Ever since I’ve returned to the United States from my vacation in Colombia, I have been attempting to put into words the magic that was Palenque. The locals of the town call it Africa in Colombia because when Cartagena got its independence from Spain, they fled to Palenque and developed the first free African nation in the country. They were able to retain their language, Bantu religion, culture, and dance. I don’t remember what day of my trip the visit to Palenque was, but it was my favorite and the most transformative experience of my life. However, it was not until yesterday, sitting in a race training for work, that it hit me how much I truly needed that day.
I’ll spare the details of what broke me, but the presentation got so heavy that I started to cry. I turned my camera off on zoom and walked away. About 15 minutes later, I got a text from my housemate saying the facilitators repeatedly asked for me as they had opened a breakout room and wondered why I was not joining. I returned to the computer, joined the group, told them I had nothing to say, and turned my camera back off.
Upon returning to the main room, I messaged the facilitator privately and let them know I needed to walk away for my mental health. And you know what the facilitator had the nerve to do? She addressed the room and said, “I understand that this may be heavy for you all, but please inform us before leaving as this information is critical to your work, and these topics cannot be avoided.” Bitch, don’t question my ability to do my job after I just sat in four hours of race training and a whole hour specifically on the intersections of being Black and a woman. Bitch, this is my life, this is my blood, this is my day-to-day. Fuck are you going to teach me about what I live? Like it’s one thing to teach something you learned in a textbook and a whole other to live it.
Anyways, that training made me realize how often, as a Black woman, I’ve found gratitude being in America because at least I was not in a third-world country. But although I appreciate some of the things about ghetto ass America, regardless of where I am, I am never home, nor am I safe.
The few hours in Palenque were probably the first time I ever felt fully home, entirely safe. The day before, we went on a bike ride inside the walled city of Cartagena. We stopped in two plazas and learned they were centers of commerce, where enslaved Africans were bought and sold. While learning this, we were swarmed by Palenqueras, Afro-Colombian women dressed in traditional clothing with baskets of fruit on their heads. They kept saying “my color” “my color” in an attempt to get us to dance with them. We told them we were going to Palenque the next day, which seemed to bring them a lot of joy.
We met our tour guide inside the walled city in the same plaza we were at the day before. Our tour guide repeated the information we had just learned, and then we hopped in the car and drove an hour to the forest. On our drive, I imagined the strength of the people who left Cartagena and walked all that way to establish a town just for their people. Once we arrived, the magic kept growing. Of course, Palenque was not nearly as developed as what we saw of Cartagena. They did not have infrastructure or running water. But you know what they did have? They had an abundance of community, a safe space free of police, elders who got together to solve conflicts, decide what to do, and what looked like peace. We danced, played drums, got our heads wrapped, and broke bread with the locals. It was so beautiful. We saw children running around playing outside, teens grouped together playing board games, and folks just sitting on the porch enjoying one another’s company in the middle of the day during the week.
In America, we care about status, things and live such a fast life. There everything is much slower, and it felt like there was time to enjoy things. So yes, they had less looking from a westernized frame of thinking. Even less compared to the city and the hustler mentality deeply ingrained into it. But watching them, feeling the town’s spirit, I knew the truth was they have so much more. I’ll never forget their joy and I’ll forever be grateful for the love they gave us.