Before making my way down to Panama I happened upon a musician, Rubén Blades, an icon of Panama and Latin America as a renowned salsa singer, songwriter, politician, and activist. Blades changed salsa to a “thinking persons'” dance music using the influences of South American nueva canción and Cuban nueva trova. Impressively he ran for presidency in 1994 winning 20% of the vote and later in 2004 became minister of tourism.
His “thinking persons'” music is legendary in the song “Buscando America”. It speaks of the plight of poor immigrants going to America in the 80s to find the golden dream of freedom and prosperity but discovering below minimum wages and prejudice holding them back from grasping a better life.
That false image of America also seemed to live here as I walked the streets and took buses through Panama City and outlying towns. The empty, corrupt skyscrapers crowding the skyline, luxury billboards next to slums, and the monotonous cargo ships off in the distance filling the canal day in and day out. All of these aspects of wealth are not apparent with the regular people here. Where do all of the millions of dollars go from the canal and with so much poverty who can afford an apartment with an ocean view? Finally all of that avid listening of Blades lyrics hit me straight in the face as the hypocrisy spun around me.
Even though there is hypocrisy living everywhere, I found Panamanians like Ramon, Jorge, and the other campesinos who create an image of Panama that cannot be matched. They inspired all of us to question our culture and the mainstream Panamanian culture by showing us a different way of thinking and way of life. The Panamanians I met here will be the first aspect to come to my mind, not the problems.
Focusing on the problems blinds a person from the people and odd tidbits that I have come to hold close and now I do not want to let go of. Without that initial struggle and frustration I would never have progressed or learned to search for the abundant beauty within Panama. Thanks to these wonderful people I know that I can only truly judge a country by the interactions with its people.
Here are a few other songs by Blades:
Another artist to discover: Willie Colón