To Grow Up Spanish

Praying the Novena

During these times death would, once again, visit our barrio building coming, as it were, to take away the life of some youth. God only knows how we, my sister and I, had managed to survive to the ripe old ages of four and five but we had by God’s great mercy.

This time death came for Maye (pronounced Mah-yeh) our young adolescent neighbor who, shortly after my baby sister Lidia’s passing, was taken, according to neighbors, in childbirth. The family dressed her and laid her in her coffin at their home, the one-room just behind our one-room. To us, the smaller kids of the neighborhood, she looked as though she was simply asleep; the pallor of death had not touched her rather delicate face and she just appeared to be resting. Moreover, her family allowed us to play and run around her coffin and even lovingly, as curious children would, touch her. They didn’t seem to mind this rather persistent and affectionate curiosity in us little kids.

Memories of my baby sister still remained fresh in my mind as I would, right in the middle of our heated play, stop and stand very still to stare at young Maye, looking for signs of life in her very pretty, familiar face or even to expect some movement from the baby lying still in her womb. At any moment, I thought, she will get up and smile at us.

Even after the prayer lady, the Beata, came a couple of nights to pray a novena while the four large candles that stood sentinel at each corner of the casket lit the way in the small room, Maye’s presence lay there for neighbors and friends to accompany her for several days.

The room had been divested temporarily of all furnishings and black mourning sashes draped the few pictures that hung on its walls. We small children prayed those nights at home all by ourselves listening to the solemn “Dios te Salve Maria” that drifted in unison from Maye’s room over and over involving us in the safety of the chants.

In life the little damsel, as I remember, seemed to love to see me in the mornings and her eyes would light up as she would greet me sweetly, “Hola Juni, buenos dias niño.” As the novena group prayed, I thought how she had not had a chance to see her baby but then, as the prayers progressed I thought, “At least now she would have her baby with her forever.”

The day they came from the funeral home to carry her away from us all forever, the men came in and chased us all out; adults and children, out. That had been just a taste of death in the old barrios of Panama and it seemed like such a different experience to me.

By then I was older and more aware of my surroundings at 29-47 Mariano Arosemena Street. I could remember the first time, in fact, that I felt handicapped because I did not know how to speak in the Spanish Language. However, one thing I knew at that age was that my parents spoke Spanish very well because I had heard them both speak to the neighbors in Spanish. At that time in my life I still longed for the loving warmth of my family in Colon and looked forward to returning, any day, to the life I once knew there so I, pretty much, had continued to think in English.

It would not be long, however, before I would start learning from the Spanish speaking kids in the neighborhood, and I got into the habit of stopping in the middle of play with the other kids, leaving their side momentarily, and running inside to ask my mother how you said this or that in Spanish. Eventually, I became fluent in both languages before I reached the age of five.

I can now venture to say with certainty that at that time in a history that spanned from 1940-1950, the Westindian people of Panama were very few in the barrios and that most of our neighbors were Spanish speaking, or at least that is how it looked. Very few Westindian families, it appeared, had small children who would play and interact with Spanish kids. I always heard them referring pejoratively to the Spanish people as “the Paña” within neighborhoods wherein the majority were Spanish speaking kids.

Historical notes and my own personal research would reveal that the reasons why Westindians kept their kids separated and locked in and apart from the neighborhood Spanish speaking kids were that they were afraid of deportation, particularly during those difficult times. In our own case when we were let loose amongst mostly Spanish speaking people, I right away noticed that we were the only kids of the Negro race amongst mostly Spanish speaking people. It was then that, outwardly, we took the place of black Spanish speakers.

This story continues.

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