Every June, La Villa de los Santos celebrates the traditional Feast of Corpus Christi, mixing religion with popular festivities. Dances, theatrical performances, and parading parrampanes and mojigangas take over the town for several days. One of the important dances performed during the feat is the ‘Dirty Little Devils’.
La Villa is a town in the Panamanian province of Los Santos, about 150 miles from Panama City, where people enjoy eating torrejitas (corn fritters), rosquitas (donuts), and roast pork. This community is part of Panama’s ‘Dry Arch’, where it rains less than anywhere else in the country. The story goes that La Villa’s first inhabitants reached the banks of the river of the same name in 1569, but the Spanish Crown did not recognize the settlement until 1573. Like most villages colonized by Spaniards, the church – named San Atanasio de La Villa de los Santos – was one of the first building erected and the main administrative buildings rose up around it.
One of the purposes of the Conquest, as we know, was the conversion of the native inhabitants. This task brought the Spanish into contact with populations that had their own cosmic vision, including the Africans transported to the continent to do slave labour. All this resulted in the Feast of Corpus Christi, one of the most traditional in La Villa, today a mixture of ecclesiastical and popular expressions including dances, theatrical sketches, and other artistic manifestations, all deeply rooted in the lives of the people of La Villa.
According to Javier Arenas from Panama University, the feast of Corpus Christ is, ‘one of the best examples in Spanish America of a religious tradition deeply rooted in the customs of the local population’. It possesses such power and longevity that it grew into something more than just a religious holiday. “What began as a form of catechesis in the temple later added dancing and performing arts in the atrium of the church and, finally, took to the village square and streets, where it was welcomed as the people’s own celebration”, said Arenas.
Before the feast the streets around the town square are adorned with carpets of flowers, leaves, and sawdust. These decorations are used to form religious symbols or create pictures of important figures such as the Pope or Jesus Christ. It is a spectacular, although short-lived show: after Mass ends, a procession treads upon the ephemeral carpet on its way to the four altars installed in the four corners of the square. The procession is led by priests and the Corpus Christi, and the characters from the different dance groups.
The dance of the ‘Dirty Little Devils’
One of the most and characteristic is the dance of the ‘Dirty Little Devils’. Right next to the church with its immaculate facade, a band executes processional rhythms while the dry snap of hundreds of castanets announces the arrival of the dirty little devils, coming out of Mass and dancing with unexpected energy.
Dozen of dancing groups emerge, dressed with the most elaborate costumes and the most nightmarish masks seen throughout the feast of Corpus Christ, with their colourful presentations and the magnetism they exercise over all the parishioners.
The scents of incense and flowers inundate the senses. As is the case with the devils, the spectators are left in a trance before so much celebration of the spirit; they no longer feel the midday heat. Heading the procession is a priest, preceding the dancers. The dirty little devils gyrate and jump.
The fluttering of the crimson features of their headdresses has an almost hypnotic effect on the onlookers. One can see hundreds of features of scarlet macaws, a tropical bird in danger of becoming extinct, since it has almost disappeared from the continent already.
The dance of the ‘Dirty Little Devils’ is one of the nine dances performed during Corpus Christ. Its name derives from the fact that in olden times, participants used to make their costumes out of manta sucia (a canvas) painted with red and black strips by using achiote (a vegetable dye) and charcoal respectively.
According to folklorist Aristides Burgos, the procession of the Corpus Christ was introduced by the missionaries when they arrived in America. In order to achieves its goals, the church used native ritual dances, resulting in many of them becoming slowly incorporated into the sacramental acts; then, a type of symbiosis took place, where religion introduced forms of profane theatre into the churches. For the church the aim was to teach the native Indians the difference between Good and Evil; that is why it incorporated the fight between the Angel and the Devil in this celebration.
Today there are several different dances representing this genre, such as: the Dirty Little Devil, the Clean Little Devil, the Great Devil, the Little Bull, Spanish and Big Headed Montezuma, the Buzzard, the Midget Women, the Pure Black, the Pretentious Ones and the Mojigangas. Some of the best musicians of the region have composed special melodies for these dances, which today form part of the cultural patrimony of Panama. (J.L.)