When we heard of her death on April 3rd, 2013 we remained in a quandry about this unusual figure we occasionally saw walking about our neighborhood, especially hovering around El Carmen Church, always sporting the familiar Bermuda shorts. My husband, being one of the thousands of exiled West Indian Panamanians who left Panama in the late 1950’s and lost touch with our West Indian community here, never knew her story until just recently. I was, however, moved when I heard that this tremendous personality passed away almost forgotten by the thousands of people she helped.
Born Maud Catherine Carter, she came to be known popularly as María Pantalones Carter. She reveals that her father was from France and her mother from Jamaica. The origins of her nickname we learned went back to when she lived in the Canal Zone- La Boca- and would go visiting El Chorrillo to meet up with her “kids”, her pelaos, to go play; they would scream “Here comes Maria Pantalones!” She explains that in those days Panamanian women were always very decent and never wore pants, short or otherwise; but, in the Zone, the West Indians imitated the gringos and the women as well as the men used Bermuda shorts.
She knocked on doors and often stood vigil outside public and private offices waiting for leaders to see her. Her sole purpose was to gather support to help others. But she was probably best known for her unique way of expressing herself combining her West Indian folk expressions with her Panamanian language. And then there was her love for dancing, something that has gone out of style lately, it seems. People most remember her for taking hold of presidents, politicians and other political and community leaders and begin dancing with them, winning them over somehow and breaking the political tension.
“Bomba, azúcar y que nadie llore,” in fact, was her favorite phrase and she was true to her inclination.
She has been labeled as a kind of Robin Hood, the only difference being that she did not steal from the rich but induced the powerful to share a hand in alleviating the needs of the weak by donating money or things. She started out by organizing games amongst the children and youth of primarily Chorrillo and then in San Pedro, where the most need was evident. She organized soccer leagues, volleyball and softball leagues, skating clubs, and most any other games she could organize kids into. She was an athlete, a physical education teacher, a politician, an altruist, a wife, mother, widow, and always loving and warm, according to those who knew her.
She was also an enormously giving person. She gave away sports equipment, bicycles, skates, etc. Just prior to becoming very ill, in fact, she had unfailingly been celebrating a big Christmas party for the children of El Chorrillo and the way she raised funds was by raffling off a gallon of Johnnie Walker Black at two dollars. She raised a lot of money this way.
So then, why was she almost a forgotten figure in our Panamanian panorama?
Who would know this definitely given the Panamanian’s tendency to view things always in impermanent mode? It may also have had something to do with her association with the PRD party and her relentless importuning of politicians, military men and the rich for support to help her little ones who lived in the poorest barrios of Panama City. She even ran against Martin Torrijos in the PRD primaries in 2004. She thought well of Manuel Antonio Noriega and went to visit him at least once when he was transferred to Panama to serve out his term in prison. But then, she importuned everybody, regardless of political affiliations and almost always received something from them.
Despite the fame that her activism brought her within the PRD (Democratic Revolutionary Party), however, few from the party visited her sickbed. On the painfully short visitor list to see María Pantalones Carter, President Ricardo Martinelli and his wife, Marta, surprisingly popped up. They were the ones who helped to expedite her entry into the cancer hospital, but once she arrived there she never woke up. She died as a consequence of pancreatic cancer at the age of 84 and was laid to rest in Amador Cemetery in her beloved Chorrillo.
She was known for her generosity and selflessness all her life. When not handing out bicycles and softball gloves, she would also, out of her own pocket, hand out “dolitas”- dollars. She loved Salsa music and the voice of Libertad Lamarque but had no taste for today’s Reggae music as it is performed in Panama. “Too many dirty words,” she would say.
A well known deputy said of her in a eulogy that many professionals have risen from the popular barrios of our capital district, especially from Chorrillo, and they retain in their hearts and minds many wonderful anecdotes about this amazing woman, María Pantalones Carter.