Race and Ethnicity in the formation of Panamanian National Identity: Panamanian Discrimination Against Chinese and West Indians in the Thirties

Race and Ethnicity in the formation of Panamanian National Identity: Panamanian Discrimination Against Chinese and West Indians in the Thirties

Revista Panameña de Política
Number 4 (July-December 2007)
pages 61-92

Marixa Lasso De Paulis, Associate Professor of History
Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio

The article examines the conditions governing the interrelationship between Chinese and west Indians population with the Panamanians, especially in the first half of the twentieth century. In particular, the article presents the framework in which opportunities for integration and social and economic marginalization are provided, and how Panamanians actively discriminated, but so often differentiated, with respect to different groups of foreign immigrants. It remarks the relationship between merchants-economic sector in which foreigners were widely represented and the rest of the Panamanian community as well as among foreign traders between them, as belonging to one or another nationality. The political environment of Panamanian nationalist exaltation, which allows the intensification of discriminatory and even racist legal initiatives, is also examined in detail. It also illustrates forms of political participation of immigrants, and social and political alliances that generated.


In the 1970s, a Panamanian politician stated informally:

“The Jamaicans are anti-nationals, anti-Panamanians. They are the allies of the gringos against the Panamanian’s aspiration of obtaining sovereignty over the Canal Zone. They are not worried about learning to speak the national language [Spanish]. I don’t like them . . . and this is not discrimination against their black race. I can go anytime to Pacora and Chepo1 and feel very comfortable among blacks of these regions. But the ‘Chombos’ . . .”

Twenty years later, a 1995 news article repeated the same arguments:

The “arrival of big waves of West Indians initiated the racial and identity problems of Panama . . . They don’t want to be Panamanian, they are not sure if they are West Indians and probably, because of their role as the preferred children of the gringos, they tend to consider themselves North Americans.” After more than a century of presence in Panama the West Indian community is still considered a “problem for the national identity.”

In the late 1980s the traditional Chinese Panamanian community—that is the descendants of the Chinese immigrants of the first half of the twentieth century– saw horrorized how the arrival of new Chinese immigrants in the 1980s provoked the revival of the anti-Chinese arguments used by the 1941 fascist government of Arnulfo Arias. Major Panamanian newspapers published racist anti-Chinese articles such as:

“The Chinese are the lords of retail commerce . . . They do not practice hygienic habits, they are pagans, they have habits very different from ours and the worse is that they teach them to their children born in Panama, creating a new Panamanian style that results in the loss of our national identity.” “Orientals who do not know the language who are unaware of the most basic hygiene will serve you at a butcher shop while they scratch their hooves . . . in my opinion, there can be no hope until a strong arm comes and eradicates them such as happened in 1941.”

The West Indian and the Chinese communities have been present in Panama since the second half of the nineteenth century. Yet, as the aforementioned quotes show, both are still considered a menace to Panamanian identity. In this paper, therefore, I will explore the origins of the notion Panamanian identity in the way it was established by the nationalist movements of the 1930s. Even if the notion of Panamanian identity may have been present earlier, it were the nationalist debates of the thirties that fully developed and established the idea of Panamanianess in force until this day.

This notion of Panamanianess set the parameters of who could and who could not be considered Panamanian. I will focus here in three different racial and ethnic groups the Chinese and the West Indian immigrants and in the Spanish speaking Panamanian blacks. The first two excluded and the last one included. Indeed, the “inclusion” of the Panamanian blacks was used to argue that Panamanian identity was not based on racial categories but on cultural ones.

However, the notion of Panamanianess was not the only factor affecting the integration of this groups. Despite a shared exclusion, the Chinese managed to integrate better than the West Indians. A second component of this paper is to explore their economic and demographic differences that explain their dissimilar integration.

Panamanian society has constantly questioned the right of the Chinese and West Indian community to become Panamanians. In 1904, one year after the formation of the Republic, law declared them races of prohibited immigration, a status that was reinforced by successive laws and culminated in the 1941 constitution that denied citizenship to the races under the category of prohibited immigration…

…The first and most obvious change is that distinctions that were previously made in terms of race, in the thirties were made in terms of culture. The 1904 law specified as prohibited immigrants the blacks who did not speak Spanish. Latin American blacks, at least legally, were allowed to immigrate without restrictions. This reveals an attempt in the official discourse to substitute or hide racial distinctions using a cultural-ethnic language. What was officially forbidden, was not the black race, but the black-English culture. This theme is recurrent in Panamanian literature: Panamanian antagonism toward West Indians is not racial but cultural. Olmedo Alfaro, writing in his 1924’s book The West Indian Danger in Central America stated that “The West Indian is not yet a danger, but it will be one tomorrow…The friends of the Castilian language and of the Latin culture resent the deferment of the solution of this problem… The difference between the black West Indian and the colored men developed under the Indian-American (Indoamericana) civilization is evident, not only for his [inferior] status in the English colonies, but also because of the respect that the colored races have enjoyed in our societies for the nobility of their character and their assimilation of our highest moral virtues.” In 1930, when Felipe Escobar analyzed the problems of Panamanian national identity, he was worried about the consequences of the Canal Zone’s racial practices and West Indian immigration for Panamanian racial homogeneity and democracy. According to him, before Americans and West Indians came to the Isthmus, “Panamanians lived unaware of racial shades…which made the [Panamanians] a fertile field for the achievement of the sociological ideal of democracy: the white, the Indian, the black, the mestizos and mulattos cohabited in our land as a big tribe without worries and prejudices.” That “racial paradise” was ruined by American racism and the West Indian culture which “under the weight of a recent tradition of slavery, lacks the necessary psychological characteristics to acquire the self-assurance and dignity of free people.”

If one part of the process of incorporation of the Panamanian black was the substitution of racial categories for ethnic-cultural ones, would this mean that the Spanish-speaking black was incorporated into the national identity as a black, and that therefore Afro-Spanish characteristics became a part of Panamanian identity? The data seems to suggest that the answer is no. As Melva Lowe has revealed, Panamanian identity was conceived as mestizo, that is, the result of the mixture of Indian and white. The Panamanian imagined themselves to be the descendants of Vasco Núñez de Balboa—the discoverer of the Pacific Ocean— and Anayansi, his Indian lover. This imagined origin is well described in the poem of Ricardo Miró “She (Anayansi) will give him love and glory so that he can write the most beautiful page in history; and that foreign warrior will be the king of your home and will give you his language and will give you his race.”

How did the Panamanian Spanish-speaking black fit into a national identity formed around the figure of the mestizo? What seems to have happened is that when confronted with the presence of the black West Indian, the Spanish black ceased to be black and actually became “mestizo”. The national integration of the Spanish black depended on his “mestizoization.” In the 1920s, Demetrio Korsi in one of his poems suddenly transformed the colonial black neighborhood of Panama, Santa Ana, into a mestizo neighborhood. He reserved “blackness” solely for the West Indian neighborhood of Calidonia. This process of creating a strong distinction between “mestizo” blacks and “real” blacks was also mirrored in one of the characters in the Novel La Tragedia del Caribe, a mulatto called “the dark black” (el negro moreno): “ The well known mulatto was so paradoxical and peculiar that even his nickname enveloped a notable curiosity: because the rub is that one cannot be “black” and dark (moreno) at the same time.”…

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