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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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All the same, not all of Palenque's women obey it. Dilsa Salas is a handsome girl of 22 who left the village to train as a nurse and now is back working at a small clinic, which a doctor from Cartagena visits twice a week. "Last Easter," she says disapprovingly, "the streets were swarming with girls, big and little, all dressed in bright frocks, and it looked like a huge rainbow ready to fight, with fists sticking out of it. I never fought myself." Salas allows, though, that she has never been condemned or even teased because of her noncombatant stance. She says the same ethic applies to boys. Those who do not wish to fight aren't harassed. They suffer no sanctions in everyday life.

"A strange people," de Friedemann says. "You know, after four centuries here they still complain about the heat. Carry those huge colored handkerchiefs around to mop their brows."

Ten years ago, the village culture almost took a U-turn when many of the kids decided they would be movie stars rather than boxers. That was when Marlon Brando arrived to shoot a film called Burn. It had to do with a slave rebellion, and Evaristo Marquez, a Palenquero, was a co-star. But the whole thing was a nine-day wonder. Marquez spent his money on rum and the village got nothing.

Two years later Kid Pambelé won his championship, and the Kid made a far better hero than Brando. Many, maybe most, of the village homes boast a picture of him, usually set only a little below one of Christ or the Virgin and well above those of Dr. Julio Cesar Turbay Ayala, the president of the Republic, and Simón Bolívar, the liberator of Colombia.

So there are no would-be movie stars in Palenque now, and no shortage of small boys who dream that one day, preferably on June 14, the feast of Saint Basil, they will emulate the Kid and carry a world championship trophy in procession to the church and place it on the altar. However, it looks as if, in the future, the route to a title will not be via the traditional cuadro structure but by more conventional methods.

The road into Palenque may be dreadful, but the village is no longer as remote as it once was. As the reputation of its fighters spreads, promoters, not only from Cartagena but from Venezuela, are willing to risk the ride. More and more boxing equipment, though it is still pitifully scarce, is finding its way into the village. And among the older boys there is a sense of shame about the cuadro system. Although it has served Palenque well for centuries, it is now coming to be regarded as somehow backward, something that should be swept out of the way of progress.

Even so, at three in the afternoon, when the sun has lost some of its intensity and it's time for boxing practice, you can still meet a few lovers of tradition, a few conservatives who cling to the old order. They will be on their way to Celia Casseres' cattle corral—males still proud of their cuadro membership, who despise gloves and rings and a referee calling "Time!"

Two such, encountered in the street on the way to Celia's place, were Perfecto Cassiani, 11, and Eberto Cassiani, 10 (they aren't related; Cassiani is a common name in Palenque). Both were proud to be members of the cuadro of the Boquiteros (the Little Mouths) and both were happy to make their position clear.

"I want to fight the Estrellas," Eberto said.

"I want to fight anybody I see," said Perfecto.

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