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Ancestral GPS: Congos of Portobelo, Panama

Updated: Feb 18, 2019

By Javier Wallace



Most African people, but definitely not all, arrived to the Americas in the bottom of ships during the TransAtlantic Slave Trade. However, finding themselves far away from their native lands these African people knew better than any GPS system the quickest route home. Just one call to the ancestors and they were gone. Gone home. Free. Connected.

In Portobelo, my ancestral spirit is carried off to the palenques of the bush with one gaze at the densely covered jungle hills that surround the small village. The beats of the drums and the free moves of the dancers take me to a land far away from this place. It’s near impossible to find the right words to describe where this place is and how one can arrive there. I just know it’s not close to these shores.

Black freedom flag

My spirit is carried far back.. to January 20th in a year unknown where a flag was planted. A black and white flag. A black and white flag where the white section was enslaved to the pole and where the black section wove freely in the winds of this land. From that antique January 20th day in an unknown year until today and until forever, this flag means that the African will forever be free and the white man will be enslaved.

This event marks the beginning of the Congo season of Portobelo in the province of Colón. January 20th is the day the Africans rebelled and those who could, fled to the mountains to join the other marooned and free African people in the jungle covered hills of Panama.

Portobelo is one place where the ancestors take me home. I am so grateful for Mama Ari and the other descendants of the Congo people of Colon who have never lost their ancestral GPS and are working to ensure that the ancestral spirit will continue to guide the youth for generations to come. May they never forget the quickest route home.

Stay Blessed. Stay Black.

To learn more about the Congo Culture of Colon please stop by and visit Mama Ari and the her cultural center while in Portobelo. She welcomes visitors to learn and experience the different elements of the Congo Culture. She also does workshops and sells locally made souvenirs, handicrafts and handmade ancestral Pollera Congas.


Javier is co-founder of AfroLatino Travel. Having lived six years in Panama, teaching, coaching, and giving tours, Javier is now completing his PhD in Physical Education focusing on AfroLatinos in sports at UT Austin. An avid traveler, Javier calls Panama and Colombia his second homes. You can follow his PhD adventures on Instagram.

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