The Heartbeat of Quinamayó

Last Updated: April 30, 2024By

The Heartbeat of Quinamayó

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I’ve been snapping photos in Quinamayó, a quaint town in western Colombia, for about six years now. My project revolves around the unique Black Baby Jesus celebrations. Quinamayó, known as a palenque, is a community set up by enslaved people who escaped from haciendas before slavery was abolished in the 1850s. These people, forced to convert to Catholicism, couldn’t keep their African traditions or join key Catholic events. So, they created their own Christmas celebration 45 days after the usual date, mirroring the 45 days the Virgin Mary supposedly rested after giving birth. Every year in mid-February, this tradition lives on.

A Four-Day Celebration

The festivities last for four days, with the second day featuring a special procession. A wooden figure of Black Baby Jesus is carried through town. Kids dress up as biblical characters, and everyone dances to the local juga rhythm, performed by a brass band. The dancers shuffle their feet, a nod to their ancestors who once wore chains around their ankles.

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Witnessing a Bunde

Three days after this year’s celebration, I got a message from the director of Quinamayó’s juga band. A child had passed away, and a bunde, a ritual for mourning and celebrating children under 10, was happening that night. This tradition dates back to when children’s deaths were seen as a release from slavery’s suffering. I’d never seen a bunde before. Quinamayó is an hour and a half away by car, so I hit the road immediately.

A Unique Rule

Everyone in the neighborhood is invited to a bunde. There’s a strict rule: you can’t leave before the child is buried at midnight. If you try, their spirit will chase you back. The ghost could appear as an animal, insect, butterfly, sound, or even an invisible hand.

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Life Begins at Conception

In Quinamayó, life starts at conception. The baby girl being honored in this bunde, named Zoe Fernanda Camacho Aranda, was lost due to miscarriage four months before her due date. Her mom, Jessica, wasn’t well enough to attend and stayed inside her house, seen in the photo. Jessica’s relatives and friends took part in the event. The kids filming in the background are her cousins and nephews. The women, Mónica Carabalí and Nazly Paola Ramos, are family friends. Zoe’s tiny burial casket is the focus of their dance.

Pure Innocence

Afro-Colombian communities believe that children who die before age 10 are free of sin, unlike the usual Catholic belief in original sin. The angel on the banner behind Zoe’s casket was drawn by her family and shows her happy. If you look closely, you’ll see her antenatal scans underneath – the only photos documenting Zoe’s short life.

Gaining Trust

With the community’s trust, I got to witness the entire event. I saw the singing and dancing at the beginning, the coffin’s journey to the cemetery, and the children lighting candles around it before the final goodbyes as Zoe was buried.

Honoring Traditions

Racism is a big issue in Colombia, and Afro-Colombian customs are sometimes exoticized. But celebrations like Black Baby Jesus and bunde should be recognized as a vital part of Colombia’s cultural heritage. I deeply admire Quinamayó’s resilience and hope my photos inspire the same respect and admiration.

About Jair F Coll

Born: Cali, Colombia, 1997
Education: Universidad Autónoma de Occidente, Colombia
Influences: Luisa Dörr, Richard Rinaldi, Johis Alarcón, Juanita Escobar
High Point: The two and a half years working as a freelance photographer for The New York Times, Bloomberg, Reuters, and the UN
Low Point: Not having the courage to quit a previous job that wasn’t meant for storytelling
Top Tip: Find a personal project and a mentor. The project helps build your vision as an author, and the mentor challenges your portrayal of the world.

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