The Wind & the Water: A Kuna Coming of Age Story

Para la versión en español, cliquea aquí


The Wind and the Water (2008) tells the story of a young indigenous boy who makes his way to Panama City. There he discovers the real-life cost of living in a city and along the way meets a mixed girl from a wealthy family. Their meeting is crucial for both of them and by the end, they come to terms with their place and identity.

Rebuilding Panama

The Aftermath of the Panama Invasion

Even though Noriega was gone, Panama was still mired in catastrophic debt. After a slow start, the newly formed Endara government started to put the country back together. Unfortunately, in sharp contrast to the Torrijos-Noriega period where people of various ethnicities held high political positions, the Endara government revived the pre-1968 rabiblanco tradition of practically all ministerial positions being held by whites. This created a lot of tension between his administration and the Panamanian police force (PDF) which was mainly mestizo. It was only calmed by US troops remaining as an intermediary between the two, but their efforts were insufficient. After an attempt to overthrow him from the PDF, Endara proposed a number of measures. A law was passed that gave the police its first civilian commander in chief since 1930. Also, a constitutional amendment was proposed that would make Panama the second Latin American country to abolish the military. However, a back door was created in the amendment to permit the formation of temporary special police units to counter acts of “external aggression”. Endara’s use of police to quash dissent made his initial approval rating of 70% go down to 10% by May 1992. By 1994, the first completely free election since 1968 and the freest in Panama’s history took place with the PRD choosing Ernesto Perez Balladares, Torrijos’s protege, as their candidate. Though many feared a vote for him was a vote for authoritarianism, he won. 

Ernesto Perez Balladares

Perez Balladares liked to call his approach to reforming Panama “renovated Torrijismo”, though he proved to be less radical. The real problems came ironically in an area he claimed to reform: drug trafficking. In January 1996, an investigation by Panama’s banking commission found that the Agro-Industrial and Commercial Bank of Panama (BANAICO) had been used as a major drug money-laundering center for the Colombian Cali Cartel and Perez Balladares’s campaign had accepted drug money from the cartel’s man in Panama, Jose Castrillon Henao. By the 1999 elections, Mireye Elisa Moscoso Rodriguez, the widow of former president Arnulfo Arias, won the presidency. Her election signaled the reversal of the decidedly neoliberal policies of the latter years of Perez Balladares’s administration and a return to the populist roots of Panama.

She promised a smooth handover of the Canal at the end of the year. However, upon leaving Panama, the US military left behind over 17,000 contaminated sites containing unexploded munitions throughout the canal left from pesticides. The potable water around the canal contained over 300% more lead. Moscoso complained that the US had cleaned up practically nothing. By the end of her term, Panama still faced high crime rates since the invasion and high unemployment. Moscoso’s successor Martin Torrijos, the son of the former dictator, had also seen difficulties in creating meaningful reform. At the cusp of the 21st century, Panama faces a generational challenge to solidify its democracy.

The Kuna People

Kuna Woman

The Kuna are natives that primarily live in the San Blas Islands. The Kuna have acted more stand-offish, forbidding intermarriage and excluding outsiders at least since the 18th century. Throughout the 19th century, the Kuna gave their allegiance to Colombia which for the most part left them alone. Even when Panama became independent of Colombia, some Kuna still remained loyal to Colombia leaving the Panamanian government to be wary of them. Panama soon began a campaign to establish administrative control of San Blas. In 1904, a number of villages were convinced to accept Panama and many young people were taken to Panama City for education. The government tried to change their traditional dress since their costume (especially female) was a key symbol of their ethnic identity and separation. They also tried to suppress the ceremonies and festivals celebrated by the Kuna. Where the police were successful, young adults were forced to attend and dance to the accompaniment of wind-up gramophones. The Panamanian government felt the same way about San Blas as they did about the Canal Zone. It was a strictly un-Latino place where their power was rejected. In 1924, the police expanded to five new villages and rapidly imposed their program. Banana disease in other parts of the country was also forcing the rapid expansion of plantations in San Blas. On 23 February 1923, carnival day, revolution broke out on all the occupied islands. Over the next few days a total of 30 police, collaborators, and mixed-race children were killed. An independent republic was proclaimed with a 25-page declaration of independence written by Richard Marsh, an American explorer they had befriended. The final peace agreement renewed their allegiance to Panama but the Kuna enjoyed a large measure of self-management from that point on. 

Finding Your River

The Wind & the Water

When our protagonist, Machi, is still living with his native family, his great uncle tells him an important story. Once there were three brave brothers who lived under a tyrant’s rule. Fed up, they decided to leave and make a plan. Once they made their plan, the wind took their words and brought them straight to the enemy. Angry that their work was for nothing, they went down to the river. Once the water reached their mouths, the water guarded their words from the wind and they were finally free to talk. His great uncle tells him it’s imperative that Machi finds his own river. In effect, that is the story of this film. His journey to the city is what gives him the need to talk and plan. He can’t believe how people in the city live. He complains about their dark, boring clothes, oppressively tall buildings, and dirty seawater. Machi thinks the worst thing about it is that he’s underwater alone with no one to hear him. This emphasizes the idea that the city is an alienating place. It’s only when he meets Rosy that he can find that sense of community. After he shows her the great things about the Kuna people and their shared heritage, he finally has that place. The film ends with an image of the two going on a boat in San Blas to go fishing. He’s finally in the water with someone who can understand him.

Rosy’s Journey

The Wind & the Water

Machi is not the only person who goes through incredible personal growth. At the start of the film, Rosy is ashamed of her mother’s Kuna roots. She is introduced to us at her quinceanera when after getting a traditional present from an indigenous relative, she hides it as soon as her friends come by. What she doesn’t understand about her heritage is that it will follow her wherever she goes and if she doesn’t view it as something to be proud of, it could be used to exploit her. Near the end of the film, she tries to become a model and unbeknownst to her is accepted for a job because of her indigenous look. When she gets to the job, she realizes that it is for a real estate advertisement. The real estate in question is to be sold by the Kuna people to her father’s company which would use the land for corporate resorts. Unknowingly, Rosy has become an instrument in the oppression of her own people and it doesn’t feel good. Through meeting Machi, she has been able to learn about the good parts of her heritage and finally accept that part of herself. By accepting herself she can’t be exploited again.

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