Beyond Borders- Mapping the Terrain
by Lynn Veach Sadler
My adopted father owned the first Mercedes dealership in Panama until the Noriega Regime took it from him. When it was safe to, he started a “chain” of grocery stores in Panama City. His brother was a lawyer with the “good” government of Panama. My uncle and his wife had adopted five children when he found me. My adopted mother would say to me over and over, “Your father said to your uncle, ‘You have five already. Give this one to us. And he will be called Eduardo after you.’” And my uncle did. My adopted mother was Swiss. I think all of these were wonderful people. I think the world needs wonderful people like these persons who became my adopted parents and my adopted uncle and aunt.
My uncle saw me when he accompanied the delegation that went to persuade my people, the Cunas, to stop demonstrating against the hand-over of the Great Canal to Panama. My people have a secret name among themselves. Outsiders call us “Cuna People,” but Cuna is only what we call our language.
My people flew the American flag. They were jealous when the Chocós were chosen to train the astronauts in survival, but our Chief said that the Chocós had the Darien Jungle for the training, and we of the San Blas did not. Our Chief said that we must remember the Cunas had 365 islands, one for each day of the year. This was not a small thing, our Chief said. Still, my people asked for a separate treaty with the United States of America. My people never helped with the Great Panama Canal (and only 357 Panamanians). Another delegation had come to them to ask for permission to take our sand. The ancestor of the Chief that was Chief when I was a child would not permit our sand to be removed. He said, “The Great Father gave into the protection of the Cunas the sand and all natural things in our islands. If we do not protect them, the Great Father will be angry with us. The sun will go away.” This would not be a bad thing for me but for my tribe. The Chief said, “Then hurricanes will come. Then floods will come. What water we have will dry away.” The Cunas have almost no fresh water on their islands. They were made for beauty only and are a string of pearls in the great, great sea.
Now that I have lived in two worlds, I have no reason for why my adopted uncle selected me. He was not a man who made a circus sideshow, no more than my adopted father. When I went with my uncle to my new family, I remembered how to look behind the eyes in the Cuna way. I could read their character looking behind their eyes. But why did my uncle pick me? I was smaller even than other Cunas. Except for the Pygmies of Africa, we are the smallest people in the world. My uncle was not a man of science to want to study me. Most of the Not-Cunas wish to study us, for we have more of what I am among us than any other people in the world. I am an albino, one of the White Indians of the San Blas.
I want to know, still, if my uncle knew of what sex I was when he picked me to be adopted. I never wished to ask him or my adopted parents. It was not a thing to talk about. It was enough that they called me Eduardo.
The Chief had adopted me, too. At that time, I was the only albino in the tribe. Albinos are special. The Chief’s sons hated me because I was special and their father adopted me.
I do not remember my real mother as a person of her own. I have confused the tales they tell of her with what I know of her. When I think very hard inside myself, when I am alone, I can get her smell, I think. She comes to me as dark, strong colors. Tall, which she could not have been as a Cuna. This must be the perspective of the child I was. When I try to paint her face, it is luminous. And her face is almost over-closed with black, black hair parted in the middle. Yet the hair is captured in braids that are long and end in great upward-swimming fishes. These fishes want to eat my mother alive. My mother’s red pulsating mouth moves out from the black hair and luminescence to laugh at them. When I first saw the Bird-Woman of Chagal, I knew that he knew my mother, even though his woman is different.
My real mother was a beauty. That is not good among the Cunas. They want Cunas to think of the tribe and not to stand out as persons. All of the Cunas, except my mother, worked for the community. My mother was too beautiful and self-willed for that. She must always have a flower or something different. She painted designs on both sides of her nose as well as the black line down its middle. She did not want to cut her hair and keep it short. The tribe would have to cut it for her. Her ankles were the most beautiful among all the Cuna women. So slim. She would not wear the women’s leg bracelets up her legs because she wanted her slim ankles to be seen. I tried and tried to make my own ankles slim but could not do so. In my paintings, even the men have nice slim ankles. The critics do not notice.
I thought my mother must have been pleased to have a different child. Meaning me, an albino. But the Chief said she thought I was a white grub. She was beautiful, as I have said, and believed in the power of beautiful things. The Chief did not mean to be unkind to me in telling this. The Chief says that the only way to live in the world is to live in as much truth as it will let in. So I must know what truth I can about the way I came. That is one reason why I consented to work with Doctor Abilio. I also wanted to please my adopted father, who was dying.
My mother was the Chief’s only niece, so he knew more about her even than about many of the members of the tribe. It is the Chief’s business to know the least small thing about all of the people.
The Chief said there was no tall and handsome man in the whole tribe, not handsome by my mother’s thinking. The Chief is the tallest among the tribe, and he could not be chosen by his niece. To marry outside the tribe cannot be done. Even today. Some members dare, but they cannot bring the Non-Cuna with them. And when they return alone, they must be punished. I do not know how this is done, for the punishment is very secret. It must be greatly terrible, for only one of the few who went away with a Non-Cuna ever returned.
My mother finally chose a man, and her parents arranged the marriage. Her father and his friends kidnapped the man and brought him to my mother’s hammock in the hammock lodge. Even though my mother was very beautiful—perhaps because she was so very beautiful, the Chief told me—this man who became my father did not want to be her husband. He was supposed to talk with her in the hammock the whole night through and not sleep once. The Chief says this man my father wanted to sleep to cast bad omens on the marriage and be put out of it, but he could not. He was too afraid of what my mother would do to him to fall asleep. We Cunas know that sleep comes only when the soul is at its peace. This man my father could never be at peace around my mother. When she went into the jungle to make rain, he ran away. The Chief did not know what my father said to make my mother think he would not run. Still, I know from this that my father was a clever man.
They brought him back. This time he and my mother left her hammock and went for privacy upon the beach. This time this man became my father. This time, he ran away again when my mother, I think, fell asleep. My mother was shamed. If he ran away a third time, he did not have to be married with her.
My mother ran away instead. She took a dugout and meant to go to another island far away. Her cayuca was found washed up on the far end of our island. A hole was punched in it. Some said the gods made the hole because she was a proud woman. Some said my father had made the hole to let her soul run out so he’d be free. My mother’s body was never found. She was known to have traded many coconuts with the Colombians who came regularly to our islands. Her wealth disappeared with her. It is whispered of a special place in the Darien Jungle where a tribe of mixed Cunas and Chocós live. It is whispered that my mother took a Chocó man who did not fit his tribe like her, and they made this mixed-up race. I do not know. I have thought upon looking for them but never have.
Questions were whispered about my strange mother. If my father had stayed the third time, he would be married with her. She had only to place his things outside the communal hut to be put apart, “divorced,” from him. Then my father could not remarry unless she gave her permission or chose another Cuna man. Why did my mother run away? This I do not know.
The Chief, in the absence of my mother, allowed my father to re-marry. For a time, he was very happy with the girl who had taunted my mother about her ways. After seven changes of the moon from the time my father became her new husband, my father sickened. The medicine man can give medicine to make a woman create more daughters. The medicine man can give medicine to make a woman create more wonderful molas. The medicine man could do nothing to help my father. They put him aside in a special hammock under a palm-leaf-covered roof. His new wife and her mother and aunt stayed all night tending him, never letting the fire die down, for he must be kept hot to drive away the fever beings that possessed him. But my father could not fight them off, for they had been sent, the medicine man said, by my mother. And women are always more powerful in their secret ways than men. His new wife said in a loud and angry voice, throughout the tribe, that his old wife, my mother, had returned in the night to poison him with a dart from a Chocó blowgun. But everyone knew that my father was not well of soul. He had never wanted my mother, a thing which went against his self. We Cunas know that what we are outside has to do more with the soul than the body. When the soul is sad or sick or torn and old, the body must be also.
So, my father died. His new wife and her mother and aunt sewed him into his hammock to be taken to the Secret Burial Place. I was his son, though little more than a baby, and was allowed to go with them. The Wife of the Chief held me in her arms. I think I remember being held in her arms. I cannot tell whether I remember the rest or was allowed to know it from the Chief because my father had died.
The Secret Burial Place was on a special island where no one lived. My father’s new wife and her mother and aunt brought the bundle that was my father in a special cayuca. They hung it between two forked sticks and dug out a cave to shelter him. They covered it over with rocks and the fronds of palms and other living things. And then they set a chair beside the cave. My father’s soul would roam and roam the world all day trying to be at peace with itself. When my father’s soul returned to the cave at night, it would be tired, very tired. It would sit in the chair at night to rest. When I remembered my father in the Secret Burial Place years later, I wondered at this. The death rites of the Cunas are sacred. The Cunas have no chairs except for the dead souls to sit on. The dead souls that are weary from going about and about to find peace with themselves. I have painted chairs in my paintings, but the critics do not notice or ask what they mean. For chairs are not foreign to them as to the daily life of Cunas. Even unto this day.
I remembered my father in the Secret Burial Place many years later when Doctor Abilio began to work with me to open my memories again.
But the greatest Secret Place was deep inside me and required a long time with Doctor Abilio to open so that I could remember.
I have said that the albino is special among the Cuna people. They are always male when they appear, though I do not know how that can be. The Cunas are, in today’s language, “matrilineal.” Being an albino is the only way, aside from being descended from a special line of Chiefs, for a male to have power. Unlike most of the peoples of the South American countries, Panama included, the Cunas do not have “macho” males. As an albino, I was a true mola male, but all non-albino males are teased among us as “mola males,” for the women are dominant in our society.
The life of the albino may not suit all born to it. Unable to bear the rays of the Great Sun, he is trained in woman’s ways. He sits inside among the women and sews the molas. This is where, I think, I became an artist, for no two molas must ever be alike. Not even on the same blouse can the front and the back be alike. The sewers of molas must create, create, create. Else they are ashamed. We are proud of our handiwork and wear the blouses ourselves, at least the five-swatched ones, until we tire of them. Then and only then are they sold to the tourists. That is not a cheating, for only the greatest of the molas are worn by ourselves. To have one of the blouses we have discarded is no small thing and is much sought by the collectors. If I have had success as an artist, it is because of what I remembered from making the molas. No critic seems to guess that “the Eduardo technique” is only an adaptation of the appliqué and cut work of molas. I use the strong colors of the mola. I sew with paint where I first sewed with thread.
My adopted father was more bothered than my adopted uncle by my woman ways. I liked the bright colors. I liked the women’s clothes. I liked the black paint down my nose and the big rings in it. I cried when they were taken away. My soul became sick.
But the soul of my adopted father was more sick than mine when it looked upon me through his eyes. It was not so much the women’s ways that bothered him. It was what had happened to me among the women.
My uncle had had his private doctor examine me before I was adopted by his brother. I do not know what he told my adopted father, but I believe now that he did not tell him all. I was tended by the old nursemaid, Tialima. She was like the Cuna Chief’s wife who cooked in the cooking tent of the women. Tialima made clucking noises in her throat when she first saw how I was. I think she told my adopted mother. I think now that my adopted parents viewed me as I slept. My adopted father’s soul sickened. My adopted father would not stop until something could be done.
We went to doctors of all kinds. They all cautioned that I could not be changed until I understood. That is why I was sent to work with Doctor Abilio.
Before the doctors, I was almost happy. My adopted parents and Tialima were very good to me and loved me. I liked the schooling. I liked everything but having to pretend that I did not want to dress in the woman fashion and sew molas all day out of the sun. Sometimes my uncle would take me among the Cunas, which made me very, very happy.
But Doctor Abilio spoke of my responsibilities to my adopted father. I knew that I must try to make my adopted father happy to repay him for his great kindness to me. Doctor Abilio said that living the way I had lived was right among the Cunas but not right in the great male “macho” society of Panama. I must try to adapt myself to the Panama way, which was not wrong for me because I was a boy. On the other hand, because of the very fact that I was a boy, what had happened to me among the Cunas was “unnatural.” To be unnatural was bad for both Cunas and Panamanians. I must try to find my natural self again. My boy or male self.
Doctor Abilio worked and worked with me. Every day but Sunday we worked together to make me natural. I thought inside myself that I would become natural faster if he worked with me on Sunday. On Sundays, after mass, I was free to do as I pleased. I could think then of my Cuna ways and could sometimes find a secret place to reenact them. It seemed to me that my Cuna Sundays made up for my Panamanian weekdays. “The Painter Eduardo” came to paint only on Cuna Sundays.
Then my adopted father caught the “testicular” cancer, and we traveled to the United States of America for months at the time so he could be treated. But he could not be cured, for he would not permit the damaged parts to be cut off. I thought to myself that my “condition” prevented his curing. I tried harder and harder to find my natural self. The one great wish of my adopted father was to see me “well” before he died.
Doctor Abilio had tried the hypnotizing in little bits before. Under the hypnotizing, I remembered the chair that was put out for my dead father in the Secret Burial Place. Another time, I remembered a mola dress my mother had sewed. It was all-over the octopus, which was a terrible creature of evil to the Cunas. They had run from her in that dress, and she had laughed and laughed at them. She had become angry when I was afraid of the octopus dress, too, but I remembered in the hypnotism that she taught me to love the creature. I did not mean to deceive Doctor Abilio then or later. But it came to me that my mother was not with me long enough for the octopus occasion to occur. I knew then that I could not trust the hypnotism, for I must have been told of the octopus story as I was told of almost all that I know of my mother. Else, I was in the dream state of the Cunas. When I was out from under the hypnotism, I did not share these thoughts with Doctor Abilio.
My adopted parents let me keep two small octopuses in a large tank. That is where the octopus comes from in my paintings. The octopus became a kind of “signature of the artist,” but the critics do not seem to notice.
I and Doctor Abilio built up to the Great Hypnotism which was to make me want to be my natural self and be “reconstructed.” I did not discuss with him what would happen after the reconstruction. Among the Cunas, I could not intermarry. What would I do after the reconstruction when I was a natural Panamanian?
The Great Hypnotism was like sleepwalking.
I remembered that I had helped the women make the chichah. The only time we Cunas take strong drink is for the sacred ceremonies. Only the women make it. Only the women drink it. Except for the albino. Which I was.
There were two of us for this ceremony. It was what the sociologists call now the “Puberty Rite.” It would last for three days and three nights. All the while, we would drink the sacred chichah.
We were escorted to the Secret Place of the Women on another island. We wore the special molas we had made for this special occasion. My fellow honoree would pass hers to her first daughter. I would keep mine hidden and pass it to a future albino. I do not know what happened to mine. I try and try to paint it, but I cannot capture it. When I recall it to paint its patterns on my canvas, it will become “Eduardo’s masterpiece.” All of the critics will say this.
The women painted the black stripe down our noses. I remembered that the finger of The Wife of the Chief tickled as she painted, and I giggled. There was much laughter and giggling. They put in the nose rings, and the tool for the holes used by The Wife of the Chief hurt, but not very much because the other women poured chichah on the wound and gave me more chichah to drink. The hair of my fellow honoree was chopped off, and she watched and waited while The Wife of the Chief cut off mine. It had been let grow until The Great Ceremony.
The women spoke things to each of us. I had not heard these things whispered before, and I wondered. Usually, the whisperings come about all that has happened with us Cunas, all that will happen. But I had not heard these things before. I wondered if I was told all the things my fellow honoree was told. I was different from her and did not think so because, even as an albino, there were things that only the women would know. I could never be a woman except outwardly. I tried to study upon this, but they gave me more chichah, and I could not think. I could only laugh and watch the women do their sacred dances. Dances I had never seen before. I felt that I was very privileged.
And then they took away my companion. The Wife of the Chief stayed behind with me, and we sat upon a palm mat on the ground and drank more chichah. She whispered kind things to me, and I was very, very happy. I thought I heard my fellow honoree call out, but The Wife of the Chief shushed me and gave me more chichah. At last my fellow honoree stood before me in her red and gold scarf, and she was a girl no more but a woman. I wished so much for my own red and gold scarf.
Then The Wife of the Chief led me off to the sacred place where girls became women. I was so happy. But then someone started screaming. I could not stand the screams. I hid my face in the arms of The Wife of the Chief. Then the screaming stopped at last, and the other women gave me my red and gold scarf. I was a woman, too, like my fellow honoree. And when Doctor Abilio made the hypnotism of me, I remembered who it was that was screaming.
[Contact Lynn Sadler at: firstname.lastname@example.org]