Colombia: Palenqueros fighting to save native tongue 200 years after escaping slavery 

Stephen Nartey September 30, 2022
Striving to gain recognition was not the only hurdle the Palenqueros had to cross, but, another fight for the survival of their native tongue. Image: Wikimedia Commons/Flickr

When enslaved Africans escaped from the port of Cartagena in the 17th century, they fell on the hilly region of the Atlantic Coast for their safety. When it became their safe refuge against a possible recapture by the colonizers, the hundreds of escapees created their city which they named Palenque. 

They were recognized as an independent region by the Spanish Crown even before Colombia attained its sovereignty in 1713, according to Fronteras. It was not until over 200 years that the Colombian government acknowledged their independence in its constitution.

Striving to gain recognition was not the only hurdle the Palenqueros had to cross, but, another fight for the survival of their native tongue. 

In the 1980s, the people of Palenque were made to feel inferior while speaking in their native language in their attempt to gain acceptance in the Colombian state. Many researchers predicted that the language of the Palenque would be under threat and would suffer the same fate as many native dialects. 

The people of Palenque speak lengua, a native tongue which is vernacular of West African and Spanish dialects mixed together. In South America, it is the only Spanish-based creole. A conscious effort by the people to engage extensively with lengua is ensuring its survival. 

A language which nearly went extinct barely four decades ago has become a widely used dialect in pubs, streets and homes in the tiny Colombia city. In 2005, UNESCO declared lengua as a masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity. 

Palenquero parents are inculcating the basics of the language among their children. University of California Professor and linguist Armin Schwegler said when he first visited Palenque in 1985, he noticed the gradual death of the native tongue of the people. He explained that the observations he made gave him little doubt about the survival of lengua at the time. 

He traced the assault of the indigenous language during the migration of the people to the port cities of Cartagena and Barranquilla to engage in petty trading in the 1940s. He pointed out that the Palenqueros were looked at with scorn because of their black skins and for interacting in a dialect which sounded foreign to the Cartagena and Barranquilla communities. 

Professor Scwegler said it was so bad he doubted there would be a paradigm shift in the way the Palenqueros were being treated at the time. 

A community leader in Palenque, Sebastian Salgado, confirmed that the inferiority of speaking the language was linked to the mistreatment and mockery they had to endure because of their identity. According to him, parents began cautioning their children against speaking lengua, not because they wished, but, but because they did not want the ridicule to be visited on the children. 

Another linguist and Palenquero scholar, Carlos Patiño Rosselli, predicted in 1983 that a time would come the lengua would take its place in history and native people would not be shy to speak to it as a means of communication. 

Young people are now making headway in the fight to preserve lengua as they are exporting it in the form of music and pop culture. 

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: September 30, 2022


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