Introduction to My Panama Journals
From 1972 until 1999, each field trip I made to Loma Bonita was a time of isolation from my family and friends. Telephone or computer communication was not an option, since electricity did not [and still does not] reach Loma Bonita. Nor did the postal service provide a dependable link to my people back home. Letters sent from the nearest post office, a 2-3 hour trek up and down the mountain, took weeks to make their way to the United States — if indeed they made it at all.
This changed in 1999. A Fulbright grant to teach a course at the University of Panama in the capital city as well as to continue my investigations in Loma Bonita required for the first time that I move back and forth between the highlands and the city. Of necessity I developed a home base in both places. In my new urban space, thanks to electricity, a lap top and the internet, I began to write about some of my daily experiences to my family and friends, to people who I felt were interested in me and my life. I called these letters my Panama Journal.
In the course of writing these journal entries I realized that I was producing a new type of field notes. As part of my research in Loma Bonita I keep a systematic daily record of what I learn; this information serves as the foundation for my academic analyses and writing. My Panama Journals captured a different angle on this information. By connecting me — my feelings, my ideas, my actions — to aspects of my field experiences, they presented a rich complement to more rigorous work, a complement that brings me joy in the sharing
26 May 2005
My dear friends:
Saludos desde Panama, where mango trees, packed with fruit in April and May, line streets in the city and paths in the countryside. A mango tree is a sight to behold. As tall as many palms, their thick, thick trunks and sprawling branches with fingerlike leaves can extend so far out that a single tree can hide an entire mansion. In life history stories I’ve collected in Loma Bonita, mango trees frequently appear as “the place where we rested on the journey to Palmar,” or “the tree my father planted for me when I was born,” or “the tree we hid behind to pee on our way to Copé.” A tree in season gives hundreds of mango fruits. I once counted five hundred on a single morning. And here are four reasons why I’m tempted to say “I hate mango trees”: 1) not infrequently, you take a big juicy bite and find a squiggly worm right near your mouth; 2) during mango season, innumerable fruits fall to the ground, and when you step on one in your tevas, it sends thick juices all over your foot — squish, squish — which then attract all manner of insects; 3) where mangos fall, a dense stench slowly accumulates; 4) sometimes. mangos take indirect routes and land with amazing velocity — bam bam — on something before heading for the ground. People have been seriously hurt by a falling mango; Marcela has a hole in a part of her roof from the journey of a single fruit.
Panama is in chaos. Headlines from yesterday’s La Prensa newspaper read: “336 people imprisoned, 25 hurt, 12 bus depots and 10 cars destroyed, many people robbed, $25 million dollars damage, 32% of the schools in the country closed.”
Why? The Panamanian legislature is about to pass a new law changing Social Security. Could you believe that I left this behind me in the United States, only to be in the middle of it here!
Among the 189 proposed changes, the age of retirement for women would increase by five years from fifty-seven to sixty-two, and the age for men by three years from sixty-two to sixty-five. The costs of insurance per worker would increase gradually. People could no longer insure their parents until they reach the age of sixty (currently there is no age limit). When the new Panamanian president, Martin Torrijos, visited the US president earlier this month, you can just imagine the conversation!
What does this have to do with me, besides garnering my empathy? It seems that all protests in Panama begin at the University of Panama. I’m here to teach a five-week course at the University, a class of ten sessions. Starting with the fifth session last week, there were massive protests at the University. Although classes weren’t officially cancelled — a principle of the university — the police had the university surrounded and nobody could get in — or out. So, each and every class has been a question. Will we meet? Where will we meet? How will we get there? Will we be safe?
We have managed to meet each time because the students themselves don’t want to miss a class. This is a very good sign! We’ve been holding class sessions, therefore, at one of their houses. For me to get there has required complex strategy and a big bill on my cellular phone. Here’s how I managed to get to the last class. I drove a back way (yes my car, la yegua [woman horse], is finally functioning again) to a part of Panama City that is far from most protests. After about an hour’s drive, I landed at the house of one of the students in the class. She then drove us to the house of another student, in the process speeding past a police barricade. At this second house, we changed drivers and cars and then after another fifteen-minute drive ended up at the house of the student sponsoring our class that day. There we sat in a semi circle — ten of us in a sweltering hot room about six by ten feet — teaching and learning!
I’m used to this! Sort of. When I step off the plane in Panama, I know after all these years that I need to hesitate for maybe thirty seconds, take a very deep breath, relax, and become open — to whatever each day will bring. I need to remind myself, deep inside, that each day will bring things that were not what I had planned, probably not what I would have wanted. I need to remember to laugh a lot.
My class has gone very well. And it is moving toward the grand finale in about a week.
In the meantime I’m preparing for my fieldtrip to Loma Bonita in the highlands. And I’m preparing for (my son) Reid’s arrival on June 12th for one week. We’re planning a project together that may or may not be possible. That may or may not happen. The plan is to cross the Continental Divide by foot (and/or horse), starting in Loma Bonita with a community guide. Once on “the other side,” Reid will interview migrants living there, some from Loma Bonita, whose lands and homes may soon be inundated by a new government-financed damn. The current Panamanian government, it appears, is planning to damn several rivers in order to provide water to widen the Panama Canal. The “collateral damage” could be the homes and lands of about 35,000 poor farmers who have migrated there during the past generation or two. They are organizing against this, but their plight looks bleak. The foot journey to reach these people is always arduous, even more so at this time of year during the rainy season. I almost didn’t make it there in 1979 — when I was twenty-five years younger! I know only this: We will both TRY to make it. Reid wants to write an article based on his interviews. I want to aid his effort — however I can.
I notice that the east coast seems to be rather cool for this time of year. And so, here, I’m sending up some of the excess heat that keeps me sweating — day and night.
Un gran abrazo, to each of you,
22 June 2005
My dear friends:
I write on the morning after the summer solstice, which was a day of tumultuous rains. It’s quiet now, at 6:30 a.m., except for the fifteen different kinds of bird conversations that even I can detect outside my window. There are two humming birds competing for my attention — one brilliant red, the other yellow. Are they inviting me to play? Do they know about my passion for play and for color?
I never did see the inside of the University of Panama again. Mass demonstrations and strikes over the new social security “reform” law rammed through by the government continued until the end of my course in early June (and still continue). The University remained tightly closed. But we never missed a class, nor even a minute of a class. Various students offered their homes as meeting places, which turned out to be unpredictably pleasant. In the end, every student made it to every class — miraculously, (with one exception) even on time! In the end, it was a wonderful experience for this teacher; there was so much intense interest, good humor, and appreciation for learning that I felt re-inspired to teach more. And here — on this isthmus.
After twenty-five days of a national strike against the government’s new social security “reform” laws — principally by construction workers, health workers and administrators, and educators — last night the government acceded to a mild compromise position. It will suspend some parts of the law’s regulations for a three-month period of national dialogue. It’s not yet clear if this will assuage strikers, who have called for a total repeal of the law during these ninety days. The general population of Panama, and probably the government, have been surprised by the tenacity and persistence of these strikers — despite actions taken to repress or coopt them. Equally notable is rising support from sectors of the general population. Donation centers for strikers are doing well; yesterday, we witnessed on TV the unlikely — perhaps unprecedented — scene of medical doctors raising funds for construction workers. And during demonstrations many people line the streets, clapping on the sidelines. More to come on this breaking story.
I finally got to Loma Bonita for the first time two weeks ago. There, somewhere around the middle of my conversation with Popito Quirós, it occurred to me that I was a double agent.
I had been sitting in Clemencia Quirós’ patio in Loma Bonita, listening to stories about life during my two-year absence. Popito arrived. He had just climbed up the mountain from El Copé and was uncharacteristically out of breath and sweating profusely. I started to crack a joke about how his fifty-three years were catching up with him, but stopped in my tracks when I looked directly into his face. He was sick. Very sick. He was so sick that he couldn’t even make small talk with me, so sick that tears kept escaping down his cheeks when he tried to talk. He had come to see if his Aunt Clemencia could give him some chicken fat and a particular green leaf that he would use to prepare a curative mixture. The curandero (curer) he had visited in Copé had not had these ingredients. My heart went out to him, and I said the things one says to someone who is ill.
But inside my head there was another story in process. In this story, Popita was not just a sick man, but also a “sick male return-migrant.” As a young man he had left Loma Bonita to work in the city of Colón. There he had stayed for twenty-five years, laboring in factories, finding a woman with whom to raise five children. He had visited his parents in Loma Bonita occasionally, but never stayed in the community for very long. A few years ago, however, after suffering an accident and having to “retire” early, he decided to return to Loma Bonita and set up a permanent residence in his mother’s house. His wife and children did not accompany him. As he explained, the children, now adults, had no interest at all in moving to the highlands. They were city folks. His wife had to stay in the city, he said, to help their children and grandchildren. Therefore, Popito lives alone in Loma Bonita, visiting his family in Colón once every few months or hosting his wife’s brief visits to the community.
To be alone in Loma Bonita — and sick — is dreadful. Who will go to the monte (fields) or the store for rice or yucca? Who will chop the wood for the stove? Who will husk the coffee or cook? Who will sweep the dirt floors? Who will tend the chickens, retrieve the eggs? To be alone in Loma Bonita — and sick — also can be dangerous. If a fever gets out of control, who will run to the nearest neighbor — in Popito’s case, a very steep ten- minute ascent — to seek help?
And so all the time I was talking humanely to Popito, expressing my dismay at his condition, wishing him well, I also was thinking, not about Popito the sick human being, but about Popito the “category,” the “return migrant.” I was comparing his situation to that of other men who have left families in the city and returned to Loma Bonita after retirement. I was thinking about the causes and effects of this type of return migration.
This is the job of an anthropologist. To be a double agent. It’s an interesting job. But, I think, it has a duplicitous edge that borders on the unethical. This bothers me.
On another subject, we did it! Reid and I accomplished our four-day project together. At the start, I must admit, I was nervous. There were so many unpredictable parts to this foot (and horse and cayuco [canoe]) journey across the Continental Divide that I couldn’t envision the end. Would the people we were counting on for aid show up? Take us in for the night? Would we manage physically to endure? As we climbed into the pickup truck in Loma Bonita at the break of dawn for our departure, I shouted out to Martina, who was waving goodbye, “Regresaré y a pied, o en hamaca o tal vez caja.” “I’ll return either on foot or in a hammock or maybe a coffin.” I was kidding. Sort of.
Why were we doing this? In part, for an adventure. I had made this foot journey with several Loma Bonita families in 1979, and wondered what it would be like twenty-five years later. Reid had heard my stories about this trip and wanted to make it his own. Beyond this was our work project. As I mentioned in my last journal entry, the Panamanian government is talking about building several dams in the region of our destination as part of a strategy to widen the Panama Canal. In fact, they plan to hold a national referendum on this issue before the year’s end. Reid and I wanted to capture the perspectives of some of the farmers who would be affected by the dams. Reid will write an article for a U.S. audience, while I aim one at the Panamanian media.
Here was our route: the truck took us to Barrigón, a community about half an hour from Loma Bonita. There, a man named Julio Rodriquez, who was family to someone in Loma Bonita, met us to serve as our guide. Together we three climbed by foot to the summit of the Continental Divide (about three hours) where on a clear day (unfortunately not our fate) one can see both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans in a single glance. There, on that peak is a large cross that was brought to the spot in 1992 by members of the Catholic Church and some indigenous groups who had gathered to lament the arrival in Latin America of the Spanish conquistadores 500 years earlier. From the summit, the descent to “the other side” is amazingly steep. For almost five hours we headed downhill, often literally straight down, until reaching the community of San Juan where Julio and his family live. Reid made it on foot, despite his heavy backpack. My right knee punked out from the start of the descent (remember my knee surgery three years ago), and I conceded my fate to a small light brown animal, named Buo, a cross between a burro (donkey) and a horse. At the steepest parts of the road, you could have seen me on my horse — head close to the ground, behind facing the sky. It was not pleasant!
That night in San Juan we were able to speak with several members of the “Frente,” an organized farmers’ group that opposes the dam projects in no uncertain terms. The next morning, our guide and his brother took us on a four-hour journey down the San Juan River via cayuco (a canoe that is steered by a person standing in the back with a single pole) to our next destination, Coclesito, a community that will end up thirty meters below the dam waters if the government project is approved.
I was particularly concerned about the Coclesito leg of our journey. There are three families in Coclesito whom I know, since they emigrated there from Loma Bonita in the 1970s. But I hadn’t seen them in twenty-five years! I hoped that we could stay a night or so with one of them, but I hadn’t been able to contact anyone in advance, since Coclesito’s sole public telephone had been on the blink since I first got to Panama. Thus, we arrived at a doorstep not knowing what kind of reception awaited us. It was one of those magical anthropological moments. We walked toward the door. A man emerged from the door. As we got closer, I recognized Juan Arcia, and he knew me right away. “Gloria,” he called out, obviously pleased, and I knew that Reid and I would be welcomed.
Later that night, Juan organized a small meeting (of men) with whom he shares confidence, and Reid and I were privy to a fascinating conversation about — against — the government project. Here’s one voice: “We’re not in agreement with this proposal. The only way we are able to defend ourselves here is to work the land. There are no jobs. If they say we can’t work the land, but don’t give us salaried jobs, how can we live? For this reason, we say, this is a “proyecto de muerte,” a project of death. Our group is ready to confront whomever they send, to speak with whomever comes here. To fight out the issues. Now, we are angry.”
I want to tell you that my son was a fabulous colleague: despite the physical difficulties and exhaustion of the journey, he was kind, considerate and respectful to everyone who crossed his path, including his mother.
As I write, each of you is on my mind, and I send a warm and unbearably humid hug.
Since 1972, the people of Loma Bonita, a small highland community in the steep mountain slopes of Coclé Province, Panama, have been teaching anthropologist, Gloria Rudolf, something about the nature of their lives. The results of this work have been published in academic journals, and include a book titled Panama’s Poor: Victims, Agents, and Historymakers, published in English in 1999 and Spanish in 2000.
Rudolf, who studied history as an undergraduate at Goddard College, and has a doctorate in anthropology from the University of Pittsburgh, has worked for most of her career as a professor of anthropology, teaching classes focused on studies of development and gender. She also has designed and conducted a variety of types of research, both in Panama and the United States. In addition to ethnographic studies in Loma Bonita, this work has included program evaluations, needs assessments and surveys for social change projects. Whatever the specific nature of the investigation, Rudolf’s common goal has been to understand — in order to learn how to counter — the inequalities of class, race, gender and ethnicity that have brought suffering to so much of humankind.