Cartagena: the Blackest city you never heard of
Descend upon Cartagena and first take note of its humble skyline. Feeble grasps at the height of a city’s ego, its own meager measure of capital and industry. The backwash of which spills into the ocean, which is noticeably less turquoise than the waters that led to it only 30 minutes of flight earlier. Near the city’s coast, the waters are slightly more slimy green, bearing a tinge of the residue of commerce. Nonetheless, it whispers of home. For a city boy like me, it echoed of a bite size New York, an only slightly smaller New Orleans. Meanwhile the dilapidated roofs in shadow of the skyscrapers reminded me of Salvador (aka Bahia of Brazil), but a little cleaner, less beat down. Martinique’s contrast with Guadalupe comes to mind.
Damned fringe benefits of being a little closer to the devil’s petting hand. We post-colonial shanty towns his lapdog puppies. The more rebellious the hound, the more shanty the town, the more jagged its edges and haggard its frame. On first sight, it appears that Cartagena is to Salvador what Martinique is to Guadalupe. A more beloved child of its cruel master. The difference being that Martinique and Guadalupe share the same master, France, while Cartagena is the former province of Spain and Salvador is a former Portuguese colony. To that end, Cartagena shares more in common with its former colonial compadre Cuba, the hell hound of all the hounds, who, like Cartagena successfully threw off the shackles of the paternal fatherland of Spain. Cartagena (and Colombia at large) in1821 due to Simon Bolivar’s revolution. Cuba in 1902 due to the so-called Spanish American War.
But it’s only the day of my arrival and I’m yet to have the mysteries of this old city unfold before me. Thus far I only know that it was established in 1533. In days to come I’ll find that the city is named after a city of the same name in Spain and that it means “a letter from far away.” That in order to distinguish between the two, “de Indias” was placed at the end of the city name so it is now Cartagena de Indias. That the country that the city belongs to, Colombia, was named after the Big Kahuna of all colonizers, Christopher Colombus, but that Cartagena was founded by a conquistador named Pedro de Heredia, a son of rich “nobles.” Heredia’s image stands larger than life in statue form at the center of Torre del Reloj in Plaza de los Coches in Centro (or downtown) Cartagena, where enslaved Africans were once brought to market. I’ll find that while this square is deeply reminiscent of the French Quarters back home in New Orleans (but almost twice as old and rich with history), it’s even more identical to Pelourinho (which means “the whipping point) in Bahia where Brazil’s main slave market was conducted. Like New Orleans and Bahia’s colonial centers, Cartagena’s Centro is adorned in age old churches, centuries old cobblestone streets and modern day black and brown poverty.
Cartagena is yet another bead in the pearled pattern of colonial cities that lay across South America and the Caribbean like a necklace to Western empire. Of course the inverse of that analogy is that the city is but another thread in the noose to black and brown oppression. Hand in hand they go. And to that end what the three also share in common is that they’re what former New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin would call chocolate cities. With New Orleans being one of the top slavery ports in North America and Salvador being the number one slavery port in South America. Ringing in at number two for South America (and number one for all former Spanish colonies) was none other than Colombia, it’s main port being Cartagena, the blackest city you never heard of.
The Good Black Root of it All
Cartagena, like Colombia at large, is pretty black. Like 79% black according to my tour guide with Experience Real Cartagena who I toured with on my second day. While that number may be unofficial to say the least, specious to say a bit more, I’m gonna assume that Colombia assumes the one-drop rule like we do up here in the states and that my tour guide was basing his numbers on that. Neither here nor there, the majority of what I saw were brown skinned people ranging from Cardi B to Amara La Negra complexion — all of them appearing to be of the Afro-Latinx to Latinx persuasion. My day two tour took us to a village called Palenque. It’s one of 28 that lie about an hour outside of the city where enslaved ancestors marooned themselves to escape the plantation. Palenque derives its name from the palisades, or fences, that were laid on the ground so that the ancestors could make the long trek to freedom land. The same palisades that were used to draw borders outside of the village once it was established.
The village holds the distinct title of being the only one with solely pure African people in its makeup. These are people descended directly from the original Africans imported to the city in the 1500s. Colombians call people like this Negras Negras. And it’s just like it sounds: black on black (on black). As in, these are the original Africans who have never mixed with any other racial groups in the country, from the Spanish colonizers to the First Nations Indigenous. In other villages you’ll have a mix of African and Mestizos, Zambos and/or Mulattos (more on all those subgroups later), all of which ostensibly fall under the umbrella of “black” which is probably why my tour guide said the city is 79% black. But in Palenque it’s all black — pure black, so black in fact they’ve got a phrase for it. “Toa nello melo” or “the blacker the better.” That language is one of their three tongues (I can’t remember which): either Kimono Bantu (South African), Swahili or Santu (a creolization of the two aforementioned). Most of the people bail from Angola, Congo, South Africa or Guinea-Bissau. In addition to Palenque, other majority black locales included spots even further out from Cartagena like Cali, Buena Ventura and the aptly named Choco.
In Palenque, the black pride was palpable. A huge billboard welcomed tourists to the city with a picture of three beautiful Palenqueras (more on them soon) on it. One of our tour guides wore a t-shirt that read, “Let a Black Man Tell You the Black History.” He looked just like Tupac and when I told him as much he said he gets it all the time, then proceeded to pull off his kufi with the Rasta colors and reveal a bald head. Our main tour guide, Chris, was the son of an esteemed activist in Cartagena whose family namesake stretches back to one of the villages which is named after them. Chris told us that in Palenque there’s a strong emphasis on education and knowing where you come from. They make the children dedicate at least one hour a day to reading. There’s a rich history to keep them informed of. Like their foundation for one, which came about in 1603. Spearheaded by revolutionary maroon Benkos Bioho, an heir of royalty kidnapped from his native Guinea-Bissau. When the Spanish captured and killed him in 1603, the maroon movement went underground and was passed off to black women who spearheaded the work by braiding maps to freedom land in their scalps, covering it with head wraps and donning baskets of fruit atop their head wraps to blend in with the rest of the enslaved population. PAUSE.
FULL. HARD. STOP. Here’s the part where the poet takes a moment to breathe in the awe of witnessing his art form living and breathing in a real life metaphor, then attempts to trace the silhouette of that greatness by crafting some metaphor about how black women encompass the cosmic codes to liberation in their chromosomes and braid those patterns through the beauty of their majestic beings. Now here’s the part where the poet’s pen collapses, falls at the altar of what already is, and realizes there are no words that can be crafted with more brilliance than what the black woman has already done herself. Besides, the sacrosanct spirits of these (at least in part) Senegalese women already exist somewhere in his New Orleans bred DNA. So just breathe and watch the magic unfold. Double besides: Colombians, and more specifically residents of Palenque already have a saying to encompass this beauty. “La magia de las mujeres negras,” or “the magic of the black woman.” That’s right, black girl magic, the antebellum Afro-Latinx version. Aka they been outchea y’heard me? And they still outchea. In the modern day, black women adorned in colorful dresses with fruit baskets atop their heads are called Palenqueras. They promenade through the streets of downtown Cartagena taking pictures with tourists as they preserve the legacy of their ancestors.
Back in the village, a small council of a dozen or so elders governs the mass of 4,500 people. When the youth grow to be 18, if they choose to leave the village, they’re encouraged to pursue careers as doctors or lawyers in the big city and bring their resources back to the village after a period of six years. It’s needed. While the area is rich in history and culture — we were greeted by an African dance troupe that danced traditional dances for us, invited us to join, taught us some basic drum rhythms after tearing them thangs up like nobody’s business, and then closed it out by singing happy birthday to one of the sisters on the tour with us and then dovetailing into an impromptu rap cypher — Palenque, like most of the villages, remains an off the grid dust and sweat road town with garbage strewn about empty lots next to homes that look like they’ve been struggling to stay afoot for years. Many of the people make a living off of manual labor they perform on their farms and they just started getting wi-fi about 6 years ago. Nonetheless, nothing subtracted from the home we (all black tourists) felt sipping local brew and rum with some old timers outside a little shack of a storefront next to a dirt road in the heart of the village. An old head tried to talk to me in Spanish which I barely understood. We let our bodies do the talking instead as we cut up right there in the middle of the street, music blaring from the huge speakers only feet away. Later, after flicking it up in front of a “Black Lives Matter” mural and some other powerful local art, as the tour group boarded the bus, a young brother called me off the bus to take pics with him. I didn’t have much in the way of words that he could understand others than, “Solidaridad,” and “somos hermanos.” He just stared all hard and serious at the camera, pointed the requisite finger at me like I was the one and said, “my neega.”
The Bad, Towering Legacy of White Supremacy
Unfortunately, like any good chocolate city, Cartagena does’t get far beyond the divisive clutches of white supremacy. I caught a glimpse of this on one tour where we explored the street art of Cartagena in all its colorful, many splendored glory. While the tour mostly doused my eyes in the ineffably beautiful murals of Catalina de Indias (more on her soon), legendary Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez (of 100 Years of Solitude fame), his literary predecessor and Langston Hughes collaborator Manuel Zapata Olivella, and so much more, I was also introduced to the Colombian tradition of “Yo soy no negrita,” which translates to “I am not your negro.” It’s an attempt at rebelling against white supremacist precepts by donning blackface as a means of reverse satire. Hmm… quite familiar this sounds. For anyone that follows this blog or knows of my anti-white supremacist work in my hometown of New Orleans, you’ll know that in my last entry I wrote about the exact same dynamic here in my city. If you’ve read that then you know my stance on the futility of satirizing the master with his own tools. To that end, I was none too impressed to see the “Yo soy no negrita” campaign on full display in the heart of downtown. I had been made aware of the Colombian blackface tradition by way of a video on Facebook only weeks prior to arriving in the country so it came as no surprise. What was/is most remarkable is how directly the Colombian blackface tradition mirrors New Orleans’ own.
Like New Orleans, Colombians perform blackface every year in their carnival. Like New Orleans, Colombians have a large amount of their working class that is either ambivalent towards, or in favor of the tradition quite often due to a lack of education on it. And like New Orleans, Colombia has a strong contingent of folks, mostly of the Pan-African or Afro-centric persuasion (at least as far as the aforementioned video shows), who actively resist the use of blackface and critique it as being derisive towards black existence in the second blackest country in Latin America (Brazil being the first). It’s noteworthy that this tradition would find a home here in Cartagena, a fellow prominent port for slavery that, like New Orleans, is deeply stricken with colorism and anti-blackness. (Take for example the Miss Colombia pageant which has had 68 winners over the last 7 decades, not one of them even close to dark-skinned.) As far as I can tell, all those ingredients (slavery, blackface, and a subsequent culture of anti-blackness) are inextricably related to one another and there’s no denying their connection. The irony is that they seem to take place most often in colonial cities like Cartagena and New Orleans that simultaneously have some of the greatest levels of African cultural retention in all of Western culture. It’s the best and worst of things at the same damn time.
Speaking of the worst of things, only blocks away from the “Yo soy no negrita” paintings, I went on an entirely different tour a few days prior. Think of this one as the flip side of the Experience Real Cartagena tours: the colonial narrative to the Afro-centric one if you will. My tour guide this time was a Latinx guy who went by the name of King Arthur (can’t make this stuff up). And his tour proved to be just as questionable as his name. He rolled things out in Torre del Roloj, about 20 feet away from the statue of Pedro de Heredia. There, he proceeded to tell the mostly white tour group about the savage Indians (ostensibly his ancestors) who were known for eating people and how Heredia, benevolent white savior that he was, diplomatically negotiated his way out of being eaten. According to Arturo (um a call ya what ya mama call ya behby), Heredia did this by escorting — *coughs* kidnapping — a woman named Catalina de Indias back to Spain, indoctrinating her in their ways, then bringing her back to Cartagena to negotiate with the savage Indians on behalf of the Spaniards. Catalina, basically Colombia’s Pocahontas, is commemorated to this day with statues, street art and with the special distinction of having a model trophy made in her likeness be used for Colombia’s yearly film awards (think: their version of the Oscars). From bronze skinned token Indian to golden statue ornament of modern agitprop, Catalina continues to do big things. Meanwhile, long before her legend became literal gold, those savages Catalina was enlisted to help subdue, were known for their expert craftsmanship with the precious mineral, which was aplenty in this region of the earth. The group that occupied modern day Cartagena was originally known as the Kalamary, their word for crabs, which were a prominent source of food for them. For some odd reason known only to the European, the gold that laid beneath the feet of the Kalamry and other indigenous groups in what is now Colombia for some 5,000 years before their colonization, was worth waging genocidal warfare for. But for the Kalamry, Choco, Cali, and many others it was simply used for the creation of spiritual totems and immaculate art that they used to interpret everything from nature to dreams.
Arturo taught me none of this. I learned it at the Gold Museum or Museo de Oro later that day. But he did walk us to a famed fortress and proceed to give a rundown on several wars between the Spanish and English as he praised the great Blas de Lazo (there’s a statue for him too of course) who lost a leg, half an arm and an eye (go toxic masculinity go!) in those wars which ultimately designated Spanish (instead of English) dominance over the black and brown folks in Colombia. It would take another, more off the grid local tour guide to later tell me that the Spanish forced the labor of the indigenous in this war and when that didn’t suffice, the labor of enslaved Africans was used to build the forts that led to the Spanish’s ultimate victory. Anywho, blah blah blah Euros be tripping and what not. The height of which can probably best be delineated not through what they did to defend themselves from external threats (read: competition aka other Europeans) but the internal ones (read: resistance to colonization from the Africans, the indigenous and sometimes yes, other wypipo). Enter Exhibit B: the Palacio de Inquisicion, where I was to learn about the Spanish Inquisition. Arturo had broached the subject telling us how a white man’s finger could be ground up like so much carrots in a blender, or a black woman’s back could be lashed publicly 200 times as her body hung hoisted up by the wrists, or how she might be bound to a machine, all her limbs pulled in opposite directions in order to torture the truth out of her and prove her a witch.
I left a note in the museum sign in book thanking them for helping me more deeply decode the DNA of white supremacist state sanctioned violence.
The museum zoomed out and painted the bigger picture of the Inquisition telling how its roots hearkened back to the medieval era (which gives whole new meaning to “going medieval on your ass”…) when the Spanish church used torture as a means to weed out potential opposition to their Christian doctrine. They carried that tradition over to the “New World” with an intensified venom for fear of what the heathen brown and black folks, and even Jewish for that matter, might render. Well with all their root working and voodoo, tarot card reading and sacred tobacco smoking, and generally non-Christian practices. The irony is that it was that same knowledge of roots — what today’s colonizers from Western scientists to gentrifying hipsters have learned to call herbalism — that yesterday’s colonizers used to make richer harvest of indigenous crops to sell to market. And in even more hypocritical cases, they directly contracted the enslaved for their “love medicines” and healing herbs to cure the ailments of their own oppressors. And if it didn’t work, then they might be hung by the gallows, or beheaded by the guillotine. Ain’t that about a…
Horror of all horrors comes with the museum’s replicas of some of the gruesome tools of torture. One of the most hideous of which, when I saw it, I couldn’t help but think of that nightmarish vice grip that Jaime Foxx wore on his neck in the beginning of Django Unchained. It was wild to see the embryonic root of some of the tools eventually used to torture our ancestors. To see how deeply rooted and impersonal it all was for the European. How matter of fact of life and routine it was by the time it washed ashore to us. I left a note in the museum sign in book thanking them for helping me more deeply decode the DNA of white supremacist state sanctioned violence. In all manner and form from police brutality to the death penalty, plantation punishment to Guantanamo Bay. It’s all symptoms of the same sadomasochistic sickness. Meanwhile, the museum itself offers a puny apology to all those victimized by the 250 year span of the American inquisition, (the 3,000 prosecuted and however many killed by the court established in Mexico in 1571, the 1,400 in Peru established in 1570 and the 800 in Colombia established in 1610). Palacio de Inquisicion presents itself as some sort of penance for the Spanish empire’s wrongdoing, and a promise of a more just, less barbaric society in the present. All nice and dandy notions that would be lovely to believe, except it simply isn’t true. Today’s Colombian government carries on its own rendition of yesteryear’s inquisitions with a perhaps, even more violent twist. There have been over 500 activists murdered in Colombia since 2016 alone.
The Ugly Shadow of Oppression in The Streets
In order to understand where those bodies have gone and why, you’d need a whole other essay. But shouts out to my elder comrade Gangsta G who prepped me for my trip by sending me a care package of at least half a dozen articles discussing the malfeasant and repressive regime that is the Colombian government. I’m no expert on the subject so I won’t get into details. But I will say that my first day in Cartagena gave me the best missing piece to the puzzle I could’ve asked for when my Air BnB host sat me down to tell me about the 6 “levels” of Colombian neighborhoods. First you have Level 5 and 6, she told me. Those places are good neighborhoods. Like here in Manga where you are staying, Boca Grande that you drove through to get here and the airport right before it. These are good, safe neighborhoods. Then there are Level 4 neighborhoods. They’re not as nice but not so bad. Then you have Levels 1 through 3. They are dangerous. Where the people might do crime to you, she told me. She was absolutely sincere in this. Said it without a hint of irony. I nodded my head through the typically classist (and unspoken racist) script as she unfolded it.
I would come to find in the days to come that most of the Level 1 through 4 neighborhoods were in outskirt neighborhoods that bordered the more affluent neighborhoods at the core (read: near the coast) of Cartagena. It was to these neighborhoods that the darker skinned Cartagenans had been banished by — ahem… “development.” The expense of fast paced economic “growth.” On our tour of the “real Cartagena,” Chris would not only show us the sprawling art of the rapidly gentrifying Getsemani, but also the downtrodden state of the peripheral neighborhoods. He would also tell us of a movement called Pro-Colombia wherein black North Americans have been buying back the block (in some of the “developing” neighborhoods) on some Rick Ross/ Nipsy Hussle shit, ostensibly to assist our black (s)kinfolk down in Colombia. It was in Level 1 though 3 hoods, however, where crumbling homes half stood next to the requisite 8-foot piles of broken down concrete rubble on empty clay colored dirt lots. It was here that the motorbike boys carried their passengers from one spot to to the next for just 3.000 pesos (one US dollar) on streets the taxicabs refused to drive. It was here where the Negras Negras, Mulattos (Africans mixed with 2nd generation Africans and/or other races), Zambos (African and indigenous mixed folks), and even some Mestizos (indigenous folks mixed with Spanish) mixed freely in one community. It was here where I would glimpse at understanding the desperation with with which the downtown hustlers moved, the miseries they had to escape, and the thin line of survival they had to tow. And just in wing of it all, towering above the whole hood, a four century old church called Convento de la Popa perched on the highest point the city. A five star hotel directly outside of San Francisco, one of the neighborhoods we drove through, looking directly down on the valley in which that Level 2 hood sat.
By bad, what the rich and middle class always means is poor. They mean guilty stains on the respectable pastiche of status quo existence.
As my BnB host talked, my mind flashed back to a tour I took in Salvador four years ago when the tour guide took us past the invisible borders of Pelourinho where tourists were strongly admonished not to go. Because there, of course, was where the “bad people” lived. All we saw there were small flats where families were forced to cram half a dozen or more people while the parents hustled for chump change to feed the whole lot. All this in the shadow of centuries old churches that the local government had poured dozens of millions into refurbishing. By bad, what the rich and middle class always means is poor. They mean guilty stains on the respectable pastiche of status quo existence. They mean bad like the impoverished children that Brazilian military police were found to have been killing in front of churches for “loitering” (read: desperately seeking shelter). They don’t mean bad like the Brazilian military cop I saw fling a civilian’s door open with his gun already drawn because he was tired of sitting in traffic behind her as she waited for the garbage truck in front her (that he could not see from his car two vehicle behind) to move forward. They mean bad like the New Orleanian homeless population that gets mysteriously disappeared before every major tourist event in the city. Or bad like the impoverished working class of my city, who god forbid, sometimes resort to petty crimes for survival that don’t even kiss the heels of the political corruption in this town. They don’t mean bad like the politicians who shuffle cool thousands and millions of dollars under the table in backdoor deals. They mean bad like low level petty criminals in some Level 1 shanty town of a hood in Cartagena who hustle to survive. Or maybe the activists from those same communities, or the adjacent villages, who organize to combat the greedy sprawl of “development” from displacing them further than colonization already has for the last four hundred years. They don’t mean bad like the government that murders them for defending themselves.
And so it goes. The hustle is on and it’s on because they said it’s on. Can’t trust a smidgeon of business so life is death row. So while we’re broaching this whole thing with rap lines (for my millennials, super old folks and lames in general, that was a Tupac reference two sentences ago by the way), I should mention that it’s not all gloom and doom on the hustle side. Many approach with an upbeat spirit and jovial attitude sometimes accompanied with rhythmic flavor. My favorites — which is saying a lot cause even these dudes were annoying as hell — were the young MCs who moved in packs of anywhere from 2 to 8. Sometimes even equipped with a guitar. They’d spot me like a friendly wolf does its prey and start singing and spitting bars. Oh the better to eat up my pesos with at the end when they’d close out their session with their signature hook, “YOU! ARE THE BOSS!” which they’d say like 10 times before they’d unfurl an empty baseball cap asking for 50.000 pesos, 100.000 pesos,” or what have you. Being a former MC myself, I jumped right in the middle of a cypher or two myself thinking it was all for the love. The love of diction and dinero my friend.
When you’re not lucky enough to be aggressively accosted by some youngins with enough talent to make it to one of those corny ass shows with Simon on it, you get the more basic approach. The one that turned my enthusiastic black man in search of a diasporic home on day one, into jaundiced, practical New Yorker that will straight up ignore your ass by day done. “Hola mi amigo! Mi color! Mi brother! Where you from!? What you looking for?” (I should mention that that “mi color” line had me all ear to ear grins when the Palenqueras first served it to me until I gave them a 20.000 pesos bill, one took it and I realized they all wanted one and that was the last time I took a picture with the Palenqueras. Ahem…) A block of choppy Spanglish convo later, once you’ve rejected the “cerbeza,” the cliché faux Panamanian hat, or the handmade bracelets with “real [insert indigenous stone here] my friend,” then it’s back to “what you looking for?…. dope? coke? weed? I got it my man.” Nah I’m good fam. “Nooo…? Well what you looking for?” More desperately now as you begin to make distance. “Girls amigo? Tonight… around the square.” And every night, like clockwork, beneath the watching gaze of the Centro clock, at the foot of Pedro de Heredia in the market where black and brown bodies were once sold like livestock, scantily clad women gather like cattle and sell themselves to wanting tourists. As military police hover around the whole affair like overseers, like foxes watching a henhouse spilling over with hungry jackals.
On my last night, as I perused the arts district of Getsemani, where the wonderful street art can be found, I sipped a Cuba Libre in a bar that sat on the edge of Plaza de la Trinidad. The plaza, quite the opposite of the seediness of Torre del Reloj after dark, was a gathering space for artsy locals and tourists. The neighborhood was perforated with as many random hostels on every other block as it is street art. Think: Cartagena’s answer to New York’s 1980’s SoHo or New Orleans’ present day Marigny. In short: gentrification central. On this particular night, the square was especially empty, aside from a singular cypher with some of those same rapping and singing ass musicians I had seen earlier that day. A little white girl jumped in the cypher dancing off beat and everything. And it was all love. But hovering only feet away and all around the square in greater number than any group of folks out that Saturday night, was cop after cop after cop after cop. More police than people. I asked the bartender why so many police. He said they were there to protect the tourists.
As I moseyed back towards my BnB a little later, my second one — which was nestled in the heart of Centro this time, I walked up the street that separated Getsemani from Centro. There stood, on either side of the street, more police in a little brigade of a checkpoint. All of them fully armed with bullet proof vests and guns I couldn’t tell you the name of. Damn near looked like SWAT but with green uniforms. By the time I arrived where they were standing, they communicated to me that they needed me to raise my hands and empty my pockets. I asked them what this was all about. “Yo soy de Estados Unidos,” I said. The smaller one looked me in my eyes like I had said nothing at all. Waited for me to empty my pockets. Then focused special attention on the candy that I’d gotten from La Zaipitos, a fine 4.5 star restaurant I’d eaten at earlier that night and reveled in the succulence of the grilled octopus, and the slow destruction I’d made of its uber artsy presentation. The little candies must’ve looked like a potential jackpot cause they twirled them around in their fingers semi-hopefully before forking it back over to me. Then they deadpanned me in my eyes and said “Gracias,” as I returned the dead stare and went on my way.
So I’ve told you about Cartagena, the blackest city I’d never heard much of up until a few months ago. It’s good, bad and ugly are forever embedded in my brain but what will last more than anything is the beautiful. The pungent impression of beauty that the city and it’s adjacent landscapes baptize your senses in is what will keep you coming back to a place like this. As a present New Orleanian, I was once again reminded why our old adage rings so true. New Orleans truly is the top of the Caribbean. We have way more in common with a lot of cities to the South of us than most right here in our own country. But while New Orleans may be, as I’ve said since I moved back in 2006, the best way to leave the country without leaving the country, it’s only a drop in the bucket of deep history that much of the rest of the Caribbean and South America offer. It’s this interconnected web of culture and history that keeps me in love with my own city despite its many flaws. And reaching beyond it, the diaspora of Afro-colonial cities that we share a common history with. In Cartagena specifically it’s the emerald and gold rich fertile ground beneath the cobblestoned streets, still yielding its potent harvest all these millennium since first nations ancestors first tilled it.
It’s the diasporic connections of Africana threading the heartstrings of our collective legacy together as you witness the motherland’s dances from a troupe from Choco collaborating with a troupe from Cuba in the shadow of a statue of Simon Bolivar, as the yellow glow of Centro’s streetlights stain their brown skins in a glow that blurs the whole scene into something you could have dreamt. It’s the kaleidoscope of colors that the street art immerses you in that have you feeling like you just dropped your eyeballs in a bowl of rainbow sherbet topped with tropical skittles. It’s the second Air BnB you stay in in the heart of the city echoing of a downtown Brooklyn apartment in the 80s, replete with its station directly atop the hubbub of the swap meet below. It’s you standing on the balcony, the whole hustling and bustling city scurrying towards sunset beneath you, the city clock in your background, the sky a blurry pastiche of lavender and flamingo pink splashed with a fading yellow behind you. It’s the turquoise blue waters of Playa de Blanca, of Tierra de Bomba, the way they splash your face like mother nature kissing your cheek on the boat ride over to the island, the way the jet ski buoys you up and down off the trampolining waves, skipping you along on the back of the machine towards small reaches at flight. It’s the peche con arroz de coco afterwards, the first second and third time eating it till the food poisoning kicks in but you still can’t keep yourself form the camarones, the octopus, the veggie enchiladas and cervice, the mango and papaya candy and all the other delectable treats falling from the sky and sprouting from the ground in this town.
It’s the warm smiles and glowing eyes of the Palenqueras welcoming you home to their embrace as their blaring blue, sunny yellow, and glowing red dresses swaddle your frame in the colors of Colombia for the requisite tourist pic. It’s the two sisters, one rich brown your color, the other caramel complexioned like your brother, so busy talking crazy to you bout some dance they need you to know about they completely neglect to sell you anything, while other random street jewelers gather round and only low-key hustle you cause they too busy trynna hook you up with one of these sisters and tell you about the party scene that night. How you bump into the biggest, loudest one of them the next day as you’re leaving town and dap him up like an old homey. Then upon hearing that you need to wire money through Western Union, he takes an hour out of his morning to travel with you through 3 cab rides and 3 neighborhoods, and over a dozen blocks to get you to the Western Union, and get your money wired before helping carry your bags to your final cab on the way to the airport and only asks for 30.000 pesos for the whole affair. It’s you not wanting to leave. It’s your friend texting you when you get back saying “your. trip. to Cartagena. looked. like. a dream.” It’s you replying, “it was.”