The D.J. at the end of the room has been instructed to open with “The Yellow Rose of Texas” and to play tía Adelaide’s old favorites. I look up. You can’t avoid looking up. The ceiling is as tall as a palm tree. We are in Casco Antiguo, the old, colonial quarter of Panama City where buildings date back as early as the 1600’s. My American husband and I took an Uber so as not to drive the narrow brick roads in the dark. The venue for the party is a bank built in 1904 that had been involved in the financing of the Panama Canal. Family have helped Adelaide with the preparations. Her sister-in-law, Connie, 92, brought Adelaide weeks before to taste the food and to approve the flowers.
When she called me in New York several months ago, tía Adelaide had said, “I invited all the people I care about. Will you come?” She’d insisted on a party on her 99th the year before, “in case I don’t make it to three digits.” I’d flown in for that too. It’s not every day that a family member becomes a centenarian.
Since Adelaide arrived in Panama in 1935, the Jewish community has changed dramatically. Our group—Kol Shearith Israel—is the smallest, descendants of Spanish-Portuguese Jews who arrived in Panama in the 1850s. There are now three Jewish congregations and six synagogues with a total of 15,000 members, the majority families of Sephardic Jews who emigrated from Arab countries—and from Israel after World War II. In recent years there have been waves of immigrants from Latin American nations in periods of trouble: Colombia, Argentina, and now Venezuela.