I recently spent a day in the comarca (similar to Indian reservations) where I realized, my people are not what they claim to be.
The Ngobe people are a race of indigenous who originated within the Chiriqui mountains in a region called Cricamola. Traditionally living in families, for the past forty odd years, the Ngobe have formed communities to take advantage of government funding and education.
Ngobes are known for their hand made bags (called chakaras) and their colorful dresses (naguas) as well as their fierce pride in their people and language. At least, that’s what I’ve been told. In the comarca, things are different.
For one, where in my community, naguas are worn more as a novelty, comarca Ngobe women strictly wear naguas and nothing else. They are also far more prideful, and with good reason. They stick strictly to their traditional ways, continuing the dance of the balseria and pretty much everyone speaks Ngaberi. Seeing all this, I thought, “My people are a bunch of sellouts.”
That was, until I asked my community about it.”Where’s your nagua?”
"That’s comarca Ngobes."
"Why don’t you guys do balserias?"
"We’re Bocas Ngobes. That’s comarca."
"What’s the difference?"
Though subtle, the differences are big enough that confusing the two is akin to calling a California girl a Southern belle. My people are not new to the area, just to the neighborhood. Ngobes have been in the region for hundreds of years and have different traditions like their affinity for boiled bananas and puffy bread called Johnny Cakes. Also, the fact that their homes are built on stilts,random old men who speak English and a difference in dialect. It would seem that even the quintessential nagua of the comarca is only a remainder of Spanish missionaries who, finding Ngobes naked, dressed them in floor length dresses which they still make today.
Ngobe, Guaymi, indio, they’re all the same, with a small caveat attached. At a distance, we’re all the same too. If I tell them I’m from Florida, I mostly get a glazed look. Estados Unidos? Now there’s comprehension.
It’s not just the people either. Even the comarca volunteers are different. Most dress in the traditional manner and while my Ngoberi is spotty at best, many of them can actually converse in the indigenous language. I would feel like a bad volunteer but then I see other volunteers in Latino communities where community members threaten kids by telling them they can live with the indians if they don’t behave, grouping all indigenous into the category indio or more offensive cholo.
Of course, this has no bearing on those volunteers but at that distance, all Ngobes are the same to them too (to be fair, I know little to nothing about the Latino or other cultures of Panama either). But that’s why I’m here. To see the rest of the world in its details, large and small, similarities and differences. To learn that not everywhere is as dangerous as the news makes it out to be and though the way they live here may be different from there, there are reasons for it. I want to know them and when people ask questions like, “Why is she carrying her baby in a bag?, Why are they howling? or Why is he staring at me like that?” I can answer.