Sandra Eleta: Portobelo Unseen
Nita M. Renfrew
Portobelo is not an idyllic place; great ports never are. And for over a century it was the greatest port in the New World. Never an ordinary coastal town, its energies were too long tied up with the fortunes and failures of the New World. A field force developed there over the centuries which was never lost, and still carries much of the same power. Portobelo was, is still, a place where peoples’ dreams could be either broken or realized. It gave and it took, affecting the fortunes of the kings and queens of Europe.
Like all tropical places, Panama’s Portobelo resists clear boundaries. Jungle and ruins and people all take turns encroaching upon each other; none of them is permanent. Any choice made is quickly eroded by the natural elements, and emotions here are raw and sprawling. Ideas with only short roots branch out rapidly; they grow up out of nowhere and then die back just as quickly. But when the liquid air gets so weighted down that it breaks into a thunderstorm, there comes a flash of lightning, a sudden, sharp focus, then another and another. The storm has lighted up.
When San Felipe de Portobelo was discovered and named by Christopher Columbus in 1502, it seemed, in the words of his son Ferdinand, “very large, beautiful and populous and has about it much cultivated land.”
In 1595, when English corsair Sir Francis Drake destroyed Nombre de Dios, the port that till then served as main transit point for the precious goods being shipped from Peru to Spain, Philip II of Spain decided to move the town to the nearby bay of Portobelo. He commissioned Italian architect Juan Bautista Antonelli to design both the new city and the defense system to protect its harbor. Ironically, Portobelo was soon to become Drake’s gravesite when, having died of dysentery, he was laid inside a lead coffin and sunk in the turbulent waters at the mouth of the bay, never to be recovered.
Antonelli designed Portobelo in strict adherence to the master plan set out by the Laws of the Indies for important maritime towns. The Spanish Empire and the Catholic Church both demanded majestic and lasting testimonials to their temporal and spiritual authority. Thus, from the outset, land and resources were allocated to this end, including two main streets leading to a central plaza, a town hall, a church, a prison, a hospital and the most important custom house and royal treasury of South America.
Warehouses, inns and gambling houses, as well as mansions belonging to rich merchants were built within town walls. Antonelli, famous for his military construction, also built the five main forts around the harbor and the many supporting fortresses and watchtowers. However, despite the magnificent defenses, the pirate Henry Morgan was able to conquer Portobelo less than a century later, extracting a heavy ransom from its governor before marching on to destroy Panama City.
The trade fairs held at Portobelo came to rival Seville in magnificence. Every year, the large open market was held for a month or two. But continuous assaults by pirates and foreign powers on Portobelo’s coffers eventually made the defense of this trade center too costly for Spain. After the 1739 conquest of Portobelo by a British admiral, there were no more fairs. The great seaport was relegated to the status of a mere province, and the Spanish fleet took to rounding the southern tip of the Americas rather than risk shipping the goods over Panama. The road across the isthmus, from the coast of Portobelo to Panama City, had predated the Panama Canal by several hundred years as the key trade route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Through the sixteenth to the mid-eighteenth century this road was the way to get the treasures from Peru to the fleet that returned to Spain every March from the Caribbean—until the jungle took over. During the next two hundred years, Portobelo went into such a state of decline that it almost ceased to exist.
Then, in the nineteenth century, the California gold rush created a new need for a land bridge over Panama. However, the miners came, not to Portobelo to start their journey over the isthmus, but to the nearby port of Colon. In 1850, the railroad was built. And eventually, the Panama Canal. Well into this century, although Portobelo was within short reach of an important crossroads of the commercial world, its existence was barely remembered and it was accessible only by water. Paved roads, electricity and telephones came very late to Portobelo.
Sandra Eleta was the first important ship to dock in Portobelo in a long time. When she went to the town in the early 1970s, it was to take possession of a two-room house left by an old plantation worker to her family. Portobelo was a dark shadowy creature, surrounded by bright liquid green forest, and waiting for prey after sleeping for close to two centuries.
The image of tranquillity, as in much of the tropical Third World, was only a mask to cover a certain kind of struggle for survival. No struggle for food in Portobelo—fish and fruit are plentiful. But rather, a struggle for focus, for definition: the necessary ingredients to enter the modern world.
There was never anything idyllic about Portobelo, except on the surface. Panamanians are quick to point out that the people of Portobelo are lazy, that they will not take ordinary jobs. But work in Portobelo was never that of an ordinary place. Its people lived by selling illusions with a heavy dose of reality, sometimes more of one, sometimes more of another. They dealt in possibilities, not in finished products. They were hustlers, as people in great ports have always been, living by their wits. When the Spaniards left, only the blacks stayed, descendants of the cimarrons, the runaway slaves, who also lived by their wits, the ones who were able to escape to freedom. At Carnival time, Portobelans still speak Spanish backwards, a ruse in the early days to keep from being understood by their masters.
For Sandra Eleta, living in Portobelo meant going back to the fundamentals of her childhood and away from the coldness she had found, the depersonalization favored by the intelligentsia of the world’s capital cities. Portobelo was guts and richness and ferment—the stuff of soap opera—in the bowels of the Third World. And like a soap opera, a great seaport deals in cliches in their purest form. Sandra Eleta has recorded them— artificial and posed, like cliches always are, but no less real for this reason. Love, beauty, play, sickness, loss are all there in her work. The beauty of a cliche at its best is its immediacy, its ability to convey emotion without intellectual filters. In this way, Eleta bridges the reality of the Third World and the West; the Portobelans like them as much as Westerners do.
Despite the surface sophistication, the formality, the attention to esthetics, Eleta’s photographs are rooted in popular Latin American tradition. The stories they tell have their origins in the melodramas portrayed in the fotonovela, a variation of the comic book, that uses photographs of actors to tell stories. Although there are no bubbles with words on the pictures, it is easy to imagine them. As Eleta says, “I search more for a dialogue than a capture of moments.” Her pictures of Portobelo tell a story of fishermen and children, in sickness and at play, of woman as healer, warding off the evil eye, and woman as the once-a-year queen of Carnival.
The other place and time in which Portobelo existed whirled Sandra down into the hopes and needs of a people that had little in common with our description of the world. The inhabitants of Portobelo found a treasure in Sandra, but they fought over her reality just as she fought over theirs. Not knowing how to step into the world she brought to them, they almost destroyed her. To them she was the world of plenty, while theirs was a world of poverty. To her, it was the other way around.
Sandra brought with her the latest sound systems, fashion, bolts of colored cloth and shiny beads, paints and canvases, streamlined cookware, ideas for fishing and sewing cooperatives, and many people from other lands, some with money to spend. She opened up for them the world of consumer goods and travel—a world that had slowly disappeared when Portobelo had ceased to be a major crossroads. She was looking for a place to become, to be created. And Portobelo became her stage. Portobelo devoured Sandra, dismembered her and put her back together in ways that made her barely recognizable. Through her photographs, the amorphous shapes in her mind slowly became clear, took on sharp edges.
During Portobelo’s days of maximum glory, it had been a magnet for profiteers and pirates and adventurers. And again today, through Sandra Eleta, it attracts wanderers from the far corners of the globe. She is Portobelo’s main connection with the greater world. And in the invisible world that lives on, these blacks are still cimarrons, crafty enough to escape slavery and endure by their wits, who retain the identities taken on by their ancestors. They are still, under the surface, a people of the docks—sailors, stevedores, laundresses and cooks, blackguards, tarts and soldiers—selling their wares to a transient population. This is the hidden reality that the pictures of Sandra Eleta transmit.