La Villa de Los Santos, Panama, Jun 8 (EFE).- To the rhythm of drums and castanets, dozens of “devils” with their terrifying homemade masks enter the La Villa de Los Santos church after being granted “pardons” by a bishop to mark the high point of the traditional Feast of Corpus Christi celebration in this Panamanian town.
The demons – dressed in red and black and with enormous masks accenting their sharp fangs – kneel submissively at the door of the church to receive permission from the bishop to enter into the presence of a representation of the Archangel Michael.
“The … entrance of the devils to the church represents the immense love of God, his ability to forgive the submissive sinner. A very beautiful act where the devil surrenders in the presence of the Archangel Michael,” Panamanian Culture Minister Giselle Gonzalez told EFE.
The La Villa de Los Santos church is hosting the popular yearly staging of the drama on Thursday to celebrate the Feast of Corpus Christi, a Catholic festival in honor of the Eucharist and featuring the “devils” dancing through the narrow streets of the small colonial town in western Panama.
The main streets of La Villa de Los Santos around the church – which was the central site in this and other old colonial cities – are also filled with colorful “carpets” made of salt and bearing religious images.
One of the devil dancers is Joel Saavedra Camargo, born in Los Santos and since childhood a member of the Diogenes Paz Danza de Diablicos folklore group.
“Being a Dirty Devil (one of the several kinds of devils) fills me with great happiness, because it’s something I’ve done since I was small. Each year I’ve always had to evolve to be better at it,” said Camargo, who has performed the traditional Panamanian dance in assorted countries in the Americas and in Europe.
The Corpus Christi festival originated during the Spanish colonial period as a way to convert the indigenous people of Latin America via theatrical performances with devils, representing evil, and angels, representing good.
There are several kinds of devils in Panama, including the Congo Devil, or the “Tun Tun,” and the Mirror Devil, both of them from the Colon region on the Caribbean coast, with its large African-descendant population, and the Great Devil of La Chorrera, a province that borders on Panama City.
In addition, the La Villa de Los Santos Devil – the “Dirty Devil” – is the most popular one in Panamanian culture.
Octogenarian Diogenes Manuel Paz Diaz, the head of the dance group bearing his name and to which Camargo belongs, has been working for almost 40 years to keep the “dirty devil” tradition alive. “I’m happy to have taken on this challenge so that our traditions are not lost,” he said.
“You’re going through life and I want to leave a mark. Some of the traces I’m leaving here, in La Villa, are my grandchildren. They’re continuing with this dance and (I want) them to keep it up,” he said.
The dances and expressive performances associated with the Corpus Christi festival, which are held in communities all over Panama, in 2021 were added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List.