You won’t have to walk far in Cartagena’s old town before spotting one or more of these colourfully dressed women. They stand on street corners, bowls of tropical fruit ready to balance on their heads for any tourist willing to tip them a dollar or two. And most visitors will feel it is worth that tip to get a photo of such an iconic sight.
Certainly I was happy to pay a couple of them, knowing that this is how they make their incomes. But I confess I wasn’t above grabbing some candid shots where I could, as I preferred their more natural, relaxed demeanours. The first two shots below are posed, the remainder candid.
But who are these women and why are they here? To find out we need to go back to the 17th century.
The Spanish had imported African slaves to help to build their new colony in the Cartagena region. They were used to clear the land and construct the city’s fort and defences. The city also became an important centre for the trading of slaves, but despite the Spaniards’ best efforts, some slaves escaped.
One of these runaway slaves was Domingo Benkos Biohó, a Bantu-speaking king, who managed to escape from a slave ship that capsized in the waters of the Magdalena River. Helped by some fellow escapees he founded a community for fugitive slaves in a remote location, far from their former masters. They fortified the place by surrounding it with wooden fences, or palenques, and named their town San Basilio de Palenque.
Here they welcomed other runaways and the community grew. So in 1691 the Spanish issued a Royal Decree which guaranteed freedom to the town’s Africans on the condition that they stop welcoming new escapees. They didn’t, of course, but despite several clampdowns by the Spanish they managed to retain their independence. Thus San Basilio de Palenque became the first free town of the Americas, and its inhabitants, palenqueros and palenqueras, the first free black men and women.
But although San Basilio had achieved what no other town of its time had yet managed to achieve, its people still faced difficulties. Cut off from the rest of society they had very limited access to resources. So the town was extremely poor, as indeed it remains today. The women of the town decided to exploit what they had around them in abundance, fruit. They filled their hand-woven baskets with tropical fruits, and dressed in their traditional clothing made the long journey into the bustling Cartagena to sell their wares.
This developed into a welcome source of steady income for San Basilio, and the presence of these palenqueras became a common sight on Cartagena’s streets.
Today’s palenqueras no longer focus on selling their fruit. Instead they make their still much-needed money by posing for tourists and for photographers commissioned to illustrate guidebooks and websites. No guide to Cartagena is complete without them!
But it’s worth remembering their history and recognising that this is no tourist trap. The women, descendants of the world’s first free African slaves, rely on the tourist income, earning the money to feed their families in the way their ancestors did. Their costume celebrates their Afro-Caribbean heritage as well as serving as a reminder of those ancestors’ brave resistance to oppression. So having grabbed those candid shots, the least I could do in return, I felt, was to tell their story.
In this second gallery, again the first two shots below are posed, close-ups of the same women above. The rest are candid, including one very bored-looking lady. Maybe unlike the majority she had forgotten her phone that day!
This is a follow-up to my primary colours post in which I promised to share more information about the palenqueras.
I visited Cartagena in February 2023