The mother-in-law of Isabel Munoz, a Barranquillero, found the solution to a social problem on a box of Venezualan detergent. Staring at an African woman sporting a healthy Afro and a brilliant red bow on her hair, the older woman realized she was holding the ticket to a party.
It was the 1960s and women in Colombia weren’t permitted into popular parties. Although they danced at carnival time which hosts the biggest carnival in the Caribbean region, the social structure was such that women barely had a voice in society, let alone a place in public parties – a scenario that peeved this woman the most. After all, it had been several years since she started voting but public parties still had no place for her and other Colombian women.
Armed with an innovative idea, she quickly traced the woman’s Afro and red bow from an image on the box of Puloy detergent for future reference. Once home, she designed an elaborate red outfit, a black mask and added a quirky red bow to create a party guise. After winning her family’s vote of approval for this garb, she set out to attend the next party in town. Luckily for her, when she entered a party in this avatar, the men at the shindig thought her to be a black gay man dressed as a woman. It was the 1960s — while being black and being gay was acceptable, being a woman at a party wasn’t.
Isabel Munoz married the Puloy image with the Negritas (Black Columbian women) and gave birth to the Negrita Puloy group of performers for the Barranquilla carnival based on her mother-in-law’s successful attempt at attending the party. The success of that party led to other Munoz women donning similar getups and dancing away at strictly male events. Till date, the Munoz women have danced together in the now-so-familiar red and black incarnation.
“I used to dance the cumbia with El Canonazo during the carnival for many years. One day in 1984, I told my mother-in-law that I was quite saturated dancing with El Canonazo. She immediately suggested that if I wanted to dance at all, I should form a group of my own, perhaps one for the Negritas. Next year, it would be the 30th anniversary of the Negrita Puloy,” beams Isabel as she stands to look for a photo album of the Negritas. She scans through her unpretentious living room that is decorated with economical yet ornate furniture. Set in the heart of the carnival madness, her residence is a stone’s throw from the Carnival Museum. There are costumes and props strewn all over her living room. Sequins and embroidery are sprinkled on a tiny portion of the floor, while few of the 18 Golden Congos won by the group grace the coffee table.
Taking a cue from her mother-in-law’s original idea, Isabel created the first Negrita Puloy costume with black leggings, bright red, black and yellow outfits, and the iconic red bow. In one of the photographs she shows me, the first black mask was not elaborate; fat red lips and hollow eyes, it was just a mark with the basic purpose of covering the face. As I observe the first Negrita costume, Isabel’s husband, an indigenous Colombian, walks into the room. Isabel gives him quick instructions and resumes talking to us. He nods and starts arranging the chairs in preparation for the evening practice session. He sets a chair a little too far apart from the previous one; she realizes, throws him a quick glance and he immediately sets it right. She notices that I notice her eye contact and says like a strict school teacher, “It needs to be arranged in order. Sometimes he doesn’t observe how he’s doing it.” Her eyes soften briefly as she looks at him again but soon enough she slips back into matriarch mode. It was love, she says, that brought them together. “My mother-in-law had the spirit of a rebel and my husband has had the heart of a romantic. But he is a bit sloppy,” she laughs, for the first time in this conversation.
Negrita Puloy is a family enterprise comprising Isabel’s sister with whom she discusses design changes, her niece who specializes in makeup and her cousin who makes the clothes that she and her sister design. One of the first major changes Isabel and her band of merry women made in the costume even while trying to get the final look right, was to knock off the mask. “We removed the mask because people watching the carnival thought we were a gay group. We are Negritas, by birth and by makeup. But we were women dressed as women. Back in the 60s, women had a good laugh pretending to be gay just because it gave them a shot at being at public events. But it got exhausting trying to cover up just because we wanted to open up.”
Freedom has been an important part of her life, she says. When you don’t have it, you want it even more. “Inside the house, I would make a lot of decisions for the household. My husband, I am lucky to say, always wanted the best for me and trusted my judgment. Outside of it, women were hardly heard. Neither was I. As the times changed, the costumes reflected the evolution of the liberal attitude. The carnival was the one place everyone was allowed. As a Negrita woman myself, I used all my energy and resources to make the most of four days of complete freedom.”
The multi-ethnic history of the Colombians meant women across all skin types have been able to participate in the Negrita Puloy. While black women can be comfortable in their own skin, fairer-toned women show solidarity and uniformity by wearing black leggings and black lycra blouses. “The group was not started for black women nor was it mocking them. Fitting the criteria was important, the rest only incidental. It will always be a women’s group. Men are involved at no stage of the dancing and performing, and I like it that way. They support their partners or wives who are a part of the Negrita Puloy, but that’s their only role.”
One of the photographs I find in her album didn’t have the apron that the first Negrita wore but instead was replaced with a short frilly skirt that was held together with crinoline. “It was in the late 80s, early 90s that we decided to remove the apron. People associate certain chores with women and as an all women group, we wanted to symbolize freedom and have fun at the same time. Women were going out and working. They weren’t just baking and waiting for men to come home from the office or shop,” Isabel adds.
Isabel, as chairperson, has been involved in many departments of the group and has even laid down the basic criteria for applicants. She shows me photographs of the most popular look of the Negrita Puloys. To me they look a bit like Minnie Mouse. Black leggings and full-sleeved tops, costumes with red and white polka dots and a big bow with the same pattern, and red strappy shoes. The cut and shape of the outfit is more risqué; it rests confidently halfway down the shoulder and ends teasingly above the thighs.
The applicants, she says, should be happy, passionate about dancing and “coqueta”, Isabel says as she bends over a bit, flutters her eyelids, smirks and looks away.
In its nearly three decade history, the group has been a source of immense satisfaction for Isabel, who during the non Carnival season is a chef by profession. Most others involved with Negrita Puloy too work out of the sheer passion for the carnival than any monetary gains. Isabel knows life is too short – an awful car accident seven years ago left her invalid for three years and put an end to her dancing experience with the Negrita Puloy. Having inherited the idea from her mother-in-law, Isabel hoped that her daughter too would one day carry forward this legacy. “She is married and doesn’t care much about the carnival. Negritas have evolved. And there are more opportunities today. She doesn’t want to be restricted by a commitment to the carnival. Of course my nieces will be more than competent to take forward this group, but had my daughter been involved, it would’ve been a different picture…” she says with unmistakable regret in her voice, while holding a picture of her daughter in one hand and of the Negrita Puloys in 2012 in the other.