Minga and Gloria: Changing the Culture

Jewish people are scarce as Martians in rural Panama, although there’s a longstanding and rather wealthy Jewish community in Panama City, dating back to World War I. Gloria worked for such a family when she went into service at age 16, and they treated her badly. We’re all prone to over-generalize, so in Gloria’s mind, all Jewish people must be  mean just like her employers.

I was surprised when I first heard her say it, and said gently “But Tio Jerry was Jewish, and he was a good person. Tia Sally is Jewish.” 

No puede ser. It can’t be. That was Gloria’s first response, because she loved Tia Sally. I could see the wheels grinding in Gloria’s brain.

Another deeply held generalization in the village is that rich white people are unkind and treat the people who work for them like trash. Remember that many people from Rio Hato keep house, or cook, or do outside maintenance work or indoor painting or pool maintenance for the wealthy villa owners in the complex where I rent. The villagers are paid astonishingly low wages, the outdoor people can’t come into the house to use the bathroom, and most owners don’t even offer a bottle of water to men working for hours in the hot sun.

Remember that “rich white people” includes anyone with the keys to a car, a credit card, nice sunglasses and fancy sandals rather than simple flip flops … you get the idea. It includes me and all of my friends.  I knew we’d made progress when I overheard Gloria’s youngest son, Luis, vigorously defending Tia Pamela and my American guests to the boys hanging out in his front yard. Not all rich white Americans, he told them, are terrible people.

My niece Bryna and her family, and nephew Peter and his family, came to Panama in 2016. I have pics of them with Minga, which I can’t find — organizing anything, including photos, has never been my strong suit. But there they are with Gloria. Max, in sunglasses in the bottom pic and blue shirt in the top pic, had just had his bar mitzvah. As part of his bar mitzvah project, Max had raised $200 to buy and distribute food baskets to the poor in the village. All four kids shopped in the local market, assembled the baskets, and we all went to distribute.

What Minga and Gloria would have heard the local pastor preach about at Sunday mass, caritas or charity, is tzedakah in Judaism: the call, the moral obligation to heal a broken world. Gloria was astonished at these kids. Minga, of course, welcomed the Jewish half of my family with open arms.

Something shifted on that trip, a set of assumptions or generalizations forever changed.

Life with Minga and Gloria and the village — what I call the Panama Adventure — has indeed been a powerful one, comprised of many threads. The Panama Adventure has moved and touched and changed us all.

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