La Villa de Los Santos is the center of many of Panama’s annual festivals including much of the madness of the country’s best Carnival celebration. We traveled back to La Villa de Los Santos on the Azuero Peninsula to uncover some of the secrets of Corpus Christi which, it turns out, include devils and drag queens.
The Texas of Panama
The Azuero Peninsula is the Texas of Panama, hotter, drier and ranchier than the rest of the nation. Like Texas, the Azuero is also fiercely independent. Residents of La Villa de Los Santos were among the early fighters for independence from Spain. In 1821 they wrote to Simon Bolívar with a request to join his revolutionary forces and there is, of course, an annual festival in La Villa de Los Santos to mark the beginning of Panama’s independence movement. The building in which an early declaration of independence was written is now the Museo de la Nacionalidad (Museum of Nationality).
Corpus Christi numbskulls
We admit to knowing very little about Corpus Christi when we arrived for the celebration in La Villa de Los Santos. We just like festivals. We have since become slightly more enlightened and we can tell you that Corpus Christi is a Catholic festival dating from the 1200s which celebrates the Eucharist which is the part about the “body and blood of Christ.”
Corpus Christi is celebrated all over the world on a changing date that falls between the end of May and early July. In Rome there are solemn, stately processions. In Latin America, things get slightly more animated.
Not surprisingly, the town’s church, Iglesia de San Atanasio, is central to Corpus Christi. Its elaborate wooden altar, covered in gold and blue, dates to 1733 though the final construction date of the church is 1773. The church was declared a national monument in 1938 and the altar is said to be too heavy for any number of men to lift. However, even the grandeur of this church was overshadowed by the pageant unfolding around it.
Our Corpus Christi savior
We missed the first weekend of Corpus Christi celebrations, which we were told are the biggest, but we arrived in town on the final Friday to take in the last weekend. That’s when Salvador, a local, found us in the small town’s central plaza and appointed himself our personal Corpus Christi savior, patiently explaining what was going on and making sure we saw the best of it.
Basically, what we saw was a Latin re-enactment of the struggle between good and evil. There were men and boys dressed as diablos sucios (dirty devils) wearing red and black striped jumpsuits with bells sewn to their bums (Salvador never quite explained that one) and gruesome paper mache masks on their heads which are proudly made in town and can cost up to US$600 each.
Other men and boys were dressed as diablos limpios (clean devils), wearing white costumes festooned with multi-colored ribbons.
Unlike most Latin festivals which take place in the streets, most of the Corpus Christi activities we saw on Friday were happening inside or in front of private homes. That’s where the “dirty devils” and the “clean devils” danced it out for dominance, leather sandals and wooden castanets slapping out a beat and those mysterious bells clanking away to a repetitive ditty played on guitar or flute.
The “dirty devils” performed a particularly elaborate and aerobic dance and most were soon sweaty and exhausted.
There were female characters involved in some processions as well, but for some reason (more secrets!) those were portrayed by men clumsily dressed as women.
As the weekend wore on, different performers playing different roles in different costumes appeared. We never quite figured out what the dudes wearing hoop skirts, fluffy balls of yarn, and mirrors on their heads were all about but they were fun to watch.
It’s not a festival until the trannies arrive
Speaking of men dressed as women, Saturday’s Corpus Christi events were filled with trannies of various degrees of finesse. During Corpus Christi they pranced around on rickety stages set up around the main square, took part in beauty contests, and generally confounded us. What did cross-dressing (and mostly terrible cross-dressing at that) have to do with Corpus Christi?
Drag queens played a major role in Panama’s Carnival celebrations too as performers, choreographers, costume designers, and makeup artists but that made sense given the fact that Carnival is essentially one big drag show anyway.
Our savior Salvador was nowhere in sight and we didn’t know the Spanish word for “transvestite” so our questions about what the heck cross dressers had to do with the body of Christ went unanswered. We had another beer and waited for the next pageant to start, grateful that the performers were getting a much warmer reception than they’d get in most parts of Texas where they actually have a city named Corpus Christi.
Here’s more about travel in Panama