A Belle in Panama: I Saw God in Myself

El Criste Negro, Portobelo, Panama Remember a couple weeks ago when I saw “For Colored Girls…” as a play, for the first time? (If not, click here.) There was this moment in the “green room” (which was not green, just a conference room where the held the actresses/ hosts/experts, etc.) where 30-40 Black women needed to rehearse the closing song and in unison this entire room of Black grown women with these big, trained voices start wailing, “I saw God in myself” over and over and over.

Ok. So that’s what pops in my head when we—Me + Alex, Javier, and Dash (all American-born Panamanians who moved back to Panama)—pull up to Iglesia San Felipe, the Portobelo church where “El Cristo Negro” aka “El Nazareno” aka the Black Christ is housed 364 days a year. (On October 21, he’s carried around the town.) I’m nervous. And I’m not sure why. It’s like I’m going to meet someone and it’s a big deal, not like I’m going to see a statue.

The group I’m with has seen the statue before, several times. It’s not that they’re unimpressed, it’s that the novelty isn’t there anymore.  That and they’ve seen the annual celebration El Cristo Negro, which means they’ve watched people crawl to Black Christ while someone else poured hot wax on their back for penance. After that, just seeing the statue of Black Jesus behind a glass, no less, doesn’t have the same “umph!”

But me? Look it, Linda, listen, I didn’t know about Black Christ in Panama, or anywhere else in the world, for that matter (this isn’t the only one). And I did my research on Panama. I Googled ish, and I read travel blogs, and I bought a book about Panama and I brushed up on my Spanish (not enough), and I asked Panamanians where to go and what to do and nothing I read and no one I talked to mentioned Black Jesus.

A commenter on Instagram (@jenniferrosenyc) is actually the one who put me on when I started posting #abelleinpanama pics. She mentioned the statue and I was like, “Huh? WHAT?!” and looked it up and then totally –excuse the phrasing, but it sums up my thoughts so accurately— lost my entire sh—.  I was up until 2 AM reading up on Black Jesus. Then I re-arranged my whole trip to see it, or, er, them. There are two.


My Jesus is Black... like my President.

Lemme explain. My grandfather was a Pastor and his wife was the First Lady and the choir director and the organist. I spent every summer with them, these super religious people, until I was 12. They were the type of Old Christians that didn’t allow R&B played in their house—my grandmother confiscated by Babyface cassette because of the lyrics to “Whip Appeal”—  and didn’t allow women to wear pants to church, even for choir rehearsal.

On my grandmother’s bedroom wall, the ONLY picture hanging was of white Jesus—blonde-haired, blue eyed Jesus— in prayer. The Jesus? I got it because she was very religious. But White Jesus? It just never made sense to me. I mean, we’s Black. Shouldn’t our Jesus look like us?

And I didn’t know why I thought that until much, much later when I was taught to think critically and over analyze everything so you can catch other folks with the okey-doke, but not get caught yourself:  I read the “Autobiography of Malcolm X” when I was “too” young. That whole NOI bit about white folk being made in labs and their theft stuck with me (less so the lab part). The idea that criminal-minded Black men learned about a God in their image and had a come to Jesus, or er, Allah moment and turned their lives around enough to put on suits and bow ties to stand in the hot ass sun selling newspapers and bean pies meant there was something to the idea of a God who looked like you. I mean Malcolm X was a white-woman humping, borderline devil-pimp and look what he became after he was introduced to the idea of God in his own image? There’s something to it. It’s why every race of people—except Black folk—have it and promote it. When you see God in yourself, you act different. You act better. You think better of yourself. You don’t accept being treated as inferior.

I made that connection as a kid even if I couldn't articulate it well. But I did enough to convince my folks— the ones who bought the Malcolm X book and put it on the shelf, so it wasn’t really far-fetched— to buy one of those “Last Supper” paintings with Black Jesus as the host, and Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Marcus Garvey as disciples and put it on the wall in the living room. But my mama still got up every Sunday and went to a church with a Black minister and an entirely Black congregation in an nearly all Black city that had Big White Jesus, arms out stretched and welcoming you at the entrance in the middle of the hood, ie, where Black people lived.   My Dad, raised in the church, didn’t “do” church anymore by then. “Well, Daddy doesn’t go” wasn’t ever a good enough excuse to get me out of going, but when I said, “I’m not going to a church with a white Jesus on the wall” my mother didn’t have a comeback and relented, so I slept in after that.

The Bible I grew up on describes Jesus with hair like wool and feet like brass and this must mean Jesus is Black, or the very least brown. This is my pet topic, has been for years. It pisses people off. Folks, Black folks, hit me back with, “I know, but…” and then talk about how Jesus’s color doesn’t matter. (A woman hit me with it yesterday when I started posting Black Jesus pics on Instagram). But it does matter. That’s why the reigning image of Jesus wherever white folks dominate the culture looks like them and not at all how He’s described in the Holy Bible.  You can’t recognize Jesus – and by default God and his mama—as Black, and then be A-OK with treating Black people like sh---while Christopher Columbus-ing all their labor/land/resources.

Black Jesus matters. And I thought for a really long time that maybe I was kinda off for making such a big deal about it. There's that, and maybe I’m not the right messenger.  Like, I know I talk about relationships and dating  a lot, and I’m on a reality TV show, an occupation which like no one I respect actually respects, and I occasionally write about utter drivel (that gets hits). I realize many people think I’m fluff.  And sometimes I am. But I’m also borderline Nas on “No Introduction”:

I just act like I'm civilized Really what's in my mind is organizing a billion Black motherf--uckers To take over JP and Morgan, Goldman and Sachs And teach the world facts and give Saudi they oil back



Black Jesus in Portebelo and the Black folk in Panama who have been acknowledging his awesomeness for 350+ years is the sign I’m not crazy, or some Black revolutionary without a real cause. El Cristo Negro is an affirmation of my sanity. And that's why I'm nervous. It's like you believe something your whole life and there's no proof (ie, faith), everyone you know says you're nuts for harping on it, and then one day you get validation. You're not the only one. I also feel relieved.

So I go in to the church and I walk up to the candles in front of Black Jesus, and look up. And then I walk around them, and walk right up to the bottom of the stairs. He’s at the top, and He’s looking out and I’m still looking up and I take a bunch of pictures from different angles because I know I’m putting this on Instagram and I want all the new follows who thought they were just going to look at the clothes and big hair of some random chick on reality TV who talks and curses and rolls her eyes at dumb sh-- “too much”, to actually get something out of paying attention to me, something that actually matters.  A God in their image matters.

In case you were wondering why I do it, reality TV is my "motherf--er."

Dash asks me if I want to take a picture with Jesus. It would require me to go up the steps and stand close to him, at the same level. I don’t want to.

It’s partly because… well, I’ve spent several days going in and out of Panamanian churches on my trek around Casco Viejo and I’ve noticed something. American and European depictions of Jesus make him look sad, but stoic, a level-head when everyone around him is losing theirs.   Jesus is nailed to the cross with a crown of thorns, but there’s no blood. And Jesus looks he’s accepting his fate, taking his crucifixion like a G. In Panama though? He looks tortured and miserable and suffering. There’s blood gushing down his face. And many of the Jesus—it’s plural like “deer” and “fish”, right?— I see are life-size. So not, 3 foot carved statue of Jesus where you can be like, "oh, a figurine of Jesus", but like  6-foot- plus Jesus who looks too-human, in pain, bloody and with weave/wig hair. He didn’t just die for our sins; He was cut down to the white meat and drawn-out tortured for us can’t act right, insufferable a--holes so we better be REALLY thankful for Him. So nah, I’m good on getting close to suffering, real-person looking Jesus who looks like he could reach out and smite someone.

There’s that and, I don’t want to be equal with Jesus, even in pictures. We’re not the same, not on the same level. Today, in this moment, despite being raised in the church, I feel like I just met Jesus for the first time. I actually feel connected to God. I like looking up. I like respecting something, someone bigger than myself. I've been walking around since I saw the statue feeling like Jesus walks with me, and it's not some guy who looks like someone I would like never hang out with (I don't have any white male friends); this Jesus actually looks like one my homeboys. No, really. I've joked for years that one of my best friends looks like "Black Jesus". I was on to something.

So yeah,  I ain’t setting foot in a Black church with a White Jesus again.

And I’m also not saying I’m completely changed person.

After we left Portobelo, we headed to Isla Grande, a little island, a five minute ride off the mainland. We convinced the “driver” of the boat to take us to the beach by the other Black Jesus. Yes there are two, because this group of Black folk in Colon apparently love themselves some God in their own image. The Other Jesus is crucified, strung up on a cross in the middle of the ocean. I went into the water and took a bunch of pictures of him while humming Marvin Sapp songs and sipping from a red cup.

The Black Christ, Isla Grande


I’m a work in progress.



A Belle in Panama: Isla Taboga

Isla Taboga, Panama  

I got up early this AM (Friday) and took a ferry to Isla Taboga. I left too early to grab free breakfast at the hotel, so I found a hotel on the island that was still serving it. The plan was to head to the beach after and do nothing. Yes, I have to plan to go blank. And I ordered a veggie omelette

While I was waiting with my coffee and for my food, a sneak storm comes. I look up from my book when I hear a bang of thunder, and all the sudden the sky is dark, the water is choppy, and the wind is whipping everything around. The manager is running from door-window to door-window closing everything and just when he finishes, the sky opens up. It's rainy season.

So I sit and eat my breakfast and watch the show Mother Nature puts on. And then I go back to reading my book until the storm passes. 3.5 hours later, the sky has stopped leaking and I have finished "Who Asked You?", which was a GREAT read.

I sling on my backpack and go exploring in the direction of the beach. It looks like something out of "The Beach". Remember that movie where young Leonardo DiCaprio goes HAM? Exactly like that. It's beautiful and I have one of those I-Can't-Believe-This- Is-Life moments. I take a bunch of pics, then abruptly stop. I took a helicopter to the middle of the Grand Canyon once and the pilot, a woman, told us about this guy who’s “a regular”, who comes to the Canyon and never takes pics. He spends the visit taking the view all in, and when he forgets what it looks like with clarity, he comes back. I want to be like that guy. I want to enjoy the moment and I want to come back here (again and again) and bring friends so they can experience all this awesome.

I put my phone away and I walk to the water. It's bath water warm. And I just stand there looking and watching folks swim and leaves blow and what looks like a film being well, filmed and these guys digging holes big enough to be graves in the sand and then I just stare at the pretty houses in the hills.

I don't know how long I stand there. But when I've had my fill, I go find a restaurant with $3 red wine, and I sit at the table and read "Lucky" with Solange on the cover talking about how she stopped wearing prints and likes solids and color-blocking now and I realize this wardrobe change is the entire hook of the story. "Elevator-gate" doesn't even come up. Womp.

I fall asleep for part of the boat ride back to the mainland. And I hail a taxi and negotiate the rate with the driver. He offered $10, I haggled him down to $5. I should have paid no more than $4, but... My Spanish is getting better, I see.

When I get Wi-Fi again, there's a text from Alex. In summary, we're renting a car tomorrow to go see both Black Jesuses in Portobelo and Isle Grande.

I'd tell you more, but now I have to go find said rental car place and extend my stay at the hotel/find another room. My goal is to stay here at hotel Tantalo. I came back from my trip today to find a note and a sparkling VIP band on my bed. There's a "battle of the pianos" in the lobby tonight, the letter reads. They, hotel management, hopes I will come down to join the festivities. As an added incentive, all drinks are on the house if I wear the band.


Other thoughts:

I'm amazed how long  the battery in my phone lasts when I'm not on text, Twitter, Facebook + AskFM. Like I can go a whole entire day without re-charging. I'm usually dead after 3 hours. I'm notorious for asking anyone (including strangers), "do you have a charger?"

I've spent the last three days listening solely to alternately The Best if Dionne Warwick and The Best if Luther. They actually make the same songs to different music. No, really. Warwick recorded "House is Not A Home" before Luther. She was actually a huge influence on him as a musician. (With all my downtime doing nothing, I looked it up.)

Single dollar bills (and to a lesser fives are more precious than gold. Panama is big on exact change. Twenties, also the most common denomination dispensed by ATMs here, are the devil. People are like that's A meal can be $13. You whip out $20 and folks are like, "Oooh! Nooo." I got a drink the other day for $6, whipped out a $10. The barista was like "ooh. Mmmmm." (She finally broke it.) I gave a cab driver a $5 for a $4 ride. He looks at me like O_o. I wasn't getting out to get change, so I just gave him the $5. Hmmm. Maybe he knew that was going to happen. Anyway, I don’t understand how I’m supposed to get change if no one ever has any. Conundrum.

A Belle in Panama: The Art of Doing Nothing

It's an art. You know what is my biggest issue being in Panama? Stopping me from me.

I keep looking for things to do to keep me busy: a walk here, a ferry there, a cab here, a look-see there, etc.

I set my alarm this morning for 6:30AM planning to head to Isle Taboga, a little island with a beach-- Panama City proper doesn't have one— about 60 minutes off the mainland. There’s only one ferry going and one returning, so I fancied myself to have a day trip of exploration and getting up at 6:30 AM on my second day of vacation. I’ve been in Panama City for 36 hours, and I’m already trying to run off when I need to just be still.

I forced myself to turn off my alarm and actually get some rest, especially since I was up til 4AM the “night” before. Folks told me Panamanian coffee was good, and it is. “They” didn’t say how strong it was, but now that I think about it, that could have been what they meant by “good”. Hmmm.

Anyway, I’ve made plans to do nothing today—or nothing major. I’m headed to Armador  Causeway later this afternoon to ride a bike and the plan park myself under a shady palm tree and put another dent in Terry McMillan’s “Who Asked You?”, which I’m really enjoying. That’s my plan for the entire day. Oh, and dinner. Somewhere fancy. Maybe Italian?

I don’t like to be still, but I NEED to be. Being in another country, especially one where I don’t speak the language well, has its challenges, to put it mildly. It's frustrating not to be able to communicate effectively and I get lost a lot. I didn’t realize how unrelaxed this was making me until I welled up with tears at the sight of a toothbrush.

In addition to draws, I left that at home too, so I spent all day Wednesdayy with dirty teeth. It’s not like I didn’t try to find a toothbrush, just no one knew what I was asking for and my wi-fi (pronounced here as “we- fee”) outside of they hotel was sketchy and I couldn’t look up the word, and… you get the drift. Anyway, after spending three hours at the mall alternately chilling, shopping, walking in circles and searching for a toothbrush, (ie, asking various shop girls if they knew where I could find one, ie, Me: “Emm…. Donde esta..." *makes brushing motion with hand *) I finally found a woman dressed for a store promotion in about the same outfit Rose wore to board the Titanic who spoke enough English to know “toothbrush.” This was right after I’d left the mall to walk aimlessly around it searching for anything that looked like a drugstore and came up empty. Defeated, I was headed back to the mall to catch a cab, spotted a Courtyard Marriott and popped in to ask the guy at reception in English if they sold toothbrushes. He in turn asks me, “did you try the mall?”

Anyway, chick dressed like Rose pointed me toward perhaps the fanciest drug store ever and there I found a plethora of toothbrushes on display and tears came like Lenny Williams in that “oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh” song, except he had a better reason.

I tried my luck to look for Black hair care products since I left my black gel at home too. (Yes, that black gel. The old school kind. What you know better that holds down black girl edges in humidity? Exactly.) That was just me being ridiculous though. No gel. Not even anything for silky haired folks. Plenty of perm boxes and products to maintain a keratin treatment though.  :-/

Random: my hair is going to look like Pure D sh—in 2 more days. I am solely hair- equipped with a bottle of oil lotion and a can of oil sheen. And rubber bands. Oh, and no Black girl brush. Don’t expect IG pics of me after Saturday.


I was out all day yesterday (Wednesday) so I showed up to a much-anticipated dinner with my favorite writer  (Alex Hardy) with edges that looked like a Black girl who’d been at play all day. He was kind enough not to notice, or better, not say anything. Bless him.

I was kinda nervous to meet him because so many people aren’t in person who they are online. He is. And that – and dinner at Black-owned Caribbean restaurant (the owner went to HU, ha!)— was awesome. We talked for two hours about life, and writer ish.

I planned to go for a walk when I got back to my hotel. Instead, I knocked out my second column for The Root so my editor wouldn’t be mad at me for missing deadlines. After this, I’m actually on vacation…. at least til Tuesday. Now to learn the art of doing nothing.

A Belle in Panama: The First 24.

Panama City (2012) Image courtesy of skift.com It took me 12 hours to get to Panama. I'd planned for 8.

Actually it took me 6 days and 12 hours.

Let me explain.I was supposed to leave for Panama on July 10, the day after my birthday. I bailed on the latter half of my surprise party to get home early because I had a 6AM flight and had to finish the last bit of packing and you know, actually sleep.

So I did that. And I went to sleep intending to wake up at 3:45 and/ or 4 AM to head to the airport. But I woke up at 4:45 and there was no way I could make it to the airport in time to board my flight. So I call the airline to say "hey, I need a later flight" and the woman on the end of the line is like, "no, you need a flight". I don't understand the distinction until she explains that despite putting in all my credit card deets and pushing "purchase" my flight had only been reserved, not bought. So even if I woke up on time and made it to the airport on time, I wasn't going to Panama, at least not on the flight I thought I had booked.

So I tried to buy a ticket on the next flight, until she told me it was $1400 total. Um... I don't pay that to go to South Africa. The way I set my trip up, 5 days in the city, 5 at a resort, it made more sense to just wait, fly in Tuesday, go to the city first, then the resort and call life, well, life. And it was only $50 more than the ticket I paid for.

On Tuesday, I get a call at 3 AM that my flight is delayed by an hour. Great. And I mean that. I used the extra hour of sleep. The plane  leaves on time for the new time, but there's a layover in Miami that leaves an hour late, then sits on the runway for 90 minutes because of a storm, then, when finally arriving in Panama, sits at some obscure gate for 30 minutes because no buses are available to pick us up and take us to the main gate.

The woman sitting in the aisle seat across from me (a grandmother from Panama who is taking her two children and five grands to Panama for the first time) uses the down time to make small talk. " I watch you on 'that show'," she says. "Is it coming back for a second season?"

It is. Am I? Uhhhhhh....

But I made it here. And I'm not complaining at all because Panama is f***in awesome.


The drive from the airport was uneventful until I saw the Panama City skyline which looks like more like the pics I've seen of Dubai than Miami which I've actually seen several times and what everyone always compares Panama too.  What is does look like for certain is way better than the pics online.

So does my hotel. After a long mental back and forth where I couldn't figure out if I wanted to stay at the 5- star Trump (the views are sick) or a boutique (pool-less) hotel in the "cute" side of town (Casco Viejo), I choose cute. The cute place also happens to be a HUGE room and have a balcony, which was oddly not mentioned on the site. Weird.  In the morning, I'll pull a chair in my room out there so I have something to sit on while I write

Anyway, after I settle in, I grab dinner on a rooftop bar, then I go for what's supposed to be a brief walk. I recall my travel book (more on that later) saying the area isn't safe, so I avoid dark streets and stick to where large groups were crossing and well-lit areas. That logic took me by some really cute resties that I MUST eat at before I go and the waterfront with great views of the skyline and Casco Viejo.  I walked around for an hour-plus taking pics and taking in the views and sights.

Day 2

My Spanish sucks. I took 3-4 years of it in high school and you'd think that would make me fluent. Um, I can read it well enough, but speak or better, reinterpret into English what people speaking Spanish to me are saying quickly enough to actually converse? Not so much. This is especially problematic as I'm making a rather conscious decision not to do total tourist ish. I'm relying on hand signals and minimal words -"comida?" "mall?" "taxi?" - to get by, which is surprisingly effective. My Panamanian friend who told me everyone in Panama speaks English, lied.

I bought a guide book about Panama so I would know where to go. It's 120 pages. The writer recommends the same 10 places over and over and from what I can tell misses all the good ish. Get this: the place I was posting all those pics from on Wednesday? Casco Viejo? The book doesn't mention it more than to say it's an unsafe area, should be avoided at all costs, and it's a bunch of old rocks so it can be skipped? Um, really? One of the oldest churches in the Western Hemisphere is skippable? Later, a friend points out that it may be an old guide book. Casco Viejo didn't look this way just 2 years ago. That, and tour guides are made for middle-aged white people who walk around with Nikon cameras hanging from their necks. If you can manage to use just a lil bit of sense, he says, you'll be fine.

The upside of the book is the author kept saying over and over how cheap taxis are in Panama City. Like dirt cheap. So I leave my hotel, looking for one to go to the good mall because I forgot to pack draws. (I'm wearing swimsuit bottoms as undies. It was that or go commando on a humid, 85 degree day. Um... No.) Anyway, the first cab that stops charges $20 to go to the Mulitiplaza. I say, "no way." The next one that stops charges me.... $3.  Oh, and I do mean $3 as in US currency. Panama's official currency is the American dollar. Go figure.

The book saved me $17 already, which was the cost of the travel guide, so we'll call it even... almost.

The book also says to avoid a place called Colon. Literally, it says Colon is dangerous and there's nothing remotely that would be interesting to tourists. How about from what I can gather, Colon is the "black part" of the Panama. My (Black) friend who lives here described it as a "sleepy Black town" with pretty views. Colon is also the bus connection to get to Portobelo, which happens to have Nazareno of Portobelo aka the Black Christ, which I am all about and the book never once mentioned. Like, if I see NOTHING else this trip, I want to see a historical life- size statue of Black Jesus that Black folks in Panama have been praising for 354 years.

Apparently  once a year for the last THREE CENTURIES  there are folks who WALK  50+ miles from Panama City to Colon to honor Black Christ on October 21st. There are also folks who crawl the last mile as penance. We can't get even most American Black churches to put a Black Jesus on the wall in 2014, but there are Black Panamanians who  have been celebrating one since the 17th century and CRAWLING to get to him?!
I NEED to see this biblically accurate Jesus with skin like bronze and hair like lamb's wool for myself. And apparently there are TWO of them. Not one, but two!!! There's another Black Jesus in the water off Isla Grande nailed to the cross. Seeing both of these are God's plan for me.

Black Jesus at Isla Grande

But figuring out how to get to Portobelo SAFELY is tricky without, you know, speaking thorough Spanish or spending hundreds on a driver. But it might be worthwhile. Stay tuned. I WILL make this happen.