Two score and seven years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream Speech” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. On August 28, the 47th anniversary of King’s plea for equality and an end to discrimination, Colombians continue to call for the realization of their own dreams. The sweltering summer of our legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn.
King had prepared a text when he took the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, but what has become known to the world as the “I Have a Dream Speech” was partially improvised from bits of wisdom and cries for liberty from his previous speeches. If you watch King deliver the speech you can see when he begins to depart from the prepared text. Some say what may have prompted this spontaneous outpouring was a call from Mahalia Jackson to “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” The public declaration of his dream came from the calls of others who shared his vision.
These calls united a collective dissatisfaction that, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, had already culminated into a mass movement of non-violence and civil disobedience, and forced the country and the world to take notice. As King once said, “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” But such demands do not have to be violent in nature. As his civil rights movement demonstrated, the collective consciousness of a people, who came together, in concert, to stop cooperating with the unjust actions and policies of an oppressive regime can create transform a nation. Less than two months after King publicly proclaimed the collective dream of millions of U.S. citizens, the U.S. Congress passed a bill of civil rights into law.
Ten score and six years prior to the U.S. Congress legitimizing King’s dream, some African slaves in Colombia could have been heard singing the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” The rest of the world was slow to respond to such wails and waves of jubilation.
England made its first judgment in 1772 (the Somersett’s Case) that held slavery to be unlawful. Thousands of slaves were soon emancipated. Haiti’s slave rebellion, which focused on expelling French colonizers, did not start until 1791. By 1804, after much bloodshed, Haiti had become the first independent nation in Latin America and the first post-colonial independent nation led by blacks in the world. Haiti’s national constitution of 1801 is considered one of the earliest progressive human rights documents ever declared by a nation. It even affirmed plans to import foreign slaves into Haiti to later free them. In 1808, the United States took steps to ban the importation of African slaves.
But in 1757 Colombia, freedom rang from the mountainside of Eastern Antioquia in the town of El Retiro. Thirty-three kilometers from Medellin, you can find this historical town, known both for its mining and its history of liberty. As some locals, like Lazarito, have claimed, “It is a town of poor people surrounded by the rich, a symbiosis between a rich population and freed slaves.” In doing research for this article, I came across three different popular historical interpretations of the actual formal act of releasing Africans from slavery by granting them liberty in El Retiro.
One account, by Javier Ocampo Lopez, in his book Mitos y Leyendas de Antioquia la Grande, describes how in 1757, some 127 African slaves were freed by an Antioquian widow, doña Javiera Londoño. This was the first time this occurred in all of the Americas in the 18th century. The sculpture in the photo on the right symbolizes this occasion. Londoño—a woman, let’s not forget—became Colombia’s and America’s (North, Central, and South) first true slave liberator: La Libertadora!
Ocampo recounts that doña Londoño and her husband, Sergeant Ignacio Castañeda, were known for being kind and affectionate to their slaves, and ensured to take care of them. Social justice, it is said, was very important to the couple. When Londoño’s husband died, la doña granted liberty to all her slaves.
Another account is chronicled in the book Solo quiero que me escuche: Cronicas del Oriente antioqueño y la subregion Nus, where historian Marta Agudelo de Pelaez’s version of the Castañeda Londoño family’s act of manumission is recounted. According to Agudelo, in 1734, El Retiro’s subsoil natural resources, such as gold, quartz, and salt, seduced doña Londoño and her husband. They soon began to exploit the mines with the help of their African slaves. Due to hardships and the high costs of maintaining slaves, the couple had to liberate 32 slaves. Agudelo agrees with Ocampo that this was the first time in the Americas when African slaves were formally awarded their freedom.
Chris Cameron, historian and expert in the African slave trade and anti-slavery movements, confirms this fact. In my interview with Dr. Cameron, he said that prior to 1757, there were no legal cases of manumission in the Americas. There were, however, many cases of marronage in “South America and Jamaica where a large number of slaves ran away together and ended up signing deals with their former masters, in effect freeing them.” The closest case to something that resembles manumission was in Massachusetts when in 1700 a court granted a slave, Adam Saffin, his freedom after “he sued his master, John Saffin, because he claimed he had been promised his freedom.” However, this was not a case of liberation for humanitarian purposes, as the El Retiro story seems to be.
El Retiro’s main courtyard blends both Ocampo’s and Agudelo’s accounts. On 27 December 2007, the town mayor inaugurated a monument to both la doña and the sergeant for liberating 127 of their slaves. The sculpture itself is of doña Londoño cutting a slave loose from his tied wrists. The following 1757 testament, which you can find on a plaque at the foot of the monument, however, is attributed to both la doña and the sergeant: “I give them liberty in every form of right that free people who are not subject to slavery have, and may they do whatever free people want to do and should do.”
Though this selective act of manumission did not make a difference in the larger scheme of things (as far as national policy was concerned, since Colombian did not realize the full abolition of slavery until the following century), it did make a difference to those formerly enslaved. The act also set the foundation that helped change public perception as to who should be regarded as a human being and who deserved to be treated with full dignity and respect. Though some question the motivation for freeing the Londoño and Castañeda slaves, the fact remains they were freed, and in doing so the two set an example. This is how the legend of El Retiro should be remember and honored by all Colombians, not just those of African descent.
Ocampo wrote that the “liberated slaves were given the surname Castañeda and committed themselves to annually celebrate” their freedom. Toward the end of the year, in December, the former slaves would find their way to their former town to reunite and commemorate their retirement from slavery. For this reason, the town is called El Retiro. The yearly celebration of the new Castañeda family was the origin for what Colombians now know as the “Fiesta de los Negritos.”
I am breaking from tradition today and instead of celebrating this story only in late December and early January to coincide with the Fiesta, I am narrating it now to parallel the proclamation of King’s “I Have a Dream Speech,” because the two stories complement one another. It is time to celebrate Colombia’s heritage, and also a time for further dreaming.
The promissory note of equality to which every Colombian was to fall heir via the 1991 constitution, has been a “bad check.” This bad check has been returned to the people marked as “insufficient funds,” because of the country’s inability—as a collective—to live up to the spirit of the law and its obligations. Those armed groups—like the Colombian armed forces, paramilitaries, guerrillas, and drug cartels—who have supposedly fought for a unified Colombia, for human dignity, for the life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness of ALL Colombians, have tried incessantly to manifest a grandiose Colombia in botched attempts.
Why has this been the case? In their militarized quest for unity, they have justified the extermination of a segment of the Colombian population, each armed group with a different targeted “lesser human” who can be disposed off without guilt. In the words of James Madison, we cannot unify a country by means of a cure that is worse than the disease itself. The justification of violence to achieve certain ends is drastically undermined if those ends cannot even be guaranteed.
As Hannah Arendt so eloquently put it in her classic On Violence, “The very substance of violent action is ruled by the means-end category, whose chief characteristic, if applied to human affairs, has always been that the end is in danger of being overwhelmed by the means which it justifies and which are needed to reach it. Since the end of human action, as distinct from the end products of fabrication, can never be reliably predicted, the means used to achieve political goals are more often than not of greater relevance to the future world than the intended goals.”
Colombians have been slaves to the wildfires of violence that have plagued the country and its people for far too long. Colombians are slaves to the very means they justify to bring them liberty. Colombians are slaves to their own inability to find creative, peaceful conflict resolution solutions. Colombians are slaves to labels that dehumanize and taunt. Colombians are enslaved to themselves and to the devises of their own choosing. Colombians have chosen violence. To take up arms is a choice, not a pre-determined, mechanical, fated act. If Colombians—regardless of skin color, regardless of religion, regardless of political affiliation, regardless of level of education, and regardless of sexual orientation—want to live the dream of the Castañeda family and El Retiro, they must choose to do so and help make it so for the vulnerable sectors of our society.
If Colombians ever want to live the dream Simón Bolívar left behind as a truly American artifact of humanity and liberty, then we must choose to unify. We must stop passing the buck of responsibility. We must stop supporting policies that ostracize, stigmatize, and dehumanize our neighbors, our brothers and sisters, policies that unequivocally support the instrumentalization of our very selves.
As Bolívar’s dream dictated, “To extricate our nascent republic from this chaos, not even the full weight of our moral faculties will suffice unless we can learn to unify our country: its governmental structure, its legislative body, and its national spirit. Unity, unity, unity—that must be our motto. If the blood of our citizens is diverse, let us make it one. If our constitution has divided the powers, let us unify them. If our laws are moribund relics of every ancient and modern despotism, let us tear down this monstrous edifice and, obliterating even its ruins, build a temple of justice in whose sacred precincts we can dictate a … code of law.”
On this day of tribute and remembrance, let us honor not only Dr. King, not only a dream, but a possibility. The U.S. civil rights movement provided evidence that extending equality and eradicating discrimination was achievable through peaceful measures. The legend of Antioquia’s El Retiro has provided Colombians an example that one does not have to wait for an army or a guerrilla to win a war, or for a government to make justice into law for wrongs to be righted. The people too have power do to so, as demonstrated by Dr. King, as demonstrated by la doña and her sergeant. As Gandhi claimed, be the change you want to see in the world. Don’t wait for it to happen. Act.
Colombia has a lot to celebrate. Colombians have a rich, multi-cultural history of a plurality of identities and traditions. Our many carnivals and festivals—one for every day of the year, as the Colombia is Passion commercial proudly boasts—are testament to a rich culture. But this does not mean the dream has been fully realized. I hope I get to see the day when the entirety of Colombia can be recognized as El Nuevo Retiro. I await such a glorious moment.
The sweltering summer of our legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn. Patiently, I wait for a change of season.
Julián Esteban Torres López is an editor, writer, researcher, and educator with nearly two decades’ experience working with publications, historical societies, and cultural and research institutions, and has held leadership positions in the academe, the arts, journals, the business sector, and history museums. You can follow him on Twitter.