When Servants Could Always Go Home


It was a January afternoon 20 years ago, and I had spend much of the day climbing the muddy, steep mountain road that led to Loma Bonita in central Panama. As I reached a small clearing, a woman came bounding toward me. She arrived and stood close - penetrating dark eyes, openly curious, long black braided hair tucked mostly into a worn straw hat, front teeth missing, no shoes. Introductions seeming superfluous, Rosa Mendosa accompanied me to the house I was seeking of a local politician, talking and asking questions without pause or embarrassment.

As I would soon learn, Rosa's was the real story. Her history sheds light on what happened for many rural women in Panama after 1940 as their families found themselves for the first time without enough land to meet subsistence needs.

When Rosa Mendosa was born in the 1920s, Loma Bonita was a small community of subsistence farmers. It lacked running water, paved roads, electricity, public services, or buildings. In this community of close kin, at least one adult in each household descended from Reina Mendosa, one of Loma Bonita's first permanent settlers about a century earlier. She had been part of a century-long process whereby small lowland farmers were pushed higher and higher into the mountains as wealthy Panamanians created cattle and sugar-cane estates. Reina and her descendants are mestizos, people of mixed ancestry, including African, European, and, especially, Indian backgrounds. To low-landers, however, they are cholos, a derogatory term for both indigenous people and poor highlanders.

Although Loma Bonita seems little changed now from when Rosa was born, commercial agriculture has deeply altered daily life. Coffee production, which began when Rosa was young, has undermined the ability of families to subsist on the land and forced them to send members to distant jobs. Thus, while Avelina Mendosa, Rosa's mother, spend most of her days in or near Loma Bonita working as a farmer, Rosa often moved between the highlands and city work as a live-in servant. Her daughters, and some sons, have spent virtually their entire adulthood in cities.


In 1972, Avelina was an energetic and independent 70-year-old. Living alone, she worked her fields, cared for the chickens and turkeys and a pig, and climbed up and down the steep, slippery mountains. It was easy to see that she and Rosa were kin. Although Avelina's black braids were speckled with white, the eyes, skin color, and laugh were the same, as was a lower jaw promising independence - or stubbornness.

Avelina lived in a world defined primarily by the household, kinship, and work:

As soon as I opened my eyes, I saw two things - these mountains and all of my relatives. Both have taken care of me in my times of need. I'd wake up, climb down to the stream for water, help prepare breakfast, wash dishes, sweep the patio, feed the animals. There was no rush. We often talked and composed songs while we worked.

Although people in Loma Bonita worked hard and had few material things, all families usually had enough food to escape persistent hunger. Slash-and-burn farming gave them plant foods - rice, beans, yucca, corn, plantains, yams, sugar cane, fruits. They also hunted, fished, and raised chickens, turkeys, pigs, and, sometimes, cattle. To buy what the land didn't provide - salt and cloth, for example - households needed about $20 a year. They got it by selling home-woven hats or other products or by sending a few men and women to work for wages during slack farming periods.

Having about 70 acres was pivotal to subsistence, and every household had at least that much land. No family had reason to farm much more land since markets were far away. And although they were far away. And although they were actually squatters on lands owned by the state, people treated the land as if they owned it - trading, loaning, selling, and passing it down. Because the community was poor and inaccessible, the state interfered little.

Women and men were complementary partners in work. For example, of the seven major tasks associated with slash-and-burn farming - felling trees, burning, planting, weeding, harvesting, processing, and trading - both genders commonly did four. Even the other three weren't rigidly assigned. Felling trees and selling products in the lowlands were mainly men's work, but all the older women in Loma Bonita in 1972 had done both. Food processing was women's work, but older men had consistently helped dry, toast, and husk food. In Avelina's family, "since we were seven girls and only one boy, we girls helped our parents a lot in all the work. Sometimes I even went with my father to fell trees. I always wanted to do farm work because I preferred the machete and digging stick to weaving hats."

Avelina followed a path tread by many Loma Bonita women. At 20, she became pregnant by a man married to a relative. Although she named him as the father and got a small piece of his land as compensation, she stayed in her parents' house, which brought neither social nor economic stigma. In fact, children usually bore the mother's surname before World War II.

A few years later, Avelina had a second child and established a household with its father, a cousin named Silvestre Mendosa. Since he had little land, they lived with her parents until building a small home on her land. They eventually had seven children, and decades later married when a Catholic priest came to a nearby town to perform a free, collective ceremony, but many stormy years led them finally to separate. Silvestre left the highlands while Avelina continued farming. "Better off alone," she told me, "than with a man who is trouble."


Rosa's youth in the 1920s, differed little form her mother's - working and playing close to home. By the time she became a teenager, however, Loma Bonita was changing. Merchants had begun settling in the nearby town of Cope, where they set up stores to buy and sell highlander products, especially coffee. With a source of cash so close, Loma Bonita families scrambled to get access to land and seeds to increase their coffee crop. Those able to forge an alliance with Cope merchants succeeded more often, and the result was growing inequality in the distribution of land. By World War II, a few families lacked the minimum for a subsistence farm and needed other ways to increase their store of food or cash.

World War II opened up a way. U.S. operations in Panama improved the national highway and generated relatively high-paid, unskilled service and construction jobs in the Canal Zone and cities. This provided many rural people with both their first urban jobs and a road to reach them. "Word reached Loma Bonita," Rosa says, "that Panama City was bursting with live-in servant jobs for girls and construction jobs for men." Families accommodated by sending about half their unmarried adults to the cities.

Rosa was one of the first to join this migrant stream, leaving home for the first time at age 16 on the eve of the war. After a fight with a relative, she ran away to work in Penonome:

Late that night when everyone else slept I packed a few of my things and at first light left home. I walked alone to the town for eight hours straight. When I got there, I found Señora Carolina [the mother of a Loma Bonita teacher]. She took me in and helped me get servant work. I stayed for two months and earned $5 each month. I left when news arrived that my mother needed my help. I spent part of my salary on a 100-pound sack of rice for my family.

When the war ended, so did most urban jobs for men, but the demand for servants continued. The men returned the Loma Bonita, while more and more young, unmarried women went to cities and towns. Rosa was among them. Over the next 15 years, she held 11 jobs, each lasting between two months and a year. Between jobs, she returned to Loma Bonita for a few weeks to a year at a time.

In the early 1950s, Rosa suspected she was pregnant. The father was a Loma Bonita man named Rafael. "I immediately told him about my suspicions to be certain that he didn't later disclaim his fatherhood, but he didn't later disclaim his fatherhood, but he didn't specifically ask me to live with him. So I went back to my job in Panam City."

During Rosa's sixth month of pregnancy, Avelina asked her to return; when she reached Penonome, rafael was waiting with a horse. After Rosa gave birth in Loma Bonita, she and Rafael set up a home. This ended Rosa's early servant career, although a decade later, the mother of five, she returned to Panama City and servant work for brief interludes.

Risa's history resembles that of many Loma Bonita women between the mid-1940s and 1960s. A servant career tended to be temporary. A woman would leave home at about the age of sixteen, and move back and forth between Loma Bonita and cities for a half dozen years until marrying. Working six or seven days a week, for twelve and more hours a day, the migrants earned only about $23 a month in cities, half that in towns.

Nevertheless, women's remittances to their families - often half their salaries - brought relief. A few extra dollars let a family engage in coffee cash cropping, buy food and necessities when shortages arose, and purchase some consumer items. With Rosa's wages, Avelina bought food, chickens, coffee seeds, day labor - and for Rosa, a dental bridge and a cot.

However beneficial to a family this labor pattern was, it took its toll on highland women, exposing them to a previously unknown level of indignity and exploitation. In one job, for example, Rosa worked in a restaurant where the cashier harassed her continually and finally attacked her. In two others, her employer made sexual advances. She remained angry for years afterwards at an employer who gave her menstruation-stained rags to discard.


In the city, facing a triple oppression against their class, their gender, and their ethnicity as cholas, how did women like Rosa salvage their dignity and deal with formidable working conditions?

One way was to develop a network of support. Several times, Rosa turned to the families of the few teachers or merchants she knew from the highlands, but mostly she relied on a small group of female relatives in the cities. She traveled with them to and from cities, and on Sundays they met to socialize, empathize, plan. Rosa got all but one of her jobs through a female relative, and once helped her sister Marcela plan an escape from a man she lived with:

Marcela and I would buy a bottle of rum, invite Ramiro to a dance, and get a him so drunk that he would pass out. We would them sneak away to the highway. In the meantime, Autn Elana and our other sister would go to Marcela's house, pack up the children, clothes, and chickens, and meet us on the highway.

While such networks could soften the impact of harsh working conditions, a migrant had little leverage with employers to actually improve the work situation. What she did have was the freedom to quit. Rosa quit seven of her jobs because she felt she had been poorly treated. "I just quit and went home," she told me. "I could always get another job in the city, and I could always go home."

Back in the highlands, however, women faced new difficulties. While men stayed close to the family land and available year-round to farm, young migrant women were no longer dependable farm labor. Moreover, the migrants' absences from Loma Bonita left the other women with more child-care and household duties. "My life has gotten harder for me since my older daughters left to work in Panama," Rosa said in 1972. "My younger children can't be trusted yet to guard the house and prepare meals, so when Rafael is working in the fields, I can't go to help even when he is nearby." Women still worked the fields when they could, but they tended to do so as assistants rather than partners.

Land, too, moved into firmer male control as coffee merchants and government officials, all males, allied mainly with highland men. In Rosa's family, a battle erupted when Rosa's grandfather died. On one side stood Avelina and two of her sisters; on the other, their brother Federico. Threatening physical harm, he denied his sisters the use of some land, and when Avelina took the case to district officials, she failed to get enough support from other family members. Her husband had left, her sons were young, and two of her three older daughters, including Rosa, were away working in the city. In the end, Avelina appeared at the district office with only one young daughter. Federico had arrived early, presented his case, and secured support. Avelina and her sisters got small pieces of the estate, but Federico laid claim to most of it. Urban migration had reinforced his position by scattering Avelina's potential allies and affording them salaries too low to help buy political favors.

Like Avelina, many Loma Bonita women took action to defend their rights. They did so even in the face of the powerful forces of commercial agriculture and urban migration that were eroding their economic status. Some of this opposition took place in the privacy of their homes, where women could influence household economic decisions. But often women were willing to battle in public, in government offices that were supposed to support the inheritance rights of male and female alike. Women lost the lion's share of these land disputes, but their challenges forced enough concessions to enable them and many of their children to live in Loma Bonita. That Rosa and most of her sisters and brother could return to raise their families in Loma Bonita was due, in part, to her fighting spirit.

Avelina's and Rosa's stories are those of millions of poor, rural women in the twentieth century. As "development" undercuts a family's ability to subsist on the land, the women are pushed into urban work at the same time as they face males' growing advantages back home. Yet women resisted the new hierarchy however they could. In cities and the highlands, they developed supportive networks, quits jobs at will, and waged battles over the land. Later, in the 1970s and '80s, they would try to improve their lives by joining government-sponsored development projects and cooperatives and a church-sponsored religious movement. Although these efforts didn't prevent inequality, they helped Avelina and Rosa win another generation some control over their daily lives in Loma Bonita. Their efforts altered history.

Nevertheless, Rosa's was the last generation that could always go home. Except in a few wealthier households, the next generation lacked the land or other resources to support their children's return to Loma Bonita. Rosa's children, and almost all their contemporaries, have settled far away. Working in low-paid servant or other service or informal sector jobs - when employed - they live an urban version of their previous rural poverty. Out of both love and economic need many maintain strong links with Loma Bonita, yet few see Loma Bonita as a home for their own children.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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