Who is black, white, or mixed race? How skin color, status, and nation shape racial classification in Latin America

Posted in Articles, Brazil, Caribbean/Latin America, Census/Demographics, Economics, Media Archive, Social Science on 2022-03-15 20:51Z by Steven

Who is black, white, or mixed race? How skin color, status, and nation shape racial classification in Latin America

American Journal of Sociology
Volume 120, Number 3 (November 2014)
pages 864-907
DOI: 10.1086/679252

Edward Telles, Distinguished Professor of Sociology
University of California, Irvine

Tianna Paschel, Associate Professor of Sociology and African American Studies
University of California, Berkeley

Comparative research on racial classification has often turned to Latin America, where race is thought to be particularly fluid. Using nationally representative data from the 2010 and 2012 America’s Barometer survey, the authors examine patterns of self-identification in four countries. National differences in the relation between skin color, socioeconomic status, and race were found. Skin color predicts race closely in Panama but loosely in the Dominican Republic. Moreover, despite the dominant belief that money whitens, the authors discover that status polarizes (Brazil), mestizoizes (Colombia), darkens (Dominican Republic), or has no effect (Panama). The results show that race is both physical and cultural, with country variations in racial schema that reflect specific historical and political trajectories.

Read or purchase the article here.

Tags: , , , , , ,

These Photos Celebrate the Beauty of Panama’s Afro-Latinx Community

Posted in Articles, Arts, Caribbean/Latin America, History, Latino Studies, Media Archive on 2019-04-05 20:41Z by Steven

These Photos Celebrate the Beauty of Panama’s Afro-Latinx Community


André-Naquian Wheeler

Kayla Reefer

Photographer Kayla Reefer’s new series, “Identidad,” explores her family’s roots in Panama.

Black people are everywhere, my mother once told me. I was sharing my anxieties about studying abroad in Europe, of sticking out like a sore thumb. In my head, blackness was something that began and ended in America. My history classes only ever talked about the slaves stolen and taken to the Deep South. But my mother was right. The African diaspora reaches far and wide: the Afro-Caribbean communities of London, Black Canadians, Afro-Brazilians, and on and on. The problem is how rarely the wide, far-reaching spectrum of blackness is taught, shown, celebrated, and acknowledged.

Photographer Kayla Reefer grapples with the ramifications of this everyday. She is Afro-Latina, the daughter of Panamanian immigrants. Growing up in California, Reefer talks about feeling the need to prove her heritage and identity to her black and Latinx friends. To show them she is not simply one or the other, but an amalgamation of histories. “Eventually, I learned to embrace both worlds,” she says. “Because they’re both me.”

Sadly, not all Panamanians take ownership of their Afro roots, Reefer says. She once saw a Panama census stating only 9 percent of the country was Afro-Latinx. The small statistic does not match up to Reefer’s reality, the people she sees riding the bus during her visits to the Central-American country, of her family and friends. “That statistic is absolutely not true,” she argues, anger in her voice. “It just feeds into the lack of awareness and knowledge of what an Afro-Latinx person is. There’s this erasure happening.”…

Read the entire article here.

Tags: , , , ,

Race and Nation in Modern Latin America

Posted in Anthologies, Books, Brazil, Caribbean/Latin America, History, Media Archive, Mexico on 2016-06-18 23:11Z by Steven

Race and Nation in Modern Latin America

University of North Carolina Press
March 2003
352 pages
5 illus., notes, bibl., index
6.125 x 9.25
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8078-5441-9

Edited By:

Nancy P. Appelbaum, Associate professor of History
State University of New York, Binghamton

Anne S. Macpherson, Associate Professor of History
State University of New York, Brockport

Karin Alejandra Rosemblatt, Associate Professor of History
Unversity of Maryland

With a foreword by Thomas C. Holt and an afterword by Peter Wade

This collection brings together innovative historical work on race and national identity in Latin America and the Caribbean and places this scholarship in the context of interdisciplinary and transnational discussions regarding race and nation in the Americas. Moving beyond debates about whether ideologies of racial democracy have actually served to obscure discrimination, the book shows how notions of race and nationhood have varied over time across Latin America’s political landscapes.

Framing the themes and questions explored in the volume, the editors’ introduction also provides an overview of the current state of the interdisciplinary literature on race and nation-state formation. Essays on the post-independence period in Belize, Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, Mexico, Panama, and Peru consider how popular and elite racial constructs have developed in relation to one another and to processes of nation building. Contributors also examine how ideas regarding racial and national identities have been gendered and ask how racialized constructions of nationhood have shaped and limited the citizenship rights of subordinated groups.

The contributors are Sueann Caulfield, Sarah C. Chambers, Lillian Guerra, Anne S. Macpherson, Aims McGuinness, Gerardo Rénique, James Sanders, Alexandra Minna Stern, and Barbara Weinstein.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Women Warriors of the Afro-Latina Diaspora

Posted in Anthologies, Autobiography, Books, Brazil, Caribbean/Latin America, Poetry, Women on 2016-01-17 01:22Z by Steven

Women Warriors of the Afro-Latina Diaspora

Arte Público Press
248 pages
Paperback ISBN: 978-1-55885-746-9

Edited by: Marta Moreno Vega, Alba Marinieves and Yvette Modestin

Afro-Latina women relate their personal stories and advocacy for racial equality

“My housewife mother turned into a raging warrior woman when the principal of my elementary school questioned whether her daughter and the children of my public school had the intelligence to pass a citywide test,” Marta Moreno Vega writes in her essay. She knew then she was loved and valued, and she learned that to be an Afro-Puerto Rican woman meant activism was her birth right.

Hers is one of eleven essays and four poems included in this volume in which Latina women of African descent share their stories. The authors included are from all over Latin America—Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Panama, Puerto Rico and Venezuela—and they write about the African diaspora and issues such as colonialism, oppression and disenfranchisement. Diva Moreira, a black Brazilian, writes that she experienced racism and humiliation at a very young age. The worst experience, she remembers, was when her mother’s bosses told her she didn’t need to go to school after the fourth grade, “because blacks don’t need to study more than that.”

The contributors span a range of professions, from artists to grass-roots activists, scholars and elected officials. Each is deeply engaged in her community, and they all use their positions to advocate for justice, racial equality and cultural equity. In their introduction, the editors write that these stories provide insight into the conditions that have led Afro-Latinas to challenge systems of inequality, including the machismo that is still prominent in Spanish-speaking cultures.

A fascinating look at the legacy of more than 400 years of African enslavement in the Americas, this collection of personal stories is a must-read for anyone interested in the African diaspora and issues of inequality and racism.

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Notaries of Color in Colonial Panama: Limpieza de Sangre, Legislation, and Imperial Practices in the Administration of the Spanish Empire

Posted in Articles, Caribbean/Latin America, History, Law, Media Archive on 2014-09-29 19:57Z by Steven

Notaries of Color in Colonial Panama: Limpieza de Sangre, Legislation, and Imperial Practices in the Administration of the Spanish Empire

The Americas
Volume 71, Number 1, July 2014
pages 37-69
DOI: 10.1353/tam.2014.0082

Silvia Espelt-Bombín
University of St Andrews, United Kingdom

On July 20, 1740, King Philip V of Spain was given paperwork regarding a dispute over the adjudication of a notarial office in Panama City and, as usual, he was expected to make a decision. The king also had in hand recommendations from the Cámara of the Consejo de Indias. The king would have handled the case in a relatively straightforward manner, but for one fact—the two notaries involved in the public bid were of African descent.

The notarial office (escribano público y del número) in question had been auctioned to Francisco Garcia y Robles, a white notary, for 1,525 pesos. A man named Jorge Geronimo Perez had also bid for it but lost, and was appealing the auction results on the grounds that the former owner of the notarial office had handed it over to him when the latter resigned. In addition, Perez argued, his long career in notarial service, including a time as assistant in the office of a notary, demonstrated his suitability for the post. To better assess his claim, the local authorities had required Perez to present documentation of his fiat (title of notary) and the dispensation of his defecto (defect), a document that stated he was of African descent—his grandmother was a mulata. However, Perez did not comply, and the case was forwarded to Spain. There, the Cámara and the king encountered a complication: the notary who had certified the auction was Joseph de Avellaneda, himself of African descent. To resolve the conflict, Philip issued a decree requesting that the two notaries of color present their fiats and dispensas de color o calidad (dispensations of color or calidad), both issued by the king, to the audiencia of Panama. If either refused to obey, he would be prevented from continuing to exercise his occupation. The decree also stated that the audiencia should not allow any mestizo or mulato to use the title of notary unless the king had provided him with an exemption for his defecto.

This case highlights the existence of a seemingly contradictory reality. Although official imperial legislation prohibited notary positions to people of African descent, the monarchs and the Consejo de Indias—and not so infrequently—granted them individual dispensas to work as notaries and to own notarial offices. The case before Philip V did not represent an isolated incident. I have identified 42 individuals of African descent who worked as notaries in Panama between the early seventeenth century and the 1810s, and frequently they owned notarial offices as well. These 42 cases demonstrate the existence of an imperial practice that started with the Habsburg monarchs and developed under the Bourbons. I argue that this practice needs to be understood within Spain’s policy of flexible legislation, which allowed for adaptations to maintain its empire. It evidences an accommodative approach on the part of metropolitan authorities to the changing social reality in the Spanish-American colonies. The practice would ultimately be made official with the late-eighteenth century gracias al sacar decrees.

In undertaking a quantitative and qualitative analysis of notaries of African descent in Panama over two centuries, this article engages with and contributes to four main lines of research in early-modern Latin American history: the role of notaries, the importance of limpieza de sangre and calidad in Spanish America, the workings of the administration of the Spanish territories, and the experience of free people of African descent. In my analysis, I question the predominant historiography that supports the notion that notaries were of Spanish descent, and maintains that African descendants were allowed to become notaries only through a combination of the crown’s economic need and a lack of interest in the occupation on the part of whites or Spaniards. I also question the suggestion that this permission was granted in significant numbers only in moments of crisis, or when there were difficulties in finding suitable candidates to occupy the posts, mostly from the early eighteenth century onward. The research I present here clearly establishes that people of color became notaries from the early seventeenth century. Even though greater public revenue might have been increasingly important in the late early-modern period, it…

Tags: , , ,

The Politics of Race in Panama: Afro-Hispanic and West Indian Literary Discourses of Contention

Posted in Anthropology, Books, History, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Monographs on 2014-05-29 02:52Z by Steven

The Politics of Race in Panama: Afro-Hispanic and West Indian Literary Discourses of Contention

University Press of Florida
200 pages
6 x 9
Cloth ISBN 13: 978-0-8130-4986-1

Sonja Stephenson Watson, Associate Professor of Spanish
University of Texas, Arlington

This volume tells the story of two cultural groups: Afro-Hispanics, whose ancestors came to Panama as African slaves, and West Indians from the English-speaking countries of Jamaica and Barbados who arrived during the mid-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries to build the railroad and the Panama Canal.

While Afro-Hispanics assimilated after centuries of mestizaje (race mixing) and now identify with their Spanish heritage, West Indians hold to their British Caribbean roots and identify more closely with Africa and the Caribbean.

By examining the writing of black Panamanian authors, Sonja Watson highlights how race is defined, contested, and inscribed in Panama. She discusses the cultural, racial, and national tensions that prevent these two groups from forging a shared Afro-Panamanian identity, ultimately revealing why ethnically diverse Afro-descendant populations continue to struggle to create racial unity in nations across Latin America and the Caribbean.

Tags: , , , ,

‘Black Atlantic’ Cultural Politics as Reflected in Panamanian Literature

Posted in Caribbean/Latin America, Dissertations, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive on 2014-05-28 15:47Z by Steven

‘Black Atlantic’ Cultural Politics as Reflected in Panamanian Literature

University of Tennesee, Knoxville
August 2005
256 pages

Sonja Stephenson Watson

A Dissertation Presented for the Doctor of Philosophy Degree

The diaspora experience is characterized by hybridity, diversity and above all, difference. The nature of the diaspora experience therefore precludes an exclusive articulation of identity. Black identity in Panama is one characterized by this same multiplicity. My dissertation examines race, culture, and ethnicity in the development of Panamanian national identity and is informed by the critical theories of Paul Gilroy, Stuart Hall, and Frantz Fanon. The articulation of Afro-Panamanian identity is both intriguing and complex because there are two groups of blacks on the Isthmus: Spanish speaking blacks who arrived as a result of slavery (15th -18th centuries) and English speaking blacks who migrated from the West Indies to construct the Trans-isthmian Railroad (1850-1855) and Panama Canal (1904-1914).

The country’s cultural and linguistic heterogeneity not only enriches the study of Panama and illustrates that it is a nation characterized by multiplicity, but it also captures the complexity of the African Diaspora in the Americas. This plurality is evidenced in Afro-Panamanian literary discourse from its inception in the late nineteenth century to the present. This study analyzes the representation of Afro-Hispanics and Afro-Antilleans during different time periods in Panamanian literature, the literature written by Afro-Hispanics, and the literature written by Afro-Antilleans which emerged during the latter half of the twentieth century. Finally, I address how the discourse of both groups of blacks converge and diverge.

Panamanian literature has been grossly understudied. While its history, geography, and political ties to the United States have been examined extensively by intellectuals from the United States and Latin America, with the exception of a few studies, its literature has been virtually ignored by the Hispanic literary canon. Within the field of Afro-Hispanic literature, black Panamanian literature has also been understudied. With the exception of works published about Gaspar Octavio Hernández, Carlos Guillermo Wilson, and Gerardo Maloney, Afro-Panamanian literature has not been examined comprehensively. My dissertation seeks to fill this void in the field of Afro-Hispanic literature and, hopefully, it will enrich the field of Latin and Central American literature and literary criticism.

Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • Chapter one: The Rhetoric of Nation and the Invisibility of Blackness in the New Republic of Panama
  • Chapter two: The Black Image in Early Twentieth-Century Panamanian Literature
  • Chapter three: The Social Protest Novels of Joaquín Beleño Cedeño: A Study of the Inherent Conflicts and Contradictions of Anti-imperialism and Negritude in the Canal Zone
  • Chapter four: The Afro-Caribbean Works of Carlos “Cubena” Guillermo Wilson and his (Re) Vision of Panamanian History
  • Chapter five: Race, Language, and Nation in the Works of Three Contemporary Panamanian West Indian Writers: Gerardo Maloney, Melva Lowe de Goodin, and Carlos E. Russell
  • Conclusion: Afro-Panamanian Discourse: From Invisibility to Visibility
  • List of References
  • Vita

Read the entire dissertation here.

Tags: , , , , , ,

Racial Democracy and Nationalism in Panama

Posted in Anthropology, Articles, Caribbean/Latin America, Media Archive, Social Science on 2014-01-01 08:36Z by Steven

Racial Democracy and Nationalism in Panama

Volume 45, Number 3 (Summer, 2006)
pages 209-228
DOI: 10.2307/20456595

Carla Guerrón-Montero, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Latin American Studies, Black American Studies, and Women’s Studies
University of Delaware

In spite of having more fluid and flexible racial boundaries than other regions of the world, Latin America continues to have racially hegemonic practices. Panama has a myth of racial egalitarianism, yet an inability to perceive that racial inequality is pervasive. This is illustrated with the paradox of race relations between Afro-Antilleans and the indigenous peoples in the Archipelago of Bocas del Toro. Intermarriage in the region and the notion that there is no racial inequality contrasts with the constant recognition of differences. Race relations and ethnic identity in this region have their origins in the competition between British, North American, and Central American interests, and have been shaped in relation to Panamanian nationalism.

Tags: , ,

‘Una Raza, Dos Etnias’: The Politics Of Be(com)ing/Performing ‘Afropanameño’

Posted in Anthropology, Articles, Caribbean/Latin America, History, Media Archive, Social Science on 2013-04-05 03:40Z by Steven

‘Una Raza, Dos Etnias’: The Politics Of Be(com)ing/Performing ‘Afropanameño’

Latin American and Caribbean Ethnic Studies
Volume 3, Issue 2, 2008
DOI: 10.1080/17442220802080519
pages 123-147

Renée Alexander Craft, Assistant Professor of Communications Studies
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

This article analyzes 20th-century black identity in Panamá by examining how two distinct points on a spectrum of Panamánian blackness came to fit strategically (although sometimes contentiously) under the category ‘Afropanameño’ at the end of the 20th century. The dynamism of contemporary blackness in Panamá exists around the politics of Afrocolonial (Colonial Black) and Afroantillano (Black West Indian) identities as they have been created, contested, and revised in the Republic’s first century. This essay examines the major discourses that shaped ‘blackness’ in four key moments of heightened nationalism in 20th-century Panamá. I refer to these moments as: Construction (1903–1914), Citizens versus Subjects (1932–1946), Patriots versus Empire (1964–1979), and Reconciliation (1989–2003).

In Panamá, Blacks are not discriminated against because they belong to a low social class, they belong to a low social class because they are discriminated against (Justo Arroyo, African Presence in the Americas)

Los blancos no van al cielo,
por una solita mafia;
les gusta comer pañela
sin haber sembrado caña
[Whites do not go to heaven
for a single reason
They like to eat sweet candy
Without sowing sugar cane]
  Chorus to a Congo song

On Friday 26 May and Saturday 27 May 2006, I witnessed the inauguration of the first ‘Festival Afropanarneno’ in the Panamá City convention center. Supported by the Office of the First Lady, the Panamánian Institute of Tourism and the Special Commission on Black Ethnicity, the event included 20 booths featuring black ethnicity exhibitions, artistic presentations, food and wares representing the provinces of Panamá, Coclé, Bocas del Toro, and Colón—the areas with the highest concentrations of Afropanarneño populations. As the Friday celebration drew to its apex, a special commission appointed by President Martín Torrijos in 2005 presented him with the fruits of their year-long endeavor: a report and an action plan on the ‘Recognition and Total Inclusion of Black Ethnicity in Panamánian Society’. Using public policy advances in other parts of Latin America and the Caribbean to bolster their case (such as Colombia’s 1993 Law of Black Communities, Brazil’s 1998 Body of Laws against Racial Discrimination, Nicaragua’s 1996 Law of Autonomy of the Atlantic Coast, and Peru’s 1997 Anti-discriminatory Law, 1997), the Special Commission built on the progress made through ‘El Día de la Etnia Negra’ [‘The Day of Black Ethnicity’] to open a wider space for the recognition of social, economic, and cultural contributions of black ethnicity to the nation-building process.

Instituted into law on 30 May 2000, ‘El Día de la Etnia Negra’ is an annual civic recognition of the culture and contributions of people of African descent to the Republic of Panamá (Leyes Sancionadas). The date 30 May coincides with the date in 1820 when King Fernando VII abolished slavery in Spain and its colonies, including Panamá. Significantly, the law stipulates that the Ministry of Education and the Institutes of Tourism and Culture should organize relevant activities to commemorate the holiday, and that all schools and public institutions should celebrate it as a civic proclamation of ‘black ethnicity’ contributions to the culture and development of Panamá (Van Gronigen-Warren & Lowe de Goodin, 2001, p. 83). I have witnessed black ethnicity day celebrations in the cities of Panamá, Colón and/or Portobelo (located in the province of Colón) each year from 2000 to 2006 and have watched them grow from a celebration limited to 30 May to an informal, week-long commemoration, to its most recent form ‘El Mes de la Etnia Negra’ [‘The Month of Black Ethnicity’].

This essay analyzes 20th-century black identity in Panamá by examining how two distinct points on a spectrum of Panamánian blackness came to fit strategically (although sometimes contentiously) under the category ‘Afropanarneño’ at the end of the 20th century. The dynamism of contemporary blackness in Panamá exists around the politics of Afrocolonial and Afroantillano identities as they have been created, contested, and revised in the Republic’s first century. In the micro-Diaspora of Panamá, black identity formations and cultural expressions have been shaped largely by the country’s colonial experience with enslaved Africans via Spain’s participation in the transatlantic slave trade, and neo-colonial experience with contract workers from the West Indies via the United States’ completion and 86-year control of the Panamá Canal. Blackness in Panamá forks at the place where colonial blackness meets Canal blackness…

…As in most Latin American and Caribbean countries, centuries of intermarriage between African, indigenous and, in the case of Panamá, Spanish populations yielded a large mestizo (mixed race) classification. Throughout the 20th-century, the Congo tradition has consistently been identified by the community and the State as a black performance tradition even though the bodies of its practitioners have been categorized by demographic data as ‘mestizo’. Four centuries of evolving interchange and dialectical assimilation in a territory the size of South Carolina has rounded the edges of Panamánian blackness and whiteness without removing them as opposing place-holders on a spectrum of privilege. Considering ‘whiteness’ at the apex of privilege and ‘blackness’ at the base, Afro-Colonials remain on or near the bottom, even within the category of mestizo. As Peter Wade (2003, p. 263) argues regarding mestizaje in Colombia, ‘black people (always an ambiguous category) were both included and excluded: included as ordinary citizens, participatory in the overarching process of mestizaje, and simultaneously excluded as inferior citizens, or even as people who only marginally participated in “national society”‘…

…Part of the animosity directed toward West Indians was caused by Canal Zone Jim Crow policies, which not only segregated West Indian workers as ‘black” and therefore inferior, but also constructed a blackness elastic enough for all Panamánian workers, regardless of ethnicity, to fit uneasily and resentfully alongside them. Although the system of paying salaried workers in gold and of day laborers in silver began under the French-controlled Canal, these labels took on racial connotations under United States control, which translated ‘gold roll’/’silver roll’ into ‘whites only’/’blacks only’.

Not only did the US system treat Panamánian Canal workers as black immigrants in the belly of their own country, but it privileged West Indians over them because West Indians spoke English. Living in substandard conditions, in the staunchly segregated society of the Canal and paid a fraction of ‘gold roll’ salaries, West Indian workers still received wages almost double those of Panamánians outside the Zone. Further, the more fluid Panamánian ethnoracial caste system that had produced darker-skinned Panamánian presidents and allowed for greater upward mobility within the system by acquisition of wealth, education and/or marriage stiffened as a response to US Jim Crow attitudes and legislation (LaFeber, 1979, pp. 49-51). For these reasons, many Panamánians, including Afro-Colonials, who often fell victim to the same Jim Crow attitudes that oppressed West Indians, resented them. To make matters worse, their collusion with the United States through English had rendered Panamánians foreign within their own home country. This enduring sense of injustice exploded into a mid-century nationalist movement that inverted the paradigm privileging Spanish and relinquishing the citizenship rights of non-Spanish speakers, thus pitting Afro-Colonial communities against West Indians…

Read the entire article here.

Tags: , ,

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

Posted in Articles, Asian Diaspora, Caribbean/Latin America, History, Media Archive on 2013-03-31 19:54Z by Steven

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.”…

Read the entire article here.

Tags: , , ,