By: Ana Teresa Benjamín
Photos: Carlos Eduardo Gómez
Cayetano likes to tell the story of his great-great grandmother. It is the tale of María José Flores, “la viejita” (the little old lady), who one day, sometime around 1900, received a visit from Victoriano Lorenzo, the “cholo guerrillero,” the mestizo guerrilla fighter. “Victoriano came from over there, from around El Cocal, and he asked the viejita if he could camp with his men. She said yes, no problem, “but in exchange she asked that he not take her two sons to battle.”
Victoriano accepted the offer, Cayetano said. The Thousand Days’ War was fierce and treasonous, and the lot where Cayetano now has his home, with its pink façade and a small monument to “el cholo,” became crowded with so many people that María José had to leave for the mountain with her two sons and Genarina, the young girl she adopted at nine months old, who was Cayetano’s mother.
Cayetano’s house is in La Negrita de Penonomé, in the province of Coclé, about seventy-five miles from Panama City. During the conflict that pitched Liberals against Conservatives at the beginning of the 20th century, the land where he lives today was the site of Victoriano’s base camp and all the surrounding land was a war zone.
Victoriano, who knew every hill, path, rock, tree, and stream better than anyone, assembled an army of the dispossessed who were expert in guerilla tactics. They harassed the Conservative army so much that, even after the conflict had ended and a peace accord was signed, the army had no objection to executing him. He died on May 15, 1903.
Cayetano knows the history linking him to the land he lives on, and he has become an advocate and caretaker of the site where the camp used to be, and also of one of the hills from which Victoriano’s troops used to spy on the movements of the Conservatives: El Vigía hill. Cayetano points to it in the background, with the blue sky as a backdrop, while the summer breeze stirs our hair and our souls.
Short, with hands so hard they can shuck corn as if they were peeling persimmons. Cayetano has small, gentle blue eyes, a broad smile, and a lilting way of speaking that contrasts with his deep tone of voice. He’s now almost eighty years old but he still gets up at dawn to take care of the land he has planted with corn. The parakeets have left the corn without kernels and so, with machete in hand and wearing his black boots, he walks towards the little parcel at the foot of the stream to see what he can do.
It takes about forty-five minutes to climb El Vigía hill. With strong lungs and legs, you might make it in twenty. Above, there is only mountain, sky, and more wind, but a history and geography buff could locate the other strategic hills, the neighboring towns, and the paths the fighters used in times past… and imagine those battles with bayonet rifles, snorting horses, and peasants fighting against soldiers who did not understand the concept of a surprise attack.
But El Vigía is just one of the places to see in this region of Penonomé, which is not only chock full of history but also extraordinarily beautiful. On the road to La Negrita, for example, there is the still-mighty Zaratí River, and beyond Churuquita Grande is the town of San Miguel Centro, home of the Cucuá devils, the “diablos cucuás.”
Campo Trinchera and the Devils of San Miguel Centro
Campo Trinchera features murals depicting men ready for combat and Victoriano’s countenance, in addition to its huts, mountains and flowers. Enormous black and white photographs of the brigades that left for Nicaragua hang in a hall with open walls. And beyond are the paths that lead to the soldiers’ hiding places and areas where Victoriano’s men ambushed troops from the Conservative army.
In some part of that maze is the bath: the place El Cholo’s troops used to wash up, according to Hernán Cárdenas, the field manager. “Here there are several holes of basalt stone… They were arranged to make wells. When you walk around you can imagine the guerrillas who swam in this one, the Ahoga Yegua stream,” he points out.
The bath is dry, because it’s summer and also because the forests are less abundant now than they were a century ago. Still, being here is like a trip through time and it’s not just in your imagination. Hernán recounts facts and tells tales of heroes and events, and gives them context and significance, while nature gives you the sound of a little brook and the unstoppable wind that dances among the canopies of the trees.
Now that you’ve seen Campo Trinchera, Victoriano’s base camp, and El Vigía hill, it’s time to climb to San Miguel Centro, north of Coclé province. There, everything is so, so green, except for the Guayacan trees that shine over the mantle of the Penonomé forest. Over a little hill and beside a stream that sings day and night lives Silvestre Ovalle, a short, stooped man, with a voice like a whisper, who keeps the memory of Candelario Ovalle alive.
Candelario was one of Victoriano’s secretaries. When the general was tired or wanted to pursue other matters, the task of commanding the army was delegated to Candelario. In May 1903, after El Cholo’s death, Candelario was jailed at the Chiriquí Barracks, known today as Paseo de las Bóvedas. After he was released, he returned to the mountains. “Candelario took the initiative to help people who wanted to learn how to read and write. Later, the idea came to him to open a school,” Silvestre recounts. That’s why today the community’s school is named Candelario Ovalle.
San Miguel Centro is also the “center of operations” for the Cucuá Ecological, Handicrafts, and Cultural Association (Asociación Cultural, Artesanal y Ecológica Cucuá), which works to preserve the dance and music of the Cucuá devils. The most striking thing about these devils is their attire, made from the bark of the Cucuá tree. “The tree is cut, and the bark is extracted, pounded, and boiled, so that it remains white,” explains José Emilio Morán, a Cucuá dance master.
The association has planted about 4,500 of these trees to supply the material they use to make the costumes and also coin purses, bookmarks, and small souvenirs. The costumes are dyed naturally; they get yellow from a plant called Yuquilla, red from Palito Guaymí, and the black comes from a vine leaf called Ojo de Vena’o. The costume is decorated with geometrical shapes, animals like frogs, toads, and squirrels, or elements of nature, like a mountain, the sun, or the moon. “The horns on the mask come from the vena’o (deer), the jaw is from the peccary, a type of pig, and a piece of reed makes up the inside of the mask,” explains Morán.
The dance is especially fun when the quatrains are heard: “I am the old devil! I come from the other side (‘la’o’)! And I have my tongue hanging out to suckle erect tits (‘pechitos para’os’)!” Or “I am the old devil! We are not all crazy (‘raya’o’)! We are all devils, but we are not condemned (‘condena’os’) devils!”
In addition to being a descendent of one of Victoriano’s secretaries, Silvestre is probably the oldest living performer of Cucuá music. With an old violin made of Cigua Canelo wood, he plays a melody accompanied by a drum, caja drum, and maracas, while the devils —an adult and several children— dance, howl, and sing on a small flat surface that, for half an hour, becomes the greatest stage of all.
Penonomé is two hours west of Panama City along the Inter-American Highway. To get to Campo Trinchera, take the road towards Sonadora. The entrance to the field is about four miles from Penonomé, on the right side.
To get to La Negrita, follow the Sonadora Highway until you get to the sign announcing the entrance to El Cocal and turn left. When the paved road ends, you’ve arrived at La Negrita.
To reach San Miguel Centro, a four-wheel drive vehicle is necessary. Follow the bypass route and, when in Tambo, continue along the dirt road from the Súper Compa Rica. For lodging in San Miguel Centro, call the contact number below.
Hotel Coclé Penonomé. Tels. (507) 908 5039 / 5719.
Hotel Guacamaya, Penonomé. Tel. (507) 991 0117.
In La Negrita, Cayetano Flores. Tel. (507) 6753 7086
In San Miguel Centro, José Emilio Morán. Tel. (507) 6702 1221.