Congo carnival is a cultural practice that emerged as a performative response to enslavement in Panama. Congo carnival traditions in Panama celebrate the resistance of Cimarrones, formerly enslaved Africans during the Spanish colonial period who escaped to the hills and rain forests of the Americas to establish independent communities. Los Cimarrones assisted English privateers like Francis Drake and pirates like Henry Morgan to successfully sabotage Spanish colonial trade practices. Using these partnerships as leverage, the Cimarrones were able to negotiate with the Spanish to gain their freedom. Once successful, they were no longer “Cimarrones,” meaning “wild” or “runaways.” They were free Blacks, free “Congos.”
Panama’s geopolitical location as a strategic crossroads for Spain’s colonial mercantilist enterprise as well as the US’s neocolonial capitalistic enterprise makes it a unique space to analyze the complexities of “Blackness” in the Americas. Situated in the Colon province, the Atlantic Coast terminus of the Panama Canal, Portobelo presents a rich case study for the tradition because it is one of the few Costeño communities founded during the colonial period in Panama with sustained global engagement for trade and/or tourism. Columbus made Portobelo his initial point of disembarkation for his fourth voyage to the “New World.”
The Congo drama is a mythic battle between good and evil, which pits Congos — self-liberated free Blacks — against devils — brutal enslavers. Like most carnival traditions throughout the Americas, Congo traditions in Panamá rely on a hierarchy of characters. The primary characters include: Merced (the Queen), Juan de Dioso (the king), Pajarito (the prince whose name means “little bird”), Minina (the princess), Diablo Mayor (the major devil), Diablo Segundo (the secondary devil), a host of minor devils, a priest, one angel and six souls.
Both the Queen (“Maria Merced” or “Mercedes”) and King (“Juan de Dioso” or “Juan de Dios”) are distinguished by their cardboard crowns, which are decorated in gold fabric and adorned with convenient materials like large colorful rhinestones, mirrors, and/or bows. The Queen’s crown is further embellished with multicolored ribbons. Her costume, consistent with other Congo women’s costumes, includes a pollera, a white sleeveless or short sleeve blouse, a petticoat, layers of beads called lágrimas de la Virgen (tears of the Virgin Mary), and flowers pinned in her hair. She carries a large cross, which she uses to protect herself and her community from the Devil.
Just as the Cimarrones camouflaged their faces to mask themselves as they moved through the jungles and rainforests, the King and Congo men likewise paint their faces with charcoal or indigo. They also wear a cone-shaped hat, trousers, and a long-sleeved shirt or jacket turned inside out. Each Congo man carries a satchel over his shoulder to collect provisions and wears a belt of artifacts (plastic flashlights, coconut shells, plastic dolls) tied around his waist with a rope. Like the women, men wear layers of long beaded necklaces and stylize their costumes according to taste.
El Pajarito, whose name means “little bird,” is the son of the King and Queen; together, they make up the three-member royal court that leads the Congo community. Pajarito’s primary leadership role is to help guard the community. Historically, he has also served as a scout to guide them in the part of the Congo game that gives competing communities an opportunity to capture and rob one another’s fortresses in the spirit of Carnival fun.
In Portobelo, Pajarito’s costume is generally a long golden tunic made of taffeta and tied with rope at the waist. Pajarito wears a decorative cardboard crown topped with feathers linked to the meaning of his name, “Little Bird,” and paints his face in a color that coordinates with this yellow and green costume.
In speaking about contemporary Congo traditions, Congo practitioner Simona Esquina explained: “There used to be [. . .] the Princess. The Princess is the girl who accompanies the Queen. She’s younger than the Queen. She’s always at the foot of the Queen. In case the Queen cannot, the Princess takes her place. Now they don’t use a Princess, just a Queen and a King.” For special occasions, a young community member will dress in the fashion of the queen as a symbolic princess.
Carlos Chavarría, current mayor or Portobelo and former Diablo Mayor of Portobelo, summarizes the role of the Devil this way:
The Devil in our tradition represents nothing more than the Spanish who was always abusing the slave with his whip so that he would work. They were always subjecting the Blacks to the whip, and that’s the part [of the Congo tradition] that they’ve directly maintained as it was; that is, he [the Devil] is the Congo’s enemy as it relates to the culture of the race. But when we look at [the role] strictly within the context of the Congo tradition, it’s the evil of man, the, that we search out amongst ourselves. It is celebrated on Ash Wednesday. That is when you can see clearly the fight between good and evil.
Whereas all of the other Congo characters appear throughout Carnival season, the Devil character does not appear until Ash Wednesday. The Devil’s costume includes a cotton jumpsuit, a mask, ankle bells, and a whip, as well as cardboard wings painted black. Although Diablo Segundo (the Secondary Devil) and each of the minor Devils may elect to wear either red costumes or mixed red and black costumes, the Major Devil is the only Devil that dresses primarily in black.
Of the Archangel, former Congo Queen Melba Esquina explained, “The Angel protect[s] the souls [ánimas] so that they don’t fall under the power of the Devil.” Celedonio elaborated:
When the Devil plays with the Congos, a group of people comes, called Angels, to get the Devil for baptism. After they tie up the Devil, they go over to the table where the Priest is going to baptize the Devil. Then they baptize him and the Devil is let free. That’s where the association between the Devil and the Congos ends. This happens every year on Ash Wednesday.
The Archangel and each of the six Souls wear calf-length white tunics, with white bandanas tied around their heads. Las Ánimas move as a unit, tethered together by a rope and led by the Archangel, who carries a large wooden cross like the Queen. Unlike Congo men and local observers, who play with the Devil while dressed in long pants to protect their legs from his whip, the Archangel and Souls play bare-legged, their eventual bloody whelps a part of their costume. And while the male Congo performers, including the King, perform with their faces camoflaged in black, the Angels, Souls, and Priest do not. The Priest’s only distinguishing feature is a basil leaf and container of water, which he uses to bless the Devils.
In addition to the Congo royal court and supernatural characters, the heart of the tradition is Congo dance, which is animated by the percussive pulse of three male drummers led by a female chorus, a primary singer and a multitude of male and female Congo dancers.
The main drama of the tradition takes place during carnival season (Congo season), which begins on January 20 and peaks on the Tuesday and Wednesday before the beginning of Lent, the forty days from Ash Wednesday until Easter. Embedded within the larger schema of “cultural performance” are a set of “ritual performances” that serve as “scenes” for the Congo drama. The culminating episodes of Congo Carnival begin on Carnival Tuesday and conclude on Ash Wednesday.
These ritual “scenes” stage the social drama of Cimarron struggles to maintain and protect their self-liberated communities from Spanish encroachment, their re-appropriation of the devil trope to suit their liberatory narrative, and their use of inversion, buffoonery, and misdirection as tactics for survival. Through the Congo drama, also referred to locally as “the Congo game,” and the language of the Congo dialect, the group parodies the Catholic Church and Spanish crown to create an embodied critique of the institution of slavery and its primary agents. Parody, manifested in reversals of meaning as well as reversals of clothing, is a central element of the drama.
Before midnight on Carnival Tuesday, el Diablo Mayor visits the palacio without his costume to check that Congos have assembled to play. Then, he returns home, dresses, and re-approaches the space in order to enter it backward. Pajarito, who has been standing guard of the palacio, blows a whistle to let the Congos know that the Devil is approaching. The first dance of the Congo Drama is the “Diablo Tun”: The Devil dances to the song with his feet perpendicular to one another in the shape of a cross.
When the Diablo Mayor enters the palacio, he does so to steal the Queen, the seat of the Congo’s power. The colonial Spanish Queen’s interest was in colonization through expansion, Christianization, and the exploitation of labor through slavery. Enslavers appropriated “the devil” and “the church” as a means to dissuade rebellion and protect the institution of slavery.
El juego Congo, the Congo game, repositions power such that the Congo Queen uses her cross/the church to combat the Devil/enslaver for the protection of her nation.
As the Major Devil dances backward into the palacio, the Queen comes from her place in the chorus with her large wooden cross in hand. She then dances in front of the drums as Congo members play, dance, and mocks the Devil in order to keep him distracted.
Finally, she grabs the Devil from behind and they dance in a tense battle as the chorus sings “Diablo Tun Tun.” Having tricked him by grabbing him from behind, the Queen prevents the Devil from taking her. They dance this way until the Devil jumps up and throws them both back on the drums, thus ending the official Carnival Tuesday portion of the Congo drama. Carnival festivities, of which the Congo drama is one part, continue throughout the evening.
As the 5:30am church bells announce the 6am Ash Wednesday service, interested Congos go to mass to have ashes placed on their foreheads. Although this is the beginning of Lenten season for the church, the Congos are not done playing yet. They repeat the Diablo Tun Tun and continue to play with the devil. This time their stage is in the front entrance to the church and the surrounding area. The non-Congo community spectators grows throughout the morning until the devil retreats from the church area, the game subsides and all can go home to rest.
By early evening, the Major Devil and all of the minor Devils take to the streets. As the Congo drama continues, The Archangel and the six Ánimas who follow him chase and bind each Devil, starting with the minor Devils and working their way up the hierarchy. Once captured, each Devil chooses a madrina (godmother) from among the women in the crowd and proceeds with her to be blessed by the Congo Priest.
The Priest tries to get the Devil to call the name of God (Dios), but he refuses and keeps saying “arroz,” which means “rice.” Eventually the Priest accepts “arroz” as “Dios,” and de-whips (takes away his whip) and de-masks the Devil. The game does not end until each Devil is baptized and unmasked.
The last to be baptized is the Major Devil. The Congo drama does not end until the main devil, El Diablo Mayor, is de-masked, de-whipped, baptized, and symbolically sold. Mayor and Former Major Devil Carlos Chavarría summed it up thusly:
And that’s the moment that everything ends. Good beats out evil, which is when I [the Major Devil] have been baptized. And that’s celebrated. It’s accomplished, that good imposes itself on evil, and we reach a moment of joy, which is what the tradition recreates. But looking at it from the perspective of Blacks and the Spanish, it’s nothing more than [showing] that the Spanish always had his whip enslaving the Blacks.
Spanish colonists appropriated the Christian devil as a weapon to wield against enslaved communities. Oral history suggests that colonists sometimes threatened, “The devil will get you” to dissuade rebellion and discourage escape. Architects of the Congo tradition recognized their enslavers as the embodiment of that threat and repurposed the trope of “devil” as parody. In doing so, they created a narrative that cast enslavers as whip wilding devils to be captured, baptized, and sold by communities of self-liberated Blacks powerful enough to do so. They created a narrative that celebrated the history and spirit of cimarronaje. The ethos of black rebellion, resistance, and re-appropriation, which frames Panamanian Congo traditions in global imaginaries, stems from the cultural context of playing with the devil and winning.