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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

The devils in the details

Renee Alexander Craft has been studying the same town in Panama for 14 years.

Renee Alexander Craft has been studying the same town in Panama for 14 years.

Renee Alexander Craft has been going to Panama for 14 years, a few weeks at a time. She is fascinated by a small seaside town called Portobelo, its Afro-Latin residents and the special spin they give to their pre-Lenten Carnival. They call their version of Carnival season, “Congo Season.”

“It’s a small town that’s rich in culture and history. It’s a small town that also has been consistently touched by global trade and tourism,” said Alexander Craft, assistant professor in the Department of Communications Studies and Curriculum in Global Studies. “The history is just so thick and interesting. I’m never at a loss for questions or great people to ask.”

Her research on Portobelo has resulted in a new ethnographic monograph on the Congo tradition, a digital home for hundreds of excerpts from her interviews and a collaboration that will lead to a multimedia performance on campus March 20–21 featuring local and Portobelo artists.

To produce “Cristo Negro | Diablo Blanco,” a group of local artists went to Panama for a week during Carnival in February, and the Panamanian artists arrived in Chapel Hill earlier this week. Their joint performance will close UNC’s Process Series season with shows at 8 p.m. March 20–21 in Studio 6 of Swain Hall.

The performance also grew out of a Beat Making Lab held in Portobelo in 2012. In this program born in Carolina’s Music Department, musicians and producers take an electronic music studio small enough to fit in a backpack to communities around the world. The music videos they create are part of a weekly PBS Digital Studio web series.

In Portobelo, the lab’s co-creators Pierce Freelon and Stephen Levitin (aka Apple Juice Kid) and videographer/editor Saleem Reshamwala worked with the students at La Escuelita Del Ritmo to create “Diablos,” a music video inspired by the Congo Carnival tradition.

A brief history of Carnival

Carnival in Central and South America (known as Mardi Gras in the U.S.) has its roots in the Christian season of Lent, the 40 days of fasting and prayer before Easter Sunday. Since Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, the day before that came to be called “mardi gras” or Fat Tuesday, the last day to indulge before Lent began. Eventually this feast day stretched into a celebration that lasts several days, with its own culture and traditions.

As Alexander Craft discovered, history comes alive in Portobelo during Carnival season, through the dances and music of its African descendants. “It is the history of enslavement and self-liberation,” Alexander Craft said. “It is an embodied critique of Spanish colonialism.”

Celedonia in his devil costume

Celedonia in his devil costume

A festival that follows on the heels of Carnival is called “El Festival de Los Diablos y Congos.” The stars of this celebration are the Congo, who represent self-liberated blacks, and the devils, the enslavers.

“Los Diablos” dress in black and red and wear monstrous, toothy masks on their heads and multiple rows of jingling bells on their legs. They hop instead of walking, shake whips at passersby and jerk their heads from side to side to keep watch in all directions. One devil was even rumored to fly.

This most famous devil character was performed by Celedonio Molinar Avila, a small slender man who took the role in 1945. He chased people by jumping from roof to roof and surprised others by cornering them in dark alleys. He was still the Major Devil when Alexander Craft interviewed him in 2003, but passed away in 2005.

Not just entertainment

In the Congo tradition, the devils represent the white colonists who enslaved Africans. The drama concludes when the tables are turned on the Major Devil, who has his mask and whip taken away, is baptized and symbolically sold.

Entertaining as the annual celebration is, it also has political, historical and religious significance. In her new book, “When the Devil Knocks: The Congo Tradition and the Politics of Blackness in 20th Century Panama,” Alexander Craft explores the roots of the Congo tradition and its meanings. The tradition also provides insight into what it means to be black in Panama, a country where the census lists at least three different terms for African-descended identity.

She first got interested in Portobelo in 1998 during a presentation here when she was a master’s student. The photos of the people of Portobelo were a revelation. “My mind was blown. I saw people that looked like they could be my relatives,” said Alexander Craft, who grew up in Charlotte. “And I’d never heard of this place. How did I not know about this place? I just was drawn to it.”

Two years later, she visited Portobelo as part of the 2000 Spelman College Summer Art Colony. In 2003, she continued her research through a Fulbright grant. She kept going back in the summer, at Carnival time or sometimes both, asking lots of questions and improving her Spanish skills along the way.

The researcher started out with a cassette tape recorder, but eventually went all digital. As a way to give back to the people of Portobelo who had spent so much time answering her questions, she established Digital Portobelo,, a repository of the interviews, with scrolling transcripts in Spanish and English, to preserve the words and pictures for future generations. She is also writing a novel based on her experiences.

“I thought in the beginning that the book might be the end. Or the book and maybe a collection of poems,” Alexander Craft said of her 14 years of research. “I did not have the sense of all the different lives that this project would take or that the book would feel like another beginning.”