Congos of Panama
Congos of Panama
The Congos of the Republic of Panama inhabit small villages and towns on the Caribbean coast of the isthmus and along the trans-Isthmian highway. While some present-day Congos are actual descendants of cimarrónes —Africans who liberated themselves by fleeing to the mountains and rainforests—most are inheritors of the cultural traditions developed by both the cimarrónes and enslaved Africans during the colonial period. Once free, the cimarrónes established palenques, or fortified villages, from which they set out on raiding parties against Spanish settlements and caravans.
During the colonial period, the term Congo was used more as a generic term for African, rather than as a definitive term referring to a specific ethnic or religious group. Africans from almost every region of the continent from which people were abducted passed through Panama on their way to forced labor in the gold and silver mines of Peru and other parts of the Americas. Some scholars in Panama, however, believe that a significant number of Africans who remained may have come from the region of the Kongo and Guinea. For the most part, however, the cimarrónes became a culturally mixed group, since they consisted of Africans from various ethnic groups who intermarried. They also married other blacks and mulattos who had been born in Panama, as well as indigenous people. The lingua franca for both the enslaved and the cimarrónes became an Africanized version of Spanish, which the enslavers had difficulty understanding. Recognizing their ability to communicate with each other without their enslaver1s knowledge, they created a jargon that consisted of double meanings, reverse meanings of some words, and some African words and phrases. This "language" was used by the cimarrónes and enslaved Africans to plan escapes, develop and manage an elaborate system of espionage, and organize acts of subterfuge.
Very often, the cimarrónes— adhering to the adage "my enemy's enemy is my friend"—collaborated with pirates in actions against the Spaniards. After several defeats, the Spaniards were forced to sign truces with the cimarrónes, recognizing their freedom and sovereignty over parts of the country. The cimarrónes then attempted to live normal lives and raise families in their palenques. Some palenques were more successful than others. In some cases, like the village of Palenque, palenques became towns that still exist today in Panama. The legacy of their linguistic subterfuge, however, has infused their history, culture, and customs with layers of idiosyncratic symbolism, paradigms, tropes, and metaphors that can best be described as a living art tradition.
Historians in Panama differ in their accounts of the origins of Congo traditions. At least two popular versions seem credible and can be substantiated by recorded data. The first theory links the present-day Congo celebrations to those held by the cimarrónes in commemoration of winning their freedom in the wars against the Spaniards. A second theory suggests that the origins are in the festive dancing and singing performances of enslaved Africans who assumed the role of court jesters, wearing European clothing backwards to entertain the Spaniards during Carnival. These Africans employed double meaning and reversals, however, and were actually mocking the Spanish.
While Congo traditions may have many points of origin, by the nineteenth century they were an integral part of Carnival in Panama. It is difficult to date with any degree of accuracy the beginning of Congo traditions because little attention has been paid to the history and cultural developments of the cimarrónes. In addition, many valuable documents were lost over the last three centuries due to the numerous raids of Panama City and Portobelo by pirates, the humid climate of the isthmus, and fires in public buildings. As a result, Congo customs today comprise a "living art tradition" that serves as an innovative way to tell the stories and oral history of the cimarrónes.
Congo traditions consist of a complex social structure, unscripted traditional performances with mythological personages, buffoonery, a language, music, dance, the culinary arts, and material culture. These traditions, however, are practiced during the Carnival season and on special occasions. Except for those instances, the Congos are not a separate or distinct ethnic group in Panama. In recent years, Taller Portobelo, an artist cooperative dedicated to preserving Congo culture in the village of Portobelo, has introduced a new Congo tradition in the visual arts.
The five most important characters in Congo society are: the queen, known as María Merced ; the king, Juan de Dioso ; Pajarito (little bird) who functions as a messenger of the group; the Diablo Mayor (the major devil) who represents the Spaniards; and the archangel who is the leader of seven angels, also referred to as animas (tortured souls). The king, queen, and Pajarito are the only members of the group who wear crowns. New characters have been added over the years as Congos take on new names and personas.
Congo drama is manifested in two very significant ways. First, as impromptu street theater, in which the Congos use the license of Carnival to assert their authority over the land. This is a reminder that their ancestors had dominion over their land. They stop cars and demand a tariff to pass through Tierra Guinea (Guinea land). They may demand that the extranjero (foreigner) buy them a bottle of beer or contribute food to their communal meal. Should the extranjero refuse or insult them, she or he may be "arrested" and brought to trial, though all in good Carnival humor. The other significant dramatic event takes place on Ash Wednesday, when the diablos (the devils) assume the right to whip anyone in the village they wish and attempt to capture the angels. The Congos, who—along with the angels—are the benevolent figures in this drama, chase after the diablos, capture them, and then deliver them to the "priest" to be baptized. Finally their leader, the Diablo Major is captured, forced to renounce evil, and is baptized. He is then tied up and taken throughout the community to be "sold." Metaphorically, this act recalls the plight of their ancestors who were caught, baptized, and sold into slavery. This event, which also highlights the triumph of good over evil ends the Carnival season. The Congo flag is lowered and the village settles down to forty days of self-denial during Lent.
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arturo lindsay (2005)