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The Legend of the Slap-Boxing Wife-Swappers of Panama

It’s more truth than fiction, but it’s not exactly as it seems

Sal Perkins is an American in Panama whose wife is working in a rural area of the country near the Costa Rican border—specifically the Comarca, which is where the Ngäbe, the indigenous people of Panama, live.

The man without a shirt lies unconscious at the feet of his friends, who couldn’t care less. They barely notice him as they talk among themselves underneath a big tree in a grassy lot beside Bar Mi Lucha (My Struggle) in the small town of Volcan, Panama, not far from the country’s northern border with Costa Rica. The bar is a big blue structure with two doorways blocked from streetview by chest-high walls. Ironically, a police station sits on the other side of the grassy lot. In front of Mi Lucha, another guy buttons up his white cloth shirt, his cheek bleeding — the blood and the beating he just handed out seemingly the key to the affections of a nearby woman in an ankle-length black-and-orange cloth dress of the sort that many female Ngäbe wear.

Bar Mi Lucha

Suddenly, a younger, darker-skinned Ngäbe man stomps out of Mi Lucha. An intricate orange-, black- and green-striped hand-pouch hangs from the waist of his blue cloth pants. He, too, quickly removes his shirt; he’s much more muscular than he looks. A pudgy-faced man follows him out of the bar and strips off his shirt as well; his body is just as poorly defined as it looks. A parade of men and an attractive Ngäbe woman who is smiling and giggling trail behind.

Gordito [Little fat boy],” a drunken old man in tall rubber boots shouts at the pudgy-faced guy.

“Vamos chocolatito!” a man wearing a straw cowboy hat calls out to the clearly stronger combatant. (“Let’s go, little chocolate boy!”)

It’s Gordito, however, who explodes with punches and knocks Chocolatito to the ground. He gets up, but Gordito knocks him right back down again. “I’m too drunk!” Chocolatito yells, attempting to steady himself on his feet once again. “That’s why you wanted to fight me now!”

I first heard about the fights at Mi Lucha from my fellow expats in Volcan. The legend they perpetuate is that these impromptu street-boxing matches between Ngäbe men are for each other’s wives. Specifically, the wife of the loser can go with the winner of the fight if she so chooses. It’s not obligatory, they swear, but she often does. It’s Darwinism in action, they argue: She chooses the winner because he’s proven to be a stronger mate who can likely provide for her better. “The great thing about living in Volcan is if you get tired of your wife, you can just go down to the bar and pick a fight with one of the Ngäbe, take a jab on the chin, fall down and not get up,” a 70-something Georgian named Alex once joked to me. “Then the Ngäbe guy wins your wife from you.”

It’s more truth than legend, though the expat retelling has been exaggerated and robbed of all nuance. “It’s Ngäbe tradition,” a military police officer in front of the station across the grassy lot from Mi Lucha tells me in Spanish. “But it’s illegal to fight over wives here in Volcan. When they do it, we come in and stop it. We tell them they have to got to the Comarca [the indigenous region] if they want to do that.”

Either way, the Ngäbe have rules for their fights, explains an elderly man drinking a can of beer near the tree as he watches Chocolatito and Gordito continue their now-grueling battle. Exhaustion has made their fight more of a stumbling match; they wearily sway back and forth in a delirious waltz. “They have to take their shirts off; sometimes they wrap their hands with cloth handkerchiefs, like gloves,” the elderly man says. “They can only fight with their hands. You will sometimes see they have bad technique — they hit with the palm of the fist like a slap. The good ones, however, hit with the knuckles. If someone falls, the person who fell has the choice to continue or not. Sometimes, if it’s a bad feud, the other guy will kick them a little when they’re down.”

Though the Ngäbe have their own language, land and laws, most are fluent in Spanish and work outside the Comarca. The history between the Ngäbe and the Panamanians is complex, rife with racism and distrust. Many of the problems involve the Cerro Colorado Copper deposit in the Comarca. The Ngäbe have protested the mining that takes place there, and some violence has occurred over the pollution it causes. The Ngäbe battled a hydroelectric dam project in the Comarca for similar environmental reasons.

The Chocolatito-Gordito bout continues for another half hour. It’s so grueling and endless that the Ngäbe woman who followed the two of them out of the bar urges Chocolatito to stop fighting. When he refuses, she disappears back into Mi Lucha. Finally, with both Chocolatito and Gordito bloodied and covered in dirt, Chocolatito cannot get up again and his friends carry him back into the bar.

“They fight at Mi Lucha every Friday from 2 p.m. all the way through the night,” says Andres Rios a 29-year-old Ngäbe man who’s married with three children and who moved from the Comarca to Volcan 14 years ago. “The same on Saturday and Sunday afternoon. Whether there’s rain, sun, wind or fog, they’re there fighting. The traditions are strongest in the most remote areas; the places you can only reach by horseback. Those places you see very old traditions — sometimes one man can have five or six wives. But the closer you get to towns like Volcan, they don’t allow the old way.”

When I ask Rios whether or not the men at Mi Lucha are fighting for wives, he shakes his head no. “The Bible says that husband and wife are one for their whole lives.”

Thirty-three-year-old agricultural worker Miguel Carrasco has stronger ties to the Comarca. The most apparent piece of evidence: There’s a faded bruise under his eye from a fight a week ago at Mi Lucha. “Sometimes I win, sometimes I lose, but I never fight for wives; I’m too good-looking to have to fight for wives,” he jokes. “Most of the time the fights aren’t over women, anyway. Only about one out of three are. Most of the fights are over disrespect or problems from the Comarca. The men see each other at the bar and fight. And some young men fight for fun and for pride.”

Carrasco also explains that the idea of marriage is different for the Ngäbe. “It’s not a legal marriage. If a woman lives with you, she’s your wife. Usually, if you split with your woman, it’s a calm split. I have two kids with a woman, and I don’t live with them. It’s common to shift families around — one woman can have kids from several men and sometimes the kids stay with the father.”

It’s similarly common for the wives to instigate the fights, he says, pointing to a few Ngäbe women standing with their arms folded in the parking lot of the bank across the street from Mi Lucha. “If the husband drinks all the money away, she might get mad because they can’t buy food. She will go into the bar and find another man. She will provoke the fight, and even if her husband wins, she goes with the loser of the fight because she doesn’t want to be with her husband anymore.”

“Other women go to Mi Lucha alone,” he continues. “Many times she has children and has split with her husband and is looking for a new man to help her raise her kids. She will go and drink with many different men at the bar. If they get jealous, the men will fight. The woman doesn’t necessarily go with the man who wins, but often times, she does because he’s proven himself to be strong. The new marriage is sometimes permanent, sometimes only for a few weeks and sometimes just for sex.”

On the flip side: “The husband can come to Mi Lucha alone, too,” Carrasco explains. “He might fight and get a new wife. If he brings her home and his wife and the new wife get along, they all live together. If the wives fight, the husband throws out the old wife and keeps the new one.”

As for Chocolatito and Gordito, they eventually make it back out to the lot beside Mi Lucha. Chocolatito has sobered up and is fighting much better. Gordito, however, is still able to knock him down yet again. After which, he stumbles away, too exhausted to fight any longer. Chocolatito gets up for about the thirtieth time and shouts, “Aye!” His friends raise his hands and call him, “El campeón del mundo!” He smiles — victory is his by virtue of having the willpower to get up enough times to make his opponent quit.

He hasn’t won a new wife, but he has won the ability to stand with dignity at Mi Lucha.

— As told to Josh Schollmeyer

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