Editor's Letter: Resistance, Democracy and Music

My dear friend and photographer Richard Cross (R.I.P.) introduced me to the unexpected world of San Basilio de Palenque in Colombia in 1977. He was then working closely with Colombian anthropologist Nina de Friedemann, and I’d been called upon by Sports Illustrated to research a story why this little community o the Colombian coast had produced three world-champion boxers. I soon found out that Palenque—as most call it—had been a runaway slave community. The boxing techniques grew out of fist-heavy martial arts intended to fend off attacks.

Richard, who knew everyone in the community, took me to talk to young and old alike, to watch girls and boys practicing their boxing-like martial arts, to learn of the history of this valiant community. Now the struggle was not only one of resistance: it was one of democratic evolution, as the community aimed to make its voice heard to demand roads and other basic services.

Resistance and democracy became the two foundation stones on which this ReVista about Afro-Latin Americans has been built. But I also wanted to include a section on humanities. At first, I thought of seeking articles on art, literature, music, dance and film...certainly Afro-Latin American culture has been accomplished in all of these areas, both in the past and nowadays.

But I feared I would be expanding in too many directions. I settled on music alone, although I feared at first that it could be interpreted as a cliché. But I thought about the shape of the issue. Music is resistance and the music of Afrodescendants past and present has been used to resist the dominant white culture. Music is identity—it is a way of asserting oneself and one’s heritage. And music is often democratic, allowing all to participate, whether as performer and artist or spectator.

And besides, San Basilio de Palenque—my first intensive experience with an Afro-Latin American community—literally explodes with the sound of drums. The performers of martial arts move with the grace of dance, and the turban-clad Palenque women with basins of fruit on their heads who ply the beaches of Cartagena sell their wares with uncanny songlike chants.

So there we had it, resistance, democracy and music, a bit of Brazil and Colombia and Chile and Cuba and a flurry of other places. One issue of ReVista can’t pretend to cover everything about a significant part of Latin America’s population and history. It’s a beginning, an exploration. And it’s one that wouldn’t have been possible without the excellent collaboration of Alejandro de la Fuente, director of the Afro-Latin American Research Institute at the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research here at Harvard. Not only did he provide inspiration and consultation with his deep and broad knowledge of Afro-Latin America, but he also is reponsible for the beautiful artwork that graces this issue and its cover. Thank you, Alejandro!