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Palenqueros in Colombia

  • The Palenquero community is composed of the descendants of enslaved Africans who, through acts of resistance, sought refuge in territories along the north coast of Colombia known as palenques since the 16th century. There are four recognized palenques: San Basilio de Palenque (Mahates – Bolívar), San José de Uré (Córdoba), Jacobo Pérez Escobar (Magdalena), and La Libertad (Sucre).

    San Basilio de Palenque holds the distinction of being the first free town in America and has been declared by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The Palenquero community cherishes and preserves social, cultural, religious, musical and communal practices with roots tracing back to the African continent. Palenquero is the language spoken within the community and is the only Spanish-based Creole language spoken in the Americas.

  • The Palenquero community has its roots in the settlements where enslaved people from Africa arrived seeking refuge, wanting to be freed. The palenques were territories occupied by enslaved people fleeing their captors and founding their own villages. These palenques became places of resistance and liberation, where their cultural practices and language were preserved.

    The founder of Palenque de San Basilio was Benkos Biohó, a Mandinka leader who commanded a rebellion of Cimarrones escaped slaves in the New Kingdom of Granada (which later became Colombia). Biohó succeeded in getting the government of Cartagena to recognize some rights and liberties for enslaved people. Despite the agreements made with the governor of Cartagena, the pact was violated by the Spanish, who executed the Cimarron leader in 1621.

  • San Basilio de Palenque is currently recognized as a subject of collective reparations by the Victims and Land Restitution Units. In the 1980s and 1990s, the territory was a corridor and supply route for guerillas and paramilitary groups. The Palenque community were victims of extortion, forced displacement, forced labour, homicides, torture and sexual violence. As a result, the community’s cultural practices and sense of belonging were badly affected.

    A bill is currently underway to declare San Basilio de Palenque a Municipality of Bolivar. In 2022, Congresswoman Cha Dorina Hernández became the first Palenque woman to be elected to the Congress of the Republic.

Updated June 2023

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