A Day in Black Panama: Colón

A Day in Black Panama: Colón

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.

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“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.

colon-panama
Passing by the local prison

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.

colon-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.

Local houses
Local houses; locals typically throw away their trash on a plot of land near their homes where it’ll eventually be burned

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.

colon-panama

colon-panama

colon-panama

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.

View behind the restaurant
View behind the restaurant
Another view behind the restaurant
Another view behind the restaurant

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.

colon-panama

colon-panama-portobelo

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.

colon-panama-portobelo

colon-panama-portobelo

colon-panama-portobelo

colon-panama-portobelo

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).

colon-panama-portobelo

colon-panama-portobelo

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.

colon-panama-portobelo

colon-panama-portobelo

colon-panama-portobelo

colon-panama-portobelo

colon-panama-portobelo

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.

colon-panama-portobelo

colon-panama-portobeloDuring 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.

colon-panama-portobelo

colon-panama-portobelo

colon-panama-portobelo

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.

colon-panama-portobelo

The local buses are called “diablos rojos”

colon-panama-portobelo

colon-panama-portobelo

colon-panama-portobelo

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.

colon-panama-portobelo

colon-panama-portobelo

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.

PINNABLE

colon-panama

Have you explored Colón?

  • romain PERROIT

    Hi Dana, very interesting post, thank you for sharing the story of this part of Panama! I’m actually going there soon and would like to visit the Colon Provincia and Portobelo. Did you find your guide through an agency or was he a free-lance?

  • Loved the virtual tour of Colon and Portobelo, the lush vegetation, Cristo Negro and all. I love how you bring out the black perspective in your writings … I learn so much about the African diaspora from your blog.

  • Jonna

    This post was amazing. My parents have visited Panama and may move their when they retire to pursue missionary work. It’s scary for me, but at the same time I’m proud of them. This post taught me a little more about the culture there.

  • Christine St.Vil

    I absolutely love learning about different cultures. That food looks so delicious, and the photos make me feel like I was with you. One of my dearest friends is from Panama and I’ve always wanted to visit.

  • Hi Dana, Thanks for the introduction to the Black Christ and the Black Story in Panama. What amazing, lush vegetation and the countries beauty was stunning. I wonder how the natives feel about the inequity? Your pics were gorgeous!

  • Nadeen

    The pictures alone captured me. Thank you for sharing this and providing so much history!

  • Anitra Durand Allen

    Amazing the similarities in how societal norms across cultures treat the ones who are subjected to creating the very infrastructure upon which that society functions. Greta post. Awesome pictures.

    • Yeah, it’s disheartening. I often feel like all around the world it’s the same ‘ole song for black people. Glad you enjoyed this post!

  • I am so engaged with your Panama trip. I am actually going in April for the first time and possibly a solo trip! I love how in depth you got with the country and its gonna be amazing how this town will turn into Carnival. I wish I was going!

    • I hope you’ll enjoy Panama as much as I do (it’s still home to me although I haven’t lived there since I was a kid). Hopefully when you go to Panama, you’ll get a chance to explore the Caribbean side of the country.

  • I absolutely love your writing style and the way you tell the stories we all need to hear. Panama is beautiful, no doubt, but there’s more to Panama than tourism and you highlight the highs and lows very well. <3

    • Thanks so much, Sheena! As someone who’s constantly trying to be a better writer, your comment means the world.

  • Frank Thomae

    Interesting. I’ve been busy writing a post on race and economics in South Africa which we just left after 3 months. South Africa of course is infamous for all the wrong reasons but racism is all over and overt in much of the world including all over the Caribbean and Central/South America.
    Frank (bbqboy)

    • Yes, indeed. Unfortunately racism and colorism are ubiquitous. Curious to read your upcoming post about racism in South Africa.

  • I have a Panamanian aunt (by marriage). I’ve always wanted to visit. Your posts makes me want to visit even more. I love going to places learning about its history and culture.

    • You should definitely visit Panama – especially since you have a local connection. It would be great if you could go with your aunt so that you could hopefully have a more authentic experience.

  • foodfashionandflow

    Welp, lots of history and culture and I’m sure the food was amazing. Panama is not a destination I have ever considered, but it looks interesting.

  • Wow! Hauntingly beautiful. Yeah..the short end of the stick is a good way to put it 😞. Third world life, things will never change. Glad you had the guide because looking at the place, you can imagine the frustration leading to violence. I would still like to visit Panama at some point. Great post!

    • Thanks, Kemkem! I’m usually an optimist, but I agree with you that it seems that things will never change.

  • Holly

    I haven’t been. The food looks good. It looks really old and a run down, but filled with history.

thatgirlcarmel

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