By Arlene Jones
I've always been quite cognizant of slavery that occurred in this hemisphere beyond the United States, Cuba and Brazil. Unlike the pathetic individuals who profess that they are tired of movies dealing with slavery, I think it is an absolute insult to any of our enslaved ancestors if we don't constantly recognize the pain and suffering they endured.
Slavery in the Americas (North, Central and South) was the institution that was at the core of the establishment of many of the countries that exist today. So when I learned that there was a 62-episode (yup, that's 6 and 2) telenovela devoted to slavery in Colombia, I knew I wanted to watch it. At about 45 minutes an episode, that is tantamount to a 46-hour — give or take — movie.
The series is entitled La Esclava Blanca (The White Slave) and is available on Netflix for sure. The premise of the drama is that an orphaned, young, white infant is saved and raised as a family member by black former slaves in the jungle of Colombia. The girl, Victoria, is ostracized for being white and when she and her black family's hidden encampment is discovered and invaded, the former slaves are recaptured and re-enslaved.
Meanwhile, 11-year-old Victoria manages to escape. She ends up in Spain and years later returns to Colombia masquerading as a noblewoman with the intent of freeing her enslaved family. By the way, although the series is in Spanish, they did a fabulous job of subtitling it in English.
For once, instead of a couple of hours devoted to the complicated institution of slavery, there was time to show the full 360 degrees of it — especially time to show it from the slaves' perspective as they lived in overcrowded barracks; ate communal food served on a banana leaf; did the dangerous and yet mundane chore of washing clothes in rivers by women who could not swim. They show everything from the abysmal treatment of human beings as work chattel under the sweltering sun to the fictitious "good life" of the slaves working in the house. Almost every possible aspect of the black experience during slavery is addressed. I didn't get any surprise or see astonishing behavior by any of the white characters. In a way, I was grateful I didn't as it meant that the slave owners' side has always been fully expressed.
Another interesting aspect regarding the series is noting that the black actors in the telenovela came from various countries throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, including Cuba, Puerto Rico and Columbia itself. That small but realistic testament shows just how widespread was the theft of black Africans to the new world. It is estimated that 12.5 million Africans were taken during the slave trade years (1525-1866) and brought to this side of the ocean with only 10.7 million surviving the journey.
One other interesting aspect of watching and listening to actors play out their roles was the translation of the word "negro." The telenovela didn't hold back when it translated the word based on who was speaking. When whites said it, the subtitles showed the word "nigger." When blacks used the word "negro" it was translated as "dear" or "honey."
One of the most amazing things I noted during the hours of watching the series was the colorful and African-inspired clothing that the slaves in Latin America got to wear. No drab grey or black attire as seen on slaves in the U.S., but vivid prints and brightly colored dresses and pants. The headdresses each woman wore spoke volumes about their individual character. While we in this country lost a lot of our connections to our African heritage during slavery, our counterparts in Latin America didn't and thus they remained closer to many African traditions. I don't know who the costume designer was for the series, but they should be lauded for the attire of the entire cast.
La Esclava Blanca is truly a marathon to watch, but I highly recommend it.
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