Garachine is a small fishing village on the coast of Darien. Traditionally it has been the “house of the Darien culture”. In the old days, people from all over Darien went to see the traditional dance competitions, poetry and stories. For a time, locals were afraid that their traditions would be lost, but a group of residents is doing everything possible so that this does not happen. ‘Diablos espejos’ are a dance celebrated in Corpus Christi. While ‘bullerengue’ is a style of music originating from the coast of Colombia and the province of Darien. And ‘bunde’ is a religious dance to celebrate the birth of Jesus.
I went to Garachine accompanying Luis Carlos García who was filming a documentary called “Dance with Devils”. He had coordinated the filming with Professor Raul Forde (who added an “e” to his last name to not be my family). All the town had agreed to participate or observe. I know it sounds like something unusual, but it is a small town of less than 2,000 inhabitants. Its inhabitants are mestizos and blacks or indigenous Embera, they will not participate in the traditions of the devils mirrors, bullerengue and bunde.
We stayed at the teacher’s house, but there is a hotel in Garachine called La Jota. It has two types of rooms with one or two beds (price between $ 25-35), electricity, drinking water and air conditioning. This hotel is comparable to hotels in La Palma and Meteti (where Finca El Roblecito is located). Locals consider themseleves a hospitable town, with attention and service to visitors.
Unless you’re very Catholic, you probably don’t know what Corpus Christi is. You might have heard the name, but you don’t know what it is. This tradition began in 1264 under the mandate of Pope Urban IV. The festival was created to celebrate the Holy Eucharist that is Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ.
It held Thursday after Trinity Sunday; 60 days after Easter, or the Sunday that follows immediately. It usually falls during the month of June, but rarely can it be in May. Although the church celebrates it on Sunday, the people of Garachine always do the dances of the diablos espejos on a Thursday.
How did the dance of the diablos espejos begin?
The first settlers of Garachine were the indigenous cuevas. These were exterminated by the Spanish conquerors and other warrior tribes such as the Embera and Wounaan. Then came the rabble of Colombia, that is, the guerrilla, who migrated to the coastal towns of Darien. Most locals are descendants of blacks. In the 20th century, the interiorans, specifically people from the Azuero Peninsula, arrived in search of land.
Legend has it that the dance of the diablos espejos was brought by a man who says he was from the island of San Miguel, in the Pearl Archipelago. Well, this man was traveling on sloop, a type of sailboat that looks like a pirate ship. He heard that in the Darien the rubber industry was taking place. At that time the jungle was virgin and naturally there were many rubber trees. Therefore, he arrived in search of an economic entry and by coincidence was Corpus Christi.
He had a manda for life that he had to dance to the most holy where he was during Corpus Christi. The old people say that he put on a skirt of dried banana leaves and covered his face with a mask made of environmental things. He began to dance in the streets of the town and thus it was known that tradition existed. The villagers liked the dancing diablos espejos so they asked him to teach them the dance. And since the following year (sometime in the 19th century) all Corpus Christi celebrated dancing.
Devils in Panama
The tradition of devils in Panama dates from the era of the conquest when the Spanish preached (by force) the Catholic religion. Since they could not communicate with African slaves and indigenous people, they had to make representations of good and evil. The first dances had no dialogue, because their purpose was to generate fear. Different regions adopted the dances in their own way. Currently, there are about 25 variations of the dances of the devils in Panama.
This dance does not happen throughout the country, only in specific regions. In the mountains of Cocle you will find the cucuá devils, who create their costumes from the bark of that tree. Originally the horns were made from deer, but today they are made of wood.
Los Santos celebrates Corpus Christi with the diablo sucio (dirty devil), which is also found in Bocas del Toro. They wear castanets in their dances and have red and black costumes. What most varies is the mask, which in Los Santos has animal faces with feathers, while in Bocas they are made of cloth. You can also see these devils in Portobelo. Another variation is diablos limpio (clean devils).
The devils mirrors of Garachine are different since they are the only ones that make their masks out of balsa wood, while the rest are made from cloth, mud or cardboard. The skirt also varies, since they are all “furrowed” or smooth, while the skirt is Garachine has a cancan flight that is attached to a petticoat, giving volume to the skirt.
Before filming the dance of the diablos espejos, we did a series of interviews with characters related to the festival. The first person we interviewed was Doris Martinez de Cordoba. She was born in Pinogana and moved to Garachine as an adult. She had heard about the dance, but didn’t know what it was. When she got together with her husband she ended up getting involved as a dressmaker. She started making a scarf for her daughter. She has been making these costumes for 20 years and is the only dressmaker who makes them in town.
People come one or two months before Corpus Christi with fabrics for her to make skirts, petticoats, caps or jackets. The most she has charged for a job is $9, but they consider it expensive since the town is quite poor. She apologized every time the machine got stuck while sewing. It was very old and she need to buy a new one, but had no money.
We walked to the house of Jacinto Alvarez Martin, better known as “chico.” He is the only one who makes masks in Garachiné. Unfortunately, he is very old and has advanced diabetes. They had to cut his leg and can no longer walk. He lives in a small house with a patio full of cocoa trees like Bocas del Toro. We interviewed him while tasting the delicious seeds.
The masks are made of wood from a tree called balso, which is the softest. It is cut in half and must be carved to give the desired figure. They usually make animals like dogs, chickens or birds; some have horns. His father was an accordionist and played bullerengue. He also made the masks and was the one who taught Jacinto and his brother. When he was young he participated in competitions nationwide. He danced in Los Santos, Chorrera and Colon. The medals he won in the competitions are still kept as memories.
Angel Cordoba is Doris’s husband. When he was young he was always the diablo mayor (great devil), but when his father died, he had to take the accordion. He does it because he likes it and it is a beautiful tradition of the people. There are several dances such as Chorrera and Colon that almost want to reach the level of the dance of the diablos espejos, but do not reach the sound. His father taught him when he was older and the fingers no longer had grip, so he learned what he could. He says it is almost identical but there are some notes that changed.
The diablo mayor is the one who guides the dance of the diablos espejos following the rhythm of the accordion. When the music changes, the dancers must change too. He is happy that the new generation has so much interest in dance, but at 62 he still needs to find pupils to show them the notes before his fingers get tired too.
I did not write the name of the man who played the drum. We interviewed him in the bay, sitting casually on an artisanal fishing boat. He played the drum since he was 21, as he followed the previous generation to learn. At first he was shy, but then it passed. Today he considers himself a teacher so he no longer practices, since he “knows the regulation inside and outside.” He feels happy when he plays since he is an artist and insists on doing a good function. His role is important, because if he gets it wrong, the accordion is wrong and the steps of the diablos espejos are wrong.
The community organized themselves to preform the representation of the dance of the diablos espejos although it was not Corpus Christi. They started preparing quite late and we were afraid it would rain since the sky was dark. It is a process to dress each of the children and adolescents. First, they put on leggins that were cover with a cross-shaped ribbon with bells to make noise when they move. On the upper body they wore a long-sleeved shirt with a vest with mirrors.
A colorful animal-shaped mask covers the face. On their head they have a cap full of decorations with a pompom at the end. The skirt has colored strips, using cancan to keep it up.
In Corpus Christi, the activity starts at 5:00 a.m. with the ringing of the bells of the Church of Our Lady of Mercy. Followed by musicians in search of the diablo mayorl and this, in turn, of the other dancing devils. In total there are 24 diablos espejos dancing. The greater devil says some verses so that the dance begins. The angel appears to kill him by sticking his sword. He says that the devils are not forgiven, but in the end they enter the church for the father to give them the blessing.
Both boys and girls in the community participate in this tradition.
The costumes and choreography is what makes Corpus Christi different from Garachine from the rest of the country. Other dances have two or three steps, but they have eight or ten, although some have been lost. The dance is about a fight between good and evil. However in Garachine, the dispute is not for the soul, but for the conquest of the world by the diablo mayor.
Professor Ladys Centella was with us on the tour in Garachiné. She told us about one of the most important traditions, the bunde. This celebration of the birth of Jesus is completely different from other places. It begins on December 10 and ends on January 6, with the Three Kings’ Day.
This tradition comes from the Bellido sisters. They were washing in a river in Colombia when it started rising. Something was going up and down in the water, when they approached they noticed that it was an image. Legend has it that they took the image of the saint and put it in a pumpkin while they finished washing. They took it home and showed it to their mother. At dusk they could not find the image, since they had returned to the river. This happened several times, until it was taken to church for the father to give its blessing. The image was sending a message that wanted to be celebrated.
On a journey they traveled to Panama fleeing the guerrilla and moved to Garachine. They carried the image that they called bunde. Every night the image is danced on an ornate altar. A godfather and a godmother are selected every year.
Ladys was very close to the Franco sisters who were devoted this saint. A goddaughter of Ladys fell ill and she went to Tranquila Franco, who said “negra, come here, what’s wrong with you?” After hearing the situation, she replied “why haven’t you approached the solution of the problem? There is the little but giant, ask with faith and I assure you that the girl will get better. ” She did just that and now she has a manda to the bunde. And participates in the committee to continue the tradition.
Bullarengue and the Darien Pollera
Bullerengue is a style of music and dance that is shared between the province of Darien and Colombia. Descendants of the blacks who escaped to San Basilio de Palenque (the palanqueras of Cartagena they come from this place) the first free town in Latin America. It is similar to cumbia and is traditionally sung by women.
Women from Garachine got dressed in the traditional Darienita pollera. I asked them if they could dress me and they got me a pollera with yellow flowers. Unlike the gala pollera, this pollera is super comfortable and women do not wear much makeup. Hair can be combed in a braid, ponytail or loose with one or several tropical flowers.
This pollera is the one used to dance bullarengue. We went to the beach and the women began to sing “Garachine, Garachine today I sing for you” while moving the skirt sensually. They showed me some steps in the short time available before sunset. Basically the woman and the man move using their toes and hips.
Rescue of traditions
A Civic Club of Garachineños and Resident Friends in Panama was created to organize events to keep traditions alive. There was a moment when they thought that the dance of the diablos espejos was going to disappear. In the late 1990s there was a year without dances, then another year was just the musicians and a dancer. In 2004, a committee organized by Raul Forde was formed to keep bunde, bullerengue and diablos espejos dances alive.