“Two of Panama’s most important cultural events begin today,” writes Editorial Assistant Rebecca Tyre from her adopted hometown of Las Tablas. “Starting this weekend and continuing through next week, this small town on the Pacific Coast, about four hours from Panama City, normally quiet and remote, will be a madhouse of festivity and celebration. I don’t expect to get much sleep.
“Since yesterday, the town’s bus terminal has been packed with people from across the country who’ve made their way to little Las Tablas to witness the Santa Librada Festival and the National Pollera Festival. These events are the most popular and important in the country after Carnival (in February…the other time of year when I don’t sleep for a week).
“Santa Librada is the patron saint of Las Tablas. Nearly every town in Panama has one and plans a celebration in his (or her) honor at a particular time each year. For Tablenos, Santa Librada represents a relief from tribulations. She is especially important among the local women.
“You see statues of Santa Librada throughout Las Tablas. She is depicted as a crucified bearded woman wearing only one shoe. According to the story, when she was a teenager, Santa Librada’s father promised her hand in marriage to a pagan king. In defense against the unwanted nuptials, Santa Librada took a vow of celibacy and prayed to be made repulsive. Her prayers were answered Santa Librada sprouted a beard. The intended groom called off the wedding, and poor Santa Librada’s father had her crucified.
“Santa Librada’s feast day is July 20, but events take place in Las Tablas over the six days surrounding that date. The ceremony commences when the statue of Santa Librada is taken from Las Tablas’ 18th-century church in the town square (appropriately called Iglesia Santa Librada) and carried by the devoted through the streets.
“The Santa Librada festival is primarily a religious event, but, like most Panamanian celebrations, when the sun goes down, it becomes a raucous street party, with open-air bars, children’s amusements and rides, concerts, and food vendors. To prepare for the festival, businesses and homes in Las Tablas have been adorned with purple and red fabric and flags, Santa Librada’s colors.
“This year, the Santa Librada celebrations coincide with the National Pollera Festival, which takes place next Wednesday, July 22. The pollera is the national dress of Panama. It’s made by hand by the women of Las Tablas, taught by their mothers who were taught by their mothers. Each dress is made of white lace elaborately hand-embroidered in bright colors and can take up to nine months to complete. The most elaborate of the dresses cost upwards of US$8,000, which is an enormous sum of money for the people in this part of Panama. The dresses are accessorized with dozens of gold chains at a cost of another US$2,000 or more.
“The queen of the festival is chosen months in advance, so it is no surprise among the young woman or the community who will be crowned. In fact, pollera queens are groomed from a very early age, chosen as young as 8 or 9 for the eventual honor. There’s a practical reason for all the advance planning. It gives the girl’s family time to save for the obligatory dress and jewelry. During the crowning ceremony, the queen is accompanied by dozens of princesses who also take this as an opportunity to show off their beautiful traditional garb.
“Both the Santa Librada Festival and the National Pollera Festival are events worth seeing, but, I have to admit, this weekend, I’ll be torn. This Saturday, the very important CONCACAF Gold Cup quarter-final soccer match between Panama and the United States will be played. The game takes place Saturday at 8 p.m. in Philadelphia.
“I’m Canadian, and my team plays Honduras earlier in the day. So I think that, tomorrow night, I’ll be forgoing the traditional Santa Librada festivities and, instead, will proudly don my Panama red soccer jersey and cheer on my adopted country’s team in the match versus Team USA. And I won’t be alone. American fans in Las Tablas will be outnumbered by the always boisterous Team Panama fans. Panamanians take their football (soccer) very seriously. Friendly jeers and jabs will be exchanged by all.”