WyoPanama: How Field Ecology in Panama Inspired a Screenplay

Post by Shayne Mazur 

I have always loved stories. They are a driving factor in our construction and understanding of culture. So when I visited Gamboa, Panama, for three weeks to study ecology and write, I quickly became fascinated by Central American folklore. What I encountered was a gritty mix of urban legends, ghost stories, and myths whose dark contents would set the Brothers Grimm back on their heels. 

I went to Gamboa thinking I was going to study and write a collection of short stories about birds. I’ve always been interested in ornithology, and I thought Panama would provide the grounds to do research.

Shayne looks into the Panama forest that informed her ecology-inspired screenplay. (Image © 2020, Priscilla Wigington/WyoPanama 2.0)

That plan changed when I found the El Cadejo myth. The cadejos are supernatural creatures that appear to travelers at night, either to protect them or kill them depending on the person’s nature. But they weren’t always wolf-like beasts with hooves.

While trying to figure out how the cadejos looked to me, I drew several sketches that included variations of how I imagined them. Top-to-bottom: shaggy and wild, stream-lined and ghoulish, and smaller yet cunning. (Image © 2020, Shayne Mazur/WyoPanama 2.0)

Once, the cadejos were two brothers, cursed for failing to fulfill a deal with a black magician. As punishment, they wander as incarnations of good and evil, a white cadejo and a black cadejo. Because the black cadejo is meant to kill, and the white to protect, they are in constant battle to maintain balance.

With its themes of duality and reciprocity, this legend appealed to me. It provided a platform to explore mutualism in ecological relationships while also allowing me to challenge the social belief that all fights require “good vs. evil” mentalities. The two concepts seemed to complement each other. 

This sketch illustrates the dual nature of the cadejos and the brothers that are slowly becoming them. The “morally skewed” brother is actually the white cadejo, while the “morally straight” brother is the black cadejo. But both brothers are half-light, half-dark, showing that neither is only one thing. (Image © 2020, Shayne Mazur/WyoPanama 2.0)

Research was difficult – something that transcends disciplinary boundaries. In my case, most of the Central American legends were in Spanish, so I spent about a week and a half translating them. There were different variations of the same myths depending on what country was telling the story. This process made me realize that Central American folklore isn’t easily accessible to many people unless they can speak Spanish. 

After a few days of writing, I realized a short story wasn’t the proper medium for the story I was trying to tell. I wanted a format that put the dark, gritty nature of the legend in your face, made you unable to look away. I wanted something more visually focused. Instead of a short story, I decided to adapt El Cadejo into a cinematic screenplay. The upfront action and need for dialogue better captured the tone I was looking for. 

This screenplay is still in the drafting stages. I didn’t have the time necessary during our Panama course to produce a final product. My interpretation of El Cadejo is different from the base text, and I am adapting this legend to reflect that. My screenplay takes place in a modern setting in the United States. Most importantly, I’m fully developing the brothers and their relationship with one another.

There is a tragic element to El Cadejo that is never addressed. The cadejos are brothers, and they’re turned into creatures that must spend the rest of their lives ripping into each other. To me, El Cadejo is more of a sad story than a scary one. That’s why this sketch shows two loving brothers in the background and the two cadejos fighting in the foreground. This is their fate, and there’s no escaping it. (Image © 2020, Shayne Mazur/WyoPanama 2.0)

Whereas all the characters in the myth are nameless and without motive, I’m providing backgrounds and a more developed story for my set of brothers. I’m also using screenwriting to explore science, something I’m not familiar with, in a medium I am familiar with. In keeping with the ecology class, I’m looking into framing my story based on other ecological concepts such as dispersal, invasion, and competition. 

For more about Shayne’s project and the WyoPanama program, visit the following links: WyoPanama course on Facebook | The UWyo Biodiversity Institute’s spring 2020 series on WyoPanama research | WyoPanama course website

Shayne (Greybull, WY) is a junior majoring in English at the University of Wyoming. She developed and led her own, independent research project as part of the WyoPanama study abroad course supported by the UWyo Honors College and Travel Abroad program. The course is led by Department of Zoology and Physiology faculty Patrick Kelley and Bethann Garramon Merkle, with invaluable support from TA and international master’s student Laura Gomez-Murillo.


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