Right now I am involved in workshops at the National Assembly’s Commission on Education, Culture and Sports to hammer out a law (Proyecto de Ley #416) that would transform our beleaguered and under-funded INAC (Instituto Nacional de Cultura) into a full Ministry. It was long overdue in my opinion.
I agreed to participating in these workshops because I remembered my youthful days of school marching bands and the weak attempts of the government schools at providing a modicum of music appreciation when, admittedly, there was no legal or social infrastructure to nourish our national culture. This is the basic problem of culture in Panama.
All of us who have survived from the late 40’s and 50’s remember that there was a lot of music and dance in Panama’s popular culture but most of it was imported from Spain and Latin America, and even the jazz from North America that I loved so much couldn’t be considered either local or highbrow culture although some of Latin America’s musical legends like Beny More and Armando Boza incorporated jazz rhythms into their music.
From time to time during our boring school day the teacher took us or let us out of class to roam the school usually to listen to a performance of the National Philharmonic. There were also the rare events we were treated to through presentations by foreign entertainers usually followed by some instructive movie involving health themes like preventing venereal disease, etc.
It was during this period of time (early 1950’s) that we kids from the barrios for the first time would have an opportunity to see live shows at the Olympic Stadium- for free. It was the first time that we would witness actual public or governmental support of culture in Panama; a time when the mass of people and their children could say they had enjoyed a genuine classical music concert or a ballet or, for instance Holiday on Ice, without having to pay for it.
Racism and social exclusion, however, would continue to dictate who could be part of the development of culture in Panama. Being barred from the National Conservatory had effectively discouraged me from ever asking again and then there was the exclusion of us barrio kids from entering the public swimming pool, from which we were rudely discouraged from entering.
The swimming pool is still on Avenida Peru, one of the only Olympic swimming pools in the country. We colored kids of the Barrios, who were brave enough to aspire to learn to swim, would hang around hoping someone would organize a class. If we even succeeded in being admitted we would then be met with the cold and mocking looks of the little white kids and straight out told that we “could not swim there.”
This story will continue.