by Lydia M. Reid
With a justifiable note of regret the residents of La Boca Town gave a final farewell to the legendary piece of real estate that burned down completely on February 21, 2002. Today, 4th Street in Rio Abajo, where for decades La Boca Town was located, is witnessing dramatic winds of change. People from other areas and cultures have come to settle in this area and the descendants of the original Black Westindians who came with the construction of the Canal have departed in other directions or have simply died out slowly.
After the fire, many of these families were relocated in houses in Arraiján and Tocumen, and thus gradually the Westindian community of Río Abajo has continued spreading outward. Carmen Odassa McIntosh was one of the victims of that fire that consumed La Boca Town. Since then she lives with her family in one of the few wooden buildings remaining on the street. With a Spanish accent laced with Creole English, the woman in black leather and elaborate plaits in her hair, yearns for the time when the “Afroantillano” – Westindian- community could afford to live together.
I remember my first encounter with this expanding community when I was about 12 or 13 years of age (about 1948) and went to help my Aunt Marie in the construction of her new house. After years of scrimping and saving along with my help in selling contraband cigarettes at different points in the city, she finally got the money to buy some land over in the area of Patio Patterson in Rio Abajo.
She was able to amass building materials and pay a few laborers to build a good solid two-story house of cement block and tin roof. There were many other Westindians who were joining the expansion out into Rio Abajo and areas like Betania. Finally, they would have a rent free dwelling of their own with enough space to stretch out and be able to see some greenery.
Today the face of Rio Abajo is changing rapidly. Modern construction and the multitude of commercial workshops have moved into and replaced the old model of Caribbean architecture which was the flagship, of sorts, of this singular neighborhood, to the extent that only 35 of these Caribbean type houses may still be found.
Most of these “board houses” are in an advanced state of disrepair, while others are totally abandoned, becoming a refuge for thugs, vagrants and drug addicts. Rio Abajo- born back in the early part of the 20th century out of a need for decent housing solutions for the Canal workers who arrived from the Caribbean islands has become a hotbed of commercial activity.
Javier Ortega, who is the undisputed representative of the district, has reported that there are approximately 300 workshops in the area. Dozens of buildings have emerged in this once vibrant residential area, while on Via España, banks, restaurants and small businesses give this hodgepodge of industry a touch of disorderly prosperity.
On a corner near the 14th Street entrance, Francisco Small, known as “Fanso” opened his “Chomba” food stand with great hopes for the future. He is only one of the many new entrepreneurs making Rio Abajo his business location.
Fanso is an expert in the preparation of Rondón, Cucú (similar to Polenta), Shrimp Chupé, Stewed Salt Cod, Souse (pronounced “sau” in Panama), Bun (Panamanian Westindian style), oxtail soup, Icing Glass and Ginger Beer. He admits that he is very troubled, however, about today’s generation of Westindian descendants who are losing the habit of speaking English, a feature that has always distinguished them despite the fact that early in the 20th century it brought them many problems. There was a time when it was actually taboo to speak English and more pointedly so in the Westindian accent. This language, it seemed, was exclusive to white Americans who were then directing the construction of the Canal.
Fanso is another son of La Boca Town who reminisces about the days that the Westindians danced The Quadrille, played dominoes and the women of Rio Abajo would dress up with white handkerchiefs on their heads and the men wore orange and bright green pants. Today, they dare not dress in this fashion for fear of being ridiculed. However, there is a trend, a healthy fashion trend to dress more “ethnic” in Afro garb fashioned by expert dressmakers and tailors. This, in my view, is a very positive evolutionary step in taking back the good that the Westindian culture has given Panama.
There are still about 500 senior Westindians, adds Small, living in the Corregimiento who take refuge in the old lodge periodically. “Justice Lodge,” reads the sign in front of the building, and it is where they meet each Thursday to teach children to dance The Quadrille, to listen to Calypso and to keep alive their political and religious traditions.
Many long time residents of Rio Abajo complain that the neighborhood is so saturated that children no longer have green areas for fun. More concerned with the new merchants than with the criminal activity and gang violence, these residents are somewhat resentful that these businesses seem to just take over without any concerns for the local people. Many of the new businesses, they feel, particularly the workshops, have been devouring sidewalk space and street rows and they don’t give the working people from the neighborhood any employment opportunities. A flagrant lack of trades and homelessness are the main problems of the community.
A few meters from the Colonial House, another landmark in Rio Abajo, is also the legendary 11½th Street, where single row condemned houses and apartment buildings characterize the sector. Some long time residents say that Rio Abajo is undergoing a dramatic transformation. Many Dominicans have now settled the area and set up their own businesses. These Spanish speaking Antilleans are the new face of Rio Abajo.
The corregimiento today has over 30 thousand inhabitants, and despite the fact that, in most cases, people often speak of Río Abajo in terms of violence and overcrowding, it has several upscale areas in its very midst such as Villa Gabriela, Villa Lorena, Villa Rica estates, Altos del Río. Now there is a library and an Infoplaza (government sponsored Internet Cafes) on 6th Street next to the Junta Comunal- the Community Board Building. The famous produce market on 17th Street has also been modernized.
Nothing is the same anymore except for the Kelvin, a bar and food shop, and the Stone Church which stands witness to the events and changes that put an end to symbols such as La Boca Town.