Days of Opera

by Marlena Maduro Baraf

WuChi-Tsung_Crystal City 005 Plus Space Odyssey
Crystal City 005 Plus Space Odyssey by Wu Chi-Tsung

Our family had settled in Panama in the mid 1800s, descendants of Jews from Spain and Portugal who left Iberia after the Spanish Inquisition. Everyone was related, first cousins married to first cousins, all the qualities remixing. Some appearing to thicken as they doubled up.

***

Every year, when the opera troupe arrived from Italy, tío Antonio, my mother’s youngest brother, would beg the impresario to sing to him at his apartment on the seventh floor of the eight-story building where many in the family lived. “Lagares, you can’t deny us your beautiful voice,” tío Antonio would cry out, and water would pool in his eyes, and he would reach for the chair that only he sat on, his chest puffed up in anticipation of feeling.

Of course, el señor Lagares–who was Italo-Argentino–would comply. One knee over the wall-to-wall orange carpet, the impresario would open his arms to an imagined audience and sing a Neapolitan song of love in a rich voice that thrilled us.

“Tío Antonio es mami con pantalones,” my sister Patricia and I dared to whisper. He’s mami with pants. Handsome with long patillas, tío Antonio was very vain, effusive with compliments–none of which we believed. “You look tan bella“–not missing a beat–followed by “so much better than you looked last week.”

Still, we yearned for the compliment, and we always got stung.

In advance of the opera troupe, signor Frigo–his hair painted red—arrived in Panama City to train the children’s chorus that would participate in the performances. My little cousins who were musical practiced every morning. Their intricate wardrobes arrived by sea, moldy and damp.

The company performed Verdi’s romantic operas, La Traviata, Rigoletto, Aida. Puccini’s La Boheme. At el Teatro Río or el Cecilia. Tío Antonio and his brothers sponsored the Italian troupe for three consecutive years and recorded the arias to listen to every day–blasting Quando me’n vo’ or Si mi chiamano Mimi on giant JBL and Harman Kardon speakers, brands that they carried in their retail and wholesale business.

I listened for them on my grandmother Amamá’s open balcony six stories below.

“The second crazy after mami,” we sometimes said that. Tío Antonio talked about his fobias and didn’t like to be touched. He held doorknobs with tissues, tried to cure his anxieties by hypnosis con Pentotal, searched for doctors in Panama to help with the family’s maladies. (Tío Antonio found the doctor who would perform insulin shock therapy—“sugar therapy” he called it—on mami.)

In 1958 mami’s brothers sponsored Leonard Bernstein’s first stop of a tour that he and the New York Philharmonic would make through several cities in South America. My uncles selected el Teatro Río for the performance, a cinema in an Afro-Antillian neighborhood down river from our still-small capital city. The building had the widest stage and magnificent acoustics. The white panameños would travel that night to Río Abajo for the love of music. It poured that night. There was no changing room and no air conditioning (as was typical then). The musicians’ trunks that lined the side of the building were soaked. Performers slipped into their damp dinner jackets in front of passers by.

In other years my tíos sponsored the violinist Joseph Fuchs. Ella Fitzgerald. The San Francisco Ballet. They fashioned themselves as purveyors of the arts in our city, thereby quenching their own thirst for beautiful things.

***

The ladies at the store spray perfume inside the fold in my arms, and they smudge little dabs of colorete on my cheeks. I visit with Amamá almost every Saturday morning. We drive all the way from Bella Vista to Avenida Central, the main commercial street of the city. It’s hot hot hot, though inside the store the air conditioning moves the hairs on my arms y tengo los pelos de punta. The salesladies, who are mostly white, say, “¿Cómo está doña?” with a lilt to their voices. They linger with Amamá as she peers into the glass displays and asks a question about the Noritake dishes or the cultured pearls from Japan. Amamá owns the store–along with her sons who inherited the business from their father Jicky. I watch Amamá, who is short, lift her chin as she talks to the ladies in a kind of supplication.

When I’m bored at the store, I will cross the narrow side street perpendicular to Avenida Central and walk into Café Durán. I will make a beeline for the glass vat in the corner where the coffee beans are ground. With my nose pressed on the glass I will watch the copper dust fly. This will last one minute. The coffee perfume will jam into my head, driving me back to the family store to wait while Amamá murmurs her goodbyes.

I touch her soft, freckled hand. Amamá doesn’t rush, but she’s heading out the glass door into the heat. My heart is swelling. It almost hurts to love her. I love her more than mami.

In the car at noon my head feels like it will explode from the heat.

***

“Is he the one?” Patricia and I sometimes said. “Is Jicky the reason why mami is sick?”

His grandchildren liked to hear the stories. Tales of séances that our grandfather Jicky (who lived until 1931) held with tío “Abrúm,” Abraham Melhado married to tía Adela. The men listened for sounds of rappings…and tappings…hands divining over a three-legged stool that had no nails. Once in the dark a young man’s voice called out: “I’ve died in war, and my family doesn’t know where I am buried.” The soldier’s voice asked that his parents be called in New Jersey. My grandfather Jicky phoned a cousin in New York. “Please look up the family; they need to be told.”

Tía Emma, Jicky’s eldest daughter said, “He wanted the best and the biggest! Always an exaggeration! He lost large sums of money and had to be rescued by family.”

Before he met Amamá, Jicky opened several cantinas near construction sites for the new American canal begun in 1904, one year after Panama became independent from Colombia. Jicky had owned a photography studio and painted watercolor seascapes. He recorded with his camera things that no one had witnessed before. Mountains were being carved at his doorstep. Lakes were invented. Jicky was the artist behind the postcards and souvenir books that he sold.

“Finest selection of Choice Panama Hats for Ladies and Gentlemen.” I.L.Maduro—Jicky’s store–was on the corner of Plaza Catedral in the old city. There were shelves on all sides stacked with hats, fine-woven straw hats that he imported from a cousin in Ecuador and sold to men working the canal or making the crossing of the Isthmus.

When Albert Einstein traveled to Panama for a ceremonial crossing of the new canal tu abuelo gave the physicist his first Panama Hat.”

Jicky carried maps, books, fishing tackle, Egret feathers, ostrich eggs, shrunken heads, and women’s underthings from Paris. He sold small rocks, polished souvenirs of canal construction (that he imported from Germany). During Carnaval he added confetti and serpentina to his stock, for the tourists hanging out on the balconies of the Hotel Central over the plaza.

***

It was still standing when I was a girl, the storybook house that Jicky built in 1915 in Bella Vista. He had been one of the first to settle in the new neighborhood outside of the colonial city of Panama. The house was a miniature castle set high on a mound. It had a queenly turret and long white balconies like ribbons that laced against the undulating walls. My grandfather had fallen in love with the prototype during a visit to Germany. He copied it against a backdrop of coconut and mango trees. He planted twisting, pumpkin vines leading to the house.

After Jicky moved to Bella Vista with Amamá and their four children, he invited Amamá’s widowed sister and her three children to live with them. Mami and two of her brothers were born in the house in Bella Vista. With seven of their own plus my great aunt’s three, the house was wild with children.

“Jicky loved to tease me,” Amamá confided. “When screaming children had me threatening horrible punishments, Jicky would call out, ‘Which one shall I flush first?’ and then yo me calmaba.” Gentle and forgiving, mi abuelo never punished the children. He rocked in his rocker, oblivious, and he heard everything.

Jicky outfitted a lush garden–with the assist of Clarence el jardinero–and he built a life-sized playhouse at the back. There were birds everywhere–we heard this from tía Ines who had lived in the house just behind. Eight canaries in the balcony. Parakeets eating fruit from Jicky’s plate. Guacamayas screeching inside the trees.

After his move to Bella Vista, Jicky would drive into the old city with his youngest son Antonio who polished and polished the car while his father lost and lost at poker at the Hotel Central on Plaza Catedral.

“Jicky era un soñador…. He was a dreamer…,” Amamá would tell us.

Jicky took to his bed for weeks in despair.

Was Jicky the culprit, the one we could blame? Some primos and tíos had periods of depression–or they overflowed with emotion. People said the ‘crazy’ parts came from the de Castro family blood in Jicky’s and in all of our lines. What could you expect from family who married kin generation after generation.

 

 

Marlena Maduro Baraf was born in Panama and lives and works in New York. She studied at Occidental College in Los Angeles and at Parsons School of Design in New York City. She blogs the Soy/Somos series with Latino Voices at the Huffington Post. Her writing has also appeared in the Westchester Review and Blue Lyra Review.