Thousands of Africans were brought to Panama’s Caribbean Coast where they were sold as slaves and sent to work in other parts of Central America. Some escaped, however, and their descendants now make up a self-described “Afro colonizer” population in the area. Two weeks after Carnival, communities in and around Portobelo hold the Diablos y Congos (Devils and Slaves) festival which is an exaggerated re-enactment of how their African ancestors used clothing and language to communicate and an over-the-top parody of Spanish colonizers.
Inside the Diablos y Congos festival in Panama
Some men and boys dress as congos (slaves) by wearing old clothes worn inside out and adorned with found objects like dolls in imitation of the way Africans modified the clothes they were allowed to wear in order to make them their own. They also speak “congo” by saying the opposite of what they really mean, a re-enactment of how African ancestors managed to communicate even under the watchful eye of slave traders.
Female congos wear long, bright, pleated skirts, flouncy blouses that fall off the shoulder, and multiple necklaces in a costume that is a humble reflection of the pollera, the national dress of Panama.
Other men and boys dress up as diablos (devils) to represent the Spanish colonizers who ruled the region during slave trading times, donning intricate costumes and wearing grotesque masks many of which are made in nearby Puerto Lindo.
The devils whip the congos and even innocent bystanders and some are more vigorous about it than others. Meanwhile, a pitifully small crew of men dressed as angels try to capture, punish, and banish the whip-wielding devils/Spaniards.
It’s a chaotic, passionate, sometimes alarming spectacle involving hundreds of participants and thousands of spectators. Here’s more of the madness.
Here’s more about travel in Panama
Here’s more about Festivals & Celebrations in the Americas