An Interesting Experience…
Yesterday (Thursday) we were heading down to David to pick up some items from Elmec that we had ordered for the workshop studio. One of our workers, Aquiles, asked if he could come along because he needed to buy something. We of course agreed to take him with us. Let me tell you a little bit about Aquiles. He’s one of our Indigenous workers. We have two Panamanians and three Indigenous who work for us. For those of you who don’t know, Panama has several different tribes of Indigenous Indians native to the country. There are several different and distinct tribes many of whom live on lands set aside for them by the government called , Comarca’s. These lands are very similar to the reservations in the U.S. set aside for Native American Indians, although I assume these are much more remote and undeveloped, many have no electricity or running water. A large majority of the indigenous here in Boquete work as farm hands for the many coffee plantations , often seasonal workers traveling back and forth to their comarcas. The Finca owners usually provide very modest housing, or dormitories for these workers. They are almost always very poor and uneducated, and I think I can say correctly that none of them have cars or drive. I don’t consider myself an especially knowledgable person on this subject so I’m only telling you what I’ve learned and observed since living here.
The indigenous here all have very distinct physical characteristics many of the women wearing traditional clothing. They look almost Aztec, very dark skinned and short with dark , thick hair and very chiseled features. The women wear these long colorful moo-moo type dresses and the men wear more modern jeans or slacks. But you can always tell the Indians from the Panamanians. You really don’t see Panamanians and Indians together. It’s a fairly noticable class distinction , they don’t seem to co-mingle much, if at all. As a matter of fact, I think the Panamanians seem to sort of ‘look down’ on the Indians. The indian people I’ve been around are very humble, quiet, almost seemingly shy, but mostly friendly. When I greet them they always respond with a smile and a courteous Buenos Dias. They all seem to have large families and sometimes the men may even have more than one wife. The children all seem very happy and loved from what I’ve observed. But, as I’ve said, they are extremely poor and very rarely pursue and education. Although I do see some walking their young kids to school. I doubt they stay in school for long though as they often begin working at a fairly young age.
So Aquiles is from a Comarca that takes him about 4 busses to get to, it’s a long day of travel to get there. While he works here in Boquete he lives with friends and rents a room near our property. He has about 4 or5 children and at least one, maybe two wives who all live on the Comarca. He often travels back there to bring them money or other things. Sometimes one or two of his children come to visit and they like to hang out at our job site, often following Scott around like little shadows. They’re adorable and Scott is of course very kind to them, often even taking one along with him when he runs errands. Aquiles family is extremely poor and uneducated and he works hard to support them. From what we have been able to ascertain, he is a farmer or gardener. He seems to have unending amounts of knowledge about plants and about the land. But when he began working for us as a construction laborer he really hit the ‘big time’! Gardeners only make about $15.00-18.00 a day and construction workers make a minimum of $ 21.00 a day. He is likely making more money than he’s ever made in his life working on our job.
Of all the workers that we have, to be truthful, Aquiles is not the smartest. Mind you, I do not say such a thing to be mean,its just a fact. What he lacks in brains he makes up for in his ability to dig a hole like you’ve never seen!! He’s our official hole digger! We have plenty of foundation and digging for septic tanks and drainage ditches that keep him busy! The other workers tease him and call him Tractor- Aquiles. They all seem to do lots of joking around amongst themselves and no one seems to mind. But, not a day goes by that I don’t see Aquilles working his butt off, he is very strong and has such endurance.
Like I said, yesterday, (Thursday), he told Scott that he wanted to go to David to buy a solar panel to take to his family on the Comarca. They have no electricity there and they would be able to use a solar panel to charge cell phones so he could communicate with them. The interesting part about being with him in the city was that he was like a fish out of water. He was totally and completely out of place and seemed even nervous about interacting with people. We dropped him off at the first place that he wanted to look and told him we would be back to pick him up in half an hour after we went to Elmec. When we returned he was standing in front of the store waiting for us. The store did not have the solar panel. So we then took him to Do it center (Home Depotish) and as Scott went down the plumbing isle I watched as Aquiles tried to get the employees in the store to help him and I saw two employees kinda shrugg him off as though they wanted nothing to do with him. It was obviously not easy for him to figure out how to find what he wanted and no one wanted to help him, in the end he did find that they did not have the solar panel. Then when we went to another store to look, as he was leaving the store I saw him slowly walk towards the exit, looking very hesitant and he stopped and looked at the door before walking out. It was as if he was trying to make sure he knew how it worked before walking up to it, there were two of those security things flanking the automated doors and It looked as if he wasn’t quite sure what they were.
I must admit, I felt very protective of him and somewhat annoyed at the treatment he got from other Panamanians. I realize that it likely doesn’t faze him in the least. To him, it’s just life and he’s so accustomed to the way things have always been. I, for one, will always treat him with as much kindness and generosity and dignity as I would any other human being. And even though it hurts my heart to see, what I consider, injustice and to witness someone being treated as though he were ‘less-than’, I also understand that I’m living in a country who’s tradition and culture is not my own . I may not understand or sometimes like certain things that I see happening around me, but I’m a guest here and I don’t have to ‘like’ it, I just try to find peace in my heart that there are certain aspects to life here that are just different. I make and effort to adapt my thinking to one of acceptance instead of judgement. It’s a learning experience, for sure.
I don’t yet completely understand the dynamics here in terms of how the Panamanians and indigenous actually feel about one another but my limited observations have shown me that historically there is a natural tendency for the Panamanians to see the indigenous as lower than them. I could be totally wrong but there seems to be a mutual acceptance of this cultural segregation and an acceptance that its just the way it is. The Indigenous maintain a very minimalistic, uneducated, seemingly close-knit community. I suspect they just don’t have the same kind of drive to change the course of their lives and are mostly just concerned with surviving their day to day lives. They seem to want nothing more than to have enough money to provide themselves and their families with food and clothing and even minimal shelter seems to be fine to them. Although, it’s common knowledge that there’s a pretty big problem with alcoholism in the indigenous community and its not uncommon to see extremely inebriated indians stumbling down the side of the street or sleeping it off in the dirt on the side of the road. So, aside from food and clothing , many indigenous enjoy having enough money to go to the bar on the weekend. This is not any different from almost any other culture, there’s plenty of Panamanians as well as Americans who have been known to spend their fair share of time drinking their Friday night away! haha!
Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about the various Indigenous in Panama….
The Indigenous peoples of Panama are the native peoples of Panama. According to the 2000 census, there are 285,231 indigenous peoples living in Panama, and they make up almost 5% of the overall population. The Guaymí and Ngöbe-Buglé comprise half of the indigenous peoples of Panama.
Many of the tribes live on comarca indígenas, which are administrative regions for an area with a substantial Indian populations. Three comarcas (Comarca Emberá-Wounaan, Kuna Yala,Ngöbe-Buglé) exist as equivalent to a province, with two smaller comarcas (Kuna de Madugandíand Kuna de Wargandí) subordinate to a province and considered equivalent to a corregimiento(municipality).
Learning to understand or simply to except differences in cultural behaviors is something I am really enjoying about my life here in Panama. I enjoy the people I meet and want so badly to express my appreciation of the differences while I learn to understand more about their culture and history. In time I look forward to becoming more knowledgable about these wonderfully warm people I now call my Vecinos! Life is good and new friends make it even better!