Coyote Feature: Palo Monte
The language that belongs to the Afro-Cuban religion, known as Regla de Palo Monte (Palo Monte) was once believed to have origins that were unknown.
Due to new findings by Armin Schwegler, a professor of Spanish Linguistics at UC Irvine, and fellow colleagues, the origin of this historical religion has been discovered.
On May 6, 2010, Schwegler gave a lecture on his findings about Palo Monte from a linguistic point of view at CSUSB in the San Manuel Student Union Theatre.
Schwegler began discussing his research that was used to write his novel Lengua y Ritos del Palo Monte Mayombe,co-written by Jesus Fuentes Guerra. After writing the book, Schwegler decided to do fieldwork in Cuba in order to find the true origins of the language that was based solely on theories just 10 years ago.
Palo Monte’s language can be broken up into three parts. It consists of Spanish, Bozal (Spanish spoken by slaves), and the African language of Kikongo.
Kikongo exists in the Congo/Zaire River area of Africa. There it exists in different dialects, but the words used in the different regions are very similar to those used in the language practiced throughout Cuba.
The language is still alive today, and although Schwegler says that the origin and idea that it is still practiced has been confirmed, the practitioners and uniformity throughout Cuba remains a mystery.
What Schwegler and other researchers have come to believe is that those who practice the religion are most likely people of color due to the origin and the history of the slave trade.
“This religion is highly sacred and secretive,” said Schwegler. “It is part of a way of life in which the normal person does not have access."
This mystery constitutes a problem because it is very difficult to access the data.
“The practitioners must trust you, and that's the reason we do not know how many people practice the religion. We do not know where they are concentrated, who they are, or how many there are.” said Schwegler.
It cannot be assumed that it is the language of the slaves from the Congo, but possibly even other tribes because, according to Schwegler, “it is common for Africans to be multilingual”.
Until the year 2000, everyone believed that the speech was a hybrid language, composed of dozens of Bantu languages making a new tongue once it came to Cuba.
From 1940 to 1950 people stopped using this type of speech, yet certain words remained the same in different areas.
A Collegue of Schwegler, Constanza Rojas, studied the Palo Monte language in Holguin, Cuba while Schwegler studied in Cienfuegos.
The two compared their findings and discovered many similarities between the areas, even though the 500 kilometer distance has left little to no socializing between the groups.
Within the last two years of research, their results will appear sometime this week in a 50-page article discussing the findings of Rojas and Schwegler, concluding that these similarities are no accident.
Recordings of the language showed 24 percent of the words were kikongo in the city of Cienfuegos and 26 percent in Holguin.
Geneticists have even gone as far as taking blood samples of the Palo Monte practitioners in Cuba, and comparing them to blood samples of tribes in the Congo proving that the linguistics data is right on target.
Schwegler does not know how much of the research accumulated will change in the next 10 years, but he said, “some things you want to believe but do not ask questions, and [I] will continue to ask questions until all is known about this lesser known religion and society of people.”
By Jessica Meyer