By Álvaro Sánchez Cordero – Mar 13, 2022
As we have been reading in the news lately, something is happening in a picturesque Caracas neighborhood called San Agustin, where a copious number of tourists from all over the world, including Russia and China, are coming to enjoy themselves and learn a thing or two about Venezuela.
Indeed, Cumbe Tours would gladly show you around – for an affordable price – the historical parish of San Agustin.
As you step in the bus that takes you from the Teresa Carreño Theatre Complex to the heart of San Agustin, near the center of Caracas, you would immediately feel the beat of Afro-Venezuelan drums, accompanied by brass instruments and shakers, that have characterized the rhythmic sounds of this popular community. It is no coincidence that legendary Venezuelan groups, such as Grupo Madera, and renowned musicians, such as Carlos Nene Quintero, come from San Agustin.
“We are the leading musical parish of Caracas. The musical imprint given by San Agustin to the rest of Caracas and the entire country is enormous,” said Reinaldo Mijares, founder of Cumbe Tours and Director of the Foundation 100% San Agustin. Mijares added: “Talented musicians from San Agustin are currently performing in at least 14 cities around the world.”
Thus, music doesn’t stop throughout the five-hour tour that takes you around the streets and alleys of San Agustin, where you would see men engaged in domino games and children flying kites. A festive atmosphere is contagious as both tourists and San Agustin residents immediately connect one another through dancing.
“Let me warn you: We all have to dance here, especially men. Those men who can’t dance won’t ever have a girlfriend in San Agustin,” said jokingly Emilio Mujica, a tour guide from Cumbe Tours and a long-standing activist and community organizer from San Agustin.
There are two important stops along the tour where music would cease being spontaneously played on the streets to become much more settled with proper bands on stage playing a wide variety of Latin and Venezuelan rhythms. One such stop takes place at Los Alegres Star Club, which combines the best of a sports bar – albeit betting is prohibited – with a community center devoted to music enhancement. Photographs of Venezuelan baseball and football players from the 1970’s onward decorate the venue.
Needless to say, people equally engaged in dancing at Los Alegres Star Club. However, the icing on the cake – as far as music and dancing is concerned – was the exuberant and electrifying performance by the own San Agustin band Son Mondongo at the very colonial house of Emilio Mujica, in the foothills of San Agustin. Son Mondongo played classic salsa and bolero songs, while concluding their act with a mixing of rock, bossa nova, flamenco and traditional Venezuelan music that made the crowd explode and rejoice.
Enough for music. Although no doubt music is a comprehensive element of the tour, other cultural expressions take place too, such as gastronomy and the arts.
Before departing to San Agustin, at the Teresa Carreño Theater Complex, Reinaldo Mijares provided tourists with tokens – made out of older out-of-circulation Venezuelan currency notes – to be exchanged for a variety of delectable treats and drinks, mainly “Buñuelos” and “Empanadas”. The former is a sweet type of cake served with cane syrup, while the latter is a fried turnover filled with either meat, cheese or fish (cazón, a type of shark, or pepitona, a mollusca). Additional sweets were also provided, among them “Cafunga”, a specially elaborated desert made out of banana and coconut, wrapped on banana leaves, and also “Mestizo”, equally made from ripe plantain, grinded coconut and cheese. In fact, a healthy competition evolved around the “Cafunga”, sponsored by Reinaldo Mijares, and “Mestizo”, made by Emilio Mujica.
In turn, food and music were properly lubricated all along the route with shots of “Cocuy” – a traditional Venezuelan spirit drink, similar to tequila – and “Guarapita” – also a very Venezuelan alcoholic drink that combines with fruit juice. And towards the end of the tour, during the performance by Son Mondongo at Emilio’s home, tourists enjoyed craft beers made in San Agustin.
Tourists who choose Cumbe Tour to visit San Agustin would no doubt end up having an awesome time, but there is really a lot more than that.
As explained by Mijares, 100% San Agustin is a community development organization dedicated to education, training and culture in San Agustin where all its inhabitants – particularly children and the youth – are part of a much larger project that aims to elevate the quality of life in the neighborhood.
“Alvaro, you would be surprised how crime in San Agustin has been practically eradicated through the implementation of the grassroots community organization developed by 100% San Agustin,” said to me the talented photojournalist Felix Gerardi, who is also part of this San Agustin tourist and social development program.
Perhaps the origin of this transformation can be pinpointed in the efforts made in 2004 by both the community of San Agustin and the Venezuelan Government in the recovery of an iconic cultural venue of Caracas, the Alameda Theater.
Founded in 1943, the Alameda Theater was initially created to cater for the taste and needs of the Caracas elites, especially from the posh neighborhood of El Conde. Thus, renowned artists back then performed at the Alameda Theater, such as Benny Moré, Jorge Negrete and Pedro Infante, among others. But in the 1960’s, after a brief stint as a movie theater, the Alameda Theater came into oblivion as it was used as a warehouse for movie equipment.
“Our dream was to take over the Alameda Theater and transform it into a cultural center,” said Mijares, who added: “we had a necessity to have spaces for our children, to train them for the arts, and to show the artistic work of San Agustin.”
The takeover of the Alameda Theater was an arduous endeavor, as explained by Mijares, but no doubt San Agustin gained respect through the process and thereafter.
Consequently, from 2004 until now a revolutionary community consciousness has taken place, where education has been paramount.
“The cultural and historical aspects of San Agustin are included in the school curriculums in San Agustin. Therefore, children learn where they come from,” said Emilio Mujica.
San Agustin is a mostly Afro-Venezuelan neighborhood. Its original settlers were workers from the Caribbean coasts of both Barlovento and eastern Venezuela who came to Caracas after the oil boom in the early 20th Century. As they settled in San Agustin, the Afro-Venezuelan culture started to flourish organically. Nonetheless, it is mainly now – through 100% San Agustin – that a concerted effort has been put in motion to develop historical and cultural consciousness.
The name Cumbe Tour is not coincidental. “Cumbes” were areas in the Venezuelan countryside where the Black enslaved population fled for freedom during the 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. All African virtues, its ancestry, spirituality and resistance are visibly all over the visit to San Agustin. This is the reason why you see beautiful murals all over San Agustin depicting and reminding who they are and where they come from in a decolonized context. Indeed, the painting of murals with social, cultural and political intentions are part of yet another program – an offshoot of 100% San Agustin – called “Guaguancó de Colores” that is in charge of beautifying the neighborhood by bringing a cultural transformation.
As part of this cultural process, 100% San Agustin is even planning to organize the first ever San Agustin Film Festival in May of this year.
When asked if other Caracas parishes were attempting to emulate Cumbe Tours, Mijares explained to me that Petare and 23 de Enero have tried. They have even approached San Agustin for advice but unfortunately to no avail.
Tourism is a major and revolutionary component of the radical transformation of San Agustin, but for it to succeed it needed to become part and parcel of yet another important change that has been successfully taking place for almost two decades in San Agustin, a mindful transformation of empowerment, recovery, grassroot and communal organization, along with consciousness, resistance and education of Afro-Venezuelan heritage and culture. And this is precisely what you will see and discover in this tour, while having the time of your life. THE END
Álvaro Sánchez Cordero is the newly appointed Venezuelan Ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago. He is also a frequent writer in the Curazao Chronicle and other publications.
Featured image: Collage of photos showing sketches for the Cumbe Tour activiti in San Agustin, Caracas. Photo: Álvaro Sánchez Cordero.
Editor2https://orinocotribune.com/author/yullma/December 6, 2018