Friday, September 30, 2011

An Encounter with Omar’s Spirit

An idea, like a ghost, must be spoken to a little before it will explain itself.
Charles Dickens

I had no desire to go on this excursion. My wife, however, as High School Principal of Balboa Academy, needed to scout an experimental farm in the province of Coclé as a possible site for student retreats. The farm, I was told, was located beyond the town of La Pintada, a community I love to visit—it’s where my beloved cigars are made.

On this occasion, however, to see La Pintada again, if only briefly, was not enough of an enticement. I knew the trip would take an entire day, and after an intense week of rewriting a novel I’ve been working on for years, this Saturday I wanted to piddle around the house. But my wife can be supremely stubborn, and when she’s made up her mind, I am doomed.

One of the biology teachers at Balboa Academy had made the arrangements for the visit, and we were scheduled to meet her in the city of Penonomé. As anyone can imagine, during the two-hour drive there I failed to be pleasant company.

My attitude changed completely, however, once I learned that the farm itself—La Granja Alternativa—was located in the village of Coclesito. Over the years, Coclesito had acquired a mythic quality in my mind because of its association with General Omar Torrijos—a Panamanian leader who enjoys legendary status among many of his compatriots. Omar was deeply in love with this isolated village and its inhabitants. He visited Coclesito frequently. (In fact, on July 31, 1981, he died in a plane crash—under conditions that remain shrouded in rumors of conspiracies—en route to Coclesito. From the village’s higher ground, one can clearly see the upper rim of the steep valley, between two mountain peaks, where the craft fell.)

General Omar Torrijos loved Coclesito so much that he built a home here—which today is a museum. He would invite select guests so they could see, firsthand, the impoverished conditions in which Panamanian campesinos lived. Among the visitors were Walter Mondale, George McGovern, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Graham Greene. More importantly, it was in Coclesito that Torrijos started to implement his vision of how cooperatives should work. It was a model he proposed to spread throughout Panama to help make his idea of a revolution of the poor a reality.

I had always dreamed of visiting Coclesito, but reports about the horrendous road conditions dampened my enthusiasm. On this trip, however, we were thrilled to discover that the road is currently undergoing preparations to be paved. And although the thirty-kilometer dirt path between La Pintada and Coclesito was a bit bumpy, we managed just fine.

This visit to Coclesito excited me because Omar Torrijos has been a formidable presence in my imagination as of late: he’s an important character in the novel I’m revising. But within the manuscript pages General Torrijos has been flat—a poorly rounded-out character. To write realistically about Omar, the prototype of the “benevolent dictator,” was proving to be a frustrating task. I could clearly see the shortcomings of the Panamanian leader, but his virtues, particularly in his dealings with campesinos, remained hidden.

My experience in Coclesito changed all that, however. Here, more than anywhere else in Panamá, I’ve felt Omar’s presence. I’m still sorting out exactly what I saw in Coclesito, but the beauty, orderliness, and obvious love the residents feel for their departed leader—evident in the monuments and memorials that abound throughout the village—left a vivid mark on me. And this, as a writer, has been a blessing because my encounter with General Torrijos’s spirit in the mountains of Coclé should help me breathe life into his character.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Need to Preserve Cultural Heritage: The Case of Las Tablas

A civilization is a heritage of beliefs, customs, and knowledge slowly accumulated in the course of centuries, elements difficult at times to justify by logic, but justifying themselves as paths when they lead somewhere, since they open up our inner distance.
Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Last June my wife and I visited the province of Los Santos. After living nine years in Panama, we figured it was time to do so. What we saw delighted us. Long acknowledged as “The Cradle of Panamanian Culture,” the province lived up to its reputation.

Indeed, to spend time in the more noteworthy communities of Los Santos is to step back a few centuries. The prominent features of these towns—the architecture of the buildings that surround the plazas, the layout of the streets, the sedate pace with which people move about—represent vivid testimonials to a colonial past.

La Villa de los Santos and Guararé are two municipalities that hark back to an era when the Spanish Crown still ruled the region. To stroll about, visit the main churches, gaze at the plaza, and tour the museums is, indeed, an illuminating experience for anyone who’s interested in the history of the isthmus. The residents I spoke to in these towns were proud of their cultural legacy. What’s more, they’re acutely aware of their contribution to Panamanian national identity—a subject they’ll discuss at length with any visitor who’s willing to listen.

Oddly, the city of Las Tablas, the community most Panamanians consider the cornerstone of the nation’s cultural heritage, offered a different experience. Here we found that locals were focused on the present and worried about the future, their gazes set northward, in the direction of the city of Chitré. The Tableños mentioned—without our prompting and with traces of envy—that the commercial development of the provincial capital of Herrera, located thirty-four kilometers away, is vastly outpacing that of Los Santos. The fervent wish of Tableños is to catch up to and then surpass Chitré’s economic boom. What's more, they seem intent on accomplishing this as soon as possible.

When one drives through Chitré, the commercial success of the city is evident. Several modern hotels and a large mall are currently under construction. In Las Tablas, however, the urge to compete is already taking a cultural toll. The plaza, the heart of this city, no longer reflects its colonial past. Instead, the emphasis of its current design is on modernity, rather than on history and tradition. In short, Las Tablas’ plaza is a sterile sight to behold.

The center of Las Tablas reveals the city’s craving to become the undisputed commercial center of the peninsula of Azuero. Las Tablas, I was sad to observe, is quickly losing its historical character. An example is the museum that honors Belisario Porras, the Panamanian president who is credited with ushering the nation into the 20th century. This building, next to the plaza, is a modern, air-conditioned granite edifice that fails to reflect, even remotely, the home where Porras was born and raised.

With its sights set firmly on its commercial expansion, the city of Las Tablas is missing the opportunity to teach the rest of Panama the virtues of preservation. Absorbed in its competition against Chitré, the leaders and inhabitants of this city are relinquishing the guardianship of national cultural identity to La Villa de los Santos and to Guararé.

The visionary choice would be to retain—or as now is the case in Las Tablas, to restore—the city’s colonial heritage. To seek to match Chitré’s hard-earned prosperity will ultimately render Las Tablas a carbon-copy of Santiago, David, or Chitré itself. That is something the city of Las Tablas neither needs nor wants.

To restore and preserve Las Tablas’ colonial legacy will pay bigger dividends in the long run. This investment is the wisest of all—as many Latin American cities that have chosen to honor their architectural past have learned. Today, they reap the benefits of visitors who have traveled from near and far to experience the pleasure of strolling through the streets of a cultural icon.