When I saw this mural, I loved it, but the irony in it did not escape me — this exalted image of a black woman with an afro and an air of pride was the antithesis to what I’d actually experienced in Cartagena thus far.
I didn’t like Cartagena. At all. I spent much of my time inside the walled city, the colonial part of Cartagena that most visitors adore. I saw the charm that people see in the cobblestone streets lined with colorful buildings that drip with bougainvilleas, but I also saw these ubiquitous images as a pretty façade that distracted visitors from something rotten just below the surface.
Originally, Cartagena was one of the places I most looked forward to visiting in Colombia. I’m passionate about Afro-Latin cultures and I wanted to explore Afro-Colombian culture of the Caribbean Coast and the genres of music that emerged from it. I imagined I’d find similarities between Cartagena and other highly Afro-Latin destinations I’ve fallen in love with such as Salvador, Brazil and Havana, Cuba. While those cities and countries certainly have many racial equality issues to work through, I was astounded and inspired by how much pride these places showed in cultures that are clearly derived from Africa and how these cultures were an imperative part of the larger cultures of each country.
This was not the case in Cartagena, a place that casually mentions African heritage and then brushes it aside. I checked at nightlife establishments, asked around town about cultural dance performances, I researched online, and I couldn’t find Afro-Colombian music or any substantial acknowledgement of Afro-Colombian history.
Instead, what I found was a Disney-esque peddling of Cuban culture. I know there is often crossover between Latin American cultures and I understand the appeal of Cuban culture because I love it myself. I know that salsa music is popular in Colombia and mojitos are delicious. I know that local tastes morph and adopt music of other cultures. But in Cartagena, it felt like Afro-Colombian music of the Caribbean Coast never existed and that I was supposed to pretend that I was in Havana.
It seemed like a caricature of Cuban culture was being sold tourists because that’s what tourists want on a vacation in a Caribbean colonial city. The abundance of co-opted Cuban culture in Cartagena was often presented by foreign-owned businesses and came across as disingenuous. It felt like Cartagena was capitalizing on a foreign mentality that disregards the fact that Latin American cultures are interrelated, but still very diverse and complex.
Even if I couldn’t find the Afro-Colombian culture I was looking for in Cartagena, I was determined to find it nearby. I hoped to go to San Basilio de Palenque, a village founded by escaped slaves about 55 kilometers south of Cartagena. But the more I looked into visiting the town, the more I realized that it was probably unwise to go without arranging to meet a tour guide because there was no tourism infrastructure. Going without a plan would likely mean that I wouldn’t get much out of the experience.
I did some internet research and came across just one person who gave tours. I tried to call him and there was no answer. I sent him an email which was returned to me weeks later after I’d already left Cartagena. I’m not faulting the guy for being difficult to reach, but I was sad that there were such limited options for having an educational experience in Palenque, a place that has been recognized internationally for its unique language and cultural heritage.
So the only part of Palenque I came across were the Palenqueras in old town Cartagena. You’ll see images of them in pretty much every travel article about Cartagena. They are women of African descent who dress in vibrant attire and headwraps and sell tropical fruits. In pictures, they reminded me of the Baianas do acarajé of Bahia, Brazil, women you’ll also see making a living as vendors.
But the similarities between Baianas and Palenqueras appeared to end at the surface; at the West African skin tones, the flowing dresses, and the headwraps. Baianas still have hurdles to jump, but they are empowered and proud and a strong presence in Bahia. In Cartagena, the Palenqueras seemed like they were struggling.
In photographs, I’d seen Palenqueras with bright eyes and the corners of their mouths turned up. But in person, you can see the extended moments before and after the photographs when no customers are present and their eyes reveal the pain of the fate that race has dealt. Whenever I made eye contact with these ladies who looked like they could be my aunts or grandmothers, it was a painful, wordless exchange.
Cartagena was the city where I could blend in the most up to that point on my trip, yet I constantly felt uncomfortable there. Local vendors of mixed races and African descent almost always guessed that I was not from there and charged me inflated tourist prices for water and other goods. Meanwhile, rich Colombians from Cartagena and elsewhere always assumed I was from Cartagena. At mid-range restaurants, questioning eyes would observe me, obviously wondering how someone who looked so African could possibly be at the same eating establishment that they were at.
It can be a wonderful thing to blend in with the locals and see a culture from a different lens than most other travelers. But in Cartagena, being mistaken for a local had negative connotations unlike anywhere else I’ve ever visited. And in the end, this provided me with revelations about the town that few travelers in Cartagena can understand.
The culmination of my being mistaken for a local came on my last day in Cartagena. I heard a group of people speaking English in front of a restaurant I was interested in eating at. I went up to them and asked in English, “What time does this restaurant open?” I imagined it would be a quick exchange.
One of the men in the group looked at me like I was crazy and proceeded to speak at me harshly in extremely fast Spanish. I had no idea what he was saying. A female in the group looked at me in horror, obviously reading the look on my face and understanding the undercurrent of her friend’s misjudgement of me. She cut him off and answered my question.
If you hear me speak English, you’ll know instantly that English is my first language. This man heard me, but took one look at me and simply couldn’t believe that I was from anywhere other than Cartagena or somewhere nearby. This exchange with him rendered me speechless in any language.
It’s difficult to express how profoundly demeaning it is to have others make such strong assumptions about your limitations based on your appearance. In a country that claims to not be racist, it’s horrible to sense how marginalized local members of your race are.
And it’s horrible to be put into the position where you don’t want to be mistaken as local just so you can avoid mistreatment, so you can avoid having people assume that you have shady intentions, so you can avoid having restaurant staff worry that you won’t be able to pay them when you finish your meal. This was my Cartagena reality. And as a mere visitor, I know my experience was insignificant compared to what it would be like if I actually lived there.
People think the United States is overly obsessed with race, but in places like Cartagena, it’s clear how dangerous it can be to ignore the subject; to say “We’re not racist!” and move on while people suffer in silence without being able to address something very real and very damaging that the people in power insist is not a problem.
On one of my last days in Cartagena, I decided to get out of the tourist zoo in the old city and visit Bazurto, the city’s central market. It was one of the most dirty and disgusting markets I’ve ever visited, but for the first time, Cartagena felt real. At many of the stalls, old men sat around playing Champeta music at top volume, trying overpower the music of the next group of old men. Meat that was probably fresh moments before looked like it desperately needed refrigeration as it laid out in the blazing hot Cartagena sun. I had to watch each step I took in the outdoor part of the market to avoid putting my open toe shoe-clad feet into an unsavory puddle of something unknown.
This raucous place with a number of unpleasant smells was an unlikely location to get a breath of fresh air, but that’s what it provided with its lack of pretense. It catered to no one. But this huge market and the neighborhood around it also revealed the pervasiveness of poverty in Colombia’s most expensive city for tourists.
I think part of the appeal of Cartagena is that it gives a variety of tourists the chance to escape from reality. It will charge you three or four times as much as the rest of Colombia for the experience, but it will accommodate your tropical dreams, whether you step off a cruise ship for just long enough to have stroll through the Walled City, whether you’re from another part of Colombia and want to flaunt your wealth and indulge, or if you’re backpacker looking for a place where you can go wild in the tropics and have a spring break experience at any time of the year.
It seems to be a fairytale city for most visitors, a place in which you can ignore reality and sigh in awe at the pretty buildings. But with my West African features, my afro, and my skin at its darkest in the summertime Caribbean sun, reality was inevitably going to find me any time I ventured out on my own without other tourists.
Looking back, I can see that how I would perceive Cartagena could never be separated from my prior experiences in other Latin American countries where Afro-Latin culture is literally paraded through the streets and pouring through the windows of houses. In a country with not just one, but two coasts with rich African heritage (The Pacific Coast of Colombia is heavily populated with Afro-Colombians who have their own unique culture and musical styles), I expected a lot, especially from the easily accessible Caribbean Coast. But it seems like there is a long way to go when it comes to recognizing the cultural and historical contributions of Afro-Colombians in the calculated tourism scene of Cartagena.
One thing that gave me a tiny bit of hope about the future was learning that just before I arrived in Cartagena, San Basilio de Palenque opened a tourism office for the first time. Now, there is even a website. Perhaps Palenque will eventually become a viable tourist destination and its people, culture, and history will finally be valued.
And the mural pictured above, Prisma Afro, was painted with black female empowerment in mind. Vertigo Graffiti, the street art crew that created it, deliberately wanted to present an image of a black woman that fought back against the negative and hypersexualized stereotypes of Afro-Colombian women in Cartagena. So while Cartagena has an incredibly long way to go, it’s good to know that people are thinking about and acknowledging race and gender issues and refusing to brush aside reality. It’s good to know that the dialogue has started.