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An Easter Slaughter in Panama

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Written by Matt   
Wednesday, 26 March 2008 07:56
Easter in Panama is a long weekend in which the citizens of this Catholic Republic are asked to take off work and reflect upon the resurrection of Jesus Christ, shop Son of God. It is during this holiday that no alcohol sales are permitted for a period of 24 hours which, malady if you look closely, seems to be far more thought-provoking to Panama's people than the resurrection of the Lord Savior himself.
It was the morning of Easter Sunday when my Panamanian friend Carlos called asking if I was busy. He had tried to disguise his voice as the director of the new James Bond film but slipped up when he failed to realize my caller ID would show his details.

"This is Matt, may I ask who's calling?" I inquired. 

"Yes, Mr. Matt. This is calling Mr. Director of the James Bond film in Panama. My name is Carlo..." He caught himself, before revealing his true identity. "My name is Carl. Yes, my name is Carl and I is calling for to ask...for to ask if you are painting many eggs on this Easter day?"

"Why hello Mr. Carl. Yes, I have painted a number of eggs so far today. May I ask how you got my number?" 

"Well, I get it from the database here at in the James Bond film in Panama." It was at this point I could hear Carlos' girlfriend in the background asking for a glass of juice. "Well, I is calling for to invite you to a special party in the countryside today. We call it a matanza. They have beers and carne and bulls for to ride. You will come?"

I paused for a moment as if to elicit some sort of doubt in accepting an invitation from a stranger. 

"Mr. Matt? Are you there? Matt? Hey just kidding man! It's me, Carlos!" He laughed, as if unloading the joke punch line of the century. "Man, I really had you going. What kind of director would call you for to ask to go to matanza? Oh, man Matt, you are so gullible."

We met Carlos at the entrance to Chame, a small peninsula just 35 minutes from Panama City. The rocky, hardscrabble road is marked by two white larger-than-life buoys that sit like giant hand-grenades on both sides of the road. They were buoys, I thought, that might be nice to have at the mouth of ones vacation home at the Jersey Shore. Chame's a flat peninsula and on a clear day you can see the skyline of Panama City. On a matanza day, the view is shrouded in smoke billowing out from underneath the local grill shack. 

Back in my country, Easter was celebrated with a large man dressed as a bunny rabbit hiding plastic, candy-filled eggs. There was inevitably the kid who mistakenly collected a log of dog poop in his basket, thinking it was a tootsie roll, but that was about as hazardous as things ever got for Easter in Jersey. This was a new Easter celebration for me, a matanza Easter: a community-gathering event revolving around the slaughter, then dissection of a massive village cow.

The event takes an entire day, from the slaughter to the cooking to the storage of the meat, and while originally performed as an economical way to ensure families had food for the year, matanzas in Panama are now held more as celebrations. Cow celebrations.  We ate beef soup, beef bollo, grilled beef, smoked beef, beef tamales, and fried beef fat. 

"Matanza!" I shouted after downing my second steak. It's a fun word to say.

A number of Chameanos had gathered at the local cantina to throw back bottles of cold domestic beer. The drink vendor, a boy of twelve, stood before a sign detailing the pricing: $0.75 each if you buy one beer, $0.20 each if you want to buy ten. We carried our beers down to the beach where young people stood around listening to reggaeton music and kite surfing in the choppy waves. 

I couldn't help but to draw similarities to Easter at home where opening packages of marshmallow chicks was akin to an act of spirituality. I was reminded of this by the children on the beach who devoured the perishable parts:  the blood, ribs, tail, and ears like it was Chucky Cheese. I then recalled dreamingly of the ball shoots at Chucky Cheese in which you could win tickets and buy small plastic toys that would break on the car ride home. I loved those things. My longing was interrupted by a young girl who, upon looking up from her plate with a face full of carnage, spit out a small wad of fur that had stubbornly made its way onto her matanza plate.

Matanzas in Panama pay homage to Spanish tradition. They are a time to celebrate friends, family and faith: a distant cry from the elaborate dinner tables I was raised around back at home. They don't have rabbits (or at least not live ones) or painted eggs, but oddly enough, my first matanza in Panama felt familiarly like home.
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Last Updated on Monday, 11 August 2008 22:23