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Should that evolution be deplored? Accepted as inevitable? The cuadros and their defiant names dying out, La Gente Brava (the Brave People), Vendaval (the Windstorm), passing into history like the bugle calls of a cavalry brigade?
Most Palenqueros have few regrets, including the latest of its title winners, Ricardo Cardona. At present Cardona is in Miami, where in a bout last Friday he stopped Ralph Barrios in the first round. That impressive victory should give him another shot at a title bout and the chance to regain the WBA junior featherweight crown he won in '76. Like Pambelé, Cardona speaks in a heavy, melancholy Creole tone when Palenque is mentioned. "Mi cuna [my cradle]," he said. "I owe everything to my village."
Palenque, si, cuadros, no. "I was always independiente" Cardona says, "never in a cuadro. I think it is fine that Alesandro wants to take the fights off the streets and put them in the gym. That is the way for fighters to learn." When he retires, Cardona says, he would like to participate, to help Alesandro in the village.
That last sentiment isn't shared by Rodrigo Valdes, the third Palenque world champion. Valdes—"Rocky," he signs himself—is 33 now, and you can find him hanging out most days in the Mercado de San Andresito, a street market in a rough section of Cartagena. There, it is said, you can buy all manner of smuggled goods. You enter, if you are sensible, without your wallet or your watch. "At the moment," Valdes said recently, "I'm not doing much, just playing some soccer, seeing my friends. End of November I have a fight with some Dominican; I don't remember his name. Uh, I'd like to take a shot at Antuofermo."
Rocky Valdes was a fine middleweight (61-7-2) who had the misfortune to be around when the incomparable Carlos Monzon was lording it over the division. Nevertheless, he held the WBC title from '74 to '76, when Monzon took it from him to add to his WBA crown, and when the Argentinian retired in '77, Valdes inherited both. He had only one gear, people said—top—and that smoking. Fighting that way twice against Monzon in long, bloody battles, he sacrificed himself on the Argentinian's fists. When he lost both titles in the spring of '78 to another Argentinan, Hugo Corro, he was almost a burned-out case.
And now Valdes doesn't wish to know about Palenque. "Pambelé invited me once," he said, "but I didn't go." At times Valdes says he was born in Cartagena, at others that he doesn't know where he was born, that he was an orphan brought up in Gesemani, a poor quarter of Cartagena, where many migrant Palenqueros live.
But according to Pambelé and just about everybody else, Valdes was born in the tiny village of Rocha, a kind of satellite of Palenque, where members of the Valdes family traditionally provide the drummers who attend all Palenquero funerals. "I grew up among Palenqueros," is as far as Valdes is willing to go. That, and the classic "I have a lot of close friends in Palenque."
Back in that village, de Friedemann confessed that in spite of her presumed neutral status as an anthropologist, she always brought gifts of boxing gloves when she visited because the kids pleaded for them so desperately. "Really, though," she said in extenuation, "it's almost 50 years since the first Palenquero wore gloves." And to prove it, she left Celia's corral, walked 200 yards down the street and made another introduction.
World champions notwithstanding, if one needed a single symbolic figure to convey Palenque's dark and bloody struggle, its indomitable spirit, one would choose Don Fermin Herrera. He is 75 now, but massive-chested and upright. Unofficially but unmistakably, he is Palenque's leader.
In 1926, when he was in his 20s, Herrera had walked the 200 miles to Guacamayal in Magdalena Province on the coast to find work in the banana plantations of the United Fruit Company—"The Company" he calls it, as if it were the only one in the world. "I was so poor," he recalled, "that I had only strength to scratch one ear." All the same, though, he said he had many fights in Guacamayal. Mostly they were in the streets, but five times he fought professionally as a middleweight. "I fought as 'Charolito,' " he said (Charolito is how the Colombians describe shoes that are black and ultra-shiny), "and I only lost once. My biggest purse was when I beat a man called Palbiche, from Barranquilla, 25 pesos. Don't laugh!" he said. "You could buy 10 head of cattle for that then! I didn't, though," Don Fermin added sheepishly. "I had fun."