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Saving Palenque: Revolutionary Teachers, Music Keep The Lengua Alive

A man in Palenque returns on horseback from gathering plantain stalks in the forest surrounding Palenque.
Laura Gomez
A man in Palenque returns on horseback from gathering plantain stalks in the forest surrounding Palenque.

SAN BASILIO DE PALENQUE, Colombia -- By the late 1970’s, two things were clear in Palenque: youth had abandoned their language of Palenquero, and adults believed speaking it was a sign of backwardness.

It seemed as if Palenque was content with burying its language. But a handful of young community leaders in their 20's disagreed.

Through gatherings with elders, they convinced the older generation that it was important to speak Palenquero.

"Que los ignorantes eran los otros, eran esos cartageneros que se burlaban, esos barranquilleros que se burlaban," says Sebastian Salgado, a community leader and high school teacher of Palenquero.

Salgado says he told the elders that it was the people from the cities, not them, who were the ignorant ones.

By the end of the 1980’s, he says a local consensus was achieved: speaking Palenquero shouldn’t be a source of embarrassment, but of pride.

Maria de los Santos, who is now 41, helped drive this change.

"La lengua es la base de la cultura palenquera, la lengua es como la arteria principal para transmitir la toda cultura y todos los valores de la comunidad," she says: The language, also known simply as “lengua,” is the foundation of Palenquero culture, it is the main avenue that transmits community values and tradition.

The grassroots movement to preserve Palenquero took to the schools. Two Palenquera teachers began to teach the native language without permission from the principal or education officials.

Soon, more teachers started to teach Palenquero. Eventually, government authorities relented.

To this day, de los Santos teaches lengua Palenquera to kids from preschool to third grade. She says now children take pride in speaking Palenquero.

Children like Carliris Cassiani Cassiani, who’s 9 years old. Sitting in the backyard of her home, she happily recites a poem about cumbia entirely in Palenquero.

Inside the house, her mom is all ears. Forty years ago, Carliris probably would’ve been scolded for speaking “lengua.”

Her little brother, Karl, who’s 4, already sings in Palenquero while playing the llamador drum. Using his tiny hands to play the drum half his size, Karl sings about Palenque’s founder, Benkos Biohó.

Biohó was a slave leader who organized the escape of hundreds of other African slaves and led them to safe settlements. Palenque is the only settlement he founded that is still standing.

Music has played a pivotal role in reviving the lengua.

Andris Padilla is an MC and leader of Kombilesa Mi, a local hip hop group that uses traditional acoustic Palenque instruments instead of electronic beats.

"Nosotros creemos que una manera en que la lengua perdure y se conserve, es, no sintiendo pena, mostrándola en todo lugar donde vayamos, muy a pesar que la gente no entienda," he raps: even if people don’t understand Palenquero, it’s important for them to showcase it everywhere they go. By singing in lengua, they are contributing to its preservation.

De los Santos thinks schools could teach more Palenquero. She also says they can better integrate cultural topics in math, science and art classes to further preserve tradition.

Because culture is expressed-- and preserved-- through language.

Read Part 1 of Saving Palenquero here.