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Azuero and Portobel: Two Faces of the Same Town

Panama has always been a place where people from the four corners of the earth meet and coexist, a multi-hued tapestry of varied stories and nuances. Panorama of the Americas suggests visits to Portobelo and Azuero, two areas of the country that are deeply steeped in tradition. Visitors can compare these two destinations for an experience that few other countries can match.

By Juan Abelardo Carles R.

Photos: David Mesa

 

Becoming a Devil

Before Lent in Portobelo

Just steps from Fort Santiago de la Gloria, in the old Colonial port of Portobelo, Dámaso Arrocha and Enrique Arias sit in the shade of a doorway and work on their devil masks. They sometimes sell visitors the red and black masks with white eyes, beards, and large ears that resemble the helmets worn by the European enslavers. The two men are members of Bolucho, one of the groups of dancers that perform on weekends, beginning on January 1. They challenge other groups to see who has the best moves. The devil season should end on Ash Wednesday, when St. Gabriel “baptizes” the devils in front of the church, but for some years now, the Devils and Congos Festival has been celebrated during Lent. 

 

Corpus Christi in Azuero

On the Azuero peninsula, the devils have their moment of glory during Corpus Christi. Even though the festival takes places in La Villa de Los Santos (June 15-26 this year), it is in Chitré where mask maker José del Carmen González lets visitors craft their own masks. Along with family members and associates, he works in the shady entrance to his house, which stands behind the church in the Llano Bonito neighborhood. José also creates other traditional Corpus characters—such as the humorous dance characters of the parrampanes and mojigangas—as well as Death masks for use during the feast day of St. Peter and St. Paul. 

 

Dancing Through History

Portobelo: The Road to Freedom

Mama Ari walks through the streets of Portobelo sporting necklaces and bracelets of seeds, shells, and charms, a patchwork skirt, and a turban knotted with as much panache as any French headpiece. She understands the legacy of the inhabitants of Portobelo, forged in resistance to those who subjugated them. Mama Ari leads a congo dance group focused on passing the tradition down to children. “The congo dance changes us even before we start dancing; we begin to feel closer to our ancestors when we get dressed. Children learn the role of each character: the king, the “little bird” or prince, the priest, the “sweeper” (collector), the queen, and the princesses or ladies of the court. 

 

Azuero: Good Triumphs over Evil

Each June, Catholics celebrate the feast of Corpus Christi, and in Panama, no town has preserved the traditional Corpus Christi dances better than La Villa de los Santos. Many traditions are honored during the festival, but the most symbolic is the battle between the devils and the archangel St. Gabriel, who defeats those who submit to “baptism” before entering the church to worship the saint. If you aren’t able to visit in June, you can get in touch with the Miguel Leguízamo Dance Rescue Association to arrange a performance. 

 

A Legacy Made of Art

Azuero: Creativity on the Doorstep

Traditional Panamanian dress is at its most complex, elaborate, and enduring in Azuero. There is no town, large or small, that does not boast a number of artisans applying themselves in the shade of its doorways. In Santo Domingo de Las Tablas, for example, Eufemia Domínguez, or “Dochita,” “assembles” Panamanian dress by hand, bringing together its various components. Like most artisans, Dochita’s creations are made-to-order. It is nearly impossible for a tourist to purchase one of these pieces. However, in the center of Las Tablas, we discovered Lourdes Vásquez, who sells some pieces such as ruffled blouses, skirts, men’s traditional shirts, and shawls. 

 

Portobelo: Honor Your Ancestors

Starting early in the morning, Manuel Golden, known as “Tattoo,” opens the Portobelo workshop and starts to paint. He is a member of a collective of around ten creators who explore topics such as the voyage from Africa, the Diaspora, the legacy of their ancestors, the deities of their cultures, the struggle for freedom, and rescuing their identity. Given advance notice, they can organize art activities for visitors who would like a taste of the artistic side of congo culture. Tattoo’s work is displayed in the Casa Congo gallery. 

www.casacongo.com

 

Delicious Panamanian Cuisine

Portobelo: Nostalgia Tastes like Coconut

Portobelo is proud that its cuisine has something for everyone. Culinary offerings range from Casa Congo, where the Caribbean menu glitters with gourmet accents, to very modest eating establishments. Restaurante Ile Oshun Miwa, where the cuisine recalls loving home cooking, aims for the middle ground. Here, Yanhetza Villanueva spoils diners with pickled fish, crustaceans (such as nerite snails or shrimp), octopus with coconut, and clams in white sauce, always served with coconut rice. A special mention goes to mamita, a delicately-flavorful puree of green bananas cooked with coconut. For a grand finale, there is choca’o, a puree of ripe bananas with coconut, ginger, and cinnamon. 

 

Azuero: From the Mountains to the Plains

On the other side of the Isthmus, culinary traditions reflect the flavors and fortunes of the great crops of corn, rice, and tubers that extend across the plains. A starter of comforting chicken soup —with its characteristic accent of culantro (a more-pungent cousin of cilantro) — is served everywhere, from the simplest eatery to the most sophisticated restaurant. This might be followed by smoked or salted beef jerky rehydrated in a tomato-based dish, or traditional chicken and rice enlivened with achiote (annatto). Tamales, either steamed in banana leaves or pan-cooked, are a good choice. Round out your culinary journey with a pesada, a type of corn pudding set with juice from the nance fruit, which is tart and very typical of the savannah. 

 

Raise Your Eyes to the Altar

Portobelo: Black Christ

Although St. Philip is the “official” patron saint of Portobelo, the inhabitants chose a dark-skinned Nazarene Jesus as their de facto patron saint. The origin of this allegiance is not known, but it was already popular in the late 17th century. The Black Christ stands on the church’s left altar, since it is too large for the high altar niches. As October 21st draws near, penitent pilgrims wearing the saint’s purple tunic come to town on foot, on their knees, crawling, or even dragging themselves on the ground. On the night of the 21st, thousands of the faithful accompany the long-suffering Black Christ in a rhythmic procession (four steps forward, three steps back) through the streets of the old Colonial town.

 

Azuero: St. Librada

Just as old, but a little more updated, is the veneration of St. Librada. The figure, Known as “La Moñona” for her abundant long hair offered by her devotees, is honored in Las Tablas by a vow to complete a procession, either barefoot or blindfolded, every July 19th. There are three other images of the saint (Peregrina, Pequeñita, and Chola), each of which has its own moment and role in the festival. St. Librada is generally serenaded in the church atrium after the procession, which is definitely worth a listen. Starting on the 20th, there are other events such as the National Dress Festival, dances, and bloodless bullfights.

 


 

If you would like to experience 

· To buy a mask or to learn to “play” at being a devil in Portobelo, call Enrique Arias (+507 6663 2611) or Dámaso Arrocha (+507 6446 6065).

· To visit José del Carmen González in Chitré, call WhatsApp +507 996 2314 or +507 6524 7702. You can make a basic mask or buy a finished one.

· To watch a dance performance, call WhatsApp +507 6693 5690, or Instagram Grupo Congo Mama Ari.

· To watch a Corpus Christi dance, contact Arístides Burgos (cell phone: +507 6920 2442), president of the Miguel Leguízamo Dance Rescue Association.

· If you would like to taste Afro-Panamanian cuisine, try Restaurante Ile Oshun Miwa (cell phone: +507 6682 3452) or Casa Congo (+507 6997 7977) (www.casacongo.com).

· To see traditional dress in Azuero, contact Lourdes Vásquez (cell phone: +507 6763 5883) or Eufemia “Dochita” Domínguez (+507 6915 7886).

· If you would like to observe or work with artists at the Portobelo Workshop, get in touch with Manuel “Tattoo” Golden (cell phone: + 507 6757 6173). You can make purchases at the Casa Congo gallery (www.casacongo.com).