Palenqueras are women who sell fruits that come from Palenque de San Basilio. In years past, they would walk every day from their village to sell fruit in hand-woven baskets on the streets of Cartagena. Their brightly coloured dresses earned them one of the most photographed icons of Cartagena.
What’s the history behind this?
It was 1691, and San Basilio de Palenque – one small village located in the southeast of Cartagena ruled entirely by runaway African slaves – signed a Royal Decree declaring the town’s independence from Spanish colonial powers who had ruled since 1533. This was how the first free town of the Americas was born, and so are the first free men and women of the New World who we now know as Palenqueros and Palenqueras.
Although the town known as Palenque had achieved what no other town of its time had yet managed to achieve, it still had its share of problems. Its inhabitants were cut off from the rest of society and with limited access to resources, the town was extremely poor.
The women of Palenque decided to exploit what they had around them in abundance: fruits! The Palenqueras would pack in their hand-woven baskets, ripe tropical fruits, put on their traditional African dress and make the long and exhausting journey into the Cartagena, which is the city by foot.
They would walk and sell the fruit under the hot sun while passing through Cartageneros until their baskets were empty and as time passed, the selling of fruit became a steady income for San Basilio de Palenque. That was how more and more women joined in the fruit selling journey into the city on a daily basis, unknowingly moulding themselves into the history of Cartagena and transforming the Palenquera into one of the biggest Colombian icons.
Although fruit selling continues with the Palenqueras, they instead make their money from posing for photographers, journalists and curious tourists with their beautiful smiles, colourful traditional dresses and hand-made jewellery using the Cartagena crumbling mustard walls.
So, when next you make a stop at Cartagena in Colombia, take a pose with the descendants of the Palenques knowing what history is behind these smiling women.
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