When we disembark from our train to Colón, the capital of the Colón Province, our guide is at the station waiting for us in his van. As we drive through the neighborhood surrounding the station, he tells us that the city isn’t at all safe.
“People get killed here all the time,” he warns.
We slowly pass by dilapidated buildings that house businesses and residences alike. Some look abandoned while others reflect years of neglect and blight. Stray dogs lazily commune together on street corners while fruit vendors wait at their booths in hopes that a passerby will buy a pineapple.
“Mostly black West Indians and mestizos live here,” our guide says. We later learn that he himself is a mix of black Panamanian and Chinese. “The people who live here are descendants of those who built the canal,” he continues.
This sparks lots of conversation in the van amongst my family and our guide about the fact that all around the world, black people always get the short end of the stick.
“You’d think the people who sacrificed their lives to build the greatest source of this country’s wealth would be treated better than this,” my mom says.
But they’re not. They’ve been ignored and shut out by the government – out of sight, out of mind. Left to live in their rundown residences in their rundown city with no form of social assistance to resort to. Seeing that there are no unemployment benefits in the country, if Panamanians don’t work, they don’t eat.
For years, I’ve been holding onto my picture perfect, rosy images of the Panama from my childhood where I had the privilege of sleeping in a nice house each night in a neighborhood that enjoyed the protection of the U.S. military. But in Colón City – and even in impoverished neighborhoods within Panama City itself like El Chorrillo – I can’t turn a blind eye to the effects of racism and colorism in Panama.
As we head to the outskirts of the city, our guide informs us that there’s talk amongst local politicians about the need to reinvest in and rebuild the area.
Talk is cheap.
After stopping and spending some time at the Gatun Locks, our van journey continues. We head northeast of Colón, deeper into the Panamanian countryside. We’re on our way to Portobelo, a quiet port city located in the Colón Province, not too far from the edge of Chagres National Park.
Before heading into the heart of town, we stop for lunch at a seaside restaurant, and we’re swept away by the beauty of our surroundings. After lunch and lots of pictures, we continue into town.
At its height, Portobelo was an important Caribbean port used to transport plundered Peruvian silver to Spain. Following a series of 17th and 18th century attacks by the British military and privateers alike, the Spanish recovered the town.
Today, the harbor is littered with abandoned foreign-owned boats, and the deep waters hide sunken ships and even a C-45 twin engine airplane. History can attest to just how many riches were stolen from Portobelo, but these days, it seems that this sleepy town would be all but forgotten if UNESCO hadn’t designated the ruins of the colonial Spanish fort that once surrounded the town as well as nearby Fort San Lorenzo, a world heritage site.
But Portobelo has another claim to fame: Iglesia de San Felipe, better known as the Black Christ Church. Built in 1814, this is the last structure the Spanish built before leaving Panama. But more importantly, this church houses the statue of Cristo Negro (Black Christ).
According to local legend, the statue of the black Christ carrying a cross arrived in Portobelo in the 17th century on a Spanish Cartagena-bound ship. Whenever the ship tried to set off from port, storms brewed, so the captain decided to leave the statue behind where it washed up on the harbor’s shores.
These days, the statue of the Black Christ is revered in Panama. The church hosts the annual Festival de Cristo Negro which welcomes some 60,000 pilgrims, many of whom travel by foot from as far as Panama City, to see the statue and seek healing.
During our early October visit, locals are preparing for the festivities to come later on in the month. Vendors set up tarp-covered booths in hopes of being able to sell food and Black Christ figurines as keepsakes. On the day of the festival, there’ll be a two-hour nighttime Mass followed by a procession of men carrying the statue through the town’s streets.
Today, the streets are relatively quiet. Roosters tied to lines are forced to keep their balance and cluck desperately out of what I imagine to be misery and frustration; perhaps they’re being trained for cockfighting. Children play carelessly on the cobbled roads and sidewalks. A severely burned and emaciated dog limps around in search of food. It’s hard to imagine that in just a few weeks, this town will turn into carnival central.
While Portobelo is by no means thriving economically, the contrast between Colón City and Portobelo is evident. Moreover, the irony of the inequities faced by many black Panamanians versus the revered Cristo Negro isn’t lost on me.
After our church visit, we pile back in the van to head back to the Atlantic side – back to Panama City. And although the ride quickly rocks me to sleep, this day has opened my eyes a bit wider.