Women and the Rise and Fall of the Boom Days in Bocas

As I mentioned in the previous post, there were three recognizable groups of women who lived side by side with their men in the frontier areas of early Bocas.

The first large group of women to follow men into this remote outpost, as we have said before, was West Indian women. Black women would become a regular sight in the pueblos and towns near the area of the mines and of the railroad construction. They had become a common sight, one may safely say, during the years before the construction of the first railway from 1850 and would continue to be so until my times in 1956.

The second largest group in number was the aboriginal (native Indian women) who followed their men during the workday, carting their small children with them.

Then there were the Spanish speaking women, who, at least in the beginning, came with their men as live-in wives and were a small group. They were followed by groups of prostitutes who were interested in working the men for a while and left after short stays. As brothels were built and life became more comfortable more of these women would be attracted to the area for the purpose of the easy money of prostitution. Within the group of prostitutes there were usually Latino women, both foreign and native Panamanians, and they came from the bigger cities, nearby towns and other provinces in the interior of the country.

About 1875, as a boom period began taking hold of Bocas Town a short ferry ride across the bay from Almirante City when the railroad connected Almirante to the plantations up-the-line to Guabito at the Costa Rican border, the area became an attraction for people from all over Central America and the islands of the Caribbean Sea.

This magnet that was Bocas became known for night clubs, gambling joints, bars and even a racetrack. These businesses transformed the week ends for working men and women that supported all these activities, and their purpose for being was far greater than just to service the plantation workforce with entertainment. They soon made the area a boom in economic activity needing waitresses, waiters, bartenders, and hosts and hostesses in and private eateries not only in the cities mentioned but in and around the plantations.

The great changes would come, however, after the various strikes and general work stoppages put an end to the amenities available in the towns. Most brothels closed and the big time gambling halted. The important towns mentioned above would return to being just the sleepy pueblos I got to know in 1955. The Company (Chiriqui Land) then began offering some amenities to try and keep a steady flow of workers, such as adequate housing in pueblos they called fincas.Baseline, as I recall, was one of these fincas and the seat of the Engineering Office. It was then that having a wife or live-in woman became the mode of living, comprising real families with children who started to populate those areas with schools for small children available nearby.

I, personally, experienced both the life of a field worker and that of a married man and was happy to have started to form my family in a small house with a kitchen and running potable water to shower and for family use nearby. Although briefly, I participated in a few of the activities of what Old Bea had described to me which women had either initiated or generally participated in.

This story continues.

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