Looking in old records, I found this interview done to our President by a University student in 2007:
Colette F-H, History,
Experiencing Panama in Long Beach
I was surprised at the difficulty of finding a Panamanian who would be willing to talk with me. The first step I took to find someone was to look up Panamanian restaurants in the Yellow Pages. I rifled through several books, but found nothing. I then decided to look up Panamanian consulates online and found several of them in various states and cities. The two I deemed most useful were in Anaheim and San Diego. I called the Panamanian consulate in Anaheim first, only to find that it was closed. I then called the consulate in San Diego. When the man who answered the phone told me that he did not know of any consulates or people from Panama nearer to Los Angeles, I decided to try the consulate in Anaheim again. However, when I asked if they would be able to help me find a person to interview, they gave me the number for the consulate in San Diego.
After calling several of my dad’s associates who he thought might be able to help me, I decided to search online again. I did a Google search for “Panamanians in Los Angeles” and, with the aid of a friend, found a Panamanian culture center in Long Beach. I called the center and the man who answered said he would be willing to be interviewed. After introducing himself as Victor, he told me that he had lived in Panama for most of his life, but had moved to California a little over 18 years ago with his family. Since then, he had started the Viva Panama Organization to inform the general public about his culture. He told me to come to his house, which doubles as the organization’s headquarters, the next day at 11:00 A.M. This was a bit of a shock to me, as I was planning on doing my interview the following weekend. However, I quickly typed up a list of about 25 questions for him and before I knew it, my mom and I were en route to Long Beach.
About an hour later, we arrived outside of an apartment building in a pleasant but busy neighborhood and trekked up the stairs to Victor’s apartment. The apartment was very neat and spacious, though somewhat noisy; we could hear a music playing from a neighbor’s stereo, a bird shrieking, and a dog running around in one of the back rooms. We sat down on two of the sofas in the living room and I began to ask my questions.
Victor turned out to be a very well-educated doctor who left Panama in 1988 when the country’s dictator, Antonio Noriega, was discovered to be involved in drug dealing. He seemed quiet and shy, but was very polite, respectable, and glad to answer all of my questions regarding Panama. We talked for nearly two hours about everything Panamanian, from religion and family life to the climate, the corrupt politics, and the educational system. Victor then showed me a power point he had put together about three years previous about Panama. It provided me with a lot of clear and thorough information about the country, some of it new and some familiar. He also showed me several books that contained pictures of holiday celebrations and the cultural dress of Panama: embroidered dresses, gold jewelry, headdresses of pearl and crystal birds, and flowers. As a parting gift, Victor gave me a bag full of pamphlets about Panama and the Viva Panama Organization to share with my classmates.
One topic we discussed in particular was the celebrations in Panama. Victor stated that energetic parties and family are the two things Panamanians value most. He told me that the month of November is practically a month-long holiday in Panama, a fact that I did not know prior to my interview. Panamanians celebrate their independences from Colombia on the third and from Spain on the 28th, as well as Flag day, which takes place in Panama City on the fourth. Each of these days is a 24 hour party. Bands from local high schools are invited to play in parades, and music, dancing, and food can be found on every block.
Another important holiday in Panama is Carnival. “If you want to go to Panama, go for Carnival,” Victor advised me. Victor compared this holiday to Mardi Grass in New Orleans. The celebration takes place sometime in March and lasts for about a week, with parades and dancing on each day. Two queens are crowned and given expensive jewels, headdresses, and clothing to wear. The money for these extravagant costumes is raised over the course of an entire year. Throughout the week, the people of Panama continually douse each other with buckets of water, an experience that is pleasant in so humid a climate.
Something Victor tried to impress upon me throughout the interview was that “sometimes we take everything for granted.” People in all countries rarely appreciate their surroundings until it is too late. He described to me the busy life that he led as a doctor in Panama, a life that was so consumed by work that he had little time for anything else. Victor explained that he never really appreciated or experienced the unique culture of his country until he left it.
I was also forcefully struck by how dedicated Victor is to his country. He started the Viva Panama Organization in 1991 to represent his beloved culture to the general public of Los Angeles and to make his children proud of their heritage. Since then, he has devoted many unpaid hours to this organization.
The organization started out as a small group of Panamanians. They would give presentations to elementary schools about Panama, present power points like the one Victor showed me, or even perform some of the country’s cultural dances. Since then, they have achieved recognition on an international level. They have had exhibits at several museums about Panama and performed cultural dances at the Ford Theater before hundreds of people, including the Vice President of Panama himself. They also hold an annual pageant similar to Carnival and have convinced the officials in Los Angeles to set aside an entire week devoted solely to celebrating Panamanian culture, establishing the International Week of Panama in the Los Angeles County.
Victor is currently trying to obtain a television station that will air only shows about Panama. He is also raising money to build a Panamanian culture center, complete with a restaurant selling only Panamanian cuisine. All of this has come out of Victor’s love for his culture and his pride in being Panamanian.
“I love my country,” Victor stated, and because he gave me such a wonderful experience, I can now fully understand the reasons behind his love, and share his appreciation for the unique culture of Panama.
The mission of VPO is preserving, presenting and promoting the many manifestations of the Culture of Panama, through its music, dances, traditions, literature, paintings, arts & crafts, cuisine, its people, striving to provide the highest quality sample of the spirit and flavor of Panama, to the multicultural population of California, and helping out the socioeconomic development of its native Panama.
In April 1991, after realizing that their Culture was not represented amongst the multicultural festivals in the Southern California area, a group of Panamanians created Ballet Folklórico Viva Panama. Later in April 1999, The Panamanian Cultural Arts Center is created as a response to the need of more exposure of the Panamanian Culture.
Viva Panama Organization (VPO) is the merge of these two first entities, as a way to fulfill the need of the Southern California community and consolidate it with a more comprehensive expression of the Culture of Panama. The formal inauguration of the organization took place on Sept. 14, 2002, in Los Angeles, California with the visit of the Panamanian Miss Universe 2002, Justine Pasek.
We invite you to discover the beauty and the grace of the word "Panama" through the rhythm of its music, the precision of its dances, the luxury and elegance of its polleras, and the spirit of its people.
Our organization had the privilege and pride of establish the International Week of Panama" in the County of Los Angeles in 2003, when we celebrated galore our Centennial at the Anson Ford Theatre. Our organization is the main organization representing culturally our country in Central and Hispanic Associations.
Over time, our dance company has become one of the most respected, talented and professional the Los Angeles, been called by many the "Cultural Ambassadors of Panama". We have represented Panama locally in Southern California, nationwide and internationally with great pride and great responsibility.