I was granted Project Development funding by Alternate ROOTS to continue a collaboration between myself and another visual artist in Portobelo, Panama, Gustavo Esquina de la Espada.
I traveled to Panama for the first time in June 2012, through a ROOTS Artistic Assistance Professional Development grant. I chose to go to Portobelo to continue my research on the many intersections of the Indigenous and African Diasporas in the Americas. My interest in this subject was sparked by my recognition of similarities between my own people, the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina and other communities I have visited through travels in the U.S. South and Global South.
The people of Portobelo are descendants of the Cimarrones, enslaved Africans who escaped their Spanish masters and lived together as outlaws in the jungle. One of the first parts of the “New World” to be pillaged, Christopher Columbus originally named the port “Puerto Bello,” meaning “Beautiful Port,” in 1502. The Cimarrones and their descendents, like the Lumbee, are a people of resistance. Like us, they are resilient, they are survivors, they are artists and we are related.
I met Gustavo through the Taller Portobelo Norte Artist Residency Program (Studio North, Portobelo). Gustavo is a talented multidisciplinary artist in his community. During my first stay, we collaborated on a painting, a portrait of Gustavo as a “Moderno Rey Cimarron Congo” or “Modern Cimarron Congo King.” Gustavo appears dressed in his contemporary soccer jersey as well as a traditional Cimarron crown, to the point that he is the living legacy of his ancestors. This piece was a continuation of the same concept I had been exploring through my Exquisite Lumbees series, which is comprised of illuminated life-sized portraits of Lumbee people of my generation, each dressed in clothing of their choice, each defying stereotypes about Lumbees and all Native people just by being visible, alive and effortlessly beautiful. All of these portraits speak to our truth of living/walking in two worlds; of being the living legacy of our people and honoring that in our contemporary existence.
I left Gustavo’s portrait in Panama with him, where it has been framed and displayed by photographer Sandra Eleta, who owns the taller or studio in Portobelo. Gustavo also sent one of his paintings home to Baltimore with me. I have now visited Panama two more times since 2012. Gustavo and I have maintained a constant dialogue and have taken next steps in our collaboration.
We are making a series of call and response pieces, including visual art and poetry. During this most recent visit, two new paintings were created, one by myself and one by Gustavo. Gustavo has written 3 new poems. These works have been inspired by our exchange and created in conversation with each other.
My painting is a portrait of our friend Manuel “Mayita” Betegon, who appears dressed in his Carnival costume as the character Pajarito or “Little Bird.” Traditionally, Pajariito was a person who played an important role in Cimarron society. He served as a messenger between the different Palenques or Cimarron communities in the jungle. He would travel on foot to bear news, good and bad, to the people. I chose to depict Pajarito to signify the connection that has been made between my community and Gustavo’s community. The message has been carried that both communities are well and are reconnecting.
Mayita has been asking me to draw his portrait since I’ve known him. When he saw the final piece, he was so proud. He plans to display his copy on the mantel of his home.
Below find Gustavo’s poem “Corre Corre Pajarito” in Spanish and Congo, as well as my English translation, “Run, run Pajarito”:
Corre corre Pajarito
© Gustavo Esquina De La Espada, 2014
Entre el bosque en el follaje se percibe un movimiento,
Agilidad de flecha en vuelo, la rapidez de sus pasos
se escucha cual repicar de tambores… corre, corre pajarito
se están robando el palenque. Corre, corre pajarito, mamonia
busca a nengre macha.
Personaje misterioso que trae tristeza y alegrías,
Tu penetrante mirada escudriña todo cuanto pasa alrededor y
Salvaguarda la bandera de los congos.
Corre, corre pajarito parte tierra; parte viento.
Corre, corre pajarito con lengua de fuego y hielo
que evoca al bien o al mal.
Corre, corre pajarito de tu libertad depende nuestra
Run, Run, Pajarito
© Gustavo Esquina De La Espada, 2014
Within the forest, in the foliage, a movement is perceived
The agility of an arrow in flight, the speed of his steps
can be heard like the beating of drums… run, run pajarito
they’re robbing the palenque. Run, run pajarito, the devil
is looking for the Congos.
Mysterious person who brings sadness and joys,
Your penetrating gaze searches all as it passes around and
Safeguards the flag of the Congos.
Run, run Pajarito part the earth; part the wind.
Run, run Pajarito with tongue of fire and ice
that evokes good or bad.
Run, run Pajarito, our own freedom on your freedom depends.
While in Portobelo this past trip, I was able to attend the Festival de la Pollera Conga. This experience was a major affirmation that Lumbee and Congo cultural regalias, specifically the dresses, are very similar.
“A pollera is a Spanish term for a big one-piece skirt used mostly in traditional festivities and folklore throughout Spanish-speaking Latin America. Polleras are made from different materials, such as cotton or wool and tend to have colorful decorations. Most of the decorations are embroidered, flowers and regional animals are among the most common designs found in polleras. Polleras are a form of Spanish colonial dress enforced sometime between the 16th and 17th centuries on indigenous populations…”
The polleras of Portobelo are very much like traditional Lumbee Pinecone Patchwork dresses. The design of the cotton Pinecone Patchwork dresses was adapted from English colonial dresses during the period when Lumbee identity was first formed through the cultural fusion that took place. The pinecone element of dresses and other pieces of pinecone regalia is usually done in appliqué and represents the pines of our North Carolina homeland.
My excitement over the similarities began some dialogue in Portobelo. The photos and artwork I brought home to show my fellow Lumbee also began dialogue here in Baltimore. An exchange via internet between young people of Portobelo and Lumbee young people of Baltimore has been ongoing since this last visit. I hope to one day take part in facilitating a face-to-face cultural exchange between young people of Portobelo and Lumbee young people from Baltimore.
We have long-term plans for Gustavo and other artists of Portobelo to travel to the United States. I am also very excited to report that my adopted “Mom” in Portobelo, Soledad Marín, will accompany her two daughters on their first visit to the U.S. in October as they will be performing in New York for a National Hispanic Heritage Month celebration. We plan to meet and visit at that time.
In alignment with the mission of Alternate ROOTS, this project is comprised of original art rooted in particular communities of place, tradition and spirit. It speaks to the elimination of oppression that has kept people of the Indigenous and African diasporas from recognizing and accepting our extended family. It speaks to the elimination of the oppression that has blinded our people to our own beauty, wisdom and strength. It speaks to the internalized oppression that at times keeps us from acknowledging the fullness of our heritages. It speaks to the revisitation of missed opportunities for fellowship and resource-sharing between our communities in the South and Global South. It reminds us of the fact that Native slaves were shipped from the U.S. South to the Caribbean and African slaves were shipped into both places. We have coexisted, resisted, intermarried at times, survived and thrived through generations of injustice and we’re still here. We’re still related.
It should be noted that most of this grant from Alternate ROOTS became a cash resource for the folks of Portobelo who graciously agreed to drive me around, let me stay at their house and feed me.
At the core of this entire project is the collaboration between myself, a member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina and Gustavo Esquina de la Espada, a descendant of the Cimarrones of Portobelo, Panama. Our friendship and collaboration have been the gateway for all further cultural exchange between our peoples. The work would not exist if not for this most important link originally made possible by funding from Alternate ROOTS Artistic Assistance.
I will add that since the time of my last visit to Panama, I have been granted a full fellowship to attend the Ph.D. in American Studies Program at University of Maryland College Park. I have proposed to continue my research of the many intersections of the Indigenous and African diasporas in this formal setting. I imagine that more opportunities to further the project will come from my involvement in this program. It is my hope that my work will result in recognition, acceptance, reunion and coalition-building between all of our related communities as ultimately, the respective freedom and well-being of the communities is interdependent. “Our own freedom on your freedom depends.” / “De tu libertad depende nuestra propia libertad.”