About Congo Carnival

Congo Carnival traditions in Panama celebrate the resistance of Cimarrones, formerly enslaved Africans during the Spanish colonial period who escaped to the hills and rain forests of the Americas to establish independent communities.[i] Los Cimarrones assisted English privateers like Francis Drake and pirates like Henry Morgan to successfully sabotage Spanish colonial trade practices. Using these partnerships as leverage, the Cimarrones were able to negotiate with the Spanish to gain their freedom.[ii] Once successful, they were no longer “Cimarrones,” meaning “wild” or “runaways.” They were free Blacks, free “Congos.” Origin narratives surrounding the name “Congo” suggest that it originally functioned as a generic nomenclature, similar to “Negro,” that Spanish colonists used to refer to Africans and their descendants, and that a significant number of enslaved people initially might have been transplanted from the former Kongo kingdoms of Central and Western Africa.[iii] While “Congo” was once an explicit ethnoracial term, contemporary practitioners use it to mark a cultural performance traditionally enacted by Afro-Colonial communities as a celebration of their history and culture in Panama. “Playing Congo”[iv] allows practitioners to celebrate and share their history and traditions through a set of ritual performances nested within larger cultural ones.[v] The main drama of the Congo tradition takes place on the Tuesday and Wednesday before the beginning of Lent, the forty days from Ash Wednesday until Easter.[vi]

The Congo drama is a mythic battle between good and evil. Architects of the tradition cast the Congos/Blacks on the side of the good and the Devil/brutal enslavers on the side of evil. As Michel de Certeau (1984) argues regarding the agency of people living in subjugated conditions, “without leaving the place where he has no choice but to live and which lays down its law on him, [the subjugated person] establishes within it a degree of plurality and creativity. By an art of being between, he draws unexpected results from his situation” (30). On July 10, 2013, I interviewed Carlos Chavarría, who “plays Congo” as the Major Devil. He epitomized the drama this way: “For us, the Congo tradition is a culture. It was born during the Colonial times with the arrival of Black slaves from Africa to Panama, to the American continent. And, mainly, they were first unloaded in Portobelo as slaves.” Like most Carnival traditions throughout the Americas, Congo traditions in Panama rely on a hierarchy of characters. The primary characters include Merced (the Queen),[vii] Juan de Dioso (the King), Pajarito (the Prince, whose name means “little bird”), Menina (the Princess), Diablo Mayor (the Major Devil), Diablo Segundo (the Secondary Devil), a host of minor Devils, a Priest, one Angel and six souls, a Cantalante or revellín (primary singer), a female chorus, three male drummers, and a multitude of male and female Congo dancers. Through the Congo drama and the language of the Congo dialect, the characters parody the Catholic Church and the Spanish Crown to create an embodied critique of the institution of slavery and its primary agents. Parody, manifested in reversals of meaning as well as reversals of clothing, is a central element of the drama. Spanish colonialists appropriated the Christian devil as a weapon to wield against enslaved communities. Oral history suggests that they sometimes used the threat “The devil will get you” to dissuade rebellion and discourage escape. Congo practitioners recognized their enslavers as the embodiment of that threat and repurposed the trope of “devil” as parody. In doing so, they created a narrative that casts enslavers as whip-wielding Devils to be captured, baptized, and sold by communities of self-liberated Blacks powerful enough to do so. They created a narrative that celebrated the history and spirit of cimarronaje—of self-determination, resistance to enslavement, communalism, and freedom. The Congo drama, also referred to locally as “the Congo game,” does not end until the main Devil, El Diablo Mayor, is de-masked, de-whipped, baptized, and symbolically sold. The ethos of Black rebellion, resistance, and reappropriation, which frames Panamanian Congo traditions in global imaginaries, stems from the cultural context of playing with the devil and winning.

Excerpted from “Prologue” and “Chapter Two” of When the Devil Knocks: The Congo Tradition and the Politics of Blackness in 20th Century Panama, The Ohio State University Press (January 2015)

                  [i]. Enslaved Africans entered Panama in the early 1500s. See Rout (1976) regarding African experiences in Spanish America. See Maria del Carmen Mena Garcia (1984) for a detailed historical account of sixteenth-century Panama including the growth of Black populations. See Archivo General de Indias (1994) for archival information regarding indigenous and African-descended populations in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Panama. Although a precise percentage is not provided, Webster (1973) indicates that free and enslaved Blacks greatly outnumbered the Spanish in Portobelo by the end of the seventeenth century. For more general historical perspectives of Black populations in Panama, see Roberto de la Guardia (1977) and Alfredo Castillero Calvo (1969). For a brief overview of colonial and West Indian Black presences in Panama, see Luis Díez Castillo (1981).
                  [ii]. For additional information on Cimarron interaction with English pirates and privateers, see Frederick Rodriguez (1979). See Peter Earle (2007) for historical analysis of English pirate and privateer activity in Panama.
                  [iii]. According to Robert Ferris Thompson (1984), “Spelling Kongo with a K instead of a C, Africanists distinguish Kongo civilization and the Bakongo people from the colonial entity called the Belgian Congo (now Zaire) and the present-day People’s Republic of Congo-Brazzaville, both of which include numerous non-Kongo peoples. Traditional Kongo civilization encompasses modern Bas-Zaire and neighboring territories in modern Cabinda, Congo-Brazzaville, Gabon, and northern Angola [. . .] The slavers of the early 1500s first applied the name ‘Kongo’ solely to the Bakongo people. Then gradually they used the name to designate any person brought from the west coast of Central Africa to America” (103).
                  [iv]. Depending on its context, the word may mean to “be” Congo, which signifies one’s participation in the tradition; to “dance” Congo, which refers to the male–female partner dance at the heart of the tradition; to “play” Congo, which signifies the game between those characters dressed as Congo/Blacks and those dressed as Devils/Enslavers; or to participate in the Congo “drama,” which is the narrative that the community acts out between Carnival Tuesday and Ash Wednesday.
                  [v]. Variant “Congo” and “Cimarron” communities exist in the Caribbean and along the Atlantic coast of the Americas, including Cuba, Jamaica, Venezuela, and Brazil. All have related, although distinct, Black cultural performances marking their specific colonial Black experience. I was first introduced to the Congo tradition of Portobelo, Panama, through Arturo Lindsay, Sandra Eleta, the Spelman College Portobelo Panama Summer Art Colony, and Taller Portobelo. Their generous gifts of resources, feedback, insight, community, and friendship have been invaluable.
                  [vi]. Some form of Carnival took root in nearly every country colonized by the Spanish, French, and Portuguese. All celebrate the power of resistance, creativity, parody, and community. However, unlike the larger, more commercial Trinidadian or Brazilian models, Carnival in Portobelo consists primarily of homemade costumes and local celebrants.
                  [vii]. According to personal interviews and my own observations over the past seven years, the role of the Queen is to provide central leadership to the Congo organization, to gather the group when they agree to perform for a special occasion, and to act as their main organizational contact person. In the first performance of the Congo drama, “El Diablo Tun Tun,” the Devil attempts to capture the Queen, the seat of Congo power, but the Congos help her trick him and subdue him before he is able to do so. The three most important primary characters in the Congo drama are the Queen, the Major Devil, and Pajarito.