By Ana Teresa Benjamín
Photos: Carlos E. Gómez, Melquisedec
La Villa is a town in the Panamanian province of Los Santos where people enjoy eating torrejitas (corn fritters), rosquitas (donuts), and roast pork. This community is part of Panama’s “Dry Arch,” where it rains less than anywhere else in the country.
The story goes that La Villa’s first inhabitants reached the banks of the river of the same name in 1569, but the Spanish Crown didn’t recognize the settlement until 1573. Like most villages colonized by Spaniards, the church —named San Atanasio de La Villa de Los Santos— was one of the first buildings erected and the main administrative buildings rose up around it.
One of the purposes of the Conquest, as we know, was the conversion of the native inhabitants. This task brought the Spanish into contact with populations that had their own cosmic vision, including the Africans transported to the continent to do slave labor. All this resulted in the feast of Corpus Christi, one of the most traditional in La Villa, today a mixture of ecclesiastical and popular expressions including dances, theatrical sketches, and other artistic manifestations, all deeply rooted in the lives of the people of La Villa.
A document published by the Safeguard and Protection of Traditional Knowledge Project run by the Ministry of Commerce and Industry of Panama refers to Corpus Christi as “one of the best examples in Spanish America of a religious tradition deeply rooted in the customs of the local population.” It possesses such power and longevity that it grew into something more than just a religious holiday. “What began as a form of catechesis in the temple later added dancing and performing arts in the atrium of the church, and, finally, took to the village square and streets, where it was welcomed as the people’s own celebration,” continues the document.
If you’d like to take part in this traditional Panamanian celebration, come to La Villa in early June. The festivities begin at noon on Wednesday, May 3, with the “Cuarteada del Sol,” a performance in which dancing devils divide the sun into four parts —the Dance of the Grand Devil, representing the Devil’s control or dominion over the underworld. On Thursday morning, streets on the outskirts of the town fill with villagers looking for the “Torito,” or Bull, and once they find him, they return with him downtown to the beat of whistles, drums, and verses. A break in the revelry of the night and early morning comes midmorning Friday, for a Mass in which church officials witness the arrival of the “devils” and other characters, who request permission for the Archangel Michael to enter the church.
Prior to this, the streets around the town square are adorned with a carpet of flowers, leaves, and sawdust. These decorations are used to form religious symbols or create pictures of important figures such as the Pope or Jesus Christ. It’s a spectacular, although short-lived show: after Mass ends, a procession treads upon the ephemeral carpet on its way to the four altars installed in the four corners of the square. The procession is led by priests and the Corpus Christi, and the characters from the different dance groups follow: the Spanish Montezuma, the Grand Devil, El Torito and Zaracundé, the Dwarfs, and the Dance of the Gallotes, or Vultures, among others.
If you’re unable to visit La Villa during the week, the villagers reserve the Saturday following the official Corpus Christi celebration for visitors interested in the dances. They set up a stage in the town park and present the dances from noon until evening. As an added bonus, local groups are joined by dancers from other regions of the country, such as Garachiné, Chepo, Penonomé, and La Chorrera.
So go ahead, make the trip. La Villa is about 150 miles from Panama City, about four hours away by car or bus. The joy, colors, music, revelry, and history make it well worth your while.
Catch a bus from the Albrook Bus Terminal to the province of Los Santos and ask for directions to the road leading to La Villa. If you go by car, take the Pan-American Highway to the Divisa intersection and continue straight on the main road to Chitré. In downtown Chitré, ask a local for the road to La Villa.
Where to stay
Ask about special rates for the Corpus Christi festivities.
In La Villa
Hotel Kevin Tel: (507) 966 8276 Rooms: $35 USD
Hotel La Villa Tel: (507) 966 9321 Rooms from $40 USD
Hotel Sol de Luna Tel: (507) 923 0630 Rooms from $66 USD
Gran Hotel Azuero Rooms from $75 USD
Hotel Versailles Rooms from $56 USD