On March 15th, I went to my first Pollera Conga festival in Portobelo, a small town in the province of Colon. Starting in the 16th century, some African slaves brought to the province’s regions of Costa Arriba and Costa Abajo managed to escape into Panama’s dense forests and begin their own communities. Eventually, many came down from the forests and founded the town of Portobelo. The town’s citizens are direct descendants of these escaped slaves, the latter sometimes called “cimarrones” or “wild ones”/”maroons.” (Many photos at the bottom of this post under the jump. EDIT: SORRY, PHOTOS NOW ADDED!)
Pollera Conga is a folkloric cultural dance “with dramatic, parodying and allegorical rituals that aspire to detail the life conduct of the Cimarrones in their respective existential environment, as much in their enslaved condition as in their free status, although pursued through dense forest defending themselves as well as they could from the implacable tyrant that hounded them with perverse purposes of recapturing them or, failing that, to kill them terribly with the purpose of using their gruesome death as an example for other fugitives.” (Historia del Congo 2010: 18-19)
The exact meanings and sources of the dance’s many symbols have been much debated by historians and anthropologists. Certain aspects have been modified, added to, or removed from the performance over time, in part due to strict Spanish Catholic evangelical censorship within specific Cimarron communities. And some scholars worry that the dance and festival have lost their authenticity since they were converted into tourist attractions in the last decade or two.
In Portobelo, the Pollera Conga festival began with a boat parade that brought the performers to the town’s shores—more willingly this time than when their ancestors were dragged to Panama’s shores from various African countries. Arriving to Portobelo, performers — including devils in black face and queens with bright dresses — paraded through the main street, singing loudly, dancing fervently, and posing for tourists’ photos. Every few minutes, someone set off a firecracker with a loud bang and a few devils in the parade keeled over and pretended to have been shot dead.
The festival reached its peak at a long play, with around 15 groups from Panama City and Colon participating. On an elaborately decorated stage, the devils menaced the women as they twirled long, bright skirts. But each time the women managed to escape, by bopping a devil on his painted nose or slapping him with a skirt fold. Several children’s groups took their turn center stage — the smallest devils received the most ardent whoops from the audience.
The last buses headed back to Panama City in late afternoon, so I left before the play was over. But I’m sure I’ll see much more of Pollera Conga, especially during Black Ethnicity Month in May.