The War, the West Indians and the Atmosphere in Calidonia

Trolley circling Catedral (San Felipe) about 1915.

The West Indians were the only group of Christians visible around the city of Panama in those turbulent days of 1902. They, in just the past two years, had seen a devastating war, a sight that would have impacted any human soul frequenting that city. Throughout the political conflicts they had continued their simple lifestyle, as they waited patiently for the employment they, with all confidence, knew would soon begin.

They would routinely dress in their “Sunday best” and walk back and forth the mile or so of side walks from their shared rooms in the section of the city called Calidonia, just to sit for a while under the copious shade trees on park benches in the small and well known section of Catedral.

They were accustomed to frequenting this section of the city and had practically become part of the scenery since the popular and well known Santa Ana Catholic Cathedral and its park and people pretty much ignored them. This was their only reference point in the whole country where they could sit and exchange stories about trips they had made to the city on the other side of the country called Colon.

Sitting and then walking every evening the two mile stroll to Santa Ana from their area in Calidonia had become “the” daily excursion to allow them to get acquainted as more and more of them were showing up drawn by their blind faith in future employment. The scene was uncanny as this large agglomeration of black men, dressed and groomed as if ready for mass, would heed the bells of Santa Ana, reaching the almost deserted plaza at the same time every day and then just sit watching the people go by. All the while there was something to talk about, it seemed, as conversation would drift to places along the coast of Central America and their conversation was hardly ever spoken above a whisper so as not attract too much attention; that was one of the ways in which they rested before returning along the same route.

Most of them shared rented rooms on the same floors of the newly built “board buildings” in Calidonia. The buildings were so new that some of the lots still had stored lumber stacked up in piles around them. As they ambled back they could feel the expectation in the air with regards to this upcoming new construction in which they had placed so much faith. All of them wanted to be the first man hired and this was their way of taking a leisurely daily walk until night claimed the city again.

Upon returning to their small rooms in Calidonia they would quietly light kerosene lamps and play card games sometimes late into the night betting “shillings.” Some shared in the routine evening chores and clean up before patiently seeing another day pass, usually without any word of the American bosses who would do the eventual hiring.

The great war they had seen was an incomprehensible thing to them since the few who could understand the Spanish language could not quite explain at all convincingly what was occurring amongst the “Pañas.” Still, they tried to make their stay in the “incomprehensible” city a relatively pleasant one preserving a good atmosphere for men of their class. They would gossip and question each other about the local citizens. “Them fool Paña, killing themself like flies,” they would proclaim, clucking away the time as they waited.

However, their perplexing questions were as relevant as the ones asked by the local citizenry who were almost as in the dark about what was occurring. The events during those days leading up to the 28th of November of 1902 were baffling, to say the least. They, the invisible among the people, would remember that time as the “Thousand Days War” and they would remember how it had left a horrible and still perceivable stench in the area, even then. It emanated from the remains of the carcasses broiling in the hot tropical sun, bodies of the patriots as no one was even allowed on the streets of Panama during those times of “emergencies” to recover them and give them decent burial.

The area of Calidonia became a fertile ground for the rumor mongers, who were then the only source of information for an illiterate population of the “Arrabales.” Rumors abounded and news flew amidst the people even behind closed doors, that something, some terrible violence, was about to take place within the nearby Army Cuartel. There was no question that the best course of action would be for everyone to remain shut up indoors.

Although the daily newspapers continued to be published in the city, no news of what was occurring with the army and with the arrest of one of their highest officials was being reported on. On the 28th of November the most notable piece of news that the Estrella de Panamá could publish was the marriage of Don Ernesto de la Guardia and Miss Isabel Maria Navarro, a social event of renown of the times.

There would be more to come as on this day, the 28th of November, would be marked as the day of the formal arrest of General Victoriano Lorenzo. One of the highest officials and a full general in the army would be charged with plotting against the constituted government of Colombia. He had been informed that he would face a formal court martial for the crime of threatening to take up arms against the constituted government and against the signing of the Peace Accords that would be carried out on a Yankee warship called the USS Wisconsin.

This story will continue.

One response to “The War, the West Indians and the Atmosphere in Calidonia

  1. Hi Riberto,

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