By:Ana Teresa Benjamín
Photos: David Mesa, courtesy Comisión 500 Años
Panama City is bursting with color. There is the blue of the sea that has chaperoned the city since Pedro Arias Dávila established a settlement on the spot where a tower of the old city still Stands. There is the tropical green that explodes into a hundred shades during the rainy season. Now, as part of the festivities marking the 500th anniversary of this city with indigenous, Hispanic, and African roots, new colors glow throughout the metropolis as a result of the Mural 500 project, which has added a wash of history to the walls of the capital’s 26 districts.
The idea driving the project, which operates under the aegis of the Comisión 500 Años (500 Years Commission) and the United Nations Development Program, involved painting murals at key points in each district. The sites chosen to show the history of an area and its residents all experienced heavy foot traffic, because Mural 500 hoped to encourage artistic expression in public spaces, but with the participation of the community. Artists would ask the communities what they considered important and they would use this information to create an outline that was then approved by the residents of the district.
Owing to this collaborative work, Río Abajo —with strong roots in the Afro-Antillean community— presented the faces of some of its memorable figures, like Arnold Small, a laborer on the Panama Canal, and Bárbara Wilson, a powerful jazz singer. There is also the mural in Tocumen —on the city’s east side— that features the airplane that its inhabitants see pass over their homes every day, as their community is home to the country’s international airport.
The mural in El Chorrillo shows Mt. Ancón, where this working-class neighborhood took root and grew. It was named for the “stream” of waters that flowed down from the mountain and provided water for drinking and washing in the early 20th century.
The murals allude to forests, water, athletes, churches, and the rural origins of many districts. They also call attention to various indigenous ethnic groups —in Curundú, for example— and nostalgia for the open spaces that the first settlers of districts like Las Mañanitas found when they migrated from the interior of the country and took up residence here. These spaces have evolved from empty rural outposts to swarms of people, buses, and businesses.
With the majority of the murals already finished, Panama City is now a true story, told by its inhabitants, that shows life in this Central American city beyond the museums and official versions of history.
Evade (o Evalynn de Icaza)
Las Cumbres, Villa Grecia, Coremusa Warehouse
“During the three meetings held with the community, the most mentioned element of Las Cumbres was nature; residents were proud of El Lago and Mt. Peñón. They were so proud they even took me to see it during the second session. They also mentioned the flor de papo (Chinese hibiscus) a lot. I decided to make my mural very literal and show the mountain and the lake; I linked this to a woman, the concept of Mother Nature-woman. So, the mural is Pachamama: a woman-mountain.”
Chilibre, Gimnasio de Chilibre, avenida Madden
“The community told us that they had no water, despite the treatment plant that supplies water to various parts of the city. They also directed attention to the Congo community in Chilibre, which is why there is a Congo woman in the mural. Since the Chilibre community is very religious, I drew the Congos with their arms wide open. Chilibre is a very green district with a lot of vegetation, and wild animals roam near the houses, which is why there is a lot of greenery and nature in the mural.
Chacha (o Juan Gutiérrez)
Las Mañanitas, Los Pinos Recreation center
“The people of Las Mañanitas talked a lot about education, about how important it is in improving their lives. This district is home to the República de Holanda school, which has earned several awards for excellence; this explains why so many children appear in the mural. Las Mañanitas was one of the first settlements of rural folk in Panama City. We are talking about the 1960s and 1970s, so the opposite ends of the mural show country folk, because these people and their customs are the backbone of this community. The mountains and the sun in the background represent the name of the district. Residents told me that the name comes from the time when this area was all mountains and someone once remarked: ‘In the morning (mañanita), the water is so wonderful and delicious.’
Amir Lucky (o Amir Candenado)
24 de Diciembre, Sector 4, Multivíveres Supermarket
“The residents of 24 de Diciembre say that the area’s first inhabitants were invaders. The mural depicts two children with masks that represent cattle and monkeys, both common in earlier times. One child tells the story of the present, the other, the past. The past is represented by the open space of the countryside, the present by churches, highways, and the bridge that divides ‘24’ from Diciembre from Tocumen.”
Pacora, Inmaculada Concepción church
“Area residents were emphatic: they wanted the mural to portray everything from the struggle of the indigenous communities to that of the Afro-descendent peoples, along with their music and their culture. Pacora used to have a significant Colonial presence, but the former pastures of landowners left no trace. This is one reason why it was important to participate in the project: it’s not just about painting a mural, but about how much the artist learns during the process. Going to Pacora and discovering its history was good for me.”
“Before starting the project, we received some training from muralist Martanoemí Noriega, who explained the importance of the process of reaching out to the community, of letting go of our ego, and allowing the residents to be the ones to talk. During the preliminary meetings, many of the residents talked about the district’s cultural life, the green spaces, and the Bella Vista architecture. When I saw the space designated for the mural, I thought: ‘This is Urracá Park and yet there is no reference to the indigenous leader after which it is named.’ And since I was also very aware that my family and I are from Bella Vista, I decided to draw a family and Urracá as he appears on the penny. Should Urracá be on the penny? Since the cultural theme was so meaningful to the community, I added a nod to the theater crisis in Panama by drawing that in a corner. Children would come and play nearby as I was painting the mural. One of them asked me where the dogs were, and since it is indeed true that there are always dogs in this park, I drew one. I think this mural project is important because it is a narrative beyond the museums, an approach to the community, and a statement of belonging.”