From Sixaola in Bocas del Toro Province to Puerto Obaldia near the Colombian border, pollera petticoats are flapping today from clotheslines, or are bleaching on the grass.
In the cities, last-minute shoppers are combing the stores and markets for flat little slippers of bright-colored velvet, for lengths of brilliant, shimmering tembleques to pin into their hair. The floors of the toldos are being waxed, drummers are tightening the parchment heads on their cedar or palmwood tambores, and last-minute touches are being put onto costumes which, tomorrow, will transform youngsters into devils and clowns and pirates and cowboys.
Bands of diablicos will roam the streets, holding unwary passerbys hostage until they ransom themselves with a few pennies or a nickel. For the next four nights, the music from the toldos-the great open-air dance halls in the cities, the bohios in the little Interior towns - will go on until dawn.
On Sunday everyone
who can, will don Panama's national dress; the women will wear beautifully embroidered or
appliqued polleras or the plainer tumba-hombres, and the men, the gay,
embroidered short trousered, shirt-tail-out montunas. Traffic will snarl in the
larger towns as carloads of boys and girls cruise up and down, pelting each other with
confetti and serpentine.
Monday, Panmanian men say (their wives are silent on the subject), is their night to howl. It is the night when, by tradition, married men can roam as they please, without having to account to their wives for their whereabouts.
In the larger towns, Tuesday is parade day. Floats and decorated cars will carry costumed queens and princesses and their attentive escorts along the streets; bands of musicians will wander along between the floats, sometimes dancing back and forth from curb to curb; gaudily-dressed marchers will add color to the throng.
Until dawn on Wednesday. Just as the sun comes up that morning, fat fish, in miniature coffins, will be tossed into the sea or buried under a handy tree. Some of the merrymakers will stop at church on their way home, others will have one last dance before they go to bed. Then, and not until then, will carnival be over and life begin to resume some sort of normalcy.
What's it all about? How did it start?
Carnival, of course, is the last fling, the last chance to have fun before the 40 days of Lent begin. Panama's Carnaval is the same as New Orleans' famed Mardi Gras, and, like the Mardi Gras, a modern version of the old Roman Lupercalia. It is celebrated in all Latin countries.
Panama, historians say, paid little attention to a formal carnival until 1910. At first, carnival was a round of parties and dances for men and women in costumes and masks. Later the masks were abandoned and now are seldom seen. Gradually the idea of having a Queen of Carnival began to develop and by 1913 had become traditional.
By then, Panamanian women had re-discovered the beauty of the traditional pollera, the full-skirted, becoming dress their ancestors had brought from Spain. Some historians believe the pollera is derived from the dress of the Andalucian gypsies; certainly there is a marked resemblance between the Panamanian pollera and the dress worn by a group of Andalucian beauties who danced at the Balboa stadium a decade ago, when Spain sent a shipload of dancers and singers to acquaint the new world with their folklore.
The gypsies, tradition has it, believed bracelets were symbols of servitude and this carried over to the pollera. Early descriptions of the elaborate jewelry which accompanies a pollera-the pearl mosquetas, the cadenas chatas, the scapularies, the cabreatillos, which are chains set with gold coins in filigree frames - never mention bracelets.
The pollera begins with a petticoat, or petticoats, of row after row of finely-tucked muslin, put together with fine, hand-made insertion. Over this goes a full, ankle-length skirt of wide bands, separated by lace insertion whose pattern is the same as that embroidered or appliqued on the white lawn or linen of the pollera which won the carnival's first prize; had taken five women six months to make.
The blouse has a deep, embroidered or appliqued band, edged in lace and gathered onto a neckband, through which is woven yarn ending, front and back, in great pompoms. The color of the yarn must be the same as the color of the ribbons which are fastened to the front and back of the skirt, and of the flat velvet slippers which are always worn with the pollera.
Into the wearer's hair go gold-edged combs and anywhere from a dozen to four dozen pairs of tembleques. The hair-ornaments are made of beads or tinsel fastened into hairpins or wire. Their name comes from the fact that they tremble when their wearer dances.
The tumba hombres, or country polleras, differ from their grand city cousins in that they have no embroidery or applique and that the shirts are made from bright-figured calico or some other cotton goods. Native straw hats are always worn with the tumba hombres.
As carnival grew in importance in Panama, so did it in the Canal Zone. Toward the end of the construction period, Zonians were beginning to take part in the four-day festivity and offering their help to their friends across the line. The earliest entry in the Canal Zone's carnival file reports that Adm. H.H. Rousseau ordered electric lights installed in the Colon park for the carnival celebrations of 1912.
The following year the president of the Colon Carnival Junta asked for "a first-class battleship of the dreadnaught type" on which the Carnival Queen could make her formal entry into the city. He settled for a decorated tug. In later years, one of the Panama Railroad's little motorcars was used frequently to bring the carnival queen to her realm, although one year the queen rode in a parlor car, behind an "oil-burning locomotive and baggage car."
By the early 1920's, Zonians had become so carnival-conscious that they decided to have their own queen. In 1922, the American Legion sponsored a hotly-contested poll in which votes were sold and the proceeds used to pay carnival expenses. The first queen elected in this fashion was Viola Bissell, daughter of a Panama Railroad conductor. She was succeeded the following year by Anita Sergeant, sister of Canal pilot Richard Sergeant and of William Sergeant of the Contract and Ispection Division. Canal Zone Queen for 1924-the carnival was still Legion-sponsored-was Belle Jones, whose brothers, Egbert and George, still live in the Canal Zone. All of these queens rode down Central Avenue in special floats which consistently won prizes. As consistently until the Canal Zone withdrew from competition in 1936 the prize money was donated to charity, usually the Red Cross.
There was no Canal Zone queen in 1925 but in 1926 Gov. M.L. Walker selected a queen to represent the Canal Zone in Panama's carnival. She was Rena de Young, now Mrs. L.B. Sartain; the previous fall, as Miss Balboa, she had carried the Canal Zone's colors to the Atlantic City Beauty Pageant. She was the last of the official Canal Zone queens until 1941, although the Canal Zone entered a float every year an official carnival was held in Panama City. During this period the girls who rode on the float were selected by a special committee or by the now defunct Bureau of Clubs and Playgrounds.
Occasionally, other Canal Zone organizations entered floats in the Panama City parade. In 1937, there were seven Canal Zone floats, in addition to the official one. These were entered by the Red Cross, the Red, White, and Blue Troupe, the Red Cross Life Savers, the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, the Anconites, and the Quinn School of Dancing.
In 1941 Panama and the Canal Zone again went all out for carnival. The Canal Zone was asked to elect a queen to rule with ten others-a national queen and one from each of the Provinces- over the Mardi Gras celebration. Friends and relatives scurried to nominate their favorites; a committee of judges selected the five finalists and from their names Gov. Glen E. Edgerton drew that of the queen, Lois de la Mater. She was crowned at Balboa Stadium on February 15, and later ruled over a grand coronation ball at the Hotel Tivoli.
For the next four years, war put an end to official carnivals. In 1946, however, Panama announced its Carnaval de Victoria; the American Legion and the Civic Council sponsored a contest and a Canal Zone queen was again elected. She was Miss Betty Presley, now Mrs. John Olsen of Balboa. She was the only Canal Zone queen to be crowned in Panama. The coronation, simultaneous with that of Queen Marcela of Panama and Queen Marina of Central America, took place in the Olympic Stadium.
The next Canal Zone queen was Nanette Lynch, in a contest again sponsored by the American Legion. This regal race was distinguished by the entry of two pretty WACS, the first time members of the armed forces had ever competed. They did not win, but their presence made the contest unusually exciting.
Miss Lynch was the last of the Canal Zone's queens. There was no official carnaval in 1948, but in the 1949 Carnaval de Concordia, there was again a contest. This time, however, the four top vote-polling Zone candidates served as Princesses in the court of the Panama Queen.
This year the Canal Zone is again taking part in an official Panama Carnival, El Carnaval del Progreso. The first act of the Republic's 1957 Carnival Queen, Rosalia Barraza, was to raise the blue-and-white pennant-which means the Carnival's on-in a special ceremony last Saturday at Balboa.
A hundred-member C.Z. group will participate in Queen Rosalia's coronation tomorrow night at the National Stadium; a Canal Zone Community float, prepared by the Balboa Lion's Club, will be entered in Tuesday afternoon's parade; and a special Carnival exhibit is on display this week at the Canal Zone Library Museum.