The Cultural Space
of Palenque de San Basilio
 

The village of Palenque de San Basilio, with a population of about 3,500 inhabitants, is located in the foothills of the Montes de María, southeast of the regional capital Cartagena. Palenque de San Basilio was one of the walled communities called palenques, which were founded by escaped slaves as a refuge in the seventeenth century. Of the many palenques that existed in former times, only the one of San Basilio has survived until the present day and developed into a unique cultural space. 

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The Cultural Space of Palenque de San Basilio encompasses specific social, medical and religious practices as well as musical and oral traditions, of which many have African roots. The social organisation of the community is based on family networks and age groups called ma-kuagro. A kuagro age group consists of all those community members that were born in a few consecutive years and last throughout lifetime. The kuagro membership comes with a set of rights and duties towards other group members but also strong internal solidarity. Daily work and special events are jointly undertaken by all kuagro members.

The complex funeral rituals and medical practices are evidence of the particular spiritual and cultural systems framing life and death in the Palenque community. The lumbalú, for example, is a collective funeral rite, in which the women play a crucial role as they perform chants and specific rituals. Musical expressions such as the bullernege sentado, son palenquero or son de negro accompany collective celebrations, such as baptisms, weddings and religious festivities as well as leisure activities.

Central for the Cultural Space of Palenque de San Basilio is the language of palenquero, the only creole language in the Americas comprising a lexical Spanish basis with morpho-syntactic characteristics of African (Bantu) native languages. It constitutes a vital factor reinforcing social cohesion among community members.

The Cultural Space of Palenque is not only threatened by the market transformation, which shrinks local production modes, but also because the armed conflict between Colombian paramilitary and guerrilla groups is affecting its direct surroundings. Outside Palenque, its inhabitants are commonly subjected to racial discrimination and ethnic stereotyping leading to a denial of their cultural values. The increasing influence of commercial media and unsuited school curricula is rapidly eroding the community’s heritage and leads to cultural homogenisation.