Photographer Sandra Eleta started living in La Casa Roja (The Red House), located in front of the historical Portobelo Bay, in the early 70’s, a place she inherited from Dorcy, the caretaker of her grandfather’s lands in that region. He saved the old man’s life once after an accident, in which he made him a tourniquet and rowed him all the way to Puerto de Colón city, on the Canal’s Atlantic entry, to be taken care of. Sandra’s father took her to this estate since she was a child, and after befriending the caretaker, Dorcy enjoyed to proudly share this story with her while he sat her on his favorite rocking chair, all the while singing to her in French, because he was originally a native from the French Virgin Islands.
Arriving in Portobelo back then, Sandra recounts, “was a trip full of mystery! We had to go through thick jungle roads, almost unknown to visitors from the Pacific Coast. Panama’s Caribbean was a mystical and magical mystery”. This was how that eight-year old girl perceived Portobelo after being taken there by her father for the first time.
This story, which the photographer describes as “inevitable”, begins many years after that incident. She comments that “when I went through the front door of that house I felt, for the first time, an inexplicable sense of belonging; my life stopped, suspended under that spell, and I started to photograph, as if writing on an intimate diary, those children that were my first friends, my guides and starters in this unique experience that completely changed my life.
“One of the first images that also captivated me when I arrived into town was that of a blanket, made out of snippets, that vibrated on the wind with its vibrant colors while hanging on a tree branch. It spoke to me of a distant African aroma that grandmothers recalled unknowingly. I thought that that story had to be picked up, and that is how eventually a Women’s Cooperative emerged, enabling those ladies to recreate these labyrinths of tradition with their colors and images, and also turning these designs into batilongos or African style dresses, guided by the hands of Juan Dalvera, poet and artist, and his extraordinary designs.