“She looks like my niece,” the woman said, her dark eyes fixated on mine as though she knew me; as though I was from Palmarito, too, but was pretending I wasn’t. Ironically, her round cheeks made her look just like my Grandma Lillie Rose and I told her so. She laughed and we looked at each other seriously for another moment before I continued on. I ran to catch up with my tour group, knowing that that moment had forever changed something in me.
I had spent the entire school year trying to get to Venezuela to do research on its African Diaspora. It was my junior year of college and I was in the midst of the worst battle of depression and anxiety that I had ever faced. The trip felt like a way to forget it all and escape; be a part of a new reality for a while.
That said, my interest in the Diaspora was genuine. As an African American member of it, I wanted to hear the Latin American side of the story. During the time of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the largest number of the estimated 12 million slaves transported to the Amercias were brought to countries in South America and the Caribbean – the greatest numbers to Brazil, Jamaica and Haiti. The mix of African cultures they brought with them flourished more freely in the Spanish colonies than they did in the US, and the Spaniards, slaves and indigenous peoples all mixed. The result was a society where, rather than categorize people by whether they had slave blood or not, people were identified based on what shade of brown/white/tan they were. I decided to film a short documentary on the history of Africans in Venezuela and linked up with a human rights-focused organization called Global Youth Connect that was hosting its first delegation to Venezuela that summer.
“I felt fear but was mesmerized – there’s something different about this place, I thought.”
As the plane made its final descent into Caracas, I felt a wave of terror. What was I doing? Didn’t my Venezuelan-American friend just tell me about all the kidnappings that happen here? Great, I thought. I was depressed back home but now I’m going to die. Smooth move, Alex. I said a Hail Mary and got off the plane to meet with the other members of our group.
In true Venezuelan style, our guide Artur greeted us like long lost cousins and drove the group into the city. Outside it was dark, the sky ink-black and surroundings deserted except for twinkling blue lights from tin roofed shacks on the hillsides of the city. From the way they glowed I could tell each was just a single bulb, hanging from a place in its home. I felt fear but was mesmerized – there’s something different about this place, I thought.
In the morning, our group met to review the trip itinerary. From our spot in the dining area of our government-sponsored posada, the entire city was visible – huge skyscrapers surrounded us, tropical birds flew about and greenery sprouted from every place. Salsa blared from the store on the corner. The place was some kind of postmodern Caribbean paradise: chaotic, densely populated and stunning all at the same time. Any traces of the Diaspora, however, were hard to find. I spoke to some of our Caraqueño hosts about the history of slavery in the country and what their experiences were growing up. It seemed to be an awkward issue and most people I talked to in Caracas either knew little to nothing about it or didn’t seem to care. “We’re just starting to recognize ourselves and learn our history” our guide Irvin told me. It was interesting to see that a history of slavery was not a part of the inherited story for many Afro-Venezuelans as it is for most African Americans. The focus is still more on their color, rather than on their race.
To learn more, we traveled 8 hours by bus to Palmarito, a small village on the Southern coast of Lake Maracaibo rich in oil production and fishing exports. The region, known as Sur del Lago is the most densely black-populated area in Venezuela. There, we learned that most slaves in Venezuela were brought to the coastal areas to work on plantations. (Legend has it they stayed close to the water because it always represented the possibility of going home). In Palmarito, the slaves worked the cacao plantations in neighboring Gibraltar, where they retained many of the linguistic patterns and cultures of their ancestral countries. The rich legacy of those slaves lives on in Palmarito today through song and dance; drums are still made by hand using local goats for the skins and timber cut from the village, as has been done for generations. Those drums are used for celebrating big village festivals on feast days like Christmas and Dia de San Benito on the 27th of December.
Palmarito is rural and the disparity in wealth in comparison to Caracas was blatant. The roads were dirt paved and access to clean water and electricity was limited. My first impression was that the village reminded me a lot of Oakville, the area on the west-bank of New Orleans where my dad grew up and where I spent many summers as a kid. I saw the same strong brows and coffee-colored complexions in Palmarito that I knew from Oakville, and people gathered together after dark when it was cool enough to go outside, visiting from house to house telling stories, eating, and talking. Palmarito felt like home.
As I conducted interviews for the documentary, I started to sense the futility of the whole thing. While filming, I was able to step out of my own struggle and see the bigger picture in front of me. Many of the social problems I saw in Palmarito are the same as those seen in poor, rural areas of the United States: poverty, pollution, unemployment. Yet, none of us have really found solutions to address them yet. Though disturbing, I also found this to be somewhat encouraging. We are all struggling together.
After saying goodbye to my grandmother’s twin, I was led to my group’s last stop for that day – a dusty lot with long cement blocks spread about it in a loose grid. The sign read “Patromonio Historico,” or historical heritage site. It was a slave cemetery, he explained. Despite the sweat running down my legs from the heat, I felt cool and calm. Standing at that site brought my experience full circle, and give me a sense of pride. The place was a part of my history. What if some of my ancestors were buried there; those same ancestors who helped build the United States and bring wealth to Latin America and the Caribbean?
Ironically, it looked so much like the cemetery in Oakville.