About a year ago, I was hanging out with some Puerto Rican friends. We were discussing Afro-Cuban traditions while I was painting a portrait of Jill Scott. It was a typical weekend ‘a lo Boricua’ with lots of Sancocho and plenty of rice.
“Spanish TV” was lightly playing in the background and we joked about the dramatic acting of the telenovela that was airing, and our conversation turned to the representation of Afro-Latinos and how we are nowhere to be found on Spanish-speaking television.
At that point Black people had only been the criadas (nannies) or docile enslaved hopeless beings– always in the background or minimized as an object, but never the subject in a meaningful way.
Then a few months later, Celia was released (in the U.S. on Telemundo) and this series was like a breath of fresh air.
It was the first time I saw so many Black actors and actresses playing major roles. In fact, many of the actors/actresses from the series would appear in another telenovela La Esclava Blanca (The White Slave).
Watch short clip of series below.
— La Esclava Blanca (@EsclavaBlancaTV) June 1, 2016
The series opens with the plantation Eden set on fire – not by the enslaved Africans, but by an avaricious White family, (La Familia Parreño) in particular Nicolas Parreno, who wanted to take over the land/inheritance. The burning fire made way for the Africans to flee to a Palenque (Maroon settlement) with a White baby (Victoria) that was given to them because the overseer (Morales) couldn’t bare to let her die in the fire.
Amid concerns that a White child would be a bad omen for the settlement, she is raised by the Afrodescendientes in the Palenque during her early years and accepts the adopted family as her true family. Later the Palenque is captured and much of the series takes place between the Hacienda (plantation) and the historic town – Santa Marta, Colombia.
This series has been faced with criticism, not only for its historic (in)accuracies – but also for some of the displays of ‘violence’ and sexual expressions – a point which I will discuss later, but for now, I would like to say that in spite of some of the issues, I would not completely dismiss the series for a number of reasons. Since I was watching Underground, Django, 12 Years a Slave, the new Roots miniseries, Sankofa and other similar series, I didn’t know if I could take another trip to enslavement, but this was different.
The first few episodes are set in the Palenque. If you are not familiar with Maroon*, as Mark Harris writes,
Maroon is the Taíno word for African – Native genetic and cultural hybrids. It means wild and free. A maroon, can be a former slave who creates a free and vital culture, not simply escapes slavery…
The Maroon village was beautiful and peaceful – it was paradise. While watching this series, I wanted to be free like them, learning herbs, African music, traditions and healing.
This series diverged from the perception of African-Latino traditional practices such as Santeria as taboo, “wicked” witchcraft and “Black Magic” and presented it as a beautiful source of healing, protection, and unity. This followed them, not just in the Palenque, but when they were in the Hacienda Eden. African tradition was their source of power and strength. Initially (in Eden) this strength was found in the form of Mama Lorenza, their mother and herbal healer that they thought was deceased – so they called upon her as an elevated Ancestor to fight their battles. Her daughter Milagros (which means miracles) was the healer of the Hacienda Eden and her herbs were both healing and a form of revolt in the plantation system.
This is something I don’t believe I have EVER seen on Anglophone television! White people praying to an African Ancestor for strength…African herbs healing where Western doctors only fail…The series even concluded with the Afrodescendientes victoriously and legally seizing the Hacienda and with the former Slave Master punished in chains and sent to work in the mines alongside enslaved people. In fact, he is given lashes with a whip for not working hard enough!
African tradition, liberation, empowerment, honor, lineage and strength was a central theme in the series. This is why I cannot agree with the critiques of La Esclava Blanca as just another “Great White Hope” series.
To address the controversy of historic inaccuracy, this is a difficult task. Sometimes I wonder if television, made for the purposes of entertainment, can fully take on that role. Telenovelas have never been true to life to me – not in history, not in drama and certainly not in the unrealistic relationships we see in television romance. Also, regarding the sexual content and violence, the truth is – we were raped historically and regarded as property, so violence was a reality and was accosted upon us in various forms, some forms continue to haunt both Afrodescendientes and former enslavers to this day.
It may be unrealistic to view Telemundo as PBS, however, this does not mean writers should not be held accountable. It just means that we have to continue to tell our stories and try to ensure that as we gain more visibility the narratives are told in our own voices. Whether fact or fiction, may we draw upon the strength of our own Mama Lorenzas who call for our protection and for the opening of doors with Elegua leading the way. As they say in the Palenque – Somos Uno – we are one!
Omilani Alarcón is a graduate of Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. She holds a dual Bachelor’s degree in Romance Literatures & Language (BA French/ BA Spanish). She graduated summa cum laude and upon graduation, immediately embarked upon a Fulbright Hays-Group Project Abroad in Nigeria where she studied the Yoruba language at Obafemi Awolowo University.
Ms. Alarcón is a visual and performing artist, poet, scholar and has over eight scholarly publications, five musical CDs, and was in the top 7 GRAMMY Showcase Finalists. She currently teaches French Language & Literature and has traveled and studied business, languages, and performing arts in Europe, Africa, the Caribbean and the Americas.
* “The English word ‘maroon,’ like the French and Dutch marron, derives from Spanish cimarrón—itself based on an Arawakan (Taino) root (Arrom 1986). Cimarrón originally referred to domestic cattle that had taken to the hills in Hispaniola, and soon after to Indian slaves who had escaped from the Spaniards as well. By the end of the 1530s, it was already being used primarily to refer to Afro-American runaways, and the word had taken on strong connotations of ‘fierceness,’ of being ‘wild’ and ‘unbroken.’ My comparative perspective on Maroon societies in the Americas was first spelled out in Price 1973.”
Refiguring Palmares by Richard Price (College of William & Mary, and Anse Chaudière, Martinique)
Tipití: Journal of the Society for the Anthropology of Lowland South America
Volume 1 | Issue 2 Article 3 December 2003