By 1950 we were nearing half a century of Republican life and, from first hand knowledge, the youths of the country were already demonstrating an angry countenance that reflected Barrio poverty and the meager futures that awaited us.
By now we were accustomed to Panamanian urban life, a lifestyle that totally lacked organized social programs to look forward to; any program at all would have been better than no program for us the adolescents that needed attention to develop morally, socially and physically as balanced citizens. Yes, this was the Panama of 1950 where people of the lower and middle classes would soon enough develop into an important part of Panamanian life.
For most of my classmates on the dance floor that night, the night would culminate in an end of year realization that they had finally completed their basic education. However, as a member of the Westindian community, I noticed the glaring absence of the five or six classmates of my ethnic group who, like me, would have graduated that year. It’s as if they had all vanished and I would never see them again afterwards.
Snuggled up to the Spanish girl who had showed me more compassion than any of the Westindian girls I knew, I completely forgot where I really was and concentrated on the excellent musical band while my feet moved rhythmically to the music.
Few of us knew that the entertainment part of that night’s dance had been set up by our beloved teacher and basketball coach Luis “Lucho” Ardines. He was able to engage none other than Armando Boza’s band to play at our dance and, of course, the quality in musicians made the whole experience special beyond words. Boza’s “La Perfecta” was comprised of polished professionals and they were all the sensation at the time.
A resident of Calidonia and Marañon, Teacher Ardines was friends with Armando Boza and I don’t doubt that this made the maestro more than willing to comply with an old friend’s wishes to give the kids at his school a thrilling end of year experience.
My physical fatigue and memories of all the hard work that I had poured into making this fair a success vanished when I realized that I was embracing the fair Albina. That night I was the Westindian Prince in the arms of my Princess who had me reeling to the rhythms of a very slow romantic step as we started up on yet another bolero. The dancing continued interspersed with the occasional fast moving Guaracha numbers. None of us could have known, or cared, however, that the music we were dancing to was in the throes of evolution, a golden age of Latin-American popular music.
To the boys and girls just past their fourteenth birthday the affair that night would be remembered as a coming of age event. But, although my tired limbs were not reacting as I would have wished, nothing could interfere with my feelings of joy. No one there was more appreciative of just being there, and nothing was going to mar that feeling of being in love. My feigned helplessness at the sight of the beautiful mulatto girl named, oddly enough, Albina, gave way to the self assuredness that comes with knowing the smooth, gentle “pasos” of a good dancer.
I wooed the girl without words that night as it dawned on me that I wasn’t living a dream. We danced one number after another until it was time for the dimming of the lights, something grown-ups did at dances. At times the lights would be completely turned off, sort of giving lovers a moment of privacy for a stolen kiss. At any rate, the band had been spectacular and they played on keeping us dancers in the passion and mood of this unique moment especially dancing to boleros.
I suddenly found the courage to express my appreciation to the girl who had chosen me to be her partner for the night. I stopped in the middle of one of my fancy steps and kissed the sweet smelling Spanish girl on the cheek. Feigning surprise, she looked at me and said good-natured, “Thank you very much!” She then immediately reciprocated with a peck on my cheek to which I responded gallantly, “You are welcome!”
We continued dancing and observing the rest of our classmates until it was time to go home. Our group of classmates now grouped in pairs was feeling like we had all graduated to the ranks of adulthood. Together we finally exited the school through the same entrance that we, for years, had entered as grade school children.
This story continues.