( Originally Published Early 1912 )
THERE is little real friendship between the Americans on the Isthmus and the natives. In temperament and tradition we are miles away from the Panamanians. The hostility between Latin and Saxon probably dates back to the old Roman days when the Saxons first began to plunder the Latins.
When the Spanish Empire sprang up in America, its most relentless enemies were the Protestants of England. Even in the odd moments when the two mother countries were not at war, the colonists never buried the hatchet. From the days of Drake till the fall of Carthagena, the Latin people of Central America lived in constant fear of the English buccaneers.
Since our revolution, they have transferred this dread to us. Gradually, but apparently restlessly, the United States have expanded—always at the cost of Spanish America. Florida, Texas and California, the Philippines, Porto Rico, one after the other, have disappeared down the maw of what our southern neighbors are wont to call "The Northern Vulture."
Very many of our representatives in the Canal Zone have made sincere efforts to establish friendly relations with the native population. A few still continue such efforts, but most have given it up as hopeless. The two people live side by side, meet occasionally at the theatre or public receptions, but very rarely become intimate. Perhaps half a dozen men have married Panamanian wives, but I have not heard of a single American woman marrying a native.
This age-old hostility to the "Gringo" is deep-rooted. Differences in language, customs and religious practices keep the breach wide. So any description of the people is necessarily that of an outsider. Very likely many of the things which seem ludicrous or unlovely to us might be understood and overlooked if they would admit us to greater intimacy.
Panamanian society is sharply divided in classes. The people on top are either old Spanish families, whose income is dependent on land, or well-established families of foreign extraction who have been naturalized for many years and whose source of income is industrial. The descendants of the Conquistadores look down on these parvenu families in private, but are so generally in debt to them that they dare not do so in public. They form a pretty solid social block.
The division in regard to politics is sharper than that of heredity. At present the Liberal party is in power and the Conservatives are getting social as well as political snubs. One of the most noticeable things about these people is their inability to bury political differences. Theirs is a politic of personalities, first, last, and all the time. The Conservative members of "The Union Club" are resigning—although the club was formed as a place where the two sides could meet socially—because they feel that they have not been fairly treated in committee appointments. As a general proposition, Conservatives and Liberals will not break any manner of bread together. During the elections for the Queen of the Carnivals, all good Liberals vote for the daughter of a Liberal.
This political bitterness, which shows itself so unpleasantly in social life, goes to even worse extremes in the business of politics. Every political turn-over means an entire house cleaning. Every government official, from judge to street cleaner, loses his job—to make way for a member of the triumphant party. The Liberal party, now in power, has developed the "machine patronage system" to ludicrous lengths. They seem bent on creating a job for every one of a safe majority of voters. Panama City has enough policemen for a city ten times its size. Consulates have been sprinkled all over the map—often in places that never saw a Panamanian till the consul arrived.
There is absolute unanimity on the question that what the Republic needs before and above everything else are roads. With its long coast lines and many navigable rivers, it is unusually adapted to the cheapest of all forms of transportation—by water. Small amounts of money spent in harbor works in half a dozen places, a few good roads leading inland from the harbors, would open up large districts. Yet the 1910 National Assembly voted to tie up all the re-serve capital in a railroad of doubtful utility. In tropical countries railroading is expensive transportation.
The little Republic of Panama made its bow to the world in the enviable position of having several dollars per capita in the bank, when most of its older sisters were heavily in debt. Most of this reserve has been dissipated in the extravagant building of national theaters and national universities, or in more extravagant pay rolls. Very little of it has gone in real development of the country.
Besides the class composed of landed gentry politicians and financial industrial politicians, lies the great mass of the people, who take no more part in government affairs than they do in government receptions. One sees them at their worst in the cities, as is true in every country. The Sanitary Department has cleaned up the slums, and the housing conditions are better than in more prosperous communities. In the country they lead a sort of Arcadian life. There is much free land, and those who have not acquired any property "squat" wherever the fancy strikes them.
Of course, the base of the population is Indian— a squat, square-faced type, completely unlike the illustrations in the de luxe editions of Hiawatha. There are two main ethnic groups of Indians. The Cholos, a fairly pure type, is found in the mountains of Code province, and are scattered all up and down the west coast, from the borders of Mexico to the edge of Peru. The early Spanish adventurers found that friendly Indians from the Isthmus could act as interpreters within these limits.
In the northeastern part of the country, beginning at the Gulf of San Blas and extending almost to the Colombian border, and inland to the Chucunaque River, are the San Blas. Probably of the same race as the Cholos, they have become differentiated in the four centuries since the visit of Columbus, in that they have never been conquered and have not allowed inter-marriage. They are estimated at about 20,000 and are reputed to be well armed. As the Republic has no army, they have every prospect of maintaining their independence for a long time to come.
They are not unfriendly to the white population, and treasure an especial respect for the English, who, tradition tells them, are irreconcilable enemies of their enemies, the Spaniards. The San Blas men frequently come up to Colon and Panama with cayukas laden with cocoanuts, scrap rubber, and other products, which they trade for powder and salt and needles and cloth. They allow traders along their coast, but never permit them to stay on shore during the night. They guard their women to such an extent that a white man rarely sees one of them except through glasses. The moment a stranger approaches a village, the women disappear into the bush.
The Cholo Indians have not preserved their ethnic purity and seem to have no sentiment in the matter. Most of the crossing has been with the negroes, the slaves of colonial days, their descendants, and the recent immigrants from the West Indies. But the crossing of the races has been varied in the extreme. At El Real on the Tuyra River, a pure type of Cholo girl was married to the leading Chinese merchant, and the two babies are almond-eyed and yellow skinned. It is generally affirmed that aside from the San Blas people, no native of Panama is of pure blood. The color line is mot drawn in the official and social circles of the cities, so of course it is not on the country-side.
Family life is simple in the extreme. John aril Jenny, or more probably Jose and Dolores, walk off some fine day. If they happen to pass a priest, they may stop and get married. When they find a satisfactory place, it does not take them many days to get settled. They have probably started out with a couple of machetes, an earthen pot and a hammock. They build a roof and hoist it up on four poles. They begin cutting out a clearing, and at the end of the dry season, burn off the fallen timber. Until their first crop comes to harvest, they borrow rice and yams and plantains from their relatives if there does not happen to be a stranger more near at hand. In the course of a few years they have many children, their original shelter has been turned into a kitchen, and a new ranche with woven walls has become their residence. They have several acres under mild cultivation. The bananas and oranges have begun to bear. Dolores has woven several new hammocks, has molded several new pots and pans, and has made a dozen different house-hold utensils out of the fruit of their thriving calabash tree. They have become people of consideration, and are now in a position to lend yams and rice to more recently established homes.
Once a year or so, Jose sets out for the nearest town. He loads up with various medicinal gums they have gathered, a few pounds of rubber scrap, and, if Dolores is a clever artisan at hat weaving or gourd carving, with her handiwork. On the way he stops at every hacienda he passes and asks for work. In due course he reaches town with a handful of silver, buys what supplies he needs and returns to Dolores for another long sleep. As soon as the oldest boy grows up, he sends him to town instead, and sleeps all the year round.
The formal tribal relations have broken down among the Cholo Indians. They appear to be, according to Herbert Spencer's ideal, the happiest of people, for they are certainly the least governed. Half a dozen whom I questioned did not know who was president of the Republic. There seems to be in each community some old man who is generally considered wise. Disputes are informally submitted to him, but he has no authority to back up his decisions.
The jungle stretches on all sides invitingly. Very few of the Indians have acquired sufficient property to bind them to a locality or community ; and if a man feels that he is unjustly treated by his neighbors he will move.
The landed gentry generally live in the cities. Their haciendas are unattractive places, the cultivation of their estates is almost nil. In general, their income comes from cattle raising or those forms of agriculture which require the least human labor. There is none of the slavery of which one hears so much in Mexico, partly because the Panamanian gentry are too indolent to make effective slave drivers, but more because the jungle offers such ready escape. Almost every time you find an even moderately well-cultivated estate, you will find a foreigner as foreman.
The homes of the rich are strangely unattractive to Northerners, and this is especially remarkable, as most of the upper class have been educated abroad. I spent nearly a week in a household not far from Panama City. They were the most important people of the village, and reputed to be rich. They were so nearly white that the daughters had been received in a smart finishing school in the States. Several members of the family had been in Europe, and, taking everything into consideration, one would naturally expect certain traces of advanced culture.
It was a large one-storied house, with unglazed windows. One room, which served as a dining-room and living room, was papered with a cheap, gaudy, green and gilt paper, stained and moldy from humidity. The walls of the other rooms were bare. In this living-room there was a grand piano which had been out of tune at least a generation, and had been superseded by a graphophone. Sousa marches were the family's preference in music. On the wall there was a chromo portrait of Alphonso XIII, advertising a brand of sherry, and a hideous crayon enlargement from a photograph of the father. In a book-shelf there was a fine old set of Cervantes, a couple of French and English dictionaries and text-books, and a file of La Hacienda, an illustrated magazine published by and in the interests of an American manufacturer of farm machinery. I did not see any member of the family reading anything but the daily paper from Panama, although they could all read and speak French and English.
The ladies of the household spent the morning in dingy mother hubbards and slippers. After a heavy mid-day meal they retire to their hammocks. About four o'clock they took a dip in the ocean, sat around the rest of the evening with a towel over their shoulders and their hair drying. About a month later I encountered one of these young ladies at a ball in Panama. She was dressed in an exquisite Paris gown, and was strikingly beautiful. She would have passed muster in the most exclusive set in any European capital. It was hard to believe that three hundred days out of the year she led the slipshod, slovenly life I had seen in her home.
The married life of the better class natives does not seem attractive to Americans. The women have no social intercourse with men, except at infrequent balls and formal dinners. They are expected to keep their feet on the rocker of the cradle all the time. The men lead their social life in cafes and clubs. "Calling" is unknown. Many amusing stories are told of the excitement and astonishment caused by Americans breaking over this custom. There were a great many love feasts in the early days. Every one talked of friendship between the two nations and the Americans believed in it. And our young men, having duly met the ladies of Panama at these formal functions, proceeded to "call" in form. Invariably they found the ladies in "deshabille" and tongue-tied with astonishment at the invasion. The husbands were outraged at this attack on the sanctity of their homes, and while the affair fell short of diplomatic incident, a lot of explaining had to be done to avoid the duels which threatened.
The religion of the country is Roman Catholic Most of the men, however, seem to be free-thinkers. Even more than in Protestant countries the congregations of the churches are made up of women. But especially at fiestas the churches are packed. The ceremonial in these Latin-American countries is not as attractive as it is in Europe nor as impressive as it is in Russia. The religious fervor which marked the clergy in the early days of colonization—the missionary spirit—seems to have very largely given place to formalism, and rather shoddy formalism at that. Even the linen on the high altar of the cathedral is seldom washed. The silken finery of Nuestra Senora del la Merced is motheaten. The worshipers seem uninspired, the celebrants of the mass half asleep. Only once I heard some sisters chanting a mass in San Felipo Neri, and it was a sadly untrained chorus.
"Sport," in the Anglo-Saxon sense, is hardly known in Panama. The nearest approach to baseball, for instance, is cock-fighting. It holds a place in the hearts of the people on a par with, if not above political intrigue. There are cock-fights every Sun-day, and elections only once a year. The birds are raised with great care, and are trained and fed with as much solicitude as a prize fighter. Sunday morning while the women are at church, the men crowd into the cock-pit. The excitement is intense, the tobacco smoke dense—and the sport pitiful. Two cocks, most of their feathers shaved off; are brought into the ring by their keepers. There is a long wrangle over odds, and then bets are tossed in from the circle of seats. When the debate between the keepers is ended, they knock-the roosters' heads together and then turn them loose. I sat through a couple of hours of it once, and only one bout of a dozen or more had any action to it—or any suspense. In the other cases, after a little sparring, one cock ran and the other chased it, round and round the pit. Every few minutes the backer of the fleeing cock would persuade it to turn round and face the foe, but in a second the chase would begin again. The bout was ended when one cock was smitten with heart failure. Perhaps the worst thing which can be said of the Panamanians is that cock fighting is their national sport.
Ice is almost a necessity of life in the tropics. A private monopoly in Panama City manufactures it and sells it at exhorbitant prices. The Commissary has a fine modern plant and furnishes ice to canal employees at cost. A few families reap immense profit from the ice monopoly. All the natives pay exorbitant prices for it. If the National Assembly should pass a resolution instructing the President to request the Commission to extend its commissary privileges to the people of Panama, nine-tenths of the population would benefit immensely, and only half a dozen already rich families would suffer. It pays these families to stir up patriotism to the extent that the natives prefer to go without ice rather than touch that of the Gringos.
An even more striking case is furnished by the situation in regard to electric power and light. The same clique who own the ice monopoly have an antiquated electric plant, operated by coal brought all the way from the States. The unit cost is ludicrously high, and the monopolistic profit is extortionate. A few miles out of Panama, the Commission is installing a large electrical power plant to operate the Miraflores Locks. They must make it large enough to handle the maximum of traffic, and there is no possibility of the maximum being reached for years to come. It would certainly pay our government to furnish light and power to Panama at less than cost. This they undoubtedly would and could do, were it not for the bitter hatred which the people have for Americans.
We may have set out the characteristics of the Panamanians rather harshly, but this is inevitable, when it is considered that they are on the surface, while their virtues they hide from foreigners.