This morning, the morning of Martyrs’ Day in Panama (observed), the photo found above would have only piqued my curiosity. But, either thanks to wanting to learn or to curiosity (which is said ‘kills the cat’) I needed to find out what the Panamanian flag, a streetlight pole, and a boy have in common.
My learning experience started this morning when I awoke at 7 AM. Before, I went to sleep, however, I opened my bedroom, living room and kitchen windows to allow a cooling 70-degree ocean breeze to take the place of an air conditioner. I slept soundly and, as I said, awoke at 7 AM. This is about an hour later for me to naturally awaken, but I attributed the extra hour of sleep to adjusting to recent travels. The morning routine was the same: church bells rang the Westminster chime while I made my first cup of coffee. From the windows, however, I could hear and see that the city was unusually quiet. The normal things I would see were different: the taxi stand on Via Espana only had three cabs lined up and normally there would be a dozen; buses were few, cars were few, pedestrians were sparse and the rooftop parking level at the nearby government office was void of cars!
Something was different. This government and banking area was just too quiet and so I went about the task of investigation to learn why the city was so quiet and then to learn of the explanation. Today is the Martyrs’ Day Off of Martyrs’ Day, which is officially on the ninth day of January when the first martyrdom occurred.
Yesterday, back in 1964, the first of 28 Panamanians and 4 American soldiers was killed in skirmishes that were to last three days. All the history is complicated and marked by various perspectives, but for my purpose, it begins with the raising of American and Panamanian flags in the canal zone. President Kennedy had earlier agreed to allow the Panamanian flag to fly along with the American flag at any area of the zone that was not an American military base. Kennedy was of course later assassinated, and the American governor of the zone rescinded the agreement saying that neither the American nor Panamanian flags could be flown in the zone.
However, it is said that some Americans living in the zone were enraged and started to hang American flags anywhere they could, which of course, incited some Panamanian students. Some 200 Panamanian students alerted zone authorities and their school principal that they were going to march into the zone and hang the Panamanian flag alongside the American flag at Balboa High School. Zone police agreed to this, but to control the crowd police only allowed a small group of students to go to the flagpole.
Angry residents of the Canal Zone, called zonies, resented the police-student agreement and scuffles pursued. Protests of the first shooting (martyrdom) bled into Panama City and the rest is history. At noon on 31 December 1999, President Carter ceded the Canal Zone to Panama, breaking an agreement to pay Colombia (former owner) 250 thousand dollars annually (after a ten million initial payment) in perpetuity.
Part of the violence was captured by photographers who seized the image of three students who crossed a wire fence (often referred to as a ‘wall of shame’) to enter the zone to hang a Panamanian flag on a light pole. The pole was just inside the zone and the fence was meant as a protective barrier against a busy highway. Life magazine featured a photo of this incident on the cover of its 24 January 1964 issue.
I was only nine years old in 1964 and yet 58 years later, I awoke to learn about a significant event that shaped world history. Today, no other flag (aside from embassy flags) flies in what was called the Panama Canal Zone. A huge Panamanian flag flies atop Acon Hill (highest point in Panama City area) and a life-size replica of the light pole incident stands in front of the Legislative Assembly. The sovereignty of the Republic of Panama is symbolized on each ship that passes through the canal. The flagship always lowers its home country’s flag and is replaced by the Panamanian flag and the pilot in control is always Panamanian.
Learning all this today was a choice which was prompted by a noticeably quiet city this morning. I am happy to have learned this today because I now live here and see Ancon Hill (Cerro Ancon) on an almost daily basis. As an old priest-friend once said and said often, “Today, I will go to bed less stupid than when I awoke.” Now, the silence of the city I experienced this morning seems a most appropriate solemn commemoration of an especially important day.