THE HISTORY OF
It was the turn of the 19th century. The economic boom that was the construction of the Panama Railroad, the Gold Rush, and the prospect of a canal filled the city with arrivals seeking their fortune in the Isthmus. The influx of wealth opened a profitable market for financial services and, in those days, pawn shops where the equivalent of modern banks.
The city was bustling and a woman by the name of Clementina Herrera saw her chance. She set out to open her very own pawn shop, and so acquired a property strategically located in one of Panama’s busiest streets. But that wasn’t the sole reason why everyone talked about Clementina.
Clementina was unusual for her times: A free spirit who quickly gained notoriety for being one of the first Panamanian women to wear pants. She single-handedly worked her way to wealth and independence. A good business draws competition and soon enough, the building next to hers was bought by Mr. Jaén, who also established a high-end pawn shop.
Clementina and her neighbor and competitor got along well: They had a child they named Clementina Jaén Herrera. And, true to their spirit, the couple never married. Little Clementina spent time in both homes and, in coming of age, was sent to France to receive a formal education.
Not much is known about her time abroad, although it is not hard to imagine a young and wealthy Clementina in the Paris of the roaring 20’s meeting some of the most important artists of the 20th century. The party, however, was short-lived; quite likely she returned to Panama as World War II loomed over Europe.
The sophisticated woman who came back, however, was nothing like Panama had ever seen. She inherited her parents properties and made herself at home, but was by all means an eccentric who smoked, drank, and owned a large Cadillac that had once belonged in President Eisenhower’s motorcade. She had a peculiar taste for all things imported, surrounding herself with treasures she ordered from around the world: hand-painted floor tiles, art pieces, furniture, intricate light fixtures.
To further raise eyebrows, Clementina did not marry nor had children. Instead, she opened her home to artists and intellectuals, and women who sought a safe place in which to enjoy some freedom. She became the town’s bad aunt and, til this day, there are women who still remember having their first drink or having smoked their first cigarette in the privacy of Clementina’s home.
Although there is a photograph of Clementina in her older age, there is no better evidence of her wit and character than her final wishes: On her passing she left all of her earthly possessions to the catholic church. Cadillac included.