Going Home: Reality and Fantasy in Panama

Originally posted at TheModernLatina.com
I’ve been sitting on this post for awhile because I guess I just didn’t know how to broach this. I wanted to make sure I didn’t come out extra bitter or angry. I think after all of this time, I’m ready to go ahead and write about some of the things that bothered me while I went back home to Panama.

I’ve been living in the States since 1992 and while there was a big culture shock when I first got here, I kept my wits about me and never lost sight of my cultura and heritage. I never forgot where I came from. I never forgot the house that made me. However, in my mind, I think I was holding on to this fantasy of an idyllic place that really hadn’t changed much from my memories. The Panama Canal expansion and time have changed my little barrio so much. When I went back, it was bittersweet because while some things were still there, and some of the houses were still standing and still the same, it was undeniably different.

The houses and the families that lived in them across the street were now gone. The only thing that stood was a long gate and tall grass that was in desperate need of cutting. Most of the elders had passed on, my grandmother included. So when I went back for the first time since 1994, it was time to let certain things go and to accept certain things.

My grandmother’s death was basically the beginning of the end of what was like Mayberry for me. Other elders passed on, other families moved away and Panama wanted to take a more prominent position on the world stage. The United States got the hell out of dodge and handed over the Panama Canal and with that the Panama that I knew became the stuff of legend; a memory that grew more distant with time, yet still close and dear to my heart.

Living in the United States and not so much assimilating, but embracing parts of American culture that I could identify with and leaving those that I could not ever get to the side, it was like straddling a fence at times. It reminded me of a scene in Josephine Baker’s ‘Princess Tam Tam’ where she is told by the Maharajah of Datane that, “Some windows face to the West, and the others to the East.” I guess that’s why I identified so much with Baker’s character in the movie. She never fully assimilated into the new Western culture she was introduced to.

In the almost two decades since I’d been gone, I’d found and accepted parts of myself that I don’t think I would have found in Panama. My love for tattoos and my own eccentricity were honed. I left the relaxers (“creamy crack”) behind and donned my natural hair–something that really has not taken as great a hold in Panama as it has here in the US.

When I went back–and this was my worst fear–I was like a stranger among family. I spoke Spanish fine, but my first language has always been English–even growing up in Panama. I was this natural-haired, tatted up black chick who was out of place. I honestly can say that I did not see another girl like me. If I go to New York or even parts of Seattle, I’m going to see quite a few other naturals with more tats than me, with piercings to boot! I’m not an anomaly here. I was an anomaly down there and that was a hard pill to swallow in the sense that I felt like I was in identity and cultural limbo. I was a mix of two to three different worlds. I guess the realization that I didn’t quite fit in anywhere was a bit daunting. Ultimately, I don’t really care because it’s the story of my life, but it was still off-putting. It left a sour taste in my mouth I guess.

So people gawked and stared at me in Panama. The colorism reared its ugly head in parts, especially when some chick brushed past my 97 year old Grandfather. God help me, I wanted to skulldrag her down the aisle in the Supermercado Rey (a supermarket chain in Panama called Rey).

Then when I went to Madison Store–like a Sears here in the States– in the mall, I was treated worse than I was here in the States. I think the only thing worse would’ve been walking into a store on Rodeo Drive dressed in my old sweats. I went to buy some souvenirs and I was followed–openly–by a gaggle of store clerks. They mocked me in Spanish, which was annoying because they should assume I know Spanish based on the visible flag tattoo that was on my back. I was followed and stared at like some kind of alien in the store and when I went to pay, they damn near treated me like a criminal. It was like a negra could not POSSIBLY have the $90+ bucks to splurge on the souvenirs in the store. It was absolutely ridiculous.

Naturally, the next day when I went back, my brother and I weren’t so kind. Still it was annoying. My brother on the other hand–who is ripped and tall–was stared at by the guys who, for the most part, are skinnier than him. I mean in the US not a lot of guys are touching my brother, but it was less in Panama. But they looked at him like he had the nerve to put on women’s underwear on the outside of his clothes. In the United States, he’s killing the game.

I didn’t expect anyone to bow down to us. I just wanted to have fun and enjoy myself. I did not expect to be treated like a lab animal that had escaped or some kind of weirdo. I know that’s their culture, but I can’t escape the fact that color probably played a part and colorism is a mother down there.

On the one hand, I loved being back there but I couldn’t wait to get back home. It was good for me because now I know. I had to see this with my own two eyes and live it. I was able to move on and adjust. This was just what I needed. I’ll go back next year if God wills it. Next time I’ll take my hubby. I felt comfortable down there for the most part. I did take lots of pictures and the like. I met some wonderful people. That was really awesome too.

My fantasy that everything was cool and chill was totally blasted. It was not totally cool. It was annoying to be gawked at for having a twist out or having tats or any of the other crap that is totally irrelevant here. Still, it was a crash course in Other Cultures 101. I’m a better, stronger person for going back. I saw my grandmother’s grave, I got to say goodbye. I’m happy with that. All in all it was a good trip. I just want to see more Panamanians–especially women of color–strike out and do their own thing. I guess I’m wondering why I’m an anomaly?

In another post, I’ll talk about what seems to be FC Barcelona fever in Panama… And why that’s weird to me.