Ride in the heat long enough, with the old truck lumbering axle-deep in warm mud, and your eyes start to deceive you. Brilliant dragonflies begin to look hawk-sized and the vultures soaring in the brassy skies over Colombia turn to massed hang gliders. The city of Cartagena and its Caribbean breezes have been left 40 miles behind on the north coast, and you are deep in the savanna, with patches of sugarcane and clumps of banana trees in the grassland and the swamps of the Magdalena River valley. There are four more miles to go, half an hour's travel along this grotesque track, to the village of Palenque, more properly Palenque de San Basilio, and the extraordinary people who live there.
But getting to Palenque seems less likely every minute. Deep sloughs of chocolate mud abruptly give way to acute ups and downs over naked rock, and there is one terrifying bridge over a ravine, a lash-up of steel pipes and logs, that makes you close your eyes. The mud is the worst enemy, though. Even in four-wheel drive, the truck slithers and spins, sometimes stopping altogether, so that the passengers crammed into the open rear must clamber down to give it a chance to back out and try again.
This enrages one of the riders in particular, a small, lithe man as deeply black as his companions but standing out from their manifest poverty by reason of his expensively embroidered shirt and his elegantly polished shoes. Speaking corrosive Spanish-Creole, gesturing emphatically, he makes it clear that this ridiculous track is an insult to himself, to his neighbors and to Palenque.
En garde, Your Excellency the Governor of the State of Bolivar! Have a care, O President of the Republic! Not for the first time, Palenque is on the warpath, and now it is led by the Kid—who on his birth certificate is Antonio Cervantes but, now and forever in Latin America, is Kid Pambelè.
It was he who, but for a short spell in 1976, held the WBA world junior welterweight title from 1972 until last August, when Aaron Pryor of Cincinnati took it from him. At that time the Kid was 34—going on 40, people freely said. He had had a glorious career—84 wins in 96 bouts since 1964, 40 of them by knockout—maybe the best 140-pound record of all time. But now (though inevitably he talks of one more bolsa, one more big payday before he hangs up his gloves) the next trophy he seeks is a real road, a good road, for his beloved Palenque, his hometown.
Into which eventually, miraculously, the truck rolls, finally stopping in the dirt plaza. Your eyes must be playing tricks again, because this seems to be West Africa, not South America. The equatorial sun beats down on children playing in the dust, black, naked children with the pot bellies and the reddish tinge to their hair that come from a poor diet. The huts are mud-daubed on a frame of bamboo, with thatched roofs, and the womenfolk sit in the shade of the doorways. But this cannot be Africa after all, because a handful of men, silent, no glasses in their hands, sit on the steps of a shack with a sign that reads TIENDA DE LOS POBRES. The Store of the Poor Ones.
Skeletal dogs, chickens, piebald piglets roam in the heat. Passivity and poverty seem to rule, life passing slowly amid dirt and sunshine.
It would be difficult to be more wrong. Leave the people for a moment to let them wake up to the presence of Pambelè, their champion. Walk over to the Church of Saint Basil, where there is the first hint of Palenque's unique heritage, although the walls are almost bare and there isn't a single chair in the place.
There is, however, a tall, handsomely painted wooden image of Saint Basil (and another of a woman next to him—his wife—because the Palenqueros think it would be a shame for even a saint who formulated many of the rules for monastic life to be lonely). In Saint Basil's hand is a little house, which, say the villagers, contains blessings he will one day vouchsafe to them. One of Saint Basil's presumed blessings is right there beside the statue, sharing pride of place with a crucifix. It is the golden trophy that Kid Pambelè brought home from Panama City in 1972 when he defeated Alfonzo Frazier for the junior welterweight title. And nearby it on the wall is a bed sheet on which a poem in Spanish has been lettered with loving care by one of the nuns who visit the village from time to time.
No se puedo sepultar la vida,
No se puedo sepultar a un pueblo
Que busca la libertad
Como estrellas siempre brillaran
Porque aun muertos seguieron viviendo
Porque el pueblo nace cadadia
You cannot bury life,
You cannot bury a town.
Follow freedom, that shines constantly like the stars.
Then, even though death follows living,
The town is born again each day.
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 Pambelè 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 Amèrica (the first free town in the Americas) is the title claimed for Palenque by the Colombian historian Roberto Arràzola.
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 Pambelè 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.
Which is one of the reasons why Pambelè 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 Pambelè 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."
Pambelè'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, Pambelè," they cried. "Look how thin his legs are! Please eat properly, Pambelè!" Then the kids squiggled through the cluster of elders, escorting Pambelè down the road to see how his new house was getting on.
In his prime years Pambelè 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, Pambelè 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 Pambelè 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 Pambelè-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."
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.
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 Pambelè 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.
Whereupon, there being no Estrellas around, the pair went at each other in a whirlwind of fists, and suddenly it occurred to the observer that this is just what old boxing writers of the bareknuckle era meant by "milling." No attempt at defense on either side, only a furious, rhythmic two-fisted onslaught, as nonstop, as mechanically flailing as, well, a mill.
Nothing of this, though, impressed bystanders Natividad Perez and Jesus Mati, who are three or four years senior to the milling pair.
"These two are well-known street fighters." Natividad sniffed.
"I am not in a cuadro," Jesus said. "We are not making them anymore. Our trainer said we must not fight in the street."
"I hate to fight in the street," said Natividad. "These boys fight too hard, like they are fighting to kill."
And, indeed, Perfecto had an inch-long scar over his right eye. A boxing injury? "Nah," Perfecto said. "My cousin threw a rock at me."
By then the fury of the younger boys had spent itself, and together, chattering happily, they continued on to Celia's corral. There a ragged hemp rope was passed around some trees to form a ring, and the yard was cleared of pigs, turkeys and ducklings. Celia turned out to be a lined, battered-looking woman ("My God, the fight she got herself into last week!" said Dilsa the nurse). She received a grand total of $2 in pass-the-hat proceeds for the promotion.
In minutes the stockade became a whirl of activity. Tiny boys, unmindful of the action in the ring, milled, sparred and flung themselves Kamikaze-style at a woebegone bag that hung from a mango tree and slowly leaked its stuffing. Jesus and Natividad, the purists, worked out solemnly, one jogging rhythmically on an old tire, the other skipping with a frayed and knotted rope.
In the ring, two youths, 17 or 18 years old, fought with some style. Cutting in now and then to instruct them was Alesandro Herrera, Palenque's official trainer, the man who is most against cuadros and street fighting. By Palenque standards, he was dressed in the height of fashion: embroidered shirt, pressed pants, lace-up shoes. "Tiempo!" he called suddenly, and the fighters instantly quit.
Until recently, de Friedemann said, rounds had been signaled by someone whacking an old tin can with a stick. And she had noticed something else new: the young boxers had appeared wearing protective headgear. The headgear was fourth-hand, to be sure, but it represented yet another stage in the evolution of Palenque's fighting tradition from guerrilla warfare to the sophistication of modern boxing.
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 Pambelè, 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. "Pambelè 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 Pambelè 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."
Which came to an end abruptly in 1936, when the banana workers struck against the Company and the soldiers opened fire on them. "I saw 30 dead men when the army killed the people," Don Fermin recalled. "The first of them was my friend Erasmus Coro‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±el, the leader of the strike." Herrera fled home, back to the fastness of Palenque, and prospered. Three hundred head of cattle he has now, and 500 acres of land. He, too, is a believer in getting the fights into the gym. Herrera might even open one himself. "There is fine material here," he said, "fine boys for mana‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±a, for the future. I was the first of them, I think, and in my old age I am proud."
Oddly, you may think, Herrera owes his preeminence in the village not to his boxing prowess but to his cattle, which, in the African tradition, serve as work animals rather than a source of meat, except in extreme need. Each year in Palenque, a traveling bullfight troupe arrives for the feast of Saint Basil. A temporary plaza de toros is set up, and the fights are well attended by the neighboring white landowners. The Palenqueros enjoy the rum and the fiesta atmosphere, but they hate to see the bulls bothered and they regard the out-of-town fans as barbarians. Cattle are family. It is legitimate, though, for the kids who herd them to use them as punching bags, to try out jabs and combinations on the animals' unprotesting flanks as they are herded home in the evenings.
Back at Celia's corral, Alesandro and the big boys with the headgear and the gloves yielded the ring to the little ones. The bouts were short and ferocious, and the limits of the ring meant nothing. Swiftly, half a dozen informal battles broke out. Some of the girls who had been squealing encouragement now began squaring off with one another.
Alesandro wasn't amused by this, nor could he understand why the visitors could be bothered to watch the unstructured display. "Come, come," he said impatiently, "and I will show you the Coliseum."
A few streets away stood a building under construction, a simple cinder-block structure. "Here," said Alesandro grandly, "will be the showers. Here the room of the trainer. Here the heavy bag, the ring, the exercise equipment. The Coliseum will open in January." Goodby cattle corral. Goodby $2 promotions.' Alesandro, the nephew of Don Fermin, had many plans. One had the impression he was apologizing for the here-and-now Palenque, that he couldn't wait for the Palenque to come.
Now at Celia's corral it was time for the girls to get their chance, and if betting was possible—something notably absent from Palenque—you would certainly have a little something on Rita Cimarra, the southpaw in the off-the-shoulder white. Rita certainly was having the better of the action as Celia commanded the visitors to look at some colored snapshots of her son, 18-year-old Heriberto Torres. He is Palenque's newest hope, 32-3-0 as an amateur super flyweight and now training in Cartagena.
Joining the visitors, Pambelè looked at the photos. "Heriberto came to me when he was 12," he said. "He knelt down and he said, 'Pambelè, I beg you, give me some boxing gloves.' When he learned to read, I told him."
And indeed Heriberto did learn. One day not long ago he was on his way to train at a gym in Cartagena, carrying his book bag from the Liceo de Bolivar, a high school. A modest-mannered, good-looking lad, he had been "discovered" by a Cartagena promoter, Orlando Pi‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±eda, who now pays his expenses to live away from home. There seems little chance of Heriberto ever denying his heritage in the manner of Valdes.
He misses the comradeship he enjoyed in his cuadro, the Windstorm. "Did Nina tell you that the Windstorm made itself her personal bodyguard when she first came to Palenque five years ago, so she wouldn't be insulted or bothered?" he asked. He had to concede, however, that the cuadro tradition was failing. "There will always be good fighters in Palenque, though," he said.
And picked over more thoroughly than ever, no doubt, by scouts when Alesandro opens his gym and Pambelè gets his road. They will be better prepared than in the past, however, and in any case, for the Palenqueros there is really no other choice. "We have been voting for years," one woman said, "but it was a boxer who brought us our electric light and our water."
So it goes. When the Little Mouths and the Stars of Palenque and the Windstorm disappear, a piece of gallant history will go with them, something unique will be lost. But if Kid Pambelè gets his way, at least Palenque will have its blacktop road as consolation.
Women and girls duke it out in the creek, except on holidays, when their bouts take place in town.
Boys from different "cuadros" will fight at the drop of an insult, but usually without lasting malice.
Palenque's trio of former world champions: junior featherweight Ricardo Cardona (top), middleweight Rodrigo Valdes and junior welterweight Kid Pambelè, the object of much youthful worship.
Boys like these have joined "cuadros"—Windstorm, Little Mouths—for centuries, but only recently has secondhand boxing equipment become available.
In Saint Basil's, Kid Pambelè's title trophy shares pride of place.
Anthropologist Nina de Friedemann became a friend to the village while studying its proud history.
Palenque's hopes for another world title rest with 18-year-old super flyweight Heriberto Torres.
Celia Casseres promotes bouts in her corral, at $2 for an afternoon's card.
Don Fermin, 75, was the first Palenquero to discover modern prizefighting.
Palenque is near state capital of Cartagena, but centuries of animosity have left the village virtually isolated.
Pambelè now is fighting for a paved road to replace this horror.