“I was always curious and captivated by the way my mother moved her hands,” says Asprilla Garcia, who has come to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival to represent the Afro-Colombian women of Choco.
The way her mother braided was the old way, a way that came with her people from Africa. As she demonstrates braiding, Asprilla Garcia, 34, explains its history in Colombia. It is where Asprilla Garcia lives in a caramel-colored house, near a mango tree, with her husband, son, mother-in-law, two servants and a young boy who was so poor that she took him in to care for him. It is where she still braids in the breeze, on the porch or under her mango tree.
“I love to braid,” she says.
Asprilla Garcia was 8 when she learned to braid. As she grew up, she created more elaborate hairstyles that include birds, butterflies and even musical instruments. It was with these styles that she won first place last year at a braiding festival in Bogota. A few months later, the Smithsonian curators who canvassed the region looking for representative cultural activities called and told her she had been chosen to demonstrate Choco’s braiding tradition at the Folklife Festival.
On the Mall, crowds press close to Asprilla Garcia’s table and watch her braid. They seem to be in awe of her intricate designs.
She works under a sign that says “Tejiendo Colores,” “Weaving Colors.” Behind her, a second sign says that “the art of hairdressing has become an icon of Afro-Colombian identity.”
“How long does that take?” asks Betty Belin, an onlooker holding a snapshot of a complex design.
“Three hours,” Asprilla Garcia says in Spanish, through a translator.
A little girl with blond hair climbs into a chair, and Asprilla Garcia takes strands from a green, acrylic hair extension and wraps them around shocks of the girl’s hair, intertwining them into a long, single braid. The girl climbs down from the chair and smiles.
Asprilla Garcia tells the audience that the braiding tradition is many hundreds of years old in Colombia and older still in Africa.
The first slaves arrived in Colombia around the beginning of the 16th century. Most were brought
by the Spaniards who colonized the area. They settled near the coastal areas, where most of the sugar plantations were operated, says Denisse Yanovich, cultural attache at the Embassy of Colombia.
But groups of slaves escaped and found refuge in areas that were geographically remote. In these areas, once thought to be uninhabitable, groups of runaway slaves thrived and built communities. The populations of these areas — including Choco, where Asprilla Garcia is from — have been mainly black for hundreds of years.