The Black Christ of Portobelo: Lasting Impressions

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As the yearly celebration of the Black Christ of Portobelo begins to enter into Panama’s collective psyche, I begin to draw mental pictures, as an artist would of this whole scene that is an intimate part of our folklore and spiritual heritage and is very much Panamanian.

The highly graphic impressions that come to mind whenever I think about the Black Christ of Portobelo which have stayed with us throughout these many years of our history in Panama still impact my memory. Just to mention a few let’s begin to consider, for instance, the historical scene from which an artist from the year 1658 might have drawn inspiration to translate it into a scenic representation on canvas.

Take, for example, the remarkable appearance of the perfectly carved image of the black Christ found by humble fishermen who, as they walked on an almost deserted beach close to the port and stronghold of Ft. San Lorenzo in the small hamlet of Portobelo on the Caribbean shore of our beautiful Panama, discovered this heavenly treasure.

This was a point in our still colonial and pre-urban history in which our community as blacks had been organized to keep the people of the black African race enslaved. In fact, as historical evidence points out, most black slaves were property of the King of Spain and although they continued arriving in chains on Spanish ships to sites such as Portobelo, they soon became part of the majority of the population of residents of these customs ports- puertos aduaneros.

Drawing from historical accounts I’ve read I recall historians describing how the residents marked the newly arrived slaves with hot irons with their particular brands and proceeded to employ them for the backbreaking work in the ports and warehouses.  Incidentally, they were paid some kind of subsistence wage in accordance with the grandiose projects that today are a legacy to humanity.

We move now to our present time and see the descendants of those same citizens who disembarked year after year upon these sacred shores.  These were urban points among other ports in the Americas where these men and women of the African race were given up to full “slavery.” Only today, after the passage of many centuries, they now give themselves up in a vow to their God, Jehovah, as it is written in the scriptures, Numbers 6: 1-3.

For me, from the standpoint of a historian, this voluntary consecration has become a signpost of the eternal waiting for redemption from those days of crude hardship; waiting for better times to bring them serenity in the face of the most cruel forms of the former slave trade.

They come to me, a studied historian and one who has researched the topic of slavery assiduously, as descriptive visions of those bygone days. They reveal the legacy of our still almost undisclosed American history, a story that should lead us to recognize the genetic link and millennial family ties between Africa and the Americas. In fact, the links that remain of our enslaved race have proven to have genetic connection to the biblical race stretching back to the days of the prophet Moses. We now understand better the intrinsic and direct link between African blacks and the Asian continent.

However, we of the African-American branch of the dispersed African diasporas still feel the blows of the psychological scourge of disdain that seeks to criminalize us and steal from and humiliate us since the days of the fifteenth century when an image arrived mysteriously on Panama’s Atlantic shore; an image that gave us Panamanians of African descent a lasting and inseparable connection to our universal divinity.

It would not be an easy task to sustain this vision, however, in a world that continues to hate us to the point of even refusing us forgiveness for having earned that special grace from our Almighty Father God who favored us with part of His glorious heaven with something so beautiful and sweet as the image and likeness of a Black Christ who could never be separated from his people.

This story continues.

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