Alma de Guerrero (Warrior’s Soul): A Short Film On The Death Of Panama’s Diablo Rojo Buses

By Peter Szok Friday, January 10th, 2014 Categories: Features, Updates

In late 2010, after a long series of accidents, President Ricardo Martinelli initiated the removal of the diablos rojos (red devils) from Panama City and their replacement with a network of corporate managed buses.  The diablos rojos had been in circulation for decades, transporting passengers about the capital and enlivening its environs with their thumping reggae, their screeching breaks, horns, sirens and flashing lights, and with their breakneck speed and roaring mufflersBold pregones (proclamations) were emblazoned on the bumpers and bragged shamelessly of power, stilo, and talent.  The hyper-masculine vehicles were operated by small businessmen who competed in a highly decentralized system that encouraged flamboyance and reckless driving.  The owners imported old school buses from the United States and hired working-class painters to hide their age with eye-catching depictions of actors and singers, exotic landscapes, cartoons, monsters, athletes and wizards.  The images, which drew heavily on Afro-Caribbean aesthetics, served to humiliate opponents while entangling potential riders in a flurry of colour.  They also functioned as mobile galleries.  They nurtured an appreciation for visual culture and provided opportunities for proletariat artists to flaunt their skills in the face of elitist pretentions.  A “prity” diablo rojo was like a forceful dancer, overwhelming any caution or feelings of hesitancy and dragging its customers in from the sidewalk


Panama’s Diablo Rojo Buses; Melgar. Image by Peter Szok

Rose Marie Cromwell’s “Alma de Guerrero” captures the death of the diablos rojos as well as their inner strength and capacity for reincarnation.  Cromwell is a U.S. photographer who divides her time between Panama and New York City.  She co-directs an art and educational program (Cambio Creativo) in the low income community of Coco Solo, a former U.S. naval base outside Colón, where poor Panamanians resettled following the North American departure and where they now live in desperate conditions.  Cromwell looks for inspiration in Panama’s hardscrabble neighborhoods, documenting human complexities in these neglected places.  She filmed her video over two days at a “diablo rojo cemetery.”  There the buses were gathered following Martinelli’s decision that they be crushed into heaps of ragged metal.  Ironically, the brutal jaws of the demolition equipment stack the scraps into visually compelling structures.  Cromwell concentrates on a particularly ornate victim, as it is methodically torn apart by the hydraulic machinery.  Fittingly the pregón of the battered vehicle reads, “Thank you my Lord for giving me the soul of a warrior.”

The movie’s scenes of exploding tires, crashing steel frames and crumbling artwork are interspersed with sequences of prominent painters who calmly focus on their projects.  The violence and din of the cluttered graveyard contrast sharply with this tranquil environment. Andrés Salazar (1955-) is the tradition’s most important figure and a graduate of Panama’s Escuela Nacional de Artes Plásticas.  He transformed the genre in the 1980s, using the airbrush to cover previously neglected surfaces with extravagant designs, lettering, caricatures and portraits.  Salazar’s diablos rojos teemed with cadences and, in his own words, were intended to “kill the others with beauty.”  Salsa stars were his favorite subjects, and in the film, he appears touching up a depiction of the Panamanian sonero Rubén Blades whose popular songs often filled the buses.  A good sound system was essential to a diablo rojo, contributing to its sense of public spectacle and helping to draw in potential passengers who, in some cases, became part of the show as they sang and tapped their feet to the music.  Salazar also devoted himself to teaching, and trained dozens of disciples to follow him into the business.


Panama’s Diablo Rojo Buses; Melgar. Image by Peter Szok


Panama’s Diablo Rojo Buses; Salazar. Image by Peter Szok

Óscar Melgar (1968-) is Salazar’s most successful student and apprenticed under the master for several years while pursuing his studies at the Universidad del Arte Ganexa.   Melgar began to dominate the discipline at the end of the 1990s, just as the government initiated its efforts to repress the diablos rojos with new restrictions on decorations and the use of stereos.  Melgar is a radio DJ and had operated a mobile discotheque in 1980s.  In the face of this state opposition, he added new extravagances to the buses, situating lively representations in their most peripheral spaces and emboldening their rebellious, pulsating essence.  Melgar’s diablos rojos whirled with imagery and frequently boasted elaborate lighting, fancy front grills, and multiple hood ornaments.  The vehicles blasted their prohibited rhythms outside the earshot of the authorities.  In the video, Melgar appears oblivious to the wreckage at the diablo rojo cemetery.  Cromwell highlights his elegant brush work, juxtaposing it against the ruin of the wrecking crane.  Melgar and Salazar assuredly pursue their painting, indicating that if bus art now faces tremendous obstacles, it also benefits from a deep reserve of confidence and that it will likely burst forth, like a brash diablo rojo, in search of new venues to invade and conquer.  Cromwell’s powerful depiction suggests that the warrior spirit is not dead, but continues to burn in the hearts of the artists.


Stills from Alma De Guerrero (Warrior’s Soul).


Stills from Alma De Guerrero (Warrior’s Soul).

Efrain Sánchez provided technical assistance in the production of “Alma de Guerrero,” and Sandra Eleta and Lorena Endara offered feedback on conceptualization and editing.  The film was first shown in April 2013 at the Bienal del Sur in Panama City.

Peter Szok
Peter Szok

Peter Szok is a professor of history at TCU in Fort Worth, Texas. He has conducted research in Panama for over two decades and is the author of Wolf Tracks: Popular Art and Re-Africanization in Twentieth-Century Panama (Mississippi, 2012).