I love learning a new local custom, especially one that is slightly subtle.
When I first moved to the house where I now live in Las Tablas, I decided to make a point of getting to know my neighbors. So I went visiting. Having very little Spanish to my credit at that point made the process a bit awkward, but no one seemed to mind much that I didn’t communicate too well.
We had a lot of (really boring) conversations about the weather, as I could handle that topic. “Mucho calor hoy!” (“It’s very hot today!” Speaker grabs shirt bottom and flaps it.) “Si, mucho calor!” (“Yes, very hot!” I grab my shirt bottom and flap it in reply.)
When I visited Rufina, she always gave me eggs from her chickens, and usually some fruit as well. Marisol often gave me a plant cutting instead of food, because she knew I liked plants, but she also gave me treats to take with me. Christina gave me fruits, and one day when she was out of fruit, rushed to the kitchen as I was leaving only to present me with a small bag of beans. It seemed very important to her to do that.
Now, in nearly every country, when you visit you are offered something to drink and / or something to eat. This was different. The beans made it obvious that I was being given food specifically to take home with me. I suddenly realized that I was center-front on a Panamanian custom. These ladies were making a point of giving me food to take with me. It had to mean something. I began asking for the meaning of it.
Soraya hesitantly explained that it was a sign of approval. It indicated that I was considered “a good woman,” which is a very important thing to be here. A “good man” or a “good woman” is someone who, whatever their other failings may be, can be counted on to have their heart in the right place and do “the right thing.”
During the time I had been in Central America, I had been assured several times that various persons who might otherwise have been considered dubious were “buenos hombres” (good men) or “buenas mujeres” (good women). These folks have ranged from a fairly well-off land Costa Rican landlord who enjoyed the charms of various drugs but was unfailingly kind to his employees and seemed always to tell the truth (although ver-rry tactfully), to very hard-working, extremely poor folk whose behavior was always scrupulously honest in every detail. Hmm. And now I had been pronounced a member of that company: a good woman, one with failings, but nonetheless, a good woman.
Failings? Me? O dear. What were my failings? Where had I put my foot wrong and chewed on it?
People are usually so very polite here that it sometimes takes a while to realize the local prejudices against extrañeros (foreigners), but that prejudice is present. Just as it is in the States, where we can be very hard on someone who isn’t “American.” That is my failing, I have come to understand, my foreignness. That I am extrañero. Well, there are far worse things a person can be judged for, so I’m grateful that seems to be the issue. And I am quite happy to be a buena mujer (good woman).
Bring on the beans!