Ziomara Asprilla Garcia remembers the click, click, click of her mother’s hands quickly braiding strands of hair and twisting them into neat rows under a mango tree in Colombia.
Click, click, click in the fresh breeze in the city of Istmina in the state of Choco. Her mother’s fingers seemed wondrous and magical, moving as though they were extensions of thought. She watched quietly as her mother parted her sister’s hair and twisted it into elaborate hairstyles, continuing the centuries-old tradition of hair braiding by Afro-Colombian women.
“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.
In the time of slavery in Colombia, hair braiding was used to relay messages. For example, to signal that they wanted to escape, women would braid a hairstyle called departes. “It had thick, tight braids, braided closely to the scalp and was tied into buns on the top,” Asprilla Garcia says.
Someone in the crowd tells Asprilla Garcia that style seems very much like the one she sees black women in the District wearing.
“Yes, also,” she says.
“And another style had curved braids, tightly braided on their heads. The curved braids would represent the roads they would [use to] escape,” Asprilla Garcia says. “In the braids, they also kept gold and hid seeds which, in the long run, helped them survive after they escaped.”
“Why did they not speak the messages?” someone asks.
“By that time, a lot of the owners understood their language,” Asprilla Garcia says. The message in the women’s braids “was the best way to not give back any suspicion to owner. He would never figure out such a hairstyle would mean they would escape.”
Not every woman who was planning to escape had the same braids.
“Always,” Asprilla Garcia says, “there was a big mother in the whole group.” Such matriarchs always had a distinctive hairstyle. “The rest would know what it meant.”
She notes with satisfaction that there has been a resurgence of braided hairstyles in Colombia in recent years.
“Instead of being diminishing, it is becoming more and more common,” she says. “The women are not doing it because they want to send a message. . . . They get their hair braided because it is pretty.”
It’s also a matter of pride. “It’s a movement not to forget what our ancestors brought with them when they came over,” she says. “It’s a movement to honor them. People are braiding hair and wearing headpieces and more traditional dress to honor their ancestors. People dress in African tunics and headpieces. We are keeping that tradition alive.”
These days, Asprilla Garcia says, braiding has become a way of communicating pride and freedom from oppression. A way of saying that black hair is strong enough to hold this message.
She holds up a colorful bird figure to which she has attached braided yellow, red and black acrylic strands. The bird represents a species that is on the verge of extinction in Choco.
Asprilla Garcia braids black and red strands into women’s hair and then uses acrylic thread to attach the headpiece so that the bird sits like a crown.
“I find it beautiful,” Asprilla Garcia says. “It is a hairstyle no one taught me how to do. It was like it was born in me.”