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Sunday, 30 June 2019

Palanqueras, the Fruit Basket Ladies of Cartagena

Written by Jim Chamberlain
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I wandered along the stone walls of one of the largest fortresses in the Caribbean. Castillo San Felipe de Barajas dominates the approaches to the old city of Cartagena, Columbia by both land and sea. This city is one of the cornerstone locations of the old Spanish Main. The Old Town of Cartagena is rich in history. The beautiful squares and its cathedral remind visitors of its importance in the Caribbean. Vendors selling a variety of souvenirs are everywhere. I saw several women carrying pans of fruit on their head while wearing colorful dresses. They would pose for photographs with the tourists. I asked my guide, Victor Mendez, about them. He said they are called Palanqueras from a village south of the city. Their history reflects one of the lesser known but important stories of the Caribbean.


One of the best places to find these women is near the Plaza de San Pedro Claver in the Old Town. It is named after the Saint to the Slaves, Peter Claver. He was a Jesuit priest who ministered to the slaves even boarding the slave ships as they docked to treat the frightened and ill human cargo. Cartagena was one of the main centers for the Spanish exploitation of the New World and a center of the slave trade. It had one of the largest slave markets in the Caribbean. Over 10,000 slaves a year were brought to Cartagena mostly from the Congo and Angolan sections of Africa.


Slaves would often escape and flee south of the city into the countryside. They would form bands and live off the land while raiding Spanish villages and caravans. The town of San Basilio de Palenque was created by the escaped slaves called “Maroons” with some of the indigenous people around 1604. It was able to survive the numerous attempts by the Spanish to kill or capture these escaped Africans by hiding in the mountains and jungles during the raids. The Spanish were so frustrated by their failures that they decided in 1691 to grant the town and its people their independence from Spain. This small village about 30 miles outside Cartagena, became the first haven of freed slaves in the Americas. The people were able to maintain a community in which they could practice their religion, save their culture, and preserve their African roots. Over time traditions were blended with Caribbean culture. These escaped slaves even developed their own language called “Palenque”.


The escaped slaves had not been subjected to a lot of contact with different cultures. The Palenqueros developed a Creole language constructed from the Spanish language and their own African ones. They keep this language secret and it is a powerful identifier among these unique Afro-Caribbean people. They will speak Spanish to most people and switch to their Creole language among each other.


The village of Palanque was very poor, and the people struggled to survive after independence. The women of the town turned to the bounty of the jungle, fruit, to supplement their meager existence. These women would put baskets of fruit some weighing as much as 60 pounds and balanced them on their heads. They would put on their best and most colorful dresses and walk the long and dusty miles to Cartagena to sell their fruit in the plazas of the city.

 

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The descendants of these first fruit sellers dot the plazas today. They make more of their living now by posing for photographs than selling fruit. They will hold the skirts of their colorful dresses wide and smile broadly while balancing the metal fruit bowls on top of their heads. A dollar or 3,000 pesos if the usual tip for a photo. You can still get a refreshing plate of bananas, melon, or other tropical fruit from some if you ask politely.

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When I see one of these brightly clothed women on the street, I realize that I am not just looking at a great photo opportunity but looking at centuries of history that these colorful women represent. They are like a living Statue of Liberty, when the pose for the camera. Palenqueras have become icons of Cartagena. They are pictured on brochures, in postcards, and are considered a symbol of Columbia. They are truly symbols of courage, strength and the will to fight for freedom for all the Americas.

 

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©Jim Chamberlain

Last modified on Monday, 01 July 2019

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