Which is one of the reasons why Pambelé feels so deeply the need to fight for his village. On this particular day, indeed, he had postponed a morning meeting with the governor of Cartagena and canceled an afternoon business flight to Barranquilla—thereby condemning himself to a six-hour bus ride later that evening. He wanted to acquaint some visitors from the U.S. with his village, the hut he was born in, the problems his people had, hoping that the visitors would add their voices to his. He had begun speaking out in 1972, from the moment he won his title.
At that time the Colombian government, bursting with pride over the country's first world champion, asked Pambelé if there was anything he might want. "Light for my people," he declared. Two years later electricity came to Palenque. But the champ had to wait four more years for his next triumph—piped water. And now he was fighting for a road. "Apart from anything else," he said seriously, "the women have to walk along it at night, coming home from selling their fruit. With those rocks and the mud, they cannot watch out for snakes."
Pambelé's arrival back in the village had put an end to siesta time. The first to close in on him were the motherly ladies of the town, hooshing the piglets away, scattering the kids, hugging him, checking him out critically. "You look thin, Pambelé," they cried. "Look how thin his legs are! Please eat properly, Pambelé!" Then the kids squiggled through the cluster of elders, escorting Pambelé down the road to see how his new house was getting on.
In his prime years Pambelé had made and kept enough money to live in style, to push his deprived boyhood in Palenque into a corner of his mind, had he wanted that. He owns a new house in Cartagena, a fruit farm outside the city and apartments in Boca Grande, and he regularly invests in Latin American boxing promotions. Now, however, Pambelé was building a home in Palenque. He was spending so much time there, he said, it was the only thing to do. And where else would he find such good friends as his old comrades of Los Estrellitos de Palenque?
The Little Stars of Palenque, who could they be? Ah, now we are closing in on the secret of the village, its secret of survival, and the secret of those world titles. The Little Stars are what Palenqueros call a cuadro ("cadre" is the nearest English equivalent), a group of boys, 15 to 20 in number, all of an age, who came together when they were very young and have remained together, practicing fighting among themselves and boxing against other village cuadros. The girls have similar groups, cuadrillas, and they box also, though the sexes never meet in combat. In spite of the colorful names they bear and the insignia they sometimes adopt, the cuadros are light-years away from being street gangs, West Side Story-style. Members of different cuadros will fight in the streets freely enough, but never to the menace of life, never with territory in mind, and only with fists.
The cuadros of Palenque arose from the military society that the villagers had perforce developed in their bloody wars against the Spaniards. The community became a kind of Afro-American Sparta. As soon as they could walk, boys and girls were trained in the martial arts, forming groups structured by age for the purpose. Weaponry, of course, died out long ago, but fist-fighting and the cuadros have survived. As has the tight-knit comradeship they inspire. Kid Pambelé will be a Little Star until the time when those that remain of his cuadro will mourn his passing to the beat of drums during the prescribed nine-day wake.
"The cuadros are straight out of Africa," Nina de Friedemann will tell you. "You get the same thing with the Turkanas and the Nandis in Kenya, the Karimojong in Uganda." If anyone should know, it is de Friedemann, a Colombian anthropologist of international repute, who was a Fulbright scholar at the University of Alabama last year. She is a small, animated woman of 45 to whom laughter comes easily. She is something of a rebel among her fellow Colombian anthropologists, who rarely concern themselves with the black segment of their country, preferring instead to study the indigenous Indians. That concentration makes de Friedemann angry. "Colombia was not just made by the whites and the Indians," she says spiritedly. "The great fortresses of Cartagena were put up by the blacks, stone by stone." For five years de Friedemann has studied Palenque and its unique culture. Winning acceptance by the Palenqueros was a considerable feat. Though they are not overtly hostile to whites, they are inclined to be silent in their presence or to withdraw into their houses.
But de Friedemann gets a Pambelé-style welcome when she comes to town. "Hey, Ninita!" the villagers call, and she is hugged with pleasure. Anyone in her company is given the same reception.
She is a little puzzled when you remark on the seeming miracle of three world champion boxers having come from such a small community. "But of course," she says impatiently, "this is a society perfectly contrived for it. A micro-society," she corrects herself, "that has come to revolve around boxing." She is not herself deeply interested in world boxing titles, but she readily provides a historical explanation for that phenomenon. "These people have had almost four centuries to learn distrust," she says. "In their minds they're still guerrillas. Defense is everything to them, and to defend you must attack."
She continues: "When you go back to Cartagena, look at the Palenquero women who sell fruit on the beach. If there's trouble, and there often is when white Cartagenans make slighting remarks, watch how the women react. They don't yield an inch of ground. Their voices drop down the register to a frightening growl. They're never intimidated. No slave mentality there. These women are fighters. Come, I'll show you how they train."