If I’m honest, before coming to Panama, I really didn’t know much about its murky 20th century history with the Americans. In fact, I remember rather swiftly passing over the subject in history class (I went to an American high school in London). I wasn’t aware it was so recent and raw and that I’d still find a decaying U.S. military footprint still so present throughout central Panama. And little did I know it was all about to become my new fascination when I landed myself on the doorstep of a prized Panamanian artist whose work and studio I’d requested to photograph one day…
Isabel de Obaldia lives in a house that was left behind by a Lieutenant of the U.S. military – or was it a a sergeant? Anyway. Almost her entire neighbourhood was built and occupied by U.S. military personnel not so long ago; Isabel reminds me that the last Americans left as recently as 1999. For almost 100 years, thousands of Americans lived a life of luxury in secluded tropical communities close to the Bay of Panama. Known as “Zonians” (living in what was known as the Canal Zone), they maintained one of the world’s great engineering feats – the Panama Canal.
Today the homes in Isabel’s quaint and residential neighbourhood of Albrook, named after the former United States Air Force facility nearby, look distinctly more colourful and Panamanian– a far cry from the uniformity of an (ex) American military community. “I guess it’s a strange place to live, but we like it,” says Isabel, who fell for the house when she saw the Lieutenant’s old super garage that could be turned into her art studio. The only strange thing I had noticed so far was the abandoned house across the street from Isabel’s, covered in graffiti.
“Yeah, it’s a bit of an eyesore I suppose,” she said when I asked her about it. Later that day I’d find there were plenty more ‘eyesores’ to discover in the area left behind from the pseudo-colonial days when America occupied its own sovereign territory in central Panama– almost twice the size of New York City.
But before we go delving into all that, how about we get to know more about Isabel and her art…
Born to Panamanian and French parents, Isabel grew up around artists in Panama. Her widowed mother remarried a renowned painter and her grandmother was a nationally adored poet who wrote about the suffering of indigenous tribal women.
When she was younger she drew and painted feverishly during Panama’s worst political and human rights crisis under the dictatorship of Noriega. You can see the darkness in much of her painting work despite her beautiful colours and Picasso-esque shapes. But I only counted one painting hanging in her studio when I visited, because these days, Isabel de Obaldia is better known as Panama’s most treasured sculptor.
Her work has made her globally famous and she’s a particular favourite with the New York art world– but she would never say anything like this herself.
Isabel’s sculptures are made of glass, but there’s nothing dainty about them, a bit like Isabel herself. She works with giant kilns, she climbs inside of them, uses heavy machines and produces even heavier pieces.
Infused with color, their surfaces hand-ground and engraved, they’re reminiscent of ancient and ghostly indigenous figures that look as if they were just dug up from an excavation site.
Actually this timelapse video ↓ which shows Isabel’s process almost looks like she could be excavating something from an ancient ruin.
That’s Isabel as a teenager on the far left ↑ hunting for the legendary Panamanian golden frog in the mountains of El Valle. “I was such a Tomboy back then.” Perhaps she doesn’t realise she hasn’t changed in the slightest.
And that’s Isabel wielding what looks a lot like a shotgun on the right during the US Invasion of Panama in 1989, when her city’s streets were in a state of turmoil for weeks. I’m a little confused about why they call it an invasion when the Americans had already invaded Panama and made themselves comfortable since the beginning of the 20th century.
“You’re interested in all that stuff?” Isabel asked me as I nodded. “Well let’s get in my car and go for a drive…”
Isabel drove us to a nearby neighbourhood with houses that went even further back in time, closer to when the Americans first signed its treaty to build, operate and own the Canal (for $10 million plus $250K every year after that), including the surrounding land known as ‘The Canal Zone’– an agreement that was to be in place for the ‘rest of time’.
The Canal Zone had its own police, schools, ports and post offices. It became a U.S. territory where residents enjoyed the beautiful weather and more relaxed lifestyle of Panama, while also living in comfortable American-style housing, experiencing a top-notch American education and enjoying all the perks of US citizenship. “Zonians,” as they were called, had their own social clubs, sports teams and shops that carried US staples; they had everything here.
There was no need to go outside the contained territory and drive into Panama City. In the 1950s, as many as 100,000 Americans lived in the Zone, about one-tenth of the country’s population. Even life-long Zonians could get away with not learning Spanish.
Pictured above by Life magazine, gambling at their American casino, most Zonians were unaware of how much resentment they began to provoke amongst the Panamanians. While Americans lived in privilege, individual Panamanians couldn’t step foot on land that was in their own country without having to answer to a foreign police that spoke a different language and enforced a different law. In 1964 violent protests against the Zone resulted in the death of 21 Panamanians and four US soldiers.
It had all started with the “Flag Pole Incident” at the old American Balboa High School not far from Isabel’s home which she pointed to as we drove by (it’s now used as a wellness centre and gym for canal administrative workers). To avoid tensions, the Governor of the Canal Zone had decreed that neither American flags nor Panamanian flags would be flown over schools, post offices, cemeteries etc. In response, outraged Zonians who felt their territory was really kind of an American colony, began flying the U.S. flag anywhere they could. On the steps of the high school, American Zonian students and Panamanian students got into an altercation about who should be able to hang their flags, and in the course of the scuffle, Panama’s flag was torn.
As word of the incident spread, angry Panamanian crowds gathered across the border between Panama City and the Canal Zone. Panamanian flags were planted, some demonstrators crossed into the zone, Canal Zone police tear gassed them, rocks were thrown and police opened fire. After three days of fighting, the final death toll came to 28 people, including a 20 year-old Panamanian student and a six-month-old girl who died with respiratory problems while her neighboUrhood was tear gassed by the U.S. Army.
At some point Isabel had dropped us off to get back to work, and we found ourselves eager to find more American ghosts despite the heavy Panamanian heat. Panama City’s Causeway is the former site of Fort Amador U.S. army base, where a new museum, the Biomuseo, was recently completed in 2014 and the area is being developed as a tourist hub and nightlife destination. But just behind the museum, the remains of an American ghost town struggles to stand as nature bids to drown the memories of yesteryear…
How is was before: A vintage photograph of a street scene in Fort AmadorFort
Amador was the primary infantry and support area, and grew to include a rather prominent “tank farm” for fuel storage. But we were clearly walking past people’s old driveways too.
During the three days of fighting and rioting, American-owned businesses in Panama were set afire and military personnel and their families who were unable to get housing on base, were forced to flee their homes. There were many instances in which Panamanians gave refuge to Americans who were endangered in Panama City and elsewhere. The new Pan Am HQ was completely gutted by rioters because it had the word “America” written on the building that was ironically owned by a Panamanian. The next morning, the bodies of six Panamanians were found in the wreckage.
The British and French, who had been criticized by U.S. administrations for their colonial policies, accused the U.S. of hypocrisy and argued that their Zonian citizens were as obnoxious as any other group of colonial settlers. Ironically, Panama itself was settled by Spanish colonists who had enslaved the local population and stolen their wealth.
Whether or not for fear of an imminent communist takeover, the United States Embassy was ordered to burn all sensitive documents. I don’t know exactly what happened here at this particular building or this particular stretch of the Causeway– details and locations of the riots are hard to come across– but it looks like this place was lost a long time ago.
There was one building that was left (a little) less ravaged– what looked like one of the fort’s old theatres.
We managed to sneak up into the projector room and get this spooky shot of the auditorium, filled with junk dumped in the seating area.
Of course with everything else the canal zone had, they also had their own cinemas that played American releases.
I’ve heard that Panama nostalgia is a real thing amongst ex-Zonians who returned to the US after President Jimmy Carter signed the treaty in 1977, which signalled the beginning of the end for American involvement in Panama. The agreement committed the US to leaving by the year 2000.
In 1999 the final transfer of the canal to Panama was concluded. Almost overnight, most of the Americans returned to the US. Every year hundreds of Zonians travel to Tampa, Florida for a reunion.
Walking down the empty Causeway, with street lamps that looked as if they hadn’t been turned on in years, I could almost hear the footsteps of an American officer and his wife strolling behind me.
It’s certainly strange to feel sad for a place you shouldn’t really be feeling sad for.
You can read an interesting account of an ex-Zonian who was a sixth grader at the time of the 1964 riots.
Isabel de Obaldia’s website is here.