Theatrical dancing depicting slavery along the same route as traditional and sexy performers is the scene at Colombia’s biggest cultural gathering, Carnaval de Barranqilla.
On the Caribbean coast, Barranqilla hosts the most popular festival in a country where there’s always a carnival or celebration somewhere.
“One thing that really shocked me were the images of slavery, I remember asking several people ‘Nobody’s offended by this?’” said Naft. “There was someone who was African-Colombian...and they were like ‘Yeah...this is what we do.’”
It was her first time seeing Son de Negro, a dance where Colombians of African descent paint themselves black, wear chains and make exaggerated facial expressions as a way of acknowledging slavery’s brutal history in a celebratory setting.
“It was almost as if they didn’t understand me asking if it was acceptable. It was just so natural to them” Naft said.
Colombia Festiva’s founder, Catalina Linero, said the Son de Negro personas are “One of my favourite characters.”
“They’re putting blacker colour on their skin and they are making fun of the Spaniards during the colonial time.” Linero said, “(Son de Negro) is a dance from the Carnaval de Barranquilla and they became so popular that they got their own festival. They are always making faces.”
The Son de Negro festival, known in english as the Festival of Black Rhythm, is 74 km (46 miles) south of Barranquilla along the Rio Magdalena, beginning every year on January 31.
“Colombia is a country with all types of races and we can be a racist country.” Linero said. “Being from the same country, we came from the same roots. For example I can dance like them but I don’t look like them. I feel like I can identify with them at that point, because of the African heritage and the dance and the mood. That connects me...all the mixture of races in my country.”
Being connected is what Linero is all about. She started Colombia Festiva in 2010 after getting the idea in Medellín’s Flower Fair. Linero thought an online agenda for all things festival in Colombia was an unfulfilled necessity because the government websites had been abandoned.
She wanted to show “A different face of my country than what people are used to,” and “Not just the party, but the cultural facts of it.”
“Some small towns and villages, the main core of the economy comes from their festival because people travel from all over the country to that place, that festival.” Linero said.
“Everyone knows that we’re harassed by war sometimes, not too much now, but we’re the third happiest country (in the world).” Linero said. “People wear their costumes and go to another reality.”
She believes the positive impact of Colombia’s festivals on the people is why the Happy Planet Index ranks Colombia so high.
Photographers Without Borders’ woman on the ground, Rachel Naft, felt a broadened awareness following her trip.
“Understanding the country, understanding what the people are like, not basing my ideas on pre-conceived notions...my personal experiences are how I view the country now.” said Naft, adding the journey made her more open minded.