Views of Panama

Congo Heritage

On March 18, in the city of Portobelo just north of Panama City, the 10th Annual Festival of Diablos and Congos is scheduled to take place. The festival provides an excellent opportunity to explore a culture that left its mark on several countries in the region through an event that bears witness to the arrival of the African diaspora in the Americas during colonial times.

By Ana Teresa Benjamín
Photos: Carlos Gómez

In 1978, after visiting the Caribbean village of Portobelo in Panama, Toshi Sakai began thinking about the enslaved Africans who were transported to the Americas. His travels through the country took him to the ruins of the old colonial city and he wondered who had built the walls there. “It was the Spaniards,” he was told. And yet that answer seemed inaccurate. “It was the Africans and indigenous people who actually did the work, but they were erased from history.”

A few months ago, Sakai, who is Japanese and lives in the United States, presented the results of several years of research on Panamanians of African descent at an anthropology and history conference held in Panama City. He began by pointing out that, according to official data, Afro-Panamanians account for 14.9% of the country’s population and illustrated this point with a map of Panama highlighting the countless places with names that are African in origin. Later in his talk, Sakai presented a documentary about runaway slaves on the isthmus.

Both of these discoveries came as a surprise to Sakai, who only became interested in Panama because of his experiences in Portobelo, specifically with the Congos, descendants of the Africans brought to the Americas by Spanish colonizers.

The Congos maintain their own culture, the most “colorful” manifestation of which takes place in January and February of each year when the Congo flag flies over the “palenques,” the name given to enclaves of fugitive slaves. During the celebration, characters such as Pajarito, Mamá Guarda, the Priest, the Spirit, the Archangel, and the Devils surround the Queen and Juan de Dios. The women dress in colorful skirts made from scraps of fabric and the men paint their faces or wear masks and speak in the Congo dialect. The women sing, the men beat drums, and everyone moves together in a sensual, theatrical dance that represents stories from their history. It all comes to an end on Ash Wednesday with the baptism of the “Devils,” who have spent the past two months torturing the Congos and using their whips.

“At first I thought my film was going to be about the Congos, because they are a living manifestation of culture,” confesses Sakai, “but I ended up making a film about fugitive slaves.” Sakai continues, telling us how his research on the Congos led to even more questions, but he never takes his eyes off the other star of this story: Sheila Walker.

Walker lives in the United States, but her African roots have taken her all over the world. Her interest in the African diaspora began when she was nineteen years old and traveled as an exchange student to study at Cameroon University in Central Africa. Walker lived with a family that was “very conscious of its culture and had a truly pan-African perspective.”

“I began to discover the African diaspora —although at the time there was no term for it— through music and food, for example,” says Walker. Later, while studying anthropology at the university, she realized that this diaspora was unrecognized in her own country. “Our professors tried to teach us that African-Americans were the only ethnic group in the U.S. without its own culture. Obviously, this idea didn’t sit well with me, so I began to study my culture and origins…and I found I was part of something much larger.”

At one point in Sakai’s research on the Congo culture in Portobelo, a mutual friend showed an early version of Sakai’s findings to Walker. In this research, the Japanese documentarian referred to the idea, commonly accepted in Panama, that the Congo King in the yearly ritual is a representation of the Spanish crown. Walker read this and was surprised. “I told him [Sakai] I didn’t believe this was true… I’d seen Congos in other parts of America and the idea that they were making fun of the Spanish crown just wasn’t logical,” explains the anthropologist.

Marcia Rodríguez, Congo Queen from the Panamanian neighborhood of Curundú, supports Walker’s version. “She’s right,” Rodríguez nods, seated at a table in a popular Panama City cafeteria. “The King in the Congo ritual represented the ancient African kingdom.” So why is the other version so popular in this country? “Because no one listens to us. They don’t pay us any attention,” repeats Rodríguez.

The Kongo was an important Central African kingdom at the time of the colonization of the Americas and during the centuries of slave trade that followed. European historians speak of the Congo as early as the 14th century as a state that, prior to the arrival of the Europeans, maintained an extensive commercial network, trading in copper objects, raffia fiber, and ceramics. Kikongo was the language spoken in this kingdom and millions of human beings were torn from these lands and taken to the Americas as slaves.

“It’s obvious to me that [the Congos] represent [in their dances and rituals] this Kingdom of Kongo, with which they were familiar, and not a European monarchy they had no knowledge of,” insists Walker. Walker’s research has uncovered Congo populations in Brazil —especially in the states of Minas Gerais, São Paulo, and Rio Grande do Sul. “The Congos there are called Congado or Congada,” she explains. There is a dance in Pernambuco called maracatú, which represents the Kongo royalty, and there are Congos in the Dominican Republic and Haiti, too. In Panama, the Congo culture has deep roots in the coastal lands of Colón, because Portobelo was a slave-market town.

“The Congo dance in Brazil, Haiti, or the Dominican Republic is understood as something African; nobody mentions the Spanish crown,” Walker continues. And it’s only logical that this culture can be found in several countries, the anthropologist maintains, because six million people were kidnapped from the ancient kingdom.

Both Walker and Sakai believe that the version of the Congo kings popular among Panamanians can be explained by the country’s limited knowledge of Africa and the region’s Afro-descendant culture, although Walker insists that there are people and cultures of African origin in every American country “from Chile to Canada, and every nation has at least one organized group of Afro-descendants and several cultural manifestations with which they identify.” In fact, the CEPAL (Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean) calculates that Afro-descendants account for 15.6-30% of the total population —between 80 and 150 million people.

Regardless of who is right —and the debate is certain to inspire further research— Portobelo will soon be regaled yet again by Devils and Congos, to the delight of both academics and tourists, who, amid colonial buildings and forts built by Africans and indigenous people, can enjoy one of the many cultural events that enrich all of the Americas.


Fugitive Slaves and African Names

Wherever there were slaves, there were fugitive slaves. Among the best known was Benkos Biohó, founder of Colombia’s San Basilio de Palenque, a community whose unique history and culture was declared a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.

Toshi Sakai was drawn to the topic of Panama’s escaped slaves when he found that, although the territory was relatively small compared to other Spanish cities in America, it contained a significant number of slave leaders and “palenques.”

Why was this? Portobelo at the time was a strategic colonial commercial hub where everything from precious stones to slave labor was bought or sold. As a result, nearly 75% of the isthmus’s population was African.

With so many oppressed souls in a single place, rebellions were frequent. In her book The Congo Ritual in Northwest Panama, anthropologist Patricia Lund Drolet states that, from 1542 to 1582, the number of escaped slaves on the isthmus —and, subsequently, the number of “Palenques,” as these enclaves of escaped slaves are known— increased significantly. “By 1553, there were an estimated 800 black and indigenous fugitive slaves in the region. In fact, by 1575 there were almost as many fugitive slaves as slaves: 2,500 fugitives and 2,809 slaves.”

It is therefore not surprising that so many of Panama’s villages, communities, and rivers have African names: Cimarrón, La Guinea, Jurutungo, Cocolí, Malambo, Conga, Mandinga, Bayano… These are all names of Central African villages, ethnic groups, or fugitive slave leaders.

In the words of anthropologist Sheila Walker, Panama is “clearly African”.