It was late December; I reluctantly bid farewell to an Isla Palenque drenched in sunshine and buzzing with the sounds of our Panama resort nearing completion. I hopped in the car with my fellow expatriate coworkers and we zoomed down the Pan-American highway on our way home for the holidays. In Panama, Christmas spirit is brought on by guessing which rain will be “the last rain”, by children rejoicing as they are released from school for the summer, and by the raw, beautiful smell of the lush countryside soaking up the sun after three months of rain. The squat cinderblock houses lining the highway were decked with metallic tinsel and the odd string of twinkle lights – winter wonderland amid palm trees never ceases to surprise me. Amid all the green, strange colorful figures caught my eye and roused my curiosity:
“What are those things?” I asked Jorge, General Manager for The Resort at Isla Palenque and my fellow passenger on this cross-country drive.
“Muñecos,” he replied. “It is a New Year tradition of Panama.”
As we crossed through western Panama en route to Panama City, we sped by a whole population of these garish life-size figures, staring like scarecrows from front lawns, set up with pride to be viewed by all who pass. At first I mistook the muñecos as religious figures, like warped handmade nativity sets, but then I began to notice papier-mâché men in suits, a woman holding a microphone, a construction worker …Jorge didn’t know the exact significance of the figures. As I was soon to learn, this is as typical of Panama’s holiday season as candy canes and snowmen are back home in the US.
My research revealed that the muñeco tradition originated in the western provinces of Panama; the custom of making New Year’s muñecos had been fading until local governments in these regions began sponsoring contests in the last decade or so to keep it alive. Panamanians of the interior begin to papier-mâché their muñecos in early December, modeling them off celebrities, public figures and politicians whom they do NOT care to see any more of in the new year. It’s a creative way of taking a last, long look at a despised or ridiculed personality before expressing your antipathy in a festive bonfire, or more recently, an explosion of fireworks. The muñecos remain on display in front of Panamanian homes throughout the holiday season, before they are toasted with saril and seco and ultimately burned in effigy on New Year’s Eve.
I told Rachel, our editor, about this tradition, to which she immediately replied: “We’re doing this.”
To make sure our participation in the muñeco tradition would not offend anyone, we checked with our local Panamanian friends before getting started on creating our own New Year’s effigy. The impulse to take part wasn’t merely our fascination with this newly-discovered facet of the culture of Panama, although that was a component. But in numerous conversations throughout 2012, with various team members on Isla Palenque and at Amble Resorts’ headquarters in Chicago, we had landed on a few things we would like to bid a permanent farewell in 2013:
For one, willful ignorance. I’m lucky to work with a group of people who are driven by curiosity, and who treat other people with compassion and respect – so individuals who turn a blind eye to global issues really get under our skin.
For another, irresponsibility. With the amount of information that has become accessible as a result of the Internet, and with corporate social responsibility and transparency in business practices transcending the status of trends… conscious consumerism has become the new “norm,” but folks who still lag behind the times are capable of causing considerable damage to the environment and other people through their poor choices.
Finally, the December 14 horror of Newtown, Connecticut is just one example of human suffering that may have been caused or exacerbated by pervasive sensationalism in the media, willful ignorance and irresponsibility. Among the voices of reason that avoided extremist posturing and reactionary measures in the aftermath were those who called for media outlets to stop glorifying crimes and make a more positive contribution to solutions, rather than the amplification of hype.
I will step off this soapbox now… but this is all intended to illustrate why we created the muñeco that we did. Constructed using strips of tabloid magazines The National Enquirer and The Globe, blindfolded by a myopic nationalism, and arms crossed in defiance of anyone with a viewpoint different from her own, our muñeco was torched to honor a tradition belonging to our Panamanian friends, and to wish a brighter future populated by more compassionate and mindful human beings for the rest of our friends worldwide.
Enjoy the photos below, which depict the process of making & burning our muñeco. For all the seriousness of our intent, it was a lot of fun.