As the day progressed, our hostess, Miss Luisa, became more and more secure with educated young guests, which prompted her to tell us the story of her life. The more talkative she became the more this writer was taken back into a period of history which had never been written, and which led me to discover that my ancestors, the West Indian Blacks, had walked the same path daily as the unemployed workers long ago in a City of Panama that was still annexed to the country of Colombia.
That was one period of history that remained unexplored by Panamanian historians and a period that most people knew nothing about since they rarely wrote about it.
Nevertheless, in that same year of 1994, for an avid historian of his people, the Silver Roll of the waning Panama Canal Zone, this would present an opportunity to be in contact with some Senior Westindian Panamanians, some who had known my parents and grandparents, and who had even reported holding me in their arms as a small child. Even then, things I prompted them to talk about ended up being stories about the famous “Carnaval Fiesta,” and life as it was in the Old Black Canal Zone. I eagerly took in the anecdotes this woman related as the “Canal Zone,” as such, would come to an end in the year 1999, when all of the lands and bases of the “Canal Zone” would be reverted to Panamanian hands.
As Luisa spoke my mind was taken back to the year 1973 in which I had met some real old-timers who were calculated to have been born in the latter part of the 1800’s and, there I was again, face to face with another one of those grand people who was a child at the turn of the 20th century in Panama.
I sat amazed and thankful that I was in the company of one of the most talkative of these “old” ones, and I was even reigning in my patience so that I wouldn’t miss any points that would assist me in tying together those loose ends that another historian, of the elite class perhaps, would never in his life time study.
There I was sitting listening to stories of men and women, girls and boys really, who had braved the bush to survive and escape enslavement; people who had no contact at all with the world of politics or modern social endeavors of the times. As a pioneer of Black Studies, our cultural history of the later decades of the 1800’s intrigued me, since it had to do with the life of people just like I had been, people of the bush of Panama.
The house was soon filled with the fragrance of herbs and spice wafting into the parlor from the kitchen. I could identify curry, culantro, achiote etc., mingling in the warm air of mid morning. Our celebration began with the appetizers being brought out. One by one of the young granddaughters carried small portions of patacones or fried green plantain chips on platters accompanied by glasses of the classic sweet lemonade.
Next they brought out to us a colorful display of cut tropical fruit and placed it on a large table. The pineapples with their heads of spiny, dark green crowns were fashioned into a centerpiece and were surrounded with slices of various colored fruits. They had patiently and cleverly placed the yellow ripe bananas in a bed of ice with pieces of pink and yellow peach colored papaya, all surrounded with cut-up pineapple. Our eyes were bedazzled with the colorful arrangement of cut open whole mangoes, maracuyá or passion fruit, peeled oranges, and individual wedges of water melon whose green rind contrasting with its red and black interior seemed to give us newcomers a refreshing welcome.
Our delight was in seeing the rest of their family, the heritage of our Black Panamanian people, giving our family a much deserved welcome. It is here that I must confess that our welcome had not been that of prodigals up to that time, which was months later when we had moved to this area which had been our fifth move since arriving in the motherland.
Our host, however, was the proverbial matron, the mother of Africa, a spirit sent to soothe the wounds of her people there in the Panama of the late 20th century. Meantime, “Queen” Luisa, because she was possessed of a regal and gracious bearing, was conversing intently about how she was still employed with the Loteria Nacional, the National Lottery. She was one of the thousands of lottery vendors we became accustomed to seeing on the main avenues of Panama City. They pepper the main and also the back streets of the cities with their folding tables neatly displaying their chosen lottery tickets for their traditional following of customers.
“So, that’s where you were going the other morning I met you?” I chided her with a smile. “Yes Sir!” she said and continued to explain, “Had to get there to close out my account an I was late.” I soon redirected the conversation trying to make some connection with this Grand Lady, who had freely been giving of herself in a spirit I had never before experienced among my people the Westindians. “Do you know Madame?” I asked. After a thoughtful pause she managed to say, “Well, sure. You mean the Madame who lived a little past Patterson here?”
She was referring, of course, to Patio Patterson, an old and very populated neighborhood of Rio Abajo known for its West Indian presence. “Yes, she is the same Madame. I used to go to her Church when she had it over behind the Olympic Stadium,” I said making the connection with our host. “Oh yes I knew Madame very well, because she used to help me with a lot of problems with my children.”
I immediately remembered how that saint Madame, for that is what we all called her, had had some healing work done in my family for my grandmother, Fanny Elizabeth, who also lived in that neighborhood for many years and had since passed away, just as the Saintly Madame we were conversing about. This story continues.