By Carlos Meneses Sanchez
The Raizals, a Creole-speaking, Afro-Caribbean people who inhabit the Colombian archipelago of San Andres, Providencia and Santa Catalina, are fighting to achieve greater respect for their centuries-old culture and achieve a place for their language in all local institutions.
This Protestant ethnic group makes up more than half of the population of San Andres, the largest island in the archipelago, which is located 220 kilometers (135 miles) off the coast of Nicaragua and 700 kilometers (435 miles) from mainland Colombia.
San Andres-Providencia Creole has its origins in different African dialects spoken by slaves brought to these islands by the English, guide Rodrigo Sarmiento, a native of San Andres and member of the Raizal community, told EFE, adding that slaves mixed English with words from their native tongues so their owners would not understand them.
He gave one example of a phrase in the local language, noting that the question "How are you?" sounds like "Jo yo de."
San Andres-Providencia Creole is the language most commonly heard in the primarily Raizal neighborhoods of San Luis and La Loma, two of the three sectors into which San Andres is divided.
Meeting the demand from that community is a small local television station, TeleIslas, that offers programming in Creole with Spanish subtitles.
"We're fighting so that Creole is in all the institutions. Previously it was considered a dialect because it didn't have a written form or grammatical rules, but now it can be both written and spoken. There are even books," said Mario Bailey, a young Raizal who sings in the local Baptist church's youth choir.
Constructed entirely with wood brought from the U.S. state of Alabama, the church, the first of that denomination to be built on San Andres, was founded on the island's highest point by Rev. Phillip Beckman in the mid-19th century, shortly after Britain's Parliament abolished slavery throughout the British Empire.
The Raizal's Baptist tradition, also adopted from British slave owners and settlers on the archipelago, makes their belief system distinct from the majority Catholic population of Colombia, since they believe in the Holy Trinity but not in the intercession of "saints or virgins."
They do, however, have respect "for the Virgin Mary as Jesus' mother," Bailey said.
The Raizals' architecture also hearkens back to the past with its cone-shaped roofs and wooden stilt houses to prevent flooding in the rainy season.
Another cultural novelty is the existence of some private cemeteries hidden away between houses, even though they are prohibited because of their potential for contaminating groundwater.
But because of the Raizal population's cultural differences with the rest of the country, locals say Colombian governments for a time completely neglected the island.
There was a period in which the national government paid no attention to the Raizal population concentrated in the neighborhoods of San Luis and La Loma, the guide Sarmiento said, adding that things improved somewhat when a military dictator, Gen. Gustavo Rojas Pinilla, became the first Colombian president to visit San Andres and declared it a free port in 1953.
In Rojas Pinilla's remembrance, the island's small airport bears his name.
Despite the government's neglect, the Raizals have managed to implement an educational system in their schools that ensures a place for their culture in Colombian history books.
"In my high school, they're very strict with our traditions. We had to learn what slavery was like, the history of the church, everything ... They also teach us all the dances, and we have to be able to dance them to graduate," Bailey said.
In terms of local permits, if a private company wants to carry out a construction project it must first obtain the approval of the Raizal population and then only hire native workers.
This ethnic group also has its own cuisine that includes empanadas (a stuffed bread or pastry) and crab soup as well as rondon, a fish and seafood stew simmered in coconut milk and accompanied with rice, breadfruit, cassava or fried banana.
Inside the Baptist church, which is sober in appearance but features a drum set on the side of the altar to liven up the services, several people are fixing part of the roof and putting up the portraits of some of the seven pastors who have spiritually guided the community over the past 171 years.
Up high in the scaffolding, one young Raizal woman says something to one of her work companions in Creole. She is wearing a T-shirt that reads: "Dis dah fiwi: teritory, stuory, langwij ahn koltyo!" which means "This is Ours: Land, History, Language and Culture!"