Go to the Commissary…You Can Do It!

Images: Top: Avenida Central around 1940 shows the route of
the chivas that went into Santana and San Felipe.
Bottom: even into the 1960’s the same chivas were
being used in public transport.
Images thanks to CZimages.com

“Juni, come here!” my mother said one day with a note of urgency. When I immediately responded she said, “I want you to go to the commissary for me.” The “
for” is what triggered my incredulity as I could not believe that she was asking me to do this errand all by myself. During that time I had hardly left the confines of our neighborhood not even to go see my paternal grandmother or my mother’s aunt who both lived a little further up on our street. Going to the Silver commissary implied quite a distance clear out of our neighborhood into the area of Curundu.

Before I could formulate some kind of sane refusal, however, saying something like, “No Rosa, I don’t think that’s a good idea…” my mother was even quicker to insist. “You can do it, I know that you can do it!” she said encouraging me and explaining to me what I was about to do while rearranging my clothing.

“Look, all you have to do is give this note to the lady that sell the meats. You can do it- I’m sure you can do it!” she said pleading with me for the first time in both our lives. “But Rosa,” I said, “I never been there before and I might …” My voice had trailed off in my concern for my own safety in trying to make her reconsider. She was one determined woman, however, in never gracing the entrance of the commissary store herself. “Look, here is the note,” she continued undaunted. “All you have to do is hand it to her and she know what to do. You can do that for me?” she said pleadingly knowing that I would be hard pressed to refuse her request.

Still, I was not so sure of myself to be going alone that far in my still too young recently turned six or seven-year-old-mind. What if I have to face the Gumshoe white-man all alone? I tried to stand my ground but it was useless with Rosa and for the first time I’d have to experience the Silver commissary in Panama City all by myself. Needless to say that the foreboding I felt in that moment in front of my mother would be well founded. Shortly after getting as far as the Canal Zone my worst fears would come upon me in a disastrous turn of events.

The trip to the commissary had been uneventful enough. On my way back I had the precious package of meat secured under my left arm pit while I savored a delicious candy bar and read my first prized comic book- my rewards for making such a bold journey for my mother. Suddenly, however, a Chiva backs into me knocking me in the head almost running me over.

Chivas were the popular means of public transportation in those days. Often they were converted Ford panel or delivery vans outfitted with a few rows of passenger seats by the new owners and placed in service to serve as buses for the general public at a very affordable 5¢ fare. The origin of the name “Chiva” has been debated by popular historians but it is said to have come from the original Hindu drivers who maintained an image of the god Shiva at the entrance of these small conveyances and the Panamanian passengers would forever call the vehicles Chivas.

On my way to the commissary which was located almost at the entrance to the Canal Zone I had passed by that same spot like any other commissary customer and there had been no buses parked there. On my way back, however, the bus was parked in the area in the path of a small child oblivious to his surroundings.

Stunned by the blow to the head from the heavy iron hulk of the Chiva, all I could hear then was someone yelling, “Aguanta, aguanta!” Then, a strong pair of arms tried to pick me up. I immediately reacted by jumping out of his arms and ran back into the commissary where two men cornered me. They held me prisoner while I cried for help to all the Westindian people who just stood there looking perplexed and did nothing nor did they inquire as to what these men were doing with this desperate, troubled kid.

Returning to their buses they dragged me reluctant and crying all the way. “Let me go, let me go!” I screeched. In my mind I had been kidnapped and knew not where they were headed with me because they had asked me nothing at all. Soon we were at a Zone hospital; I knew as much because of all the Westindian workers there.

The white man I’d meet that day was a doctor and not a Gumshoe and he said, “You are going to be all right son, don’t cry!” He then gave orders to some of the Westindian male nurses to put some ice on my head. Pretty soon afterwards my mother arrived and as I looked out the window, it appeared that the police car had arrived also.

Soon the policeman had us sitting in his office. The interview was short, however, because my mother refused to press charges on the driver, the same man who would drive us home. In a nutshell my mother sort of blamed me for what she called “just an accident.”

This story will continue.

3 responses to “Go to the Commissary…You Can Do It!

  1. Kyle and Svet Keeton


    I hope that you did not lose the candy bar and the comic book! 🙂

    As my Grandma would have said, "Did you dent the bus? Your head will heal but the bus cost money!"

    Good story.

    Kyle & Svet

  2. Kyle,

    I lost it all! Everything flew out of my hands- my precious comic book included, the first one I ever purchased.


  3. It may be matter of semantics but the photo from 1960s shows busitos not chivas. The blue color meant they served Rio Abajo, Balboa and Paraiso. Yellow and green buses served Juan Diaz out to Tocumen. I forget the colors but the busitos lost out to bigger converted school buses which were much larger and packed a punch with musica blaring on the inside. I believe these days they are called diablos rojos.
    The chivas still existed in my day and I took them out to Paitilla to attend IJA. A chiva was a wooden crated bolted unto a truck bed and they creaked and rattled making you believe the passenger portion would rip off any second.
    The fun began when we came out of downtown heading along Avenida Balboa and the races between buses began. A chiva driver hated being challenged by a diablo rojo and they would push those crates to incredible speeds along the malecon. Most of the trips I was agachado in the aisle being male reliquishing my seat to the women.
    It was a miracle we arrived at school unhurt.
    I took the diablo rojo home because of the blaring salsa music and the girls.
    The blue busito was my escape to fun with West Indians in Rio Abajo.

    Do you know that the Dodge Durango is the same concept as a chiva? I was an auto salesman here in the USA and Dodge in their training class explained they simply put a passenger section on a truck bed.

    My first trip to a grocery store here was unique since no commissary card was required. You mean you just walk in? The other surprise was the low quality of food compared to the Canal Zone where only name brand foods from the USA were sold. I expected the food to be better in quality only to find out how incredibly good the merchandise at a CZ commissary was. Membership stores use the same card concept the commissaries in the Zone used.