In many ways Colon is a beautiful city and in many ways it is not. That is something I was shocked to discover. I arrived by express bus at midday Oct 14 and hopped down in front of the main market on central avenue. A cement island runs through the middle of the avenue — down the length of the pueblo’s 16 streets, people gather on mossy benches under large flowering trees. I sat on one of the benches to people-watch as I waited for my guide to arrive.
Colon is definitely a black city. As I eavesdropped, I noted that some of the older people spoke a sort of patois-English-Spanish hybrid. I thought about the purpose of my visit. What was I hoping to find? Any examples of grassroots citizen participation in urban development.
My guide Rasta Nini knows everyone in Colon. As we walk down the street, he is stopped every few minutes (with a shouted greeting “Nini!”) to discuss projects or just to talk. Rasta Nini is part of the Rastafari Alliance for the Unemployed, which fights for the large number of people in the city who cannot find meaningful or sustained work. Six other similar groups form the Alianza por Colon. The Alianza has been in the national press most recently in May and June; they shut down city streets to protest for a monthly salary increase from $375 to $500.
Nini introduced me to other leaders in the Alianza, who were excited to explain their goals and history. The group’s overseeing body — called JAPAC — is composed of 3 government leaders, 3 Free Zone business leaders and the governor of the province, leader Roberto Small explained. Though the participatory groups have waxed and waned in the last couple of decades, depending on the party in power, Colonenses kept fighting and rioting to bring them back, he added.
We all stood across the street from where two people — temporarily employed by the Alianza — were painting the facade of a Catholic social center. Nini was upset that they had showed up late to the job, and yelled at them: “Leave if you’re not going to work!”
I asked him about the common conception in Panama about Colonenses as lazy workers. While that’s true to some extent, the major issue is lack of training for available higher-level jobs in the Colon Free Zone and Panama Canal, he said. Usually city residents are relegated to low-skill, low-pay jobs; plus, employers are more likely to hire workers under the age of 25. Yet Nini admitted that many are not taking advantage of the free job training the Alianza and provincial government offer: “They want it to be more free than what it is.”
Even so, he reminded me, the Alianza has recruited 913 members for jobs around the city since its inception in 2002. A little while later, Isacio Bernudez, one of the leaders within the Alianza, pointed up at the four men working to wash and paint the building : “And they say people in Colon don’t work!”
In late afternoon, Nini gave me a tour of the city center. He showed me Proyecto 2000, a touristic complex of stores and restaurants in the Free Zone, which draws outsiders but produces no money for the city residents. He showed me empty lots that will be sold to the highest bidder instead of used to build housing for the homeless. And he showed me where his house used to be before the government bulldozed it seven years ago: “See where that small coconut tree is now?”