In continuing our tribute to Hispanic Heritage Month this issue is devoted to Panama, the small country in Central America bordered by Costa Rica to the north and Colombia to the south. Panama’s history and culture has been greatly influenced by its geography which contains an isthmus which is the narrowest strip of land separating the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Commonly referred to as the “isthmus,” its strategic importance was recognized early by the Spaniards who understood that you could transports goods from the western side of South America to the eastern side by packing goods overland through Panama. Panama was originally inhabited by various indigenous people who were overcome by the Spanish in the early 16th century. The small number that survived Spanish rule and diseases that followed were incorporated into the population. Panamanians are a very mixed people including many different people from Europe, the Caribbean, Africa and Asia.
During the late 19th century, at which point Panama had gained independence from Spain (1831) but was still part of a larger country with Colombia called “New Granda,” there was great interest from European countries to build a canal through the 50 mile isthmus separating the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. The French were the first to attempt this task but technical difficulties and diseases (malaria and yellow fever) ended the project. The U.S. took up the challenge a few years later and through various forms of intimidation influenced Panama to separate from Colombia and form its own country. A subsequent treaty provided the U.S. with a strip of land ten miles wide from ocean to ocean in perpetuity. Once built, the U.S. hailed the canal as one of the great wonders of the world and pointed to the many associated improvements in roads, school and public health that it brought to Panama. Many Panamanians, however, viewed the canal as an act of imperialism in which Panamanians were made subservient to U.S. interests. Fueling these feelings were the apartheid policies of the U.S. in the Canal Zone which rendered Panamanians second class in their own country. In 1999, the U.S. relinquished control of the canal to Panama and after a military intervention during the Noriega era; relationships have assumed a more positive tone.
Before building of the canal, Panama already had a diverse population consisting of indigenous Indians, Spaniards and Africans brought in through the slave trade. During construction of the canal many technical experts from Europe came to Panama as well as laborers from all over the Caribbean, particularly Jamaica, Barbados, and Trinidad. Asians along with Jews attracted by the increased commerce also came. Since construction of the canal was a ten year project, many stayed and melded into the population. The Panamanians are therefore a mixture of many races (mestizo) or mulatto (black and white). The small ruling oligarchy which ruled Panama during the Spanish reign and after, were white which left vestiges of racism and a pecking order in society with lighter skin favored.
Immigration from Panama to the U.S. began in the 1960s consisting primarily of women working in domestic and child care. They were for the most part dark in color and have tended to feel more affinity with Afro Caribbean people from Jamaica, Barbados, and Trinidad rather than other Hispanic groups. Since the 1960s more family immigration has occurred with Panamanians now living in Brooklyn, South Florida, California, Texas, New Jersey and small concentrations around the many military bases around the country. They number between 160,000 and 200,000, although many Americans of Panamanian descent are reluctant to identify their country of origin. Panamanians have moved up the ladder with many now employed in professional and white collar jobs. Panamanians in the U.S. tend to send lower remittances to relatives back in Panama than other Central Americans and also have a higher rate of naturalization.
In terms of religion, Panamanians are mostly Roman Catholic, but Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Baha’i and Hindus can also be found. The daily cuisine is characteristics by coconut rice, beans and fried green plantains called patacones. Much of their food is fried.
More recently, Panama has been a choice destination spot for American retirees who are buying and building homes there. It follows in the wake of neighboring Costa Rica with the development of condominium and housing developments catering entirely to foreigners from the U.S., Canada and Europe.
Sources: Wikipedia; thepanamanews.com
By: Peter Breyer, Tapestry Ministry