This article is part of Reclaiming the Past, an ongoing series that explores elements of Afro Puerto Rican culture such as martial arts, religion, and dance to raise awareness about their importance and preservation.
“You have to remember that many of the tools that we used were also weapons.”
Miguel Quijano speaks these words matter-of-factly, his voice callused with matter-of-factness. It is a tone many from his generation have perfected, one steeped in layers of truth.
In his youth, he spent his days on farms between Ponce and Manatí—the ones his father and grandfather worked. The ones the jibaro farmers had worked before them. And before them…the slaves.
Throughout history, there has always been conflict between the people who have worked the land and the people who have owned it. So it makes sense that the tools of Quijano’s youth would double as the weapons used in revolts hundreds of years before.
The afogai is one such weapon. Sometimes called “assogai,” or “ikqwa” in Puerto Rico, the side-arm is essentially an iklwa spear, a short throwing spear made famous by Shaka Zulu. Composed of a spearhead attached to a short stick, the afogai’s iron-tipped point could easily be driven into the soil by farmhands as they made their rounds.
“They would test the ground to see if it was soft,” says Quijano as he recalls how his family members would jab the earth with an afogai as they walked, trying to see which sections were ready for planting. Because Puerto Rico’s cordillera central plays a major role in directing weather patterns across the island, the soil can vary considerably from region to region. But as the sun would sink lower behind that central mountain range, the afogai would transition from a utilitarian farm tool back into the weapon of centuries past.
In the games of cocobalé and calinda played by Quijano’s family, the short spear made for a versatile companion to a machete. Much like the traditional “palo” or stick, the afogai could be used to parry the opponent’s blade while delivering a cut with the machete. But in an…