Since Gloria had to drop out of school at age 16 to work as a maid for a wealthy family in the city, she’s had to take a lot of guff from a lot of people. Back then, she lowered her head and her eyes and simply took the abuse.
Her awakening began ten years ago, with the modeling of my friends and family who have come to Panama to visit. All of my women friends, and my sisters and daughter and daughter-in-law, are strong women. My male friends and relatives treat women as equal partners, not as handmaidens. Gloria has taken it all in. By now, Gloria accepts no crap from anybody.
That said, there’s not much nuance here. She goes from zero to volcanic pushback in a heartbeat. I do credit her husband, Luis, who loves her dearly and has supported her emergence as a new woman. Other Panamanian men of her social class are more caught by surprise and don’t react as well.
On Tuesday morning Gloria was quite late to arrive at the villa, and when she walked into the kitchen she was furiosa. Theoretically, to work in Buenaventura one needs a carnet, a work permit. Gloria used to have a carnet, because she worked here a lot. Getting a carnet costs money and involves some paperwork and effort. Now, she works only for me, for the 2-3 weeks that I’m here, and the cost of a carnet doesn’t make sense. Everyone at the garita, the guard station, knows her and simply waves her through. But on Tuesday, a security guard arbitrarily stopped her and refused her entry without the carnet — simply because he could. She felt disrespected. I can only imagine what ensued. She did arrive, so there’s no doubt who prevailed. She was, as I said, still fuming.
She and I are walking early every morning to get in our 10,000 steps, and we passed the guard station on our way. She pointed out the man who had affronted her. I asked her if I might go and speak with him, so that she wouldn’t have trouble any other days. She said OK. I told her I’d work it out, that she didn’t need to jump in unless I needed help with a Spanish word.
There are two entrances to Buenaventura, one for owners, visitors and guests, and one service entrance for workers. That was the entrance I approached — me in workout gear finding my way through 25 or so dark-skinned laborers awaiting entry and the red-shirt clad security people. I had just approached the guard Gloria point out and said, “Senor, may I have a word….” when Gloria emerged from behind me and went after him again verbally, her voice shrill and angry. He responded in kind. I couldn’t get a word in edgewise. The supervisor, seeing the commotion, came over. I explained what had happened that morning, and asked what we could do to solve this problem.
Red Shirt and Gloria were still going at it, yelling at each other about who had delivered the most “groserias ” — insulting remarks — and who was to blame for the original altercation. The supervisor gave me a piece of paper with the email address of the garita, and said that if I sent a request that Gloria be admitted, they would most graciously do so. I grabbed her by the arm and dragged her out of there, and we resumed our walk. Our route is about 75 minutes; it took 60 minutes for her to calm down.
I have no judgment about her pent-up anger. I didn’t have to go through all those years of being treated badly. She did, and clearly the lingering feelings are there to be re-awakened.
She won’t have any more trouble with Red Shirt — and not only because I sent the email to the garita and got a confirmation. She won’t have trouble because my coming to speak on her behalf was equivalent to spreading Rich White Lady Fairy Dust over her in full view of the supervisor and the other workers. Red Shirt won’t dare throw his weight in her direction again. That wasn’t what I was trying to do; I was just trying to find a resolution to the problem. But I guarantee that’s how it looked to all the workmen and the other Red Shirts and the man in charge.
Remember that here, if you have a credit card, a travel health care policy, a green passport, a plane ticket home, RayBan sunglasses, and TeVa sandals you are a rich white American. I have Fairy Dust, and Gloria doesn’t — simply by accident of birth.
Asi es la vida, she would say. This is life.