I'm a painter! 

Part 1


When Judy heard me shout it jubilantly at full volume as I showered, she thought I was referring to painting houses. It didn't cross her mind that the reason for my euphoric exclamation was because at that moment I had freed myself from a long period of great personal uncertainty. It was 1972; I was 29 years old and had spent the last three years trying eagerly to find a different kind of job to which I would dedicate my future. The enlightening revelation came to me in mid-shower.

"I'm a painter, I'm an artist!"

The spontaneous cry erupted like a valve releasing pent up pressure, bringing immediate reprieve to long accumulated stress. I had rediscovered the artist in me, the one I had carried since childhood, but with which I had not had any contact in 5 years and none in the 11 before. It came to me in a spark of clarity that lifted the curtain of doubt and uncertainty that was stifling my ability to find a way out of my dilemma: What new direction to give to my life? At last, how I would earn a living when I finally managed to leave the role of business executive which no longer excited me, had made itself clear.

In all that time, suffering bouts of depression without being able to find my own thing—and do it—it never occurred to me that since my childhood, painting and drawing had come naturally and easily to me, as well as carpentry, which I also loved to do. Ever since I was a little kid, I had a great time entertaining myself for long stretches of time with artwork. Why not consider the profession of artist, then, if I handled art so skillfully? Besides, I always had special sensitivities for any task requiring artistic creativity.

Once the idea that it was feasible for me to fulfill myself as an artist became an option, the only important question among the many that I asked myself was whether I could succeed and survive as a painter. The only answer I found with an irrefutably logical sense was: If others can do it, why not me? I'll never know success if I don't try. Moreover, the idea of living the artist's life was the focus of the intense call I was feeling at those moments of enlightenment. I loved the idea as soon as it came to me. The future I envisioned if I dared go after it was interestingly long. So without looking back, I threw myself fully into the uncertain and unknown to forge a career as a painter in my country...from Colón, of all places. I had no idea where to start, but at least I was comforted by knowing that I had the starting point in hand, and the path to carve out was mine.

The consequences of my sudden change of course were tough for my family, especially my wife. When I came out of the bathroom drying myself with towel in hand to give Judy the good news that I was no longer in the dark and that I'd put myself to work right away in the business of being a professional painter, she immediately knew that it was serious. She had seen this before in our relationship ever since we first started dating. She knew that when I was persuaded by the cries and the urgent need to change course, as soon as I saw the trail to take, I'd go straight ahead at full steam with total deliverance...and obstinacy.

When I explained the nature of what I was announcing, Judy's first reaction was one of fear, and justifiably so. Based on past reference, she could assume with some certainty that the sudden decision I had unilaterally reached to become a painter would bring her significant consequences. We had several incidents before in such regard, each starting from a pulling up of roots and changes that dramatically impacted the direction her own life, concerns and personal ambitions would take. And what made it more serious this time was the existence of a new factor in our union that required significant consideration. Now consisting of four with the birth of our son Derek and at just one year of age, her family's welfare was her greater concern.

The change I had just pronounced I was to take was of a completely different character from the previous ones I had driven. This one would bring with it a series of new and substantially serious risks. She knew that the new quest on which the focus of our family's future would rely on, would require skills and personal achievements from me which she had not yet noticed I possessed, much less seen manifested. Being an artist required talent and skills that she wasn't aware I had. I had no assurance that I would be able to sell my works, or more importantly, what works? After all, she didn't have much to base herself on or anything that at least hinted that I had what it took to be successful as a painter. Some brief outbreaks in our past regarding my innate ability to draw had confirmed my artistic side, which she much admired. But there wasn't any convincing evidence that Rogelio now had the crucial skills to survive as an artist.

Her first encounter, in 1964, with my talent for drawing was when we traveled for three days by train to San Francisco, California. I took advantage of a stop on the trip to buy some drawing utensils and I made some charcoal sketches of the scenes we saw from the Pullman cabin we shared during our romantically idyllic journey. It was there, she told me, that she became aware of my talent as a painter. But they were very basic sketches. Nothing stood out as exceptional. In 1966, when I entered the State University at Hayward—known then as College—I rendered another handful of sketches that also impressed her, but they were not notable for their originality. Finally in 1968, when we had already returned to Panama married and with a daughter, a few watercolors and drawings in charcoal and graphite were only a faint murmur that I had an authentic talent for painting. That was all the meager evidence of my work that Judy had to go on to determine my level of mastery in the profession. The awaiting odds against me terrified her.

But despite the insecurity my decision caused her, Judy understood why I needed a radical change in the state of my affairs. She had been living and suffering alongside me the impact of my growing antipathy for the businessman's life. My serious disenchantment began during a business trip on which I had a sudden change of values that completely altered the pattern of the lifestyle I wanted to lead. My life and work as an executive lost its appeal almost instantly, so much so that when I returned from the trip, as soon as Judy approached me, she noticed right away that I was no longer the same. I remained in the dark since then, trying to find the new Rogelio that was there somewhere inside of me.

Judy, in turn, was also on new paths of her own changes in values and interests in life, and understood the reason for my discouragement with the business world. She also found the role of women in Panamanian, and particularly Colon society she was expected to play, boring and non-stimulating. So when she noted the degree of my enthusiasm in the good news I gave her, she knew that the idea of being an artist was at least in perfect line with this new form of existence that we were both hoping to find. And when she saw that I had just signed onto a new quest, the best thing for her to do was prepare herself for the radical change in her life that was coming and which would affect her family. I was announcing my train's departure, and if she didn't want to be left behind, she had to climb aboard, make the necessary adjustments, enjoy the adventures that the trip would bring—and reap her own rewards from them.

One such precursor in our past that justified her premonition of what was to come occurred almost two years into our passionate courtship. She, 16, had just graduated. I was a deliriously in love 17-year-old, frustrated by the stagnation I felt about the prolonged training my father was subjecting me to, so I could take charge of the company warehouse in the Free Zone. He was a firm believer that the best way to learn a business is to work from the ground up, desde abajo, as he would tell my brother and me. A long haul was waiting for me in the warehouse. But it was what my father wanted and I didn't question his good judgment. Eventually, I told myself, I would make my way out of the dusty warehouse where I was constantly sneezing. The wait was made tolerable by the dizzying love affair I was having with Judy, whom I had fallen for when I was 12. Until the unsettling happened.

Judy's parents and her aunts and uncles in Panama thought we were too young for such a serious relationship, as in all evidence it was. My parents felt the same, but they already considered me man enough to know what I was doing. Judy's family, however, wanted her to have a college education, and they were convinced that her future would be truncated by the intensity of our romance. Furthermore, I was not the ideal candidate they had in mind for her. The parties idealized by her rich aunt—who held the reins of the family domain—were from another social and economic stratum.

I had no doubts about Judy's love for me and I had no qualms about her family feeling she deserved a suitor of better "quality". My self-confidence was solid. It had been in my making since the age of 13 at the military academy when I freed myself from the suffering and humiliation of my stuttering that had diminished my self-confidence since my infancy. I became a man at the academy and of the kind who recognized the good caliber of his manhood.

This new confidence was also encased in the pride I harvested from my surnames; the first for the renown of brainy masculinity that characterized the Pretto men—genetic legacy that my physical maturation began to clearly represent; and the other by its direct blood lineage and intellectual ties with the country's history, being the grandson of Sebastian Villalaz—brother of Nicanor, son-in-law of Gil Colunje. These qualities upon which a large part of my self-esteem stood on kept my ego sufficiently inflated with self-assurance. No rabiblanco or rich boy was threatening to me only because of his social or economic level.

But what immediately knocked the equation off balance regarding what I could or could not control in my relationship with the woman I loved was the premature rush with which she was sent to Texas accompanied by her mother Gladys in the beginning of '63 to supposedly enroll her at the University of Dallas, the city where Judy's father's family, the Von Tress's, originate. They had enrolled her as an intern student for the first term of the new school year which started much later in the fall. She would spend all those months at her grandmother's house, two thousand miles away. And there was no Internet or cell phones to serve as a palliative for my anguish. The only balm of relief I had was slow airmail communication and expensive long distance calls that I could little afford.

Forces beyond my control had drawn together, against which I had little capacity to fight. But I did not want to lose my girlfriend. The separation became more and more unbearable. I was permanently terrified by the saying "Long-distance love is fool's love" which for years I heard my parents utter in fitting circumstance.  I wrote Judy obsessively every day so as not to run the risk of the motto applying in my case. Sometimes I'd write her several letters a day, which I would make sure to place myself in the mailbox on time so they would be included in the morning dispatch to Tocumen airport and then the others in the afternoon post which with luck would reach her in three days. Once I ran such a large bill on my father's account for the calls I made to Judy from the ITT international call center booths in Viejo Cristobal, near the railway station, he promptly put a limit on my desire to call.

Nothing lessened the anguish of being separated. I was obsessing to the point of not being able to take it any longer. Two prototypical mutual manifestations warned by the "Long-distance love?" axiom was finally the straw that broke my angst's back. In the endless months that followed, each independently, for different reasons, took our first steps to date others.

That was all I needed ... and I said, "Enough ... I'm going after her!"

In a short amount of time I had already applied and been accepted at her university. When I announced to my father that I would go in search of a higher education to better serve him in the future, he smiled and responded "dos tetas jalan mís que una carreta?", (two tits pull more than a cart). My beloved and understanding mother gave me her blessing, even though she'd be left alone with my sister and without my monthly contribution to household expenses. Though seasoned in romantic disillusionment from two divorces, she understood the fire of love consuming me. Dear mom, with her loving heart, collected enough money for me to use as far as I could stretch it. And my old man, severely strapped financially from delving in politics and other financial mishaps, agreed to pay for my first term at school. From there on he told me, "You're on your own".

Judy's family soon discovered my plans. One day while I was driving my mother's Taunus down Roosevelt Avenue, Judy's aunt's Chrysler pulled up beside me. Her husband was driving and they signaled me to stop. With our cars in the middle of the street parallel to each other, blocking the way for others behind us, they told me they had procured a four-year college scholarship for me — in Ohio.

"Your studies won't cost you a thing" her Aunt Elva assured me. "Everything is arranged. The scholarship is approved."

"That's very kind of you, but no thanks", I replied politely. I took advantage of the honking from those waiting behind, and let my response be the last words of the peculiar encounter and their clumsy attempt to curb my stubborn persistence to go after my Dulcinea.

And so, to everyone's horror, I reached Judy in Dallas in January 1964, shortly after Kennedy's assassination and not long before the first invasion of The Beatles on American soil and the hemisphere. At last I was with my beloved. I'd find a way to take care of the future and how to survive it. In the meantime, I had to hit the books and redeem myself in the eyes of the doubters and not disappoint the believers on the rightness of my motives.

I lasted only a term in Dallas. The need to change the unsatisfactory state of the situation I found myself in led to the need to shift my plans for the future and start afresh. It would be the second sudden major change Judy would witness that I was capable of making. Little remained of the money my mother had given me. Judy was in the same situation. When we got engaged, not long after, her father announced the suspension of her financial support. Furthermore, we were dissatisfied with the narrow-mindedness and stifling conservative atmosphere of Dallas. Judy's mother had recently divorced from her father, and had been living and working for several months in San Francisco with much enthusiasm. The letters she had been sending Judy with tales about the beautiful and exciting city were enough to awaken our interest to locate there. So, in June 1964, engaged, and with the little we were able to pack in a trunk and a suitcase, we began our three-day journey by train to the lovely City by the Bay, where we finally got married, had Charissa and remained for a little over two years...until, yet again, I decided to completely change the order of our existence.

During our three year stay in California, my focus was to assure a job for myself and get into College to educate myself in business and return to Panama well-prepared to honor my father and my small family. San Francisco, the radical opposite of Dallas, enchanted us ever since our arrival. The freshness of starting a new life in the beautiful city and the air of promise that we felt there encouraged us towards the future that awaited us. But the sad nature of my financial condition when we reached the city required an urgent response so that we could begin to enjoy the adventure of a new beginning.

For my arrival, Gladys had arranged for me to rent bedding from a humble couple of Chicanos in their son's bedroom along with the use of the apartment's bathroom for $25 a month. I found the situation very depressing and intolerable. There was no way I was going to stay in such circumstances for long. I was almost broke but, c'mon, this was a bit much. I was unwilling to subject myself to that level of discomfort.

Determined not to last long under those circumstances, I convinced my mother-in-law to let me rent the couch in her apartment instead for $100, which I gave to her right away, suspecting that it would be useful given her modest salary and her inclination to lose jobs. In her married life Gladys had never had to work, much less in an office. Already divorced and having fulfilled her commitment to see that Judy enroll in the University of Dallas, she had dared to break the mold of her past and go to San Francisco to test her ability to survive on her own. In the company of her cousin Estilita, also single and without commitments, she drove from Dallas to begin a new chapter in her life. But once installed, Gladys had trouble keeping a job. Her lack of experience for most types of employment was evident when attempting to carry out her duties. But the woman persevered. It was all she could do, given her economic situation, which would have been different if she had not foolishly or carelessly failed to demand the financial compensation which she could have secured with a good divorce lawyer, which she never made use of. Ironically, in part at least, my future mother-in-law's precarious financial situation worked to my benefit. She accepted my proposal to live with her and Judy without much resistance. In short order, I had ended the discomfort of my pathetic accommodations.

The dividends for all resulting from the settlement with Gladys were immediate. Soon we were enjoying the comfort of stability and security and the happiness from living together. I took on the role of the man of the house, who served as physical guardian of the home and its women. I frequently served as chauffer and errand runner for Gladys. I also had the ability to make minor repairs and carpentry fix-ups in the apartment. Gladys liked to wait on me, and share a drink or two after dinner. She'd show us what she knew about the city. We got along well, as we had ever since I was Judy's boyfriend in Panama, and even years before when I was part of the group of children that congregated regularly at her home in Colón.

Without any effort or mutual hindrances, the three of us found ourselves sharing life together in peaceful harmony. All that was left for Judy and myself was to find a job soon. We needed the stability of employment to be able to set a date for our wedding, which we wanted to be as soon as possible in order to legitimize our union.

In less than three weeks I found the desired job, and it wasn't all that bad. I obtained a sales position for a hardware and household distributor which offered me health insurance and other benefits as part of the warehouse workers' union while fulfilling the statutory sales training period—from the ground up. Ironically, as I had done in my father's warehouse, my job was filling orders physically...but without sneezing as much.

Judy was equally lucky. She soon got a job as a clerk for the group of stenographers in the purchasing department of the prestigious luxury store I. Magnin. Her typing and shorthand skills, which she learned at the nun school Maria Inmaculada, greatly favored her. Her courage in answering "yes" when the woman interviewing her asked if she could do this or that, also helped her land the job. But her people skills are what sealed the deal along with her friendly and sparkling personality and the diplomatically friendly and intelligent way in which she handles herself with others, no matter the hierarchy of their position. In a few short weeks the exceptional abilities that she showed for merchandising caught the attention of her boss and she was promoted to join the group of secretaries that reported to the Merchandising Division's vice president. She was thrilled to work in I. Magnin.

Seeing ourselves financially stable and eager to start a new and free life together, we set the wedding date in June, after May 22nd when Judy turned 18 and no longer would need her parent's consent to get married. I, however, according to state law required it, and without losing any time, I requested my parents to send it from Panama. For reasons we well understood, neither would be able to attend our wedding.

So, at last, and with astonishing swiftness and without major difficulty, Judy and I found ourselves at the tender and precarious ages of 18 and 19 surviving on our own and working in the most beautiful and charming city of the United States. But our marriage plans suffered a setback.

The move to live with Gladys and Judy shocked her family in Panama, particularly Elva, the half-matriarch aunt and certainly Querube, Judy's revered and beloved grandmother and general arbitrator of behavior among the members of the Estenoz-Grimaldo family and their spouses and other family appendages. It was Guillermo, one of Judy's uncles' cousins on the Grimaldo side, who told us of the uproar we were causing. Guillermo had lived in San Francisco for many years and I had begun to spend time with him socially. He was quite aware of my arrangement with Gladys. I always suspected he was the one who let the cat out of the bag to Toti, Judy's uncle, who in turn told Aunt Elva and Elva to Grandma Querube, and on... And as things were in Colón society, they certainly blamed the scandalous situation on my gall and impudence which I abusively imposed on the passiveness and vulnerability that they all believed characterized Gladys. I imagine the murmuring: How could Gladys allow this man to live in her house, and with her daughter there? What kind of bad influence is this guy exerting over Gladys's good judgment? He's already sweet-talked the daughter, now the mother too? I was prepared for any consequence in the matter.

Gladys was the first. Although the situation at home with her was all good, what she heard from Panama and from Guillermo caused her great discomfort. And the news of our wedding did not sit well with her, as if she were in denial about the intent of our commitment she had been witnessing firsthand. But she dared not say much about it to us, only for us not to hurry and to please postpone our wedding plans in order to give Doña Querube the opportunity to attend the wedding. You couldn't get the 70-year-old woman near a plane, so plans had to be made for her to travel by boat from Panama. We agreed to get married in late August, giving the grandmother the opportunity to be there.

Of course, the arrival of the dignitary grandmother meant I could not continue to live with Gladys and Judy. We all understood that. Moreover, the situation with Gladys was becoming a bit tense. So I looked for a place to live, and soon found a small apartment in the same block of Arguello Street where we already lived. The apartment was so small that the entire width of the room was taken up by the length of the sofa. The modest but cozy nest was an attic-turned-apartment of a classic three-story San Francisco building within walking distance and across the street from the University of California hospital. Close, along one side of our building, streetcars from one of the famous Cable Car lines rolled by with expected frequency. Every time one went by, we would hear—and feel it—from up in the apartment. Golden Gate Park was just 200 meters away, where the Flower Movement would soon sprout, giving birth to the hippies' revolutionary counter-culture of the sixties.

While we awaited the arrival of Doña Querube, the preparation of what would be our first home, and the delight and benefits of living in a city as sophisticated as San Francisco filled us with optimism and great joy. And when at last the respected and somewhat feared lady arrived, she herself realized that rather than deter us (as was her original mission) the best and right thing to do was to celebrate her beloved granddaughter's unique occasion and give her support. She happily organized for our few invited guests a modest preparation of traditional sopa borracha and souvenirs for our simple wedding. Gladys remained stunned during the entire process.

From then on Querube and I shared warm affection for each other, and mutual respect. Neither Judy's father, nor Elva and José María, nor anyone else from the Grimaldo or Estenoz family attended the wedding. They weren't missed much, actually because we were happy.

The idyllic state of at last living alone as newlyweds was short-lived. Two and a half months after the wedding we got surprised by Judy's unexpcted pregnancy. She picked me up after work to give me the somewhat frightening news. She didn't know how I would take it. But after a few seconds, we digested the seriousness of it all, and without qualm, decided to welcome the baby with arms and hearts wide open. Unexpected or not, Charissa was an authentic love child and would be received with all the love she deserved from her creators. Charissa means gracia, grace in Greek. 

With the pregnancy we realized soon enough that it was a clear warning that the need for a new and complete change in our situation was mandatory. We could not deny that the fresh vision of our immediate future that we had just started nurturing since our wedding had to be replaced by a new priority that required a much more lengthy and serious scope: that of being parents, I at 21 and Judy 19. This made it necessary to accelerate my plan to enter college. I had to secure the benefits of education and ensure the best potential to give my new family a good future. My plan took into account, above all, fulfilling the promise I had made my father to come back educated and prepared professionally to shoulder my share of assistance to his efforts to leave my brother and me a business that would ensure our future. I couldn't know how long it would take to provide myself the necessary educational preparation. With my need to work, I assumed I would have to take night classes, or do whatever it took to quickly complete the Business Administration program. I was convinced that with a diploma in hand I'd be able to return to Panama to contribute significantly to the realization of my father's plans and thus obtain economic security and long-term stability for my own family, now the most important part of my life.

Enrollment was booked at San Francisco State University when I applied to enroll in the current Business Administration school term and was referred to California State College at Hayward as an alternative if I couldn't wait for the next semester. As the College worked under a quarter system, rather than semester, I was able to enroll immediately. Once accepted at Hayward, we moved close to the College into a one-bedroom apartment in a two-story building near the main street at the foot of the big hill where the college campus was located. Charissa was born a few months later in the middle of final exams.

I assigned myself a regime of full-time study with the maximum number of courses allowed to quickly progress towards getting my degree. When Charissa was about three months old, Judy got a job at some distance from Hayward at a local Office of Economic Opportunity, President Johnson's War On Poverty initiative. But wanting to be closer to her little girl, she soon applied and was accepted as Secretary to the Department of Foreign Languages in my College, where she would be close to me as well.

I had saved some money at my job in San Francisco so I could devote myself exclusively to my studies for at least a year before seeking new employment. We quickly adapted to a routine that, although restricted economically and by the demands of our work—college for me and Judy as the sole department secretary—was nonetheless appealing enough for us to be happy with. Since Judy's workplace was next to the university's music department, she was always stimulated by the music activities and dreamed of being able to study there and other subjects. Music had been an important part during her upbringing and her years in high school. I wasn't even thinking about art, only in moving forward with the larger plan that I had set out. The bulk of our attention and activity was focused on our daughter and the university surroundings that we both enjoyed.

There was constant activity on campus. Concerts or shows were common by artists popular among the students such as Sonny & Cher who I heard sing their famous I Love You Babe outdoors one afternoon in mid week. It was also the time when Ronald Reagan was running for governor of California. On the first day of April 1966 he visited our campus to give a campaign speech. It was my turn to take care of Charissa to lessen the expense of a babysitter, and I took her with me so I wouldn't miss seeing Reagan. The event was held outside on one of the Campus's empty plots of land.

The afternoon was pleasantly sunny. I had made sure to bring Charissa's stroller and have her bottle ready for her. They were made from glass in those days and at eleven months she could handle the container on her own when she drank. When she gave sign of wanting her milk, as Reagan spoke at the microphone behind the podium some five or six feet from us, I handed her the bottle. She grabbed it right away, bringing the nipple straight to her mouth as she leaned back in the stroller. The noise from the air bubbles in bottle as she sucked was my sign that she was feeding. When it stopped it was likely the little one had finished or had fallen asleep. I was standing beside her on the concrete path that ran alongside the field Reagan was facing. Nearly 500 students and others stood on the grass and the concrete path.  We were not far from the building where Judy worked. My attention shifted between the speech and the sound from the bottle.

With his resonant voice cultivated from his career as an actor, Reagan charmed the audience's attention. Most academics were opposed to his candidacy because of the right wing posture of his political platform, but he had everyone there that day attentive and quiet, not because of the content of his message, but from how pleasant it was to listen to him. I too was not in favor of his right wing leanings, but the truth was that it was difficult for one not to like the guy.

Suddenly, when in mid speech his magic had us all focused and silent, a short but strong and sharp burst of glass startled everyone, including Reagan himself, leaving him speechless for a few seconds, as the source of the noise was identified. Seeing that everyone was looking towards me, I realized that the cause of the commotion had been Charissa. Upon emptying the bottle, she slung it upwards and when the projectile hit the concrete it gave off a shattering explosion that was picked up by the loudspeakers. Little strong Charissa sometimes had the blessed habit of grabbing the bottle by its nipple when she finished drinking and shoot it in the air. At home carpeting prevented the breakage, but that day, the impact of the empty nipple-covered bottle against the concrete produced a small but piercing explosion. When Reagan realized the cause of the distrubance, he made a comment a humorous comment that I failed to hear, but made everyone burst out laughing. Flushed, I picked up the pieces of glass and threw them in a nearby dumpster, but inside I was laughing, recalling the great fright we were all given by this little munchkin who was my daughter.

When the future 54-year-old president ended his speech, I lifted Charissa onto my shoulders and walked toward the podium to join those greeting the candidate. As I approached, Reagan unfolded a big smile, took Charissa's little hand and said, "So you're the kid that finally shut me up and stole my show huh!" And Charissa, pretty little baby that she was, shot back  one of her heart melting Gerber smiles. "Boy," added Reagan, "she's a beauty ain't she?" Then he shook my hand, said something I don't remember and I said good-bye wishing him luck in his campaign.

The university social-political backdrop on our campus at the time of Reagan's visit was of a student body in growing rebellion. Although the most intense emblematic upheavals of the revolutionary social changes of the sixties had not yet been experienced in campuses as ours, they were already beginning to be felt. The atmosphere was becoming charged with social and political turmoil. At the universities in Berkeley and San Francisco, Reagan's welcome would have likely been different. It might have prompted a serious disturbance and other demonstrations. Rebellious students of Berkely's Free Speech Movement led by Mario Savio, the 22-year-old student leader that sparked it in December 1964 with a sit-in at Sproul Hall, had already seriously challenged college authorities and police by accepting the price of the notable arrests and harsh treatment the protesters received. The growing unease and repudiation of the war in Vietnam in main university campuses around the country began to manifest themselves in acts of protest against the Lyndon Johnson government. UC Berkeley was already the scene in May 1965 for the largest of the "teach-ins" organized by the Students for a Democratic Society movement. These were non-violent events where seminars, speeches and demonstrations were held to protest against the war. In August of that year the serious riots in the black district of Watts in Los Angeles had proven that social neglect and prejudice and abuse of minorities would be seriously challenged, and by violence if necessary, a cause with which many intellectual students identified.

All this social upheaval attracted me. Ever since an adolescent I had developed a sensitivity for politics and passion for the causes of rapid social change and transformation. But I kept a certain distance for fear of getting too involved and steered away from my compulsive attention to the priority of my family's future. Nevertheless, I was experiencing a crossroads of values as I watched the revolutionary fervor of the time develop at my doorstep, from within one of the university institutions in which it was brewing. On the one hand, I empathized completely with the reasons for the students' widespread revolt against the educational institutions that paradoxically denied them their right to express their views freely on matters of such importance to the country and the world. On the other hand, I subscribed to the rightist criteria regarding the virtues of law and order, due in part to the residues of the anticommunist indoctrination instilled in me by the Hollywood movies that fascinated me as a child, but mostly from my four years at the military academy in a redneck suburb of Atlanta, Georgia.

I was not against war, for example. My cousin, a West Point graduate, had volunteered to go to Vietnam as a second lieutenant and was in training. That was a source of pride among others that inclined me towards supporting the war effort. I also sympathized with the Democrats and was prone to defend Johnson as president, who promoted his reasons for persevering in the conflict. I even signed a petition on campus in his favor, something that would embarrass me later. Part of the change of my sentiment later for the war, among other deeper personal reasons, was the sad death in May 1967 of my cousin in Vietnam. His death was reported in Newsweek, and in the Panama America newspaper it was headlined "SWIFT DEATH BRINGS FLEETING U.S. FAME TO YOUNG ISTHMIAN KILLED IN VIETNAM". He was the second of West Point's class of '66 to die in the war. The real tragedy, however, was that he was felled by his own rifle. He was just a few months older than I.

My ideological shift came in the face of the truth of the facts that were being exposed daily at universities across the country. I became less convinced by the arguments made by hawkish ideology to which before I was almost automatically prone to subscribe to. The core truth I was learning about the events of the mid sixties as I experienced them firsthand became clear, and not just on an intellectual level; I also felt it at the heart of my humanist values.

I was in that uneasy state of conflicting ideological beliefs, when I went to my Biology lab class, one of the elective courses that I was required to take for the general study curriculum. The three p.m. schedule was doubly convenient for me. It was the last class of the day where I enjoyed the dissection of animals and learning about our organic reality and also because at the end of the class I could wait for Judy when her workday was done and go home together and pick up Charissa from Mrs. Smith, her stout old nanny who was like a grandmother, in whose flesh-padded chest and arms our daughter would happily fall asleep. We were very fortunate that this woman lived in our building.

When I entered the lab classroom I didn't find the customary configuration of students focused on their research tasks at the long and wide work stations. The nine or ten students were all seated in a group around a single table, very attentive to what the professor was explaining to them, sitting on his desktop. The atmosphere was calm and I noted the seriousness on the students' faces. In the low volume of his voice, I felt the professor's conviction and sincerity in what he said. Careful not to make any noise, I rested my books quietly on a table and approached the group. I took a seat at the end of the table, near a student who urged me to bring my seat closer so as to hear better.

What the professor was talking about had nothing to do with Biology. He was exchanging views with the students regarding the revolutionary movements that were taking place at Berkeley and the University of San Francisco and all of the country's main campuses. And he was relating it all to the framework of the entire nation and how all levels of American society were to be affected. He said that the events that were disrupting the foundations of the conservative order which prevailed until the end of the naive 50s, should be analyzed in the context of the natural social evolution that occurs when the existing generation that is in control finds it difficult to give way to the next.

"In his inaugural address in January 1961", the professor tells us, "President Kennedy sounded a clarion call to the new generational order that was being entrusted with the nation's future. What we are experiencing now is merely the labor pains of this passing of the torch predicted by the assassinated President."

Where it would all end up, he did not know, he confessed. But he offered us a compelling perspective as to why he thought history would fall on the side of the principles upon which the student protests were based: freedom of expression, freedom to protest the abuses of the government and those governing, freedoms rooted in the country's constitution and in the human rights of the individual. And that both the reasons that led Johnson to continue the war and the arguments of the university presidents to limit the students' right to protest were outdated postulations which were out of step with the new times that lay ahead. And sooner or later the tyranny over thought and speech would yield to the strength of the principles upon which the American nation was founded. 

Not all students agreed with the Professor, but the arguments they posed were made in the same calm and sensible tone. To each question made, the professor replied with the aplomb of a transparent wisdom and in such a manner that encouraged the student to take a second and more realistic look at his or her way of thinking. I loved the serene atmosphere in which they were discussing matters of such profound importance and intellect. In the business administration department I had never had such an exchange of views at that intellectual level, and so interestingly civil. The issues the professor was touching on were the same ones I had been thinking about but had not taken nor had the opportunity to vent. I had been stubbornly moving forward, like a plow horse with blinders for it to push forward only at the obligations ahead of him.

We spent the lab time talking entirely about these issues. No class work was done. The time flew by and at the end I felt that the scenario of my errant convictions had been reformed and that the door towards new considerations about who I was had been left ajar.

When the bell rang announcing the end of class, the young woman who suggested I move in closer to better hear the professor approached me to exchange opinions regarding what had been discussed in class. She studied humanities, but was on her way to art class, an elective course she was taking. The art department was on my way to pick up Judy, so we walked together. When we reached her classroom I was attracted by the environment inside and I felt nostalgia for the sense of pleasure derived from giving oneself to the task of making art. The girl invited me to come inside with her and stay a while. There was still half an hour remaining before Judy got off work, so I stayed until the teacher began to monitor students' works. 

In the short time I was in the room, I told Helen that I had drawn and painted since childhood and that I regretted not having persisted in it. The next day, having asked me to join her in the cafeteria before noon, she arrived with a drawing tablet and a set of pencils and other supplies for charcoal sketching. She had purchased two sandwiches and two canned juices, and urged me to accompany her for lunch to a "special place".

We headed east to a sparsely populated area away from the vicinity of Hayward. It took us about 20 minutes to reach the narrow asphalt road that led us to a densely forested section where we reached the entrance of a meadow. The grassy field was enclosed by a straight row of shrubbery that showed infrequent manicuring. The iron gate, opened wide in the middle of meadow's entrance, gave way to a short straight and narrow path that ended before a large concrete ionic style rotunda. It's base, dome and free standing, rounded columns were reminiscent of typical Greco-Roman architecture. I certainly didn't expect to see anything of the sort. The scene was gorgeous. Helen was right. The place was special. 

I stopped the car in the middle of the entranceway so I could appreciate the structure as we walked the last meters toward the building. With each step the strong and steady resonance of a torrential noise emanating from the belly of the rotunda became more pronounced. We climbed the steps and on to the circular concrete fence surrounding the nucleus of the location's unique specialty. It was a water pumping station, receiving the precious liquid that came from faraway mountain springs to be redirected towards agricultural fields and communities of the region.

 "The drawing material is for you", Helen told me, "so you can start painting again."

I didn't start drawing right then, but I had been inspired to do so by the beauty of the place and the endearing feelings of a friend, sensitive to the tender things that spring from our human soul.

Before heading back, we dug into the sandwiches and talked about our lives, philosophy and my attraction for the infinite and my encounters with it when I painted during my childhood. She didn't consider herself very good at drawing, but enjoyed her art class. She had a boyfriend that she felt fortunate to have, for she suffered from epileptic seizures, some which she had in his presence, and she admired him and appreciated that he had accepted her together with her trying condition. They were planning on getting married soon.

I told her about my plans to study and eventually return to Panama. We agreed that she would soon have a sample of my charcoal drawings. In a few short weeks I produced several sketches and pictures, one based on the fuzzy but deeply felt memory of the image of the rotunda and the field where it lay. I never knew the reason for the water station's flamboyant but attractive architecture. And I never got to show Helen the drawings. We saw each other a few more times at school and then all of a sudden I never saw her again. The new impetus to return to making art that she had so gently motivated in me dissolved completely when my brother Rolando called me with disturbing news and a request that forced another change of course.

Roly's call came one afternoon when he was passing through Miami on his way to visit the Caribbean market that my father's company supplied with prestige brands of French perfumery. I was getting Charissa ready when the phone rang, to drop her off with the babysitter and from there head uphill to school.

"Things aren't going well with the company," he said. "The old man screwed up with a couple of bad investments and I'm doing my best to keep everything afloat and on track, but I can't keep up. I need your help, lika bradda." Speaking the dialect of the abundant black West Indian immigrants of our city came easy and natural to any authentic citizen of Colón, which we were. "I kiant do it alone, an Max (our uncle) ain't moch help. How long more you gwain be in school? "

 "I don't know, Roly. I still have some important courses to acquire the knowledge I need before daring to get involved with the company. I kiant leave soon."

 "OK. No problem, den," he replied. "But look to see what you can do. I don't know how long I can keep the ship afloat. I'll call you again from Miami on my way back, to see what you've thought and to talk more about it. Teik kier of yoself lika bradda."

"You too, Roly".

It was obvious what I had to do. During our time in Hayward, Judy and I had been dedicated to what came natural to us in our roles as parents of a child who over the months became more beautiful and charming. Chari had a pleasant disposition, was a happy baby and was bright and alluring. Those who approached her were rewarded with her beautiful and enchanting smile. Elva, Doña Querube and my mother, Ligia all visited us, mainly to meet Charissa and be smitten by the kid. My mother-in-law, who was still living in San Francisco and whom we saw regularly, was able to cement a new level of friendship with Ligia during the weeks mom stayed with us. Our new life at the university and as parents seemed to be on good track. My studies were progressing. Everything was stable. Except for one factor.

My savings were running out and we weren't going to be able to survive on Judy's salary alone. During the time I worked at Dunham Carrigan & Hayden I was able to send money each month to my mother and save up for at least a year of uninterrupted studies, but my savings were about to dry up. What were we to do in an emergency where we would need the economic resources to deal with it? Our financial situation was precarious and the pressure of having to seek employment was beginning to concern me. As a precaution, I changed my studies strategy. I set aside the mandatory liberal arts electives and began to focus on those directly related with business administration. Thus I would build without loss of time, without waiting the four years of study, the foundation of technical knowledge I needed on how to manage a business. I would therefore be relatively prepared with the necessary studies in the event I saw the need to return to Panama earlier than expected.

I crammed the following school term with subjects knowing that soon after I would leave the university to go back to Panama. But first I thought of working for at least three months to leave with some saved funds. After an embarrassing and unpleasant attempt as a RAINBOW vacuum cleaner salesman, I gave up the idea of working. After all, it would only postpone the return to Panama, and it was worth more, I concluded, to arrive there soon and provide the help my brother needed without delay. And, as regards how to undertake the journey back, it crazily occurred to buy a Volkswagen Camper to take the trip by car down the wicked Pan-American route. That camper plan was scrapped soon enough, but we made the trip anyway in a different set of wheels. Elvita, Judy's cousin of our same age, travelled with us. Charissa was a little over a year old. It took us 10 days on road conditions that were nothing like today's reliable paved stretches of road of each country that currently comprise the Interamerican route. We had ourselves a couple of good frights from the treacherously hazardous road conditions at some points, and the brand new Pontiac GTO we travelled in reached Panama quite beaten up.

And so it was in March 1967 that I found myself back in Panama with my beautiful daughter and the woman—now my wife—who three years earlier I had gone to Dallas after. I also carried with me the valuable harvest of completed and learned university subjects that I had set out to acquire in addition to the firm will to work hard in fulfilling the promise I had made to my father. Ironically 5 years later, after his death and my brother in exile since the military coup of 1968, I would find myself finally free from the disenchantement of being a businessman, and celebrating my recent re-encounter with the artist in me and my decision to change the order of my existence and pursue a professional career as a painter. It would take me another 5 agonizing years after that to exit the corporate doors and abandon the business world altogether without looking back.


<< previous     forward >>