Travel Panama: African and Christian Religious Celebrations meets at Casco Antiguo

Panama, Casco Antiguo
Casco Viejo, San Felipe

 

Yesterday I was running to meet a client and suddenly got caught in the middle of this great religious parade. Kids dressed in white, they where at the front of the Virgen de la Merced (My Lady of La Merced) which was being carried all through Avenida A, from 9th street to first street and then back to La Merced church (see a virtual tour here of where the crowd ended the procession)  People singing, and of course, the band which is omnipresent. But in the specific case of La Merced Virgin, there is a sutile presence between the followers for those who can see it.

So it happens that Panama is a fully Caribbean culture. I´ve never grown tired of saying it, because it is so true and explains so much. One of the things that connect Caribbean cultures is their love for Orishas, which in some countries is called the Santeria religion, more famously present in Cuba and in Brazil, but that really travelled from Africa at the times of the Spanish conquest. Those black descendants that settled in the Caribbean islands later came to Panama to work in the Canal, and therefore their cultural traditions where brought with them and spread throughout the population.

As a result, a lot of Panamanians have a “santero” de confianza (of trust) or at least knows someone or knows someone that knows someone. In Casco Antiguo, where roots are more authentic, most people have their protector in the Orishas. Changó, Yemanja and Oshun between the most popular. One of the mechanics back in the slave trade times to protect the followers from the Spanish punishment was to conceal their beliefs into a Catholic figure. Oshun, for example, became the Lady of La Merced, from what they call “La Caridad del Cobre” (Cooper´s Charity). 

Her color is yellow and white (which is the general color of Santeria and Santeros), she is supposed to rule all things sweet and beautiful, is the love goddess, although as story goes she is never lucky as she gets hurt constantly. I think she was wife of Chango or something like that. Her elements are honey and sunflowers. People go to her to ask for a home, either new or a protection for it. If you ever go to La Merced church, you´ll see small “house” toys under the feet of the virgin´s statue. I´m not sure the priest really knows why they are there and why he has such a big following….

 

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