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Preparing for Panama Research Trip

Dancing Devils from the Colonial Past: The Corpus Christi festival in Parita, Panama

Over the next weeks, this blog will take you with me on a research journey to the town of Parita, Panama. Sunday 22nd, I will be traveling with my fellow faculty members at Ashford University, Dr. Kathryn Sorensen and Dr. Michelle Loose, to commence our research project on the Corpus Christi festival celebrated in Parita. Arriving in Panama City, we will be meeting with the fourth member of the research team, Mr. Jaén Espinosa of panamatipico.com, an organization that works to digitally document Panama's rich cultural heritage.

First, a bit of geography. Panama is situated between Costa Rica and Colombia, forming an isthmus connecting Central and North America with South America. Famous for the Panama Canal, its cultural and ethnic heritage is comprised of indigenous pre-hispanic cultures, the Spanish colonialists, U.S influence and dominance, as well as descendants of African and Caribbean slaves and workers.

Parita is a small town located about six miles north of the town of Chitre, in the Herrera province. Founded in 1556, it is host to the oldest Panamanian iteration of the festival of Corpus Christi.

On the map on the left, you can see Chitre, located South-West of Panama City close to the coast of the Gulf of Panama.

Map Courtesy https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panama

So why are we interested in studying the Corpus Christi festival in Parita?

Our grant proposal for the project Dancing Devils from the Colonial Past: The Corpus Christi festival in Parita, Panama states:

" Panama has seen its number of international tourists grow from just below 365,000 arrivals in 1995 to 1,658,000 in 2013 (World Tourist Organization, 2013). The economic value has grown to more than $ 2 million directly, closer to four million indirectly, which amounts to more than 10 % of the economic output of the country (Latintrade, 2013). However, tourism comes with its own perils, such as which part of the population benefit from the tourism economy, conflicts between visitor and hosts, as well as potential damage to natural and cultural heritager (Gmelch, 2010; Guerrón, 2010;Wallace, 2005). The city of Parita is located in the Southern part of Panama on the Azuero peninsula. The population was just over 3700 in 2010. Founded in 1556, it hosts the oldest Corpus Christi festival in Panama. Corpus Christi is a Catholic rite, celebrated on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday by a procession focused on honoring the Eucharist. This ritual has in several places been expanded into folk festivals of longer duration, including plays and dances. This is the case in Panama, where traditional dances that depict social relations and critique of power, in this case enactments of subjugation of indigenous people by Spanish colonial powers, are still danced. The question is what the symbolic value and cultural function of these dances is today: what do they mean to the dancers, the larger community, and the tourists that the tourist organizations aim to attract. Further, the festival is being marketed to attract tourists and thereby, monies. However, we do not know how this is perceived in the local community, how it affects the festival and its role [.....] More knowledge on these topics can be used by the community and tourists organizations to ensure that the tourists and the local community have a mutually beneficial relationship that respects the meaning and function of the festival while also facilitating economic benefits to the residents of Parita."

This means, we are interested in tourism, cultural perceptions of the festival, and its historical roots, and we hope to provide information that the local community will find useful. Next post, I will discuss the festival of Corpus Christi a bit more as well as what it means for an anthropologist to prepare for field research.

Posted 19th May 2016 by janni pedersen

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