Poverty and Passion in Mano de Piedras

As we all returned to Panama City, we were forced to return to the real-life Panama  which is marked by poverty, urban culture, and the slum-like neighborhoods. The media portrays a happy Panama with culture and excitement. However, Panama city is much different in real life. There are so many small towns outside of the glamorous areas of the city. I was ready to get close and personal with these towns as I journeyed alone on bus and subway.

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The outskirts of Panama City; Photo Courtesy of Tony Polanco.

Sometimes the best way to get familiar with an area is to get totally lost within it. My family was worried but I was not deterred from embarking on this journey through the unknown areas. My own father reminded me to be careful and watch out for the maleantes (criminals or street-thugs) which are more present in these areas. However, the more he told me about these areas, the more curious I became. I reminded myself that not everything from the ghetto is bad because I am from of the ghetto myself.

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Photo Courtesy of Tony Polanco.

I took the subway to Los Andes and from there I took a bus to what Panamanians call Los Rakas. Los Rakas is a derogatory Panamanian term for poverty stricken neighborhoods in Panama. As I adventured into unseen territory, I realized that Los Rakas was rich in culture and personality. I saw barbershops embracing American basketball culture. Panamanians keep up with the NBA and I’ve noticed there are both Lebron James and Stephen Curry fans (who would have known!?).

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Barbershop in Mano de Piedra; Photo Courtesy of Tony Polanco.

The main entrance to these barrios is called Mano de Piedra. This is an actual bus stop but the area is commonly referred to as Mano de Piedra. This literally means “Hand of Stone”. This is not a recommended tourist site because of the frequently committed crimes in this area. My dad went crazy when I told him I was there by myself. Luckily for me, I blended in very well while waiting for the bus in the humid heat with Spanish reggae blasting through car stereos.

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Photo courtesy of Tony Polanco.

The more I observed the area, the more I realized that the fear that my dad talked about was just the condition of the people in those areas. The locals are impoverished and very poor. Everyone was just trying to get by. Each mural told a story of passion and pride. There were several murals of Panamanian reggae artists including one my favorites El Boy C. What a lot of people don’t know is that Reggaeton started in Panama and not Puerto Rico (No disrespect to my Puerto Rican, I’ m just stating facts).

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Mural of El Boy C; Photo courtesy of Tony Polanco.

I became relieved as the culture in this area inspired me. While others see this area as seedy and dangerous, I saw the pain and passion of the poor Panamanians. I really connected with this area and saw the human will overcoming harsh living conditions through art and humility. As I headed towards the infamous San Miguelito, I had a different perspective from what I originally had from these Panamanian ghettos.

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