Let me start by talking about a poet. Later I will tell you about the cantinas. His name was César Young Núñez and lived for a long time in Casco. In these streets, he got inspiration and returned it in texts of great humor, intelligence, and tenderness. He died just a year ago, and although the poet was no longer living in the Casco, returning to its streets gave him youthful energy. In his youth he went fishing to the pier in front of the Presidency, and in the streets of Casco he lived, read and wrote, he found friendship and love, and he enjoyed infinite walks. César lived Casco and in Casco. He lived and also drank. The old cantinas, typical of the neighborhood, were his second home, as well as a literary subject always developed with his fine humor and a mild nostalgia that never ceased to inhabit him.
I think this is the right time to specify some definitions of cantina. A cantina is not a bar, nor a tavern, nor a pub. Its something else. The first definition of cantina in the dictionary of the Real Academy of the Spanish Language is “a public place where drinks and some foodstuffs are sold”. Another meaning of cantina in the dictionary is the cellar where the wine is kept for home consumption. Cantina is also part of the house where you have the spare water to drink. As you will notice, the key word here is to drink. I confess that I have drunk is the title of the Peruvian writer Alfredo Bryce Echenique´s hilarious memories. This title is in comic response to the most solemn that gave the name to the memoirs of Pablo Neruda, I confess that I have lived.
But drinking is not just drinking. In a cantina is to fraternize, share, participate in a collective urban rite. But it is also to abandon yourself to your reflections or your memories while being surrounded by people, music, and lively bustle.
If you are thinking that a cantina is an exact equivalent of a bar, there are subtle differences between the two that you should take notice of. A cantina is a place where people gather to drink and enjoy together. A bar too. However, the cantinas are more popular places, where usually are served refreshing beers and traditional local drinks (in ours, those of Casco, stand out Seco and Panamanian rum). Meanwhile, a bar goes more in favor more to a certain modernity and sophistication. They play music that is more fashionable, while in the cantinas have jukeboxes always abounded with classic Latin American popular music, such as Benny Moré, Daniel Santos or Armando Manzanero. Nothing very sophisticated. No. If you are offered a snack in a cantina, you will probably have just a plate with peanuts. If you want to eat something more consistent, you can go to the Creole food stalls waiting for you outside the cantinas.
Photo: Courtesy of La Estrella de Panamá.
If we start to review the history, there have been cantinas almost since always. Remember that cantina existed from the colonial era, where wines brought in galleons from Peru or Spain were served. With the beginnings of the works of the French Canal in the 19th century, the original Hispanic cantinas were transformed into salons or gardens. At the beginning of the 20th century, bars appeared, which shared the urban protagonism with traditional cantinas.
Before the outbreak of the First World War (1914-1918) numerous cantinas flourished, mainly in Santa Ana and Central Avenue. Perhaps the most memorable was the cantina of the Hotel Central, in Plaza de la Independencia. It is said that extraordinaire poets like Rubén Darío or Charles Baudelaire drank and lived there. As a matter of fact, Baudelaire finished his famous Fleurs du Mal (Flowers of Evil) in one of the legendary tables of this cantina.
Nearby was the City of Verona, a classic cantina that served draft beer since 1909. Later, on the border between San Felipe and Santa Ana, the Chucuchucu appeared, along with the Cantina Club Zombie, and on Carlos A. Mendoza Street, the Melena, all of them regularly visited by itinerant musicians who gave them sound and character.
There was room for all social levels and personal predilections. If you were very poor you could get into the El Cielo canteen, whose second floor was occupied by the Trade Union Federation of Workers of the Republic of Panama. And if you liked social controversies, you could have enjoyed the cantina El Angel, whose Italian and anarchist owner lived in perennial conflicts with the hierarchy of the Catholic Church.
Then came the Second World War (1939-1945), which went through the world with a trail of fire and blood, but left no physical scars in Panama. The war passed, but the cantinas endured and did not go anywhere, remaining in the Casco and surrounding neighborhoods: The Second Front (whose name had little to do with military issues and rather referred to men given to support 2 homes Simultaneously), Maxim, La Popular, El Mercader, Las Quince Letras, Aurora (which still exists: see picture) and La Mayor.
There are still some cantinas persisting against the ever-changing fashions and the inflexible passing of time. In a next entry I will make a visit to the current cantinas of Casco and I promise you a full and complete report of tasty flavor, although I would have liked to do it with an unforgettable poet, perhaps one of the greatest connoisseurs of Casco’s cantinas, the unforgettable poet César Young, to whom I dedicate these light words with affection.