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Cradle of Champions
Clive Gammon
November 24, 1980
Fighting is a way of life in Palenque, Colombia, a village of 3,000 whose heritage now includes three world champions
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November 24, 1980

Cradle Of Champions

Fighting is a way of life in Palenque, Colombia, a village of 3,000 whose heritage now includes three world champions

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Between trophy and poem is a connection that goes back almost four centuries. The history of Palenque, scarcely known outside Colombia, perhaps not even outside Bolivar Province, is that of a long battle for freedom unparalleled in the Americas.

But consider a smaller story first. In the last decade, from this community of fewer than 3,000 people have come three world boxing champions: Kid Pambelé himself; Rodrigo Valdes, who held both the WBC and WBA middleweight crowns at various times between 1974 and 1978; and Ricardo Cardona, who won the WBA junior featherweight title in 1976, lost it this year to Leo Randolph, and is in training to regain it.

How, from the dust and poverty of this village, an entirely black settlement in a predominantly white and Indian nation, could such an achievement possibly have come about? Certainly there is a well-attested link between hunger and boxing titles, but almost invariably it is a big-city phenomenon. The crowded ghetto is where the astute scout seeks out promising fighters—in the rings of settlement houses and in recreation halls. But Palenque?

For the beginning of an explanation, one must return to the lifeless plaza sweltering in the heat. The people of Palenque have been working since dawn with the crops and the cattle and this is the noonday pause. Soon they will come to life again. Meanwhile, remember the poem and its cry for freedom and prepare yourself for something more astonishing even than the troika of champions.

Almost two centuries before the U.S. declared its independence from England, even longer before the Latin American republics broke from Spain. Palenque was a free, self-governing community, existing precariously, but surviving nonetheless by means of unremitting guerrilla warfare against the Spaniards in their fortress-city of Cartagena. Primer pueblo libre de América (the first free town in the Americas) is the title claimed for Palenque by the Colombian historian Roberto Arrázola.

The ancestors of the people now living in the village were slaves, shipped from Guinea in West Africa around 1540 to Cartagena, then the principal slave port of Spanish America. Their early history is misty, but certainly by 1580 sporadic rebellions had taken place, and in 1599 the biggest, most purposeful of these uprisings ended with the establishment, deep in the bush, of free Palenque. In Spanish-Creole the name means "Fortress."

And a fortress it had to be. The first big Spanish expedition against the Palenqueros was launched in 1603, against what Cartagena was calling "this rebellious and terrorist power." The Spaniards came clanking through the rain forest in their heavy armor, and they were beaten back. For two centuries they continued to be beaten back as, raiding and burning, the black guerrillas launched hit-and-run counterattacks.

So successful were the Palenquero warriors that in 1621 the Spaniards actually signed a peace treaty with them, allowing them to come and go freely in Cartagena itself. The treaty didn't last, of course. By the end of the century the governor of the province was offering a bounty on black heads, those heads to be ceremonially spiked in the main plaza of Cartagena while from the great cathedral the Te Deum rang out.

Nevertheless, Palenque survived, and in the end ft was economics, not military might, that brought the community into what in 1886 had become the Republic of Colombia. By then, slavery no longer paid. Little by little, white landowners moved inland. They employed most of the Palenqueros, who are a tall people, with six-footers common, as low-wage workers.

Territorially, present-day Palenque is only a fraction of what it once was, but in many ways its battle still goes on. Until recently, at the point where the road to the village branches off from the main road, there was a billboard, set up by a soft-drink company, which displayed a menacing Kid Pambelé and the legend, in Spanish, PALENQUE, CRADLE OF WORLD CHAMPIONS. Nearby, however, was a white village which the Palenqueros call Malagana, the Bad Feelings town, and the billboard was soon defaced with black paint, then torn down. To this day in white Cartagena and its environs, Palenqueros are regarded as bad news, a low form of life.

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