By Esther Rosario Fiebig
Over the past six months I have had the pleasure of working with an amazing group of young adults that make up the dance team junvenil at La Casa de la Cultura de Santa Lucia. They train in Santa Lucia’s famous son de negro, as well as mapale, bullerengue, cumbia, and now a little contemporary and hip hop!
Son de negro is a dance that originated in Santa Lucia, by way of the slaves that were brought in through Cartagena. The men are painted in black face with big red lips and dance while contorting their faces and sticking out their tongues. Knowing about minstrelsy and black face in the United States, it is very hard to walk under a figure of a black man HANGING FROM A TREE to go to rehearsal every night without cringing a little. But son de negro is a celebration and recognition of their African roots, and when you see the heart these young people put into their work, it’s hard not to feel the same way. It’s the same heart that helped us win the First Place prize in an Atlántico-wide competition. As part of the prize we were invited as special guests to Neiva in Huila to participate in the Festival Reinado del Bambuco.
After a month of rehearsals and planning we were finally in Neiva. Our first evening, we all went to out to the event that was taking place in the plaza. While walking to the event with the group I began to notice people’s eyes following us. Neiva is in the interior, so the majority of the population is white Colombians, and the way these white people were looking at my black kids was all too familiar. It was the same look I had heard about my mother getting from the white Dominican cake decorator at her wedding, who had pulled her aside to try to talk her out of marrying my black Dominican father, because “You know he just wants to ‘mejorar la raza.’” It was the same hate I felt thrown at me from the stands of my volleyball match when an angry dad screamed at the referee to check my birth certificate because “There is no way she is in sixth grade.” (I was in fifth). The same disgust I had seen in the eyes of the President of Colombia’s staff as they came to prepare the school for his arrival. “Maleducado, ¿no?” Luckily my kids didn’t seem to notice, so I tried to calm myself down and enjoy the event.
The next day was the parade. After an early morning wake up, we all got out the door of the preschool, where we were crashing on the floor, only slightly late, which I count as a win. We painted on our costumes, and magically, we had a place in the world. EVERYBODY loves son de negro. Still, the audience didn’t treat us with the respect they showed the other participants. People grabbed my dancers by the arms and yanked them into a picture instead of asking. Audience members blocked the path in front of my dancers forcing them to dance with them and holding up the flow of the parade. People went as far as to jump into the line and slap my tired dancers across the back, face, and arms to get some black paint on their hands. I even got slapped across the face. But, no more suspicious glares or hateful eyes. All we had to do was paint ourselves black, accentuate our big red lips, and dance around for them. Sound familiar?
Again, the only person who was fuming was me. My kids were happy to be there, happy to be invited. Ignorance is bliss, right? But they deserve more than life is giving them. They deserve more than two paved roads and teachers that think they are maleducados. They deserve everything they dream for themselves. They deserve respect. We are 2015’s best dance team in Atlántico, damn it. So I will go on giving them all of my heart and soul, playing rap music with black power undertones when we do our workouts, and holding my black fist up high, because everybody knows “the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice.”