The Red Devils
Like in the rest of Latin America, buses are the commonest commuting means in Panama, though with a more colorful touch. The fleet of vehicles for public transportation in Panama is made up of old U.s.-made school buses bought as second hand merchandise.
As you see them coming up to the bus stops, you immediately make out a young man poking his head out of the first window or access door who goes shouting the stops along the ride. The bus slows down as it pulls over, yet it might take off at full speed if the busman or his aide notices there are no commuters ready to hop on.
Once inside the bus, you may get a seat if it’s not the rush-hour time. Just like disciplined and kindhearted schoolchildren, commuters sitting in rows of three behind the driver will always make room for just another passenger.
For getting off, all you need to do is say “stop” and the “red devil” will obey immediately. That’s the time when you pay for the bus fare, which is equivalent to a U.S. quarter.
Most bus owners are mom-and-pop businesspeople whose small companies put out all the stops to make sure their buses are the prettiest in town. The result of that effort is a spontaneous contest in which everybody guns for the prize to the best decorated vehicle.
In his detailed research paper entitled “A Few Considerations about Labeling and Paintings on Means of Transportation in Panama City”, published back in April 1974 in the Lotteries magazine, historian Julio Rosemead explains the initiative dates back to the times of the so-called “goats”, commuting buses equipped with sideline seats that roamed the streets from the 1910s to the 1970s.
Mr. Rosemead wrote in his work, “this commuting vehicle is recognized as part of the urban folklore since it’s a form of art in line with the historic and social characteristics that made it come into being, as well as the purposes of the community that made it possible.”
The decoration of the “red devils” has changed over the years, though some distinctive elements, like the color, have remained unaltered.
In spite of all the money and time spent in turning a commuting vehicle into a rolling mural or artwork, the owner or busman never gets a red devil on the move if it doesn’t carry at least one red stripe on each side. More images and caricatures of choice are added in a bid to keep Panama’s urban folklore up and running.
But in addition, these gaudy and popular means of transportation usually take plenty of flak from the commuters themselves when it comes to service. Now the question pops up in everybody’s mind. Why are they called “red devils”?
The streets of Panama City are not only fringed with modern buildings, but also with rolling murals that strike the attention of all passersby. Images of eagles, caricatures, angels, mugs of artists and politicians turn commuting buses into popular art galleries on wheels
For many, the name stems from the predominantly redhued decoration. For others, the moniker is the result of the bad reputation earned by some of its drivers that make the buses barrel down the streets of Panama like hotrods.
The truth is these buses are part of Panama’s urban landscape and that their decorations actually strike the attention of foreign visitors. Today, some Panamanians assert the days of the red devils are numbered, even though many of them are still shuttling up and down the city streets. Either way, even when modernity will eventually bring high-tech and comfy commuting vehicles, the red devils have already spared a space in Panama’s historic and folkloric lot.