The Antillean Fair: people with a history and a future throw a family-oriented party
photos by Eric Jackson and from history
African people were brought here as slaves starting in the 16th century. The ones who stayed to do the building and the heavy lifting are hardly ever recognized. You don’t see markers on Panama’s oldest building saying that “This was built by slaves,” although invariably that is the case. Those who ran off to the jungle found Cimarron villages on a West African model are a bit better remembered in our culture. Their masks, congo dancing traditions and way of life as distinctive icons of Panama.
The West Indians, however, are a different community, one that began to arrive in the middle of the 19th century with the building of the Panama Railroad. In both the French and American canal construction efforts, they provided the bulk of the work force, and to the west in Bocas and Chiriqui formed much of the crews who creaated the banana plantations. They came here mostly poor, but not as slaves and not for the most part, as some might suppose, uneducated or unskilled. Some stayed to work for the canal or the US military bases, some scattered about the planet. In Brooklyn, in London, in Kingston, in Bridgetown, in Bluefields and wherever the US Army is stationed, you can run into people who trace West Indian roots back through Panama. And over the generations people have come and gone, such that thsoe who talk about an “expat community” — meaning mostly white people from North America often living in upscale gated communities — generally won’t recognize that there are plenty of American citizens in Rio Abajo, too.
Every year on Carnival Saturday and Sunday — this year from noon to 8 p.m. each day — the community gets together to celebrate. People come from abroad, some of them old folks with their grandchildren in tow to show them something of their roots, for the party.
Drunken vulgarity? You can do that for Carnival, too. But the Antillean Fair is something else.
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