Katie Zien’s interview with Raúl Leis

Raúl Leis
Raúl Leis, on the right. Photo by SERTV

On the theatre, uncultured elites and other worlds

Raúl Leis, interviewed by Katie Zien

Editor’s note: Raúl Leis, who died suddenly on April 30 as the result of a reaction to medication that he was given for eye surgery earlier that day, was one of Panama’s most honored playwrights. His formal education, however, was as a sociologist, and his area of expertise crossed many disciplines. Many of his newspaper columns were translated and published in The Panama News

Katie Zien, who did the interview from which this is taken as part of her research for a dissertation in theatre and drama at Northwestern University, has an undergraduate degree from Columbia in English literature and is pursuing a doctoral degree. She has delved deeply into Panamanian history and ethnology in preparing her dissertation.

Read the following as a conversation between two theatre people, both of them superb historians without degrees in history. Most of all, read it as the memories and opinions of one of the towering intellectual giants of Panamanian history.

Getting a start as a writer

The interview, which took place at the offices of the Panamanian Center for Social Studies and Action (CEASPA) in Coco del Mar, began with a discussion of some of the plays that Leis had written, followed by a traditional starting question:

KZ: Why did you decide to start writing plays?

RL: I realized in community work that one fundamental way to help communities and pueblos in Panama was the theatre. I didn’t know anything about theatre, but I said, “We’re going to have a group discussion,” and I said, “Well, when we get into groups, come and stage that which you have been discussing.”

It was a success, and Leis began to work more systematically at theatre, learning more about it — largely from South American sources — and began his part in building the collective Volunteer Theatre of Social Change (Tevocaso, by its Spanish acronym), a project of the National Volunteer Service (SNV).

The Tevocaso movement went nationwide, with popular theatre groups based in local cooperatives and unions in every province of Panama, including Kuna Yala and Bocas del Toro. A lot of the works were puppet shows, in which Leis noticed that a lot of people were more open about what they thought when their identities were hidden behind puppets. Leis took on the movement’s national coordination in 1967, and held this position for two years. But on October 11, 1968, there was a military coup led by Omar Torrijos and Boris Martínez, and changes soon followed.

RL: Torrijos absorbed the Servicio Voluntario and made it obligatory. He took away its democratic character, with many different voices and patronatos, and made it an element of the state. This distorted the sentiment of all that we were doing, because now we were government employees.

Finally, what happened was that they fired everyone — this was the first time that I had worked for the government in my entire life — they kicked out everyone out. Where before I had been a volunteer, now I was promoted to the position of coordinator. I had been doing things at the national level, throughout the country, and it was making such an impact that SNV said, “Instead of having you be a volunteer, we’ll make you a public official; you’ll receive a salary (small, but a salary) to promote this around the country. “

So when the government arrived, it absorbed us, yet many of us didn’t want to work for the government. We had some critics of the government among us, and the government replaced them with its allies. So SNV ended. After a year it could no longer exist, because there was no longer the mystique, the people’s drive.

When this ended, one year after the coup d’etat more or less, I was writing poetry because I was a poet then, but I’d never written theatre or stories or anything else. But one day, I sat down and said, “I’m going to write theatre as an author.” Because my head had been full of all of the theatre that I’d done with the people. It provoked me. In saying “writing,” I don’t mean copying what they had done, but rather making it unique — there are characters who stick in your head, and your work feeds off that which you have seen.

I was an autodidact, although I had read Tennessee Williams and other pan-American theatre — Calderón de la Barca — and this showed me how to structure the play text. So I sat down, and in one single draft, I wrote “Viaje a la salvación y otros paises.” I wrote it, about a man who leaves his town to look for — well, it’s all a summary of these experiences. But the story does not end there.

Someone said to me, “Why not send this play to the Ricardo Miró Competition?” This is the most important contest in the country. I was about 21, 22 years old. And I said, “No, I can’t, that’s too important, this is the first play I’ve ever written, and it’s not going to win, etc., and then a cousin said, “I’ll typewrite it for you, and turn in a clean copy,” so we sent it in.

On sending it in, I left for the country to work on a project, a voluntary community service activity with Fe y Alegria, an education-based project. I was very involved with an indigenous zone, and I was there about four months. When I arrived back in the city, the day that I arrived, I was walking around in San Felipe, and I see a poster stuck to a wall that says, “Today: the National theatre Company presents the winner of the Miró contest.” In this time, it was mandatory that the Compañía Nacional de Teatro, or the Escuela Nacional de Teatro perform the winning play. It said, “We present the play “Viaje a la salvación y otros paises, by this author.” And so I said: “I won!”

They had tried to get in touch with me, but I was in the country, and there were no cell phones, and nobody knew me in Panama City because I was in Colon. So they had saved my check from the competition, but the company had to mount the show, because it was the law. I went to the theatre, trembling with emotion, not knowing anybody, and I paid the entrance fee and sat at the back of the auditorium, the last seat in the theatre, quiet, alone, because I didn’t know anyone. And when the play began, I felt the greatest emotion of my life, which is to see a play that you have written mounted. And it was very well staged to me. So I was so excited and happy, almost yelling from excitement, to see that not only had the play won, but it was being staged, and everything, you know? It had won!

When the play finished, a person who was sitting in front of me, in the first row, the best seats, a professor from the University of Panama, I don’t remember who it is, stands up, and everyone is clapping, and, well, he gets up on his feet and looks over and sees me. And he runs backstage, behind the stage, and says to someone, “The author is here!” and everyone comes out, and the director says, “Here’s the author of the play! Come over here!”

And that’s how it happened. I learned theatre from the people, and that’s why it is popular theatre, and that’s why it’s political. It’s not ideological, it’s not academic; I haven’t lived far away or read a lot of Marx or whatever. Ideologically, it has a lot to do with the experience of the masses. Additionally, I come from a humble family: I grew up in Colon — in the ghetto, right — in a mixed family. My father was Spanish, naturalized Panamanian, and my mother was Colombian, mulata, from the province of San Andres. I am the product of a popular home, and what happened was that for people, it didn’t have anything in it that wasn’t familiar to them. There was nothing strange, nothing like “I live well, but I want to investigate how the people live.” No, it was all very close to home.

Even my family said, why are you becoming a volunteer? You’re poor! The poor helping the poor — you need to figure out how to better yourself! And find work so that you can do well, be better off, and help us! And you’re getting into this work with the people for free!

I’ve written at three in the morning, I’ve written in the middle of a workshop — so for me, it’s so beautiful to see, for example, in European or US films, people who are paid full-time to write. This is marvelous! Imagine, all the time, all day, to just think and write. I’ve always written while running from one thing to another, on napkins — whenever the idea strikes me. I never had the privilege to just write “full-time.”

KZ: I see various influences in your work — Brecht is there, for example….

RL: Oh yes. Of course. To continue — afterward — well, I had stopped studying, or rather, I had quit school when I joined the Servicio Voluntario Nacional. I was firm about the fact that I was not going to study at a university, that I would be an auto-didact (and dedicate myself full-time to voluntary service) — and I was going to study and do what I wanted to — a rare thing in Panama!

But after I left the SVN, thanks to the Catholic Church, and Monsignor McGrath, who was there then. They helped me. I had always wanted to have a career as a sociologist, but in Panama this didn’t exist at the national university, but they did have it at USMA — so a priest friend gave me a grant to maintain myself, so that I didn’t have to pay tuition in the USMA, the Catholic university. So I entered the first degree program in sociology offered at USMA, and I was the first graduated. And in this period, because of the grant for study, I had access to books, and I started reading Brecht.

KZ: Brecht wasn’t actually that successful in terms of his appeal, even though his theory is interesting.

RL: The shows of Brecht weren’t that compelling, it’s true. But I was also nourishing myself with the work of Latin American theatre, like Buenaventura and Boal…. still, Brecht served me well, and I still have a lot of Brechtian influence in terms of the distancing effect, the use of songs, of humor, and moral interaction with the people. And simplified scenery: for example, to symbolize the jungle, I might put a plant — you don’t have to put the whole jungle onstage, or draw the plant.

Working with directors

The discussion moved into theories of popular and political theatre, and the differences between writing plays and staging them.

RL: Fortunately, almost all of the plays have been staged, and most have been published because of prizes and periodicals. They have been produced — some many times, some few. Some have been filmed, others in audio-visuals.

The only thing that I want to say to you:

One, the role of the author with the director when the author is alive — not like Shakespeare, because he wasn’t alive, but when the author can go to the rehearsals: my relationship with directors has always been that of a dialogue, very tolerant. There are authors who won’t let you change one point — fight and say “You must respect what I say.” I respect the staging very much. Normally, when I am called upon to meet with groups, not only with the director but with the actors, I always try to explain to them what the sense of the work is, the character of the work. It doesn’t matter what modifications the staging makes as long as it strengthens the point of view of the play. Okay, if the play is deals with learning about justice for women, and the director’s adaptation takes this out and puts something else in, although it might also be very positive, I would still not accept it because I believe that the play should replicate the intention of the author. But if — actually, this has happened — I was thinking about the character as an older, mature woman, and the director says “No, better a younger woman,” it doesn’t change the sense of the play. I sometimes think, “Yeah, you’re right.”

The second thing is: the quality of the staging. The ideal is the best mise-en-scene with the fewest resources, since theatre groups don’t have much, and there is very little support for theatre. One is always looking for good acting, because if the acting is bad, then the character won’t emerge correctly.

KZ: Did you seek out directors?

RL: Never. I have never organized a production. It’s always that the director gets together a group, like what’s happening now in Mexico, and says, “Oye, we’re going to mount this play.” Oh, thanks! So what do we do? Although I’m not in Mexico, we can communicate through technology like skype, have a virtual exchange, and I can see the rehearsal online. And I’m hoping to get to Mexico in the days before the opening for the last rehearsal.

KZ: Is there a director with whom you’ve worked consistently?

RL: Yes, that’s a good question. There are about three people who have been constant. We have mounted many shows, and there is a lot of affinity. First is — not in this order — Danny Calden. Do you know him? He’s an actor of Afro-Antillean origin. He’s fascinating. When they did Viaje a la salvación he was the one who played the part of Librado Mancilla. That’s where I met him. Then he took other works of mine and mounted them. Including Salvación — he turned it into a monologue, and he took the monologue to six or seven countries in Latin America. For Peru, for Colombia, he just made this monologue, a synthesis of the play. And he did it very well. He has also had a lot of international performances. He’s been invited to perform in the Caribbean, in the United States, and he gives classes in popular theatre, as he specializes in this. He is very important here. And he’s like forgotten here.

The conversation shifts to Panamanian theatre today, as an emerging or growing force.

RL: the thing is that the theatre that’s emerging in Panama doesn’t recognize people like Danny Calden, marginalizes people who make non-commercial theatre, who are not elites, who don’t have access to the venues. So when they talk about theatre, they never mention those people. They talk about what’s happening in La Quadra, about Bruce Quinn, but from this marginal side, nothing. And Danny is from that part.

A second person, who is also, curiously enough, Afro-Antillean, is named Anselmo Cooper. Anselmo Cooper is from Colon, and in Colon there’s a unique experience, something that has been maintained for 20 years, called Teatro de la Ciudad. In Colon! El guetto, no?

In the back of the Iglesia San José, on Calle 10 in Colon, there’s a place that the church has lent. Anselmo, with great effort, has made a little theatre there, with chairs, a stage, and everything, for about 100 people, and called it the Teatro de la Ciudad. Apart from this, they’ve offered popular theatre in the barrios. When I say “them,” it’s Anselmo Cooper and Dagoberto Chung. This pair is like the comic duo — the fat one and the skinny one — they’re always together. One is black, and the other Chinese. They’ve worked together for their entire lives. They’re going to stage El Puente for the third time. They also did La Cantina de Pancha Manchá. In their second production of El Puente, the people who acted were prisoners, people from jails. I got permission, and they acted it, and the police were there, making sure that the prisoners didn’t escape.

Danny Calden, Anselmo Cooper, and the third is Norman Douglas. Norman has mounted two plays, and there are two that I made for Norman. It’s one thing to write a play, and the director stages it, but quite another for the director to ask for a play. This was No hay derecho, señor, which speaks of the looting after the invasion. Because the Colegio de Abogados de Panamá wanted to have a fundraiser, but they wanted something with a social message, and didn’t want to sell a film. So they asked for a play. Since it was for lawyers, we put on No hay derecho. It’s — the expression: “No hay derecho!” — as in, “You have no right!” Or, regarding the career, “The law doesn’t exist.” And as such, it’s a provocation for the lawyers. This is one of the few times that a play was commissioned, that they gave me a check to write a play. Que bueno! Normally this doesn’t happen.

I also did an adaptation of the novel María Picana by Jorge Isaacs, also Colombian, for the high schools. The National theatre Company mounted it for students and that was another experience with Douglas.

So those are three people in Panama. And in Colombia, there’s one named José Ignacio Correa, who also mounted Viaje a la salvación there, and who then mounted another play of mine, and he’s the one director from outside the country who has mounted the most plays. But I lost contact with him and can’t find him.

KZ: Maestra Vida — Bruce Quinn made another version….

RL: Yes, he did another version. Completely different. For Bruce Quinn, it was AIDS. For me, it was the invasion. In my version, no one dies of AIDS. They die from bullets, bombs, etc.

KZ: Did Rubén Blades act in your version?

RL: No. Blades didn’t act in either one. There was also a young man whose name I can’t recall who sang the part in my version that Luis Arteaga did in Bruce Quinn’s, who still sings. If you interview Norman and ask him about Maestra Vida, he might have filmed footage of it, because I think that we filmed it in that period, but I don’t have it. He does, he has the photographs. I believe that it was the first play to speak about the invasion after the invasion. It broke the silence.

The 1989 invasion

KZ: It would be interesting to compare it to Lagartija’s play about the invasion. Because in my opinion, theirs was very colored by the history of Argentina, really, and the dictatorship. It had a very Argentine sense.

RL: Exactly. Do you know that I wrote in a newspaper column about the play? I loved the acting, I loved the production, but the content of the invasion was diluted. When I saw it, I didn’t see the invasion. I saw another story — a very good one — but not the invasion. It was very psychoanalytic and less political.

I was going to work with them before. When Charo and Arístides came, I had a working group with them, because they said to me, “Tell us about the invasion!” so I told them all about the interesting history. Then they asked me to write a blurb for the program. But I hadn’t seen the play when I did that. So I said to them, “Well, I haven’t seen the play, but if it’s about the invasion, then I’ll do it.” But if I had seen the play before I’d written the blurb, I’d have written something different. Because I feel like the part about the invasion was diluted. It was second priority for them.

KZ: It was also impressive for me to see a panel discussion about the invasion and to hear what you said about the difference between 1964 and 1989 is interesting to me. At one point, there was something very clear and unified, but in the other there was divided opinion….

RL: It was a political crisis in the country. And it still hasn’t been resolved.

KZ: The United States was transferring the canal to the Panamanians but simultaneously had this relationship with Noriega. How did that work?

RL: They created a monster, right, in a certain form. Or if they didn’t create it, they fed it at least. The monster was already there, but it’s important to describe what happened with a lot of clarity.

Noriega is in the Prison de la Santée in Paris. And if they had had information about what he did, he wouldn’t have been given the Legion of Honor. He’s decorated by the government of France, because he lent a service to France. And do you know what service he gave to France? France never really said, but he had a lot of contact with various groups, because he was taking money for himself, not only the cocaine flights, but groups from above, from the right, from the left, from everywhere. It appears that he had contact with a group of Arabs. And in Paris there was a group that attempted to bomb the Metro many years ago. And apparently, he intervened, or his friends did, and succeeded so that there was no bombing, or the police captured the attempted bombers — I don’t remember which. France considered this a merit, because he saved the lives of many people, and they decorated him with the Legion of Honor. Now he’s a prisoner there. How can one understand that?

The discussion moves to a scene in Viaje a la salvación about when Librado Mancilla goes to the Canal Zone and meets Bob Klan, who asks “Why are you here?” to which Mancilla responds, “To buy arms.” Bob Klan says, “Oh, good! We’ll sell you arms.”

KZ: The United States always gives arms to the people who later use them against the United States….

RL: Sí, sí! [laughing] Saddam Hussein! Al-Qaeda, everyone! It happened here too!

This corresponds very much to the national security practice of the United States for a long time, which was not about supporting democracy but rather about supporting those who were anti-communist or against its enemies, or those who it thought were its enemies. “The enemy of my enemy.” Converting the enemy of your enemies into an ally.

The politics of the Miró Prize

The discussion turned to Miró Prize, and how it often went to works with anti-US themes.

RL: Well, this makes sense for several reasons. First, the world of culture tends to be more progressive. Because there’s always an anti-establishment attitude among the people who make art and literature. Even though Panama is very right-leaning, there are always very large exceptions among cultural workers, because they’re educated, and they read, and they’re more informed. In Panama, the cultural sphere is more closely linked to the political progressives — not the left, but to a vision that is more progressive. So there has never been a dogma or filter for the Miró Prize] — it all depends on the jurors.

People think that I’ve always won the contest, but I’ve actually lost many of the contests. Especially with young authors — it’s a lottery and has much to do with luck. For example, if you have a very good play in the style of Brecht, and two of the jurors don’t like Brecht, because they’re romantic, then you’ve lost the possibility of winning.

Panama’s uncultured ruling classes

KZ: When I think about the elites of Panama, I think of the rabiblancos.

RL: Ah, no. Sorry, but I need to say something. The rabiblancos and the elite of Panama are not a cultural elite. In terms of culture, it’s an ignorant elite. They know about business, for that this country is excellent, but if you look at the political class, look at Martinelli, and even Balbina, who comes from the people, and compare them with candidates from Chile or Ecuador or Mexico — for example, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas of Mexico, or Felipe Calderón — you’ll see that the latter have a cultural apparatus, and can engage culturally up to a certain point. Here, it’s a commercial elite, and with exceptions, they don’t have much interest in that subject. And when they do have an anniversary, they make a spectacle. For example, they support the National Ballet because it has cachet. Or to support the National theatre, the same. But to support the leftist literary underground or dissidents, this has no meaning for them. To compare this to Colombia: it’s another tendency. There you have businessmen with a basic cultural background and a certain respect for the author.

I have a good Colombian friend named David Sánchez Juliao, a writer, who invited me to Bogota, to theatres and everything. And every show that we went to we got in for free, and it wasn’t because we were guests, but the person at the box office would say, “Maestro, maestro” and would say, “Pase, pase, maestro,” and he’s not Garcia Marquez or anything. But here, Rogelio Sinán could arrive, and not to many people would recognize him — there’s no admiration for that sort of thing. In contrast, if an empresario with a lot of money comes in, Martinelli or someone, they open the door because he has money. But the writers here are those who don’t have money.

Political theatre

KZ: is there still a place for political theatre in Panama?

RL: Yes. I think that now, what’s happening with theatre’s resurgence, there could be a window for political theatre. Soon there could be that kind of space again. Because during the time that I made my plays, there was more accessibility, and that’s why I was able to produce them. But it was this way — why? Because the theme of the canal was a national cause. So when I was going to prepare a play, noteworthy people would say, “let’s do it, because although it won’t generate a profit, it will be a way for the youth to educate themselves, because this is the cause of the country.” When the canal was given over to Panama, they lost the banner. So there was nothing to unite all of the Panamanians anymore. It should be something like poverty, but no, we have not been able to form a political banner to unite the Panamanians. And the country in a certain way de-ideologized, declined. And for the new generations — the audiences — I’m sure that they are not compelled to political theatre in the way that they were before.

This includes art work that’s not theatre. Rogelio Sinán, who is our greatest author, his best work is called La Isla Mágica. There has not been a reissue of La Isla Mágica. It’s very hard to get ahold of a copy. And he was the best author that we had. Why? Because they didn’t recommend it in the schools, because the professors were worried about the sexual content, they thought it was immoral, etc.

The discussion turned to theatre for students the work that Miguel Moreno has done with the Teatro Estudiantil Panameño in the high schools.

RL: There was a festival of national authors two years ago, and they mounted three or four of my plays in two years running, and the group that staged the play won the prize. This was interesting. Why? Because it was an initiative at the high school level that didn’t use commercial theatre, didn’t put on Aladdin for the kids, but rather sought out works by national authors that were political plays. But in this moment in theatre, you see what’s happening. There’s no support for national authors, and if there is support for national authors, it’s work that is not political.

Colon, the Canal Zone and English

KZ: Living in Colon, did you have any interaction with the old Zone? Because Colon was surrounded by the Zone. There was a theatre scene in the Zone, there was a lot of US theatre, so did you have experience with that theatre?]

RL: No, nothing. Why? Because the Zone was another world. For us, it was another world. Despite the fact that we were surrounded — Colon was an enclave, surrounded by the Zone, with only the Colon Corridor by which one could connect with the city — contact with the Zone was of two types. First, an incursion: it was a site for us to go because we had nowhere else to go. It was going to Mount Hope, to the cemetery, to look for mangoes. It was going to Gatun Lake to bathe, like going into a foreign territory, where there was no poverty, where everyone lived well, where there wasn’t prostitution, where there wasn’t anything — a paradise where we went to explore. And there were bad points too — because sometimes they would arrest us for stealing a mango, the police asking us what we were doing there — it was an unknown territory. So there was no contact with the cultural and social life of the Zonians or the military bases.

KZ: I notice that there were some elites who had contact with the Zonians, like Bruce Quinn.

RL: Right, but as you say, they were elites. I’m talking about a poor family from Colon. The middle-class and upper-middle class people of Colon, yes, they even dated in the Canal Zone. Many Zonians married Panamanians because there was social contact, right? They visited the fiestas, they were friends, but this was only the middle- and upper-middle class.

For the popular classes it was very difficult, and although we were never prohibited from entering their theatres — you could go to the Theatre Guild and pay the ticket price and enter — for us it was the same feeling as if you took a campesino from the Panamanian Interior and brought him to the Teatro Nacional. You take them, and the people stay in the doorway, they don’t want to go in. You say, “Come on, pay the ticket and get in!” and they say, “No, this isn’t something for me. I’m out of place here. I feel like my clothes look the ugliest of all.” It’s another world. There’s something psychological that does not let them enter and have contact with the cultural parts of the world.

I, like many people, get lost in the Canal Zone. Every time I go to the Reverted Areas, which passes the locks, or Clayton, or things like that, I’m lost, I can’t find my way. Psychologically, I still haven’t incorporated it. Another problem that was generated by this relationship for my generation is the resistance to learning English. I have taken many courses in English and have spent hours studying English, and it’s still very difficult for me to speak English. It’s depressing to be in the United States or Europe, where nobody speaks Spanish, and suddenly the English appears from my subconscious! I start speaking, and I’m like “Oh, wow!”

KZ: I see English mixed into the Spanish in Panama, especially on the part of Afro-Antilleans.

RL: Yes, for the afroantillanos it’s different. English is part of their culture.

KZ: The politics of English/Spanish are very interesting here. And when did you arrive on the Pacific side?

RL: In Panama City? Well, now it’s very easy to segue from the story that I was telling you before. After I had the experience that I explained to you when we began…when the government absorbed the Servicio Voluntario, in that moment I had to come to Panama City to supervise the theatre activities. I had to be in Panama to do that, because central headquarters was here. So I moved to Panama, and then they kicked me out of Servicio Voluntario, so I worked in an NGO, they gave me a grant for the USMA, and I wanted to return to Colon because I loved Colon, but I had to study and work in Panama. So I’ve been here for 21 or 22 years. But I’ve never lost contact with Colon. Because my family is still there, I travel there when I can, and I work for an NGO that is involved in work in Colon, not only with Colon but the Costa Arriba and the Costa Abajo. I still maintain my ties to Colon. And I believe that Colon is very present in my plays, in a very direct way. That’s why we say, “one never passes through Colon with impunity.

This means that, well, one is born in a certain city, and it doesn’t mark you, it just doesn’t have an effect on you. Other times you might be born in a city that marks you, for good or for ill. Colon is one such city. What I lived in Colon, not only the situation of poverty, marginality, the ghetto, but also the good: a happy, easy-going, festive city, where macondo things happen — that is to say, unheard-of or unusual things — and for me, it’s always present in so many aspects of my life. The weight of Colon — especially the city — has been fundamental for me.

The Day of the Martyrs and the 1966 uprising

KZ: And were you in Colon during 1964?

RL: Oh yes. Oh, you are asking the most excellent questions, exactly about subjects that I want to talk about! Okay, so here is something very interesting, and I thank you for asking me about it. I lived through 1964, and I lived through 1966. Do you know what happened in 1966?

KZ: No.

RL: Well, I’ll explain. 1964 was the sovereignty event. In 1964, I was a student at Colegio Abel Bravo, a public high school, and I was studying for a test on religion, because the tests were in January, not December, like now. And in the moment that I was studying for the test, I heard on the radio what was happening in Panama, and I see that Colon has ignited.

The people of Colon heard what happened in Panama, and everyone went to the Zone. At that moment my mother said to me, “Wait, but you have a test tomorrow, and you need to study! I don’t like religion much either, but….” and I said to her, “No! who cares about religion, I’m going out with the people!”

And I went out went out with the people and got involved. I was there for all of the protests, I was injured in my eye from a tear gas bomb that was thrown into my face. I couldn’t see, and that’s why I still wear glasses to correct the problem.

But what was the overall lesson? An army, in this case the US army, attacked us. And the police of Panama, the army of Panama, they didn’t do anything. They did nothing. They locked themselves up in their barracks, and they did not defend the population. The army is attacking the people, the country, and they don’t do anything.

1966, two years later, and I was in my last year of high school. One of the leaders, a student leader, who had been injured in the events of 1964, was sent to have surgery for his head wound in Russia, because his brother was a member of the communist party — not him, but his brother. And through his contacts, he got ahold of someone who could remove a bullet from his brother’s head or something like that, because in Panama you couldn’t have this operation because it was too delicate. So this boy, whose name is Juan Navas, returns, and the day after he returns, he disappears, a boy of 16 years. And he appears the next day on the Corredor, the highway that connected Colon with Panama, dead, with a beating to the head.

What does the police force do? They blame his brother, they say that it’s something communist, that there was infighting, and another person who they jail is Rolando Sterling. So they blame them.

What do we students do? We stage a demonstration each day, requesting peacefully that the situation be clarified because we know for certain that the communists did not do this, that it wasn’t his brother, because in such a small city everyone knows everyone else, and there was no reason for the brother to do this. So the police attack us, the Guardia Nacional, with the same and worse force and hatred that the US army had shown. And there are martyrs. Among them, the valedictorian of the high school, of Abel Bravo, Carlos Matthews.

So I lived through the Panamanian army, who attacked us, but the US army did nothing. Why? Because the US army didn’t have to do anything. But when the people saw that we were attacked by the Guardia Nacional — and ferociously — the US army only attacked on the border — Avenida A — but didn’t go further than the border. But the Panamanian army attacked inside Colon. It was horrible — a huge repression. And the people rose up, not just the students but the whole town — they raised a riot in which the people burned the governor’s office, the mayor’s office, the public offices, the statues of founding fathers.

It was a revolution. The city had never seen anything like this — the city, the countryside, everything. And when the police started to retaliate even harder than before, even worse than the invasion, many people said, “Why aren’t the gringos doing anything? They’re killing us! because after all, they are democratic, right? And the police are killing people who have worked in the Zone!”

But the US army did nothing. It shouldn’t have done anything, but it also did nothing to help. What did I learn? To be anti-militarist and anti-fighting, two things that I was taught for my entire life. I was wounded by the US army and the Panamanian army, so I would never fight on the side of either. And therefore it gave me tremendous satisfaction, it really made me smile more than anything else, to see the military bases of the US disappear from the Canal Zone and the Panamanian army disappear. In 1999 the gringo bases left, and after the invasion, not only did the gringos annihilate the Panamanian military, but also, Panama decided constitutionally that it would not have a standing army. These two forces that attacked, I saw them leave or disappear. I know that not everyone in the world has that privilege.

KZ: Yes, and not everyone has that privilege because many people requested the invasion.

RL: Yes, as I said the other day. Not many people, the majority — the majority of the people were in favor of the invasion.

KZ: And it’s horrible because what resulted was a disaster.

RL: A tremendous trauma. But what I want to say to you is that this taught me better than a book could, living through those events. I was very young — 15 or 16 years old for the first one, then 18 for the second. In the second, I was a student political leader, at Colegio Abel Bravo, which was a very political high school, like the Instituto Nacional. In the first, I was just a young kid. So I was much more persecuted in 1966 than in 1964. They were hunting down the leaders. I had to flee from Colon at night to the Canal Zone, to Cristobal, sleep with a friend under a tree, catch the train, and go to Panama. And because the train was under the US jurisdiction, the Panamanian police couldn’t arrest me on it. I arrived in Panama and contacted a Panamanian friend who lived in Balboa, slept there for a few days, and when everything had calmed down, and we knew that they had stopped looking for us, we returned to Colon. So, thanks to the train, we were able to escape from the police persecution. That which was repression which we hadn’t asked for, right?

And you should note this about what happened to Juan Navas — eventually it was learned that the secret police had killed him.

Cold War politics

KZ: Do you think that the United States had ordered this?

RL: Evidently not. Remember that with the Cold War, with Cuba and all that, where all the information was coming from, there was a close and direct network of information and consultation between the security forces of the United States and Panama. But the people who did the act, in the end it appears that they didn’t want to kill him. They wanted to torture him, but they didn’t take into account the fact that he had had surgery recently, so they hit him in the place where he’d had the operation. But ultimately they didn’t want to kill him because that didn’t make sense. They wanted to get information out of him, but then they realized that he was dead and said, “Uyy, what do we do?” What a horrible mess.

KZ: Wow. Because it also resonates with 1959, and the relations with the Cubans.

RL: Right, the Cuban revolution, the landing at Nombre de Dios.

KZ: There were exchanges between communists in Cuba and Panama.

RL: Of course, always, because the Soviet-line communist party. There were different communist groups, there were the Maoists and the pro-Soviet groups arguing with each other — this was logical. And many people got grants to study in the Soviet Union, and went to the congresses, and there were resources from Moscow for building unions and groups along the Soviet line.

The end of the Canal Zone

KZ: When the lands in the Canal Zone began to be reverted to Panama, what was your experience with the actual land? Did you enjoy walking through them, experiencing new territories, etc.?

RL: Oh, it was brutal.

KZ: The symbols are very strong — and part of my thesis is about the experience of the spaces.

RL: Excellent theme. Look, I lived through the reversion here in Panama, not Colon, because I’d had many years living here and was only going to Colon sporadically, so I experienced it more intensely. But the first thing that I want to say: the big moment when we were in front of the Administration Building, it was the 31st of December at noon, and there was then-President Mireya Moscoso up there, and the police were around so that the people didn’t come up the stairs, and we said, “let’s go up there!” and the police had to open up for us. And we flooded the hill of the Administration Building. This was like Moses and Mount Sinai, and we were looking at the invited guests, because there were many there — ambassadors and dignitaries — and they were looking at us with fear because we were a ton of people waving flags and coming toward them. They were thinking that we were going to do something to them. But what the people wanted to do was to stop there, to walk around and step on the land. It was a gesture of happiness. Nobody was hurt, completely to the contrary. With songs, with hymns, and so on.

Then came the process of appropriation of spaces that, as I’ve told you, psychologically is still not entirely clear to us. But little by little, when one realizes that Panama City swelled by a third, I’m going to explain it this way: the North Americans who lived in the Reverted Areas, be they civilian or military, what one begins to realize over time is that the way that they lived — their lifestyles, and their practice of living with nature — was very positive. You just need to accept that — they were very clean and ecological in their houses.

But on the contrary in their work. What do I mean by that? The areas contaminated with explosives, and San Jose Island.

They respected the environment very much, and they generated a different style of architecture, which had positive results. We learned many intercultural things, which are positive. But at the same time, many things were inverted. For example, the act of exploiting the land militarily but not in terms of civilian uses. Over all, with the firing ranges. This was always a source of ambivalence with the Zonians.

Something about the reversion killed the hatred. When we were in Colon, and we faced the question of sovereignty, the contrast was very clear with the colonial presence of the United States. But for others living in Colon, the US area was paradise, because it was a place where work paid more than in Panama, where there was no violence or danger in the street, because it was well cared-for, where there was no poverty, where there were places like the commissaries where it was possible to find products of the highest quality, from the first world, at very low prices, whether through contraband or whatever. And we always felt this ambivalence. I remember fighting the anti-imperialist fight in high school and then drinking US beer like Miller, because it was a delicious beer that was contraband from the commissaries and sold on the streets. The ice cream and sweets of the Zone — people would try to get these for their birthdays.

So there was this situation. But something very interesting: never in this process, never, never did the people who were fighting against the Zone consider someone from there personally. Never. So it wasn’t personal hatred or hatred of the people. It was hatred for the system. No one would have raped or lynched someone for these reasons.

The delinquency is another thing, of course. Delinquency is delinquency — crime for the purpose of theft is another thing. But always, despite the fact of having very profound differences, if there was an English-speaking US or Puerto Rican soldier, he’d be walking around and nothing political would happen. Even on the ninth of January, when there was an attack at the consulate and people went to the consulate to protest, I remember that the people who were at the consulate in Colon had to pass through the city to get to the Canal Zone, in cars with their families, and even though people were fighting with the army, nobody touched the civilians. No one threw a rock or lit the civilians’ cars on fire.

KZ: I’m trying to understand the ways that people understood imperialism] — there are many things working together to influence people’s positions on imperialism.

RL: Wes, this is true. We can talk about a relationship of many different senses, not only one sense. There were many senses, and in some people different senses predominated. In this situation, it was the political, because we were the product of a situation. But then there are people from the upper classes, or people who celebrate Thanksgiving.

The West Indians and the colonial blacks

KZ: The Afro-Antilleans have a very different perspective.

RL: They gained a status that was very good for them in comparison to their situation in their countries of origin. You’re right there that the perception that you might have seen, but in the case of the blacks, you have both the West Indians and the colonial blacks, right? Because there is a reason that the gringos hired the afroantillanos and not the afrocoloniales. There are various reasons. But for me there are two.

First, the work part: the West Indians who came from English colonies had training and preparation — there were cane plantations and such, and there were apprenticeships as carpenters, lathe operators and mechanics, By contrast, the colonial blacks were from the coasts, where there was no industry. It was agricultural. The gringos didn’t want to hire peasants in the Zone. They wanted urban types who could hammer a nail, turn a screw.

The second reason is cultural. The Afro-Antilleans could speak English, right? Because they had been through English oppression and so they were more “yes, man.” They were more easygoing, as you can see — they say, “yessir, sí, señor.” They also have the same church as the gringos, Protestant or similar.

The Afro-Colonial always continues to be a cimarron, a rebel. Always. So it’s easier to work with the afroantillano than the afrocolonial. The afroantillano goes to the meeting, listens more calmly, has more information, is more up-to-date with what’s going on. The colonial black is still a rebel. This is why the negro colonial has the congo. It’s a rebellious figure — the congo sometimes speaks another language, so that you don’t know what he’s saying. And the colonial is more undisciplined. When the gringo foreman says, “hey you, son of a bitch!” the colonial might hit him. Or he would yell out, or he’d leave. The antillano would say “sí señor.” He might not agree, but he would submit, because he’s from a more domesticated culture. Because he knew that if the foreigners kicked him off the Zone, he’d have to return to his island. And the Panamanian, well, they’d kick him off and he’d return to Panama.

This is why, when they selected Lucy Molinar to be the minister of education, I said at first (and now I might take it back) but I said initially, “Wow. This government has done a lot of things that I’m against, but here they’ve done something great by accepting a woman, black, and of afrocolonial origin, who is not from Martinelli’s party, who doesn’t need the money because her husband keeps her pretty well — he’s French — and who has been placed in a role that gives her a certain degree of autonomy, over and against those who are rabiblancos, who do business with the president, who are of his party. That’s why I was initially pleased by the appointment. Also, she did some interesting things at the beginning, so I thought, “well, for her cultural background, she is still at heart an afrocolonial. She is still a cimarron.} Because you can never take away from a cimarron the essence of being cimarron.

The conversation got into the Afro-Antillean newspapers, and the publisher and community leader of the 40s, 50s and 60s, George Westerman and his journey through Panamanian history.

RL: Yes, he’s very interesting. It’s that there was an elite within their group, which was lighter-skinned. Also, this theme of the Left, it was present in almost all of the groups who arrived — in the anarchist Spanish, in the Italians, among whom were also anarchists. There were groups who came from Europe and other situations. But I’m talking in general.

KZ: There was a moment in which Paul Robeson came to Panama in 1947, and Westerman rejected him, because he was more moderate than Robeson.

RL: so Westerman was more of the center.

KZ: Westerman moved to the center. Or to the right, rather.

RL: To the right, huh — after the war?

KZ: Yes, in the war period.

RL: During the war, or afterward?

KZ: During, because there was a conflict between the labor unions in Panama.

RL: Panama, during this time, and the tenants’ strike of 1925, included leftists of all stripes, from social democrats to the radical left. And for this reason they never dealt with the Canal Zone unions. It was a different era.

KZ: But the zone permitted the formation of a union….

RL: …but not one affiliated with Panamanian unions. Affiliated with the AFL-CIO.

The conversation got into the history of segregation in the Canal Zone and social stratification by class in Panama, as that affected the black population in particular.

RL: The Afro-Antilleans had to adopt a certain type of camouflage because they needed to survive, they were in a foreign country, the need to survive was greater. On the contrary, the coloniales would say “Go to hell!” and return to the coast to survive on coconuts and fish.

Moreover, Leis argued, similar processes affected other groups.

RL: The same thing happened to the Kuna Indians, when they started to work in the Canal Zone — in all of the restaurants — they created this sector of Kunas who spoke English and Spanish.

Whose canal?

KZ: Formerly I thought that the whole country was interested in the affairs of the canal, but now I know that’s not true. Some purposefully didn’t care about the canal because they were rejected by it.

RL: Unconscious vengeance, by not concerning themselves with the canal because the canal was not concerned with them — they weren’t hired.

When Torrijos said: “The canal should have the most collective use possible” — that was the message of Torrijos — what happened? There are two interpretations of this statement.

One is to say, the school that was in the Canal Zone, now I can go to that school. The housing will be shared among us. We’ll have direct access to the golf course, so I can go and play golf. This is the direct participation and use of the CZ grounds by the people.

But for the sectors of the bourgeoisie, the sectors of government, etc, the most collective use was interpreted thusly: I will sell the land to the person who will pay me the most, I will permit hotels where the people can’t enter because they don’t have the money, and with the money that I earn from the land, I will invest in education and public health, because this is the most collective use of the land.

There are two different visions. In the second, the sense that people have is: but no, I won’t see the benefits of that! These benefits of health and education are not reaching me. I want to see myself in a house there (in the CZ). That’s a whole different issue. And for this reason I think that the administration of Martín Torrijos began with the policy of PRODEC.

What is the premise of PRODEC? In your town, the aqueduct that was built was done with funds from the canal. Not “this aqueduct was built by the government.” Yes, it was. But the sign says “This aqueduct was built with funds of the canal” — and that’s the best collective use of the canal.

The interview ends by a return to the theatre, with Leis extending an invitation to see the rehearsals for a play of his that, it turned out, would premiere on May 12, 2010 at the ACP’s Auditorio Ascanio Arosemena. It’s Curado de espantos, a Panamanian expression that means that when something no longer scares you, that you’re “cured of your fear” (or cured by fear).

RL: Now the ghost does not scare you anymore. This play was commissioned by an NGO — Instituto Panameño de Estudios Laborales (IPEL), under the auspices of the Ministry of Labor. They have a contest for workers with painting, art, poetry — a very interesting program. So they asked for a play about child labor. So I wrote a play, a didactic play. It is a warning about child labor — it’s a ghost story about three professionals in Panama, who are guides to Panama’s historic, touristy areas. They don’t realize that the child labor is happening in all of those places. The people make this child labor invisible — psychologically they don’t see it.

That’s a hook for the play, but the play makes the problem visible. The conclusion is a Boalian forum theatre with information for the audience. It’s acted by workers from various unions who collaborate with the IPEL.


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