At the far end of the village, a swift creek flows between muddy banks. Until the piped water came in '78, this was Palenque's drinking supply, its laundry, the bathing area for its women and children—this area of the creek was off limits to all adult males. On the creek banks, women fought at times, and small girls learned the ritual of insult and fistfight. When the government water started to flow, de Friedemann believes, the ritual began to erode. But recently, when the main water pump failed and no one seemed in a hurry to fix it, the women were back at the creek again, as if nothing had changed.
When the visitors to Palenque went down to the creek, a fierce lady standing knee-deep in the water started to give them the rough edge of her tongue for their intrusion. She was making plain signals that she might take the matter further when she noticed that the visitors were under Ninita's protection.
She moved away, her indignation still plain, but other Palenquero females stayed put—little girls sent to fetch water, mothers sluicing down their infants with water from big jars. "Watch the kid in the red-and-white-check frock." de Friedemann said, "and the other one in the pink."
To get clear drinking water you dig a hole with your hands in a gravel shoal so that it fills nicely with well-filtered water. And once you have dug a hole, you protect it.
The defending champion, in pink, was Gertrudis Cassiani, nine. In red and white, in the other corner, the challenger, Antonia Rosada, 10. "They'll talk first, it's a ritual," de Friedemann said. "I could tell you what they will say already, but I'll translate."
"Give me that waterhole. It is my right."—ANTONIA.
"It is my water. I was here first."—GERTRUDIS.
The voices got lower and rougher. "The ritual is in the tone of the voice as well," Nina whispered. But it doesn't end there.
Out of nowhere, a straight left whistled to Antonia's ear, and the fight was on. There was no screaming, no scratching, no wrestling. It was a formalized fist duel, the little arms going like pistons. The bout was over quickly. Seemingly, no damage had been done, and soon Antonia was contentedly digging her own hole, not a difficult task. "They are learning to survive for when they leave the village and meet strangers," de Friedemann said.
Still, fighting among the women of Palenque grows rarer, though an attempt five years ago by a police inspector from Cartagena to put an absolute stop to it failed ignominiously. The ladies just paid their 50-peso (about $1) fines and kept at it. Most fights originate at the creek, and they can be savage affairs that include kicking and mud-throwing. Formal bareknuckle women's fights are still staged at Easter and Christmas. "Amongst the women, just as amongst the men, fist-fighting is a cultural mandate," de Friedemann says in her anthropologist's way.