GUARARE, Panama – Dozens of bulls, hardy men of all ages and an improvised corral in the central plaza of Guarare: this is the first act in the celebration of Panama’s biggest folklore festival, which every year since 1949 has attracted thousands of visitors.
Guarare, a village of some 4,500 inhabitants in southern Panama, every September drops everything to enjoy the seven-day Mejorana Festival, an event that brings the most popular folklore traditions to life while putting on a running of the bulls to bring in the crowds.
The first bull bursts out of a large red gate and a crowd of men close in to run dangerously near it, while others keep out of harm’s way behind small obstacles.
The maddened beast chases them over the land, the crowd runs before it and some jump over the protective barrier as the more daring get up close to tempt the bull with a possible goring.
Spectators in the stands scream every time the bull knocks one of the runners over. “You can’t feel fear when you’re running before the bulls, but rather respect, because a bull is sure to catch whoever is afraid,” Carlos Gonzalez, 24, who has run before the bulls for 10 of years, told EFE.
The young man, who was waiting for his turn to go head-on against one of the beasts, had his first accident in a “corrida” in 2012 and has had “eight fractures: nose, arms and feet,” he said, adding that “the hits teach you.”
A person’s age here is no problem, as shown by Eduardo Antonio Herrera, 16, who has been riding bulls for two years, and told EFE that he protects himself as much as possible by wearing kneepads and a helmet.
“Not just anyone can go in for this extreme sport,” the teenager said, who hoped that everyone “will keep supporting the Mejorana Festival.”
The young runners only arm themselves with a red cape to provoke the beast into charging until they dominate it like professional matadors do. But this day does not end with the death of the animal in Panama, which has banned that practice since 2012 and only allows the running of the bulls during festivals and religious feast days.
A RANGE OF TRADITIONS
During the last week of every September, Guarare natives meet to celebrate the novena of Our Lady of Mercy, the religious feast of the region and in whose honor the Mejorana Festival is held.
“Spain doesn’t celebrate a feast day without bulls, and that’s what happens here,” folklore expert Donatilo Ballesteros said with regard to why the running of the bulls is held on religious feast days and during the festival.
Ballesteros, who also does research, told EFE that this practice gives a certain glory to the Mejorana Festival, begun in 1949 by folklorist Manuel Zarate ((1899-1968) and which represents all the country’s traditions, from music of the “tamborito” (small Panamanian drum) to the “saloma” sea shanty to the poetic “tonada” lyrics to the sound of the violin.
The mejorana, after which the festival was named, is a kind of guitar that is the only purely Panamanian instrument. It is also the name of a poetry genre and a dance step.
Jose Castillero, a native of Guarare, told EFE that this event is at the heart of this southern Panamanian village: “It is the responsibility of the locals to keep alive a custom that nobody wants to lose.”