This is “Twenty Five Street,” as we Westindian Panamanians
have always called it. It is in the heart of Calidonia in downtown
Panama City and has always been a meeting place for our
people since the beginning of the Republic.
Except for the surrounding concrete buildings, the street
has changed very little.
The evening shower had cooled not only the temperament but the idealism of a confused youngster. My thoughts went back over the events of the day that ultimately led to the lectures that my teacher Ana Sanchez invariably directed at me. But the life she had in mind for me, since her lectures were centered on her vision for my future, seemed quite remote to me- far fetched in fact.
Her grand vision for me was something that I hadn’t experienced even in my most treasured dreams so far in Panama. I really didn’t believe them possible. I was dealing with too many issues, a young individual lost in a sea of conflicting messages with my immediate family members. My life had been filled primarily with women who, it seemed to me, were more confused than I was.
My evenings spent with Teacher Ana, however, had taken a different turn than any of my previous encounters with her; like the time she slapped my face and browbeat me into submission. I mean, she probably viewed it as disciplining me or taking care of me but these encounters with her were usually intense.
This time, however, Ana was more gentle, communicative, even respectful and concerned. She didn’t once reprimand me for any believed or perceived behavioral infraction that some other teacher might have brought her about me.
We were already into the fourth week of our daily treks together to raise funds and my thoughts again turned to the women in my young life. My sister Aminta had run away to the City of Colon fifty miles away, but it might as well have been to Mars in those days since Colon and Panama, although divided by only fifty short miles, were seemingly leagues apart. That was the way it was in the Panama of our days.
I had always been a loner, so to speak, a boy child surrounded by adult women. There I was living with my three paternal aunts and my grandmother, Fannie Elizabeth, who was as reclusive as I was and who, at times, left me doubting that I knew her at all. All my relatives in Panama were related to my father’s side of the family and he, at last reporting, was living in a place called Harlem in New York City.
These were the people in my life, my people and my links to our past and to our origins in the countries of Jamaica, Barbados and the Martinique some of our members had married into. Especially those intermarriages I considered positive experiences and at times these new “in-laws” made me feel like they were more than just aunts and uncles. Some of these “acquired” aunts had replaced my mother in every sense of the word since they were more nurturing towards me than my mother ever was.
Even my teachers became part of this extended form of family to me. In fact, at that time I wasn’t aware that my teachers at school were planning a surprise gift for me; something that would become quite a memorable day in my life and not only for me but for the whole class- indeed, for the whole school.
As I roamed the city of Panama that I had known since my eighth year of life when I was free to roam freely while I ran errands for my grandmother I took note of my progress. I had had to learn my way around quickly and figure things out all by myself since the avenues with broad side walks and wide streets were places that I would just as soon have avoided. These streets were full of unexpected and potentially traumatic encounters.
The patios and callejones, however, the large inner courtyards and the alleyways, was where I enjoyed being the most, the places where I had become blended into the Spanish culture, where I had heard those great Calypsonians for the first time, and even witnessed the beginnings of a political row one night. The places that Teacher Ana was introducing me to, on the other hand, were new to me, unexplored territory; but, through her, they became part of the Panama City that had seen me grow up.
As I turned my thoughts back to Ana who seemed to be getting over her occasional and fretful bout of coughing- a severe smoker’s cough- I began thinking about her as opposed to my family who had never nurtured me in any spirit of parenting. I thought of my aunts and my grandmother who had never been especially motherly. I dwelled on my mother and how she had never left any memory of any special moments of nurturing but only of abandonment.
The few rare thoughts about indulging my passions of becoming an artist and a writer or even a lawyer seemed distant and full of troubles ahead. Such thoughts plagued me since the day my mother had abandoned my younger siblings and me on Calle Mariano Arosemena; they were more like jewels in the sky that I could only glimpse but could not reach.
More often I had thoughts of the freedom of running off and being on my own forever. These were my special new passions which had replaced the memory of that day me and my younger brother and sister had fallen into the hands of women we hardly knew, women that often acted as though they had been saddled with the likes of us.
Secretly, though, I still jealously guarded the memory of my mother and always harbored a lingering hope.
This story continues.