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Saving Palenque: How A Tiny Colombian City Revived Its Native Tongue

Laura Gomez
Nestled between a lush and mountainous humid region, Palenque was founded in the late 1600s by fugitive African slaves who left Cartagena.

SAN BASILIO DE PALENQUE, Colombia  —  From the moment the sun rises over the green hills surrounding Palenque to dark, late hours of night, there is hardly a moment of silence.

Dominoes tiles thump against wooden tables near the plaza. Sound systems, called picós, blast tunes of vallenato music, a rhythm born out of the Atlantic coast of Colombia.

The squeaky brakes of a motorcycle pierce the roar of another zipping by.

The alegre and llamador drums reverberate deeply.

Palenque is filled with sound.

Sounds that day by day are a living representation of the city’s unique culture.

“I kelé... pá suto fottalesé... nu reja pelé lengua suto ke a-sendá ngande,” sings Jose de Jesus Valdez, an MC part of a local hip-hop group called Kombilesa Mi, singing in his native tongue of Palenquero.

“I kelé... pá suto fottalesé... nu reja pelé lengua suto ke a-sendá ngande.”

The lyrics translate to: ‘I want... for us to strengthen, let’s not allow our grand lengua Palenquera to be lost.’

Lengua is how locals refer to their native tongue of Palenquero, a language derived from central West African dialects with a Spanish-based alphabet and lexicon.

It is the only Spanish-based creole in South America.

Today locals can be heard chatting in Palenquero over a round of cold beers, elders converse in lengua below the shade of a guama tree, and parents teach songs to their kids in their native language. In 2005, the northern city was declared by UNESCO a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

But a few decades ago, in the mid-1980s, locals and scholars were convinced Palenquero was at the brink of extinction.

It's a fate not uncommon for native tongues worldwide.

University of California professor and linguist Armin Schwegler remembers the imminent decline he saw in the years following his first visit to Palenque in 1985.

"It was so stark that all of us reached a conclusion that this was a downhill slope, from which there was no return," he said.

In the 1940s, Palenqueros started migrating to neighboring cities of Cartagena and Barranquilla to sell fruit and candy.

There they were met with discrimination. For their black skin. For their sing-songy spoken Spanish. For speaking their native tongue.

"It was so stigmatized and attitudes towards anything black were so strongly negative that there was no way that somebody reasonably could have thought that this could ever change," Schwegler said.

Palenque was founded at the turn of the 17th Century by hundreds of fugitive slaves, who fled the slave port of Cartagena.

These runaways settled in a region surrounded by hills which served as a natural fortress. They called the town Palenque.

In 1713, before Colombia was even a country, the Spanish Crown recognized the region's independence. Yet it wasn’t until 1991 that the Colombian government recognized in its Constitution the heritage from the descendants of Africa.

In the Atlantic Coast, during the 1980s, Palenqueros began to see their native language as detrimental to their acceptance and assimilation to city life.

Sebastian Salgado, a community leader in Palenque and high school teacher of Palenquero,

"Era objeto de burla. Entonces ya muchos padres y muchos abuelos se sintieron muy maltratados en la ciudad," he said-- many parents and grandparents were the object of ridicule in the cities and were hurt by this treatment.

When they returned to Palenque, Salgado said, they’d scold their children and grandchildren, and say “Don’t speak lengua palenquera.”

Not because they agreed with that, says Salgado, but because they didn’t want their children and grandchildren to go through the same humiliation.

Another linguist and Palenquero scholar, Carlos Patiño Rosselli, wrote in 1983, “The finalization of the historical cycle of the Palenquero language does not seem to be very far."

But in Palenque that did not happen.

At the end of the 1970, Salgado said, the fight began to get Palenqueros to speak their language. Both in Palenque and outside Palenque.

Read Part 2 of Saving Palenquero here.