro-Colombians stuck in extreme poverty. Additionally, 50 years of ongoing civil war and the government's struggle to control violence in these remote parts of the country (especially in the heavily Afro-Colombian region of Choco) has left over five million Colombians displaced, and a disproportionate number of those are Afro-Colombians. As government negligence—or at best, ineffectiveness—allows these communities to be destroyed, a culture slowly falls apart and its traditions disappear. Survival has become its own rebellion.
Yet, somehow, San Basilio survives. The last remaining palenque is home to about 3,500 people, many of whom are descendents of the original escaped slaves. The village has maintained an identity of self-empowerment reflected even in its name, "San Basilio de Palenque." "Palenque de San Basilio" is actually the correct Spanish structure, but in this case, the place belongs to the Palenque. The village has its own music, dance, religious practices, traditional medicine, cuisine, and even its own language— Palenquero, the last known Spanish-African creole language on Earth. The small community's unique resilience has made it a powerful symbol and spiritual ancestor for Afro-Colombians throughout the country. So much so, that in 2005, UNESCO recognized San Basilio de Palenque as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
These days, only a portion of the village population still speaks the Palenquero language and many young palenqueros leave to find better economic opportunities in nearby Cartagena and Barranquilla, as the next struggle for the village seems to be maintaining its historical identity while also adapting to the unstoppable forces of modernity. The village first opened to the outside world with the building of a highway in the 1960s. Electricity came in the 1970s, when the Colombian government decided to honor the hometown of Palenque-born boxer Antonio "Kid Pambelé" Cervantes, former light welterweight champion of the world. While modernity here now takes the form of DirectTV dishes and bootleg FC Barcelona shirts, a statue in the main square depicting Bioho breaking free from the chains of slavery is a powerful reminder of Palenque's rebellious history, and the pride still felt in being a palenquero.
A short walk from the statue, a group of small children play soccer on a concrete court, part of a small athletic complex. With a statue of Kid Pambelé out front and his name above the door, the jewel of the complex is a newly renovated boxing gym, where the next generation of palenqueros can learn to become fighters.
Classic bullfighting disguises brutality as tradition, dressing it in romantic notions of artistry and courage. Ernest Hemingway became so enamored with what he saw as the nobility of the sport that he wrote an entire book, Death in the Afternoon, on bullfighting in Spain. There, the torero enters the "fight" after the bull has already been stabbed and weakened by a sizable loss of blood, and his object is to finish killing the bull and impress the audience in doing so.
Palenque bullfighting is different. There are more people in the fight than there are in the audience, and it's a real fight. The bulls aren't stabbed or weakened before entering the ring, and there is no guise of artistry. Palenque bullfighting is that raw Evel Knievel-sort of courage dressed in sandals, soccer cleats, and varying states of sobriety. The view from ground level behind the fence in a bullring that was hammered together in two weeks is pure "HOLY SHIT!" mayhem. The only object here is survival.
The bull hurtles towards us, a blurry terror of horns and muscle and hooves and those bloodshot red eyes. Men shoot outward from the ring as though fleeing a predator and scramble up the fence to safety. Others go sliding underneath the fence, a reminder of the Caribbean coast's baseball heritage and a reminder to me of why everyone watching from this lower level is sitting on boards off the ground. A thick cloud of dust rises up from the ring, creating an eerily hazy filter. A couple vendors, bless their sweet enterprising hearts, have stayed in the ring during the fight to sell popsicles and fried balls of something during the breaks. Everyone does their best to stay out of danger, while happily drinking beers in danger's living room.
After the initial surge, the bull trots around the ring and the men on the fence try to kick it from above. Those who brought sticks chase and poke at it. Those who brought sheets or blankets stand in the ring and wave them at the bull, trying to lure it into the classic duel. Those with nothing but their bare hands confront the bull however they can. A few grab onto its tail. The bull eventually tires, and is lassoed and pulled out of the ring.
Each bull that enters seems a bit larger and more violently inclined than the last, and the fourth, penultimate bull of the evening quickly isolates and plows through a younger guy wearing a long-sleeved turquoise shirt and matching snapback. The bull lifts him up, carries him briefly, then drives him into the ground near the fence on one side. Pinned underneath the bull's head, he manages to grab the horns that are trying to rip him apart, and he forces them away. He gets dragged and pushed around the ring anyway. Still hanging on to the horns, he gets all the way back onto his feet and is now using the horns to try to drive the bull's head into the ground. All that idealism about the courage of bullfighting is now terrifyingly real. A few others try to pull the bull's tail to draw it off of the poor guy, but the bull shakes loose. Then it pins him back on the ground, and, suddenly, gruesome injury or death appear imminent. Frozen in horror, I watch as he somehow pushes the horns away again and scurries away to safety. His shirt is shredded, but he's otherwise fine, jogging off with a slight smile on his face. He survived, so he won.
Before I leave to catch a motorcycle ride back to the highway, one of the guys at the stadium tells me that I have to come back out to Palenque for the next fight. He says that the bulls today were really just cows. The big bulls are coming tomorrow. The palenqueros, as always, are ready.
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