The Exotic in the Tropics

October 9, 2015

The tropical nation of Panama is the bridge between North and South America. Indeed, as the link that has brought the continents together for millions of years, today it is home to a blend of ecosystems that can be seen across the entirety of this small territory. Biologists find themselves captivated while tourists arriving from other latitudes marvel, especially when, just minutes from the city, they run into an iguana, deer, or toucan. They are even more amazed when, in just two hours’ time, they make the voyage from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean. Nevertheless, this fascinating natural history seems to be in conflict with the cultural history that can be read in the constructed landscape of Panama City and the surrounding area.

Panama, a country that serves as a passageway, has been and continues to be home to people from all over the world. As its inhabitants, we have gone about creating a city guided by our own personal histories; needs and ideals that have interacted with the environs to create the city where we live today. After nearly five hundred years of existence, it could be said that our narratives still have not reached a consensus: parks, hectares of wetlands, and historical districts disappear; super-modern highways over the sea compete with the horizon; shopping centers multiply; while on my way to work, there is an open sewer drain that for the past four months has been marked by a piece of wood and a rag. The dominant narrative for the last ten years or so is the one proclaiming that we have the fastest-growing economy in Latin America, an assessment that investors have really taken to heart.

Naturally, these issues have also become a central concern in the work of various artists, and it provided me with the motivation for the photographic journey that I share in this text.

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Ela Spalding, from the series "Se Vende", Panama, 2005
Ela Spalding, from the series "Se Vende", Panama, 2005

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Donna Conlon, Espectros urbanos (2004). SD Video 4:3 2'36". Images courtesy of the artist
Donna Conlon, Espectros urbanos (2004). SD Video 4:3 2'36". Images courtesy of the artist

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Top and bottom: Ela Spalding, from the series "Entre suelo y concreto", Panama, 2014
Top and bottom: Ela Spalding, from the series "Entre suelo y concreto", Panama, 2014

For many Panamanians, our jungle of skyscrapers and the fact that we have the largest malls in the region are a source of pride. Victims of savage capitalism, we have become desirous of that which is exotic for the tropics: an apartment far from the muddy earth, where we can enjoy ourselves in a controlled climate, without humidity or mosquitos, and where we can feel safe from the jungle, surrounded by pleasant things. In essence, we want to live here in the way that they live in developed countries. And if the context does not allow it, well then we’ll buy it or build it! No matter how much time we have to spend in the car.

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Pilar Moreno, Corredor Sur (2015). Photo by Dominique Ratton Pérez
Pilar Moreno, Corredor Sur (2015). Photo by Dominique Ratton Pérez

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Pilar Moreno, Guayacanes en Flor (2015). Photo by Dominique Ratton Pérez
Pilar Moreno, Guayacanes en Flor (2015). Photo by Dominique Ratton Pérez

It is natural for the transportation of goods and financial services to be the driving force of our economy, and for our identity to be built upon the country’s geographical position. However, seeing that this tendency is spreading to the beaches and the countryside, I wonder what cultural beliefs perpetuate and expand the detachment from the environment that we are experiencing today. Is it perhaps due to the perspective of the colonial era and early 20th century, which characterized the tropics as an unhealthy region where the heat and humidity could drive people crazy, and suggested that it would be best either to eradicate the zone or to import European customs to it? Or is it the hundred years of history with the canal and the United States that drives us to adopt certain elements and ideas of the tropics, without ever ceasing to idealize the North? Or is it simply globalization and a desire to copy the style of other highly developed countries?

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Ela Spalding, from the series "Entre suelo y concreto", Panama, 2014. Photo taken on the way to the beach
Ela Spalding, from the series "Entre suelo y concreto", Panama, 2014. Photo taken on the way to the beach

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Ela Spalding, from the series "Entre suelo y concreto", 2014. These landscapes were photographed almost simultaneously—they are separated by a highway
Ela Spalding, from the series "Entre suelo y concreto", 2014. These landscapes were photographed almost simultaneously—they are separated by a highway

In conversation with Luis Pulido Ritter, the writer, literary critic, and author of I Remember Panama and The American Dream, we spoke of his theory that what has affected Panama is the devaluation of the public sphere and the cult of the private. Thinking in these terms, if the only thing that matters to me is what I possess, and the public does not belong to me, I will not be very interested in getting to know it, much less in understanding it. It is even logical for me not to develop a true sense of belonging to the place where I live, or a sense of community.

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Ela Spalding, from the series "Entre suelo y concreto", 2014. Makeshift garbage dump in Camino de Cruces National Park
Ela Spalding, from the series "Entre suelo y concreto", 2014. Makeshift garbage dump in Camino de Cruces National Park

Making reference to Edouard Glissant’s concept of the archipelago, Luis believes (and I am in agreement) that what our small countries need is a change of perspective in our narratives—transcending outmoded habits and exhausted stories. It would definitely be valuable to begin adopting the lessons of our natural environment as an inspiration: the resiliency of tropical forests, their capacity for adaptation, collaboration. It would be good to remember that we are part of that ecosystem and that we affect it just as it affects us. If we don’t write the histories that are going to make us grow, someone else will do it for us.

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Ela Spalding, from the series "Entre suelo y concreto", 2014
Ela Spalding, from the series "Entre suelo y concreto", 2014

Humans' survival as a species depends upon adapting ourselves and our landscapes—settlements, buildings, rivers, fields, forestsin new, life-sustaining ways, shaping contexts that acknowledge connections to air, earth, water, life, and to each other, and that help us feel and understand these connections, landscapes that are functional, sustainable, meaningful, and artful.

- Anne Whiston Spirn
The Language of Landscape
(Yale University Press, 1998)


Translated by Phillip Penix-Tadsen.