Workers of the Streets in Panama

Last Friday, February 13th, I got up earlier than usual  because I needed to pick up a check at Profuturo and wanted to get there before the traffic jams.  In Panama we call them “tranques” and it’s like quick sand.  Once you get inside a “tranque” you’re stuck forever.  Due to an intense road repairs program, and the construction of the Coastal Strip (Cinta Costera) bordering the Balboa Avenue, there are tranques everywhere all day long .  But that’s another story.

I got to the parking lot of Profuturo about a quarter after six.  It was still dark and I had all the parking spaces I wanted and the traffic flow was just perfect.  The morning was cool and the air was fresh to breathe.  Now I had to wait until eight o’clock when Profuturo opened its doors to the public.

As I sat inside my car listening to the morning news, I noticed a young woman unpacking newspapers and organizing them in neat stack of about 25 newspapers each.  She was about 50 feet from where I was.  After organizing the stacks, she walked the streets peddling the papers while the cars waited for the light to switch from red to green.  She had a rapid pace and was always smiling.  She had to move fast to beat the traffic light.

What caught my attention was how much she walked.  She walked almost a whole block selling her newspapers before the red light switched to green.  She did this over and over again in an endless loop.  When she finished her stack of 25 papers, she went back to her spot to get some more.  I estimate she walks between 20 to 30 miles every day.  When the day is nice and cool, the work is bearable, but after 11:00 a.m. the blazing heat of Panama’s tropical sun can halt you to a crawl.  Just breathing is difficult, not to mention walking with a stack of 25 newspapers on your hands.

I approached and asked if I could take a photograph of her and also congratulated her, since Valentine’s Day would be the next day.  She smiled shyly and said yes.  Before I got her picture, she told that she had to wake up at 3:00 a.m. to take a bus from San Miguelito (about 15 kilometers away) to her spot in front of the El Carmen Church. She had to be there before 5:00 a.m. to receive the rack of newspapers from La Prensa Newspaper delivery truck.

Since she couldn’t get a regular job, the only paying  job available was selling La Prensa newspapers.  She had graduated from High School, knew a little bit about computers, but couldn’t get a normal job because she had no previous experience.   The only job she found available, was to work on the streets.  She had a little girl, three years old, and no supporting husband.  Soon after the child was born, he abandoned her for a younger woman.  She hasn’t seen him since.

Every day, Susana has to walk the streets of Panama in order to bring food to the table for a young hungry mouth waiting back home.  In a way, Susana reminded me of the early pioneers who traveled West on slow-moving schooners to find a piece a land to plant their roots.   They didn’t ask for bailouts, welfare, food stamps or other give outs.  All the wanted was a piece of land to call home and pay for that piece of land with good honest ole hard work.

When it rains, Susana’s hair gets wet.  When the sun it out, Susana’s hair gets hot.  When dirty water is splashed from the streets to the sidewalks, Susana’s clothes get wet and dirty.  But Susana is willing to bite the bullet to place some food on the table for a hungry mouth back home.  She does it with good honest ole work, the way it used to be a long time ago.

My dear readers, this is Susana, one of thousands of workers of the streets in Panama:

The face of one of the thousands of street workers in Panama who work below the traffic lights.
The face of one of the thousands of street workers in Panama who work below the traffic lights. (Credit to Michael Moore for photographic editing)

For the street workers of the world, just like Susana in Panama, who meets life face to face without faltering, I tip my hat to you.  You give us a lesson of dignity and honesty every day you go out and work on the streets for an honest fee.  Good Day.

5 thoughts on “Workers of the Streets in Panama”

  1. Omar, I thought that was a great post. It paints the picture of how hard many people work in Panama to support their family. Of all the things you have written about recently, I like this one the best. It gives all time to think a little more about buying the paper from those selling them. Keep up the great job of covering local Panama.

  2. Hi Don:

    Thank you very much for your encouraging words. As you know, you and Abe have been my reference points for a long time. I’ve learned so many things from you two.

    Lately Michael Moore is helping me getting my feet wet with photography. Meanwhile, I keep shooting the photos I see best for Lingua Franca.



  3. Dignity, honesty and hard work…an example for politicians to aspire to during the current political cycle in Panama.

    This is my favorite post. Your ability to write the story behind the pictures is amazing. I think there is a book in you, Omar. 🙂

  4. Hi Michael:

    I appreciate your supporting words. I echo with your opinion regarding our politicians in Panama who promise one thing and do the opposite. This has been going on as far as I can remember.

    Next time when they visit my house to request my vote, I’m going to be very candid and give them a piece of my mind.

    Maybe we could both write a book together. You put the illustrations and I would write the text. What do you say?



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