World Cultures | Panama

Culture Name

Panamanian

Alternative Names

Panameño (Spanish)

Orientation

Identification. The Republic of Panama is a former Spanish colony in Central America with a mixed population of Creoles, mestizos, European immigrants, Africans, and indigenous Indians.

Location and Geography. The country is a natural land bridge connecting the South American continent with Central America. The isthmus runs east-west in the form of an inverted "S." Low mountains run through most of the country, leaving a gap in the center that is nearly at sea level. The Pacific coastline, with the Azuero Peninsula jutting south to define the Gulf of Panama, is longer than the Atlantic coastline. The area of the country is 25,590 square miles (74,046 square kilometers).

Demography. In 2000, Panama had approximately 2.816 million inhabitants, 700,000 of whom lived in Panama City, with another 300,000 in the immediate suburbs. The urban elite is primarily Creole, mostly of Spanish descent. There are also populations of Spanish, Italian, Greek, and Jewish origins. There is a longtime Chinese community, and a small Hindu community lives in the capital, Panama City. The largest demographic group is the interioranos ("interior people"), who are classified as "Hispano-Indians." This group is largely mestizo (mixed European and native American), and its members consider themselves the "real Panamanians." Some interioranos grade imperceptibly into an acculturated native American population known pejoratively as cholos, who refer to themselves as naturales ("natives"). Together, these two groups constitute 70 percent of the population. There are four officially recognized Indian ethnic groups (the Kuna, Guaymi or Ngawbe, Embera, and Waunan), which number fewer than 200,000. People of African descent account for 15 percent of the population. These "Afro-colonials" descend from slaves who were imported in colonial times. They speak Spanish and are Roman Catholic. The "Afro-Antillean" group descends from Caribbean residents who came to work on the construction of the Panama canal. They speak English, French, or an English patois at home and are mostly Protestant.

Linguistic Affiliation. The official language is Spanish, but English is used widely in business, especially banking and tourism, and by some people of African descent.

Symbolism. Some coins bear the image of Urraca, an Indian chief who resisted the Spanish conquests, but most coins depict Vasco Nuñez de Balboa, the discoverer of the Pacific Ocean.

History and Ethnic Relations

Emergence of the Nation. Panama became an autonomous nation because of its function as the custodian of the transisthmus shipping route—the "path between the seas." It gained independence in 1903 as part of an American-sponsored revolt against Colombia that led to the signing of a treaty granting the United States the right to build the Panama Canal.

The Spanish discovered and conquered Panama between 1502 and 1519. At that time, it was referred to as the Castilla de Oro, a source of gold and potential converts. From 1519 through 1538, the area that is now Panama was a base for soldiers sent to conquer the Andean civilizations in South America. After 1538, it was used as a land route to Spain's South American colonies and a transshipment point for Andean gold. From 1568 to 1671 there was series of pirate raids, and in 1671 Panama City was sacked by buccaneers under the command

Panama

Panama

of Sir Henry Morgan. Local traders engaged in smuggling until Spain shifted the official gold route to Cape Horn, and the area entered a period of commercial decline.

 

After independence from Spain and union with Colombia in 1821, the isthmus again became an important transit route. Slavery was abolished in 1852. The United States completed a railroad across the area in 1855 to expedite movement to the gold fields in California. After failing to build a sea-level canal in the 1880s, the French sold their concession to the United States, which conspired with the elite in Panama City to declare independence when they could not obtain a favorable treaty from Colombia.

From 1903 to 1978, the United States controlled the Canal Zone, a five-mile strip on both sides of the canal. Residents of that area were called "Zonians" and remained American citizens even after three generations of residence. These mostly white employees of the Canal Company lived an isolated life and were prejudiced against the Panamanian population. In 1977, after lengthy negotiations, President Jimmy Carter signed a treaty that abolished the Canal Zone as a colonial enclave, arranged for Panamanian ownership of the canal in the year 2000, and provided for the closing of American military bases.

In 1925, the United States intervened in a revolt by Kuna Indians on the northeast Atlantic coast and established a tribal reserve. The Kuna enclave has been successful. In the 1930s, the United States' military hired Kuna laborers to work at army bases. After the transfer of sovereignty over the canal, those workers migrated to Panama City.

National Identity. Panamanians do not consider themselves former Colombians. From 1578 to 1751, Panama was the seat of a Spanish real audiencia (court of chancery), with Spanish lawyers and a governor or captain general. The presence of this judicial-legislative-executive government body led to the building of a sense of independent nationhood.

Ethnic Relations. Unlike the former Canal Zone, the government has always repudiated racism and segregation. Because of its nationalistic policies, the government also forbade the use of English in public schools, thus discriminating against the black population.

Urbanism, Architecture, and the Use of Space

Survivors of the burning of Panama City in 1671 rebuilt a walled bastion on a rocky promontory to the west. This became the home of the colonial administration and the Creole elite, who lived in two-story mansions. Outside the city walls was a neighborhood of free blacks living in thatched structures. Farther out were the cattle ranches and farms of the elite, which were staffed by slaves. The walled city survives as the Casco Viejo, and the areas adjacent to it are now densely populated slums. Because the former Canal Zone abuts the old city on the north and west, the growing population was forced to fan out along the bay to the north and east. On the Panamanian side, city blocks were plotted along radial avenues. Bella Vista, a gracious area of Art Deco mansions for the elites grew up in the 1920s along the bay. Farther inland there were working-class tenements. On the "Zone" side there was parkland, with occasional housing clusters. The government is transferring that housing to private owners but is committed by treaty to conserve the natural rainforest areas of the former Zone to prevent the canal from silting.

A few neighborhoods of upper-class walled villas have appeared. Large middle-class subdivisions are being built away from the city center. There are scattered apartment blocks of public housing for workers. Several shopping malls cater to the needs of a city with heavy traffic and an extensive bus system. The major downtown center is the banking district along Via España just past the old aristocratic Bella Vista and next to the first luxury hotels. This and nearby areas have high-rise offices, hotels, and apartments.

Colon on the Atlantic side is now a lower- and underclass settlement abutting the free trade zone. The largely Jewish, Italian, and Arabic entrepreneurs of that zone live in Panama City high-rises and commute daily in small airplanes.

The dominant architectural structure remains the Panama Canal. Inaugurated in 1914, it is still an engineering wonder in which Panamanians take pride.

Food and Economy

Food in Daily Life. Unlike other Spanish colonies, Panama's subsistence agriculture never depended on corn. Game and fish were always sources of protein, and corn is eaten mainly in the form of thick cakes called arepas and maize gruel. The Kuna roast bananas and boil them in a soup dish that consists of water squeezed through grated coconut meat, fish, and fowl or a game meat. This dish resembles the sancocho eaten by many non-Indian Panamanians—a soup of poultry or meat cooked with root vegetables and corn. All the towns and cities have Chinese restaurants, a legacy of the Chinese who came to work on the railroad in the 1850s.

Food Customs at Ceremonial Occasions. Upper class families are likely to serve fresh seafood at weddings, baptisms, and other celebrations. Their cooking style tends to be continental. Interioranos, in contrast, value beef. Their traditional Sunday meal is tasajo, smoked and cured beef with the flavor of ham.

Basic Economy. Before 1502 the native populations practiced slash-and-burn agriculture, growing a variety of root crops. When the urban elite bought rural property, they turned to cattle raising and exported the meat and hides. Livestock production is still an important economic activity, even on very small landholdings, and parts of the rain forest have been converted into pastureland. The naturales and Indian groups still practice slash-and-burn agriculture and do not raise cattle. Afro-colonials engage in coastal horticulture and fishing, as do the Kuna. The unit of currency is the balboa, which is pegged to the United States dollar.

Land Tenure and Property. The San Blas Kuna have had a tribal land reserve since the 1930s. The government is in the process of setting up large reserves for the Guaymí, the Embera, and the Kuna of the Bayano. Interioranos tend to divide up their holdings among many heirs, so that over time properties become quite small, intensifying migration to the cities and to northern and western frontier areas to clear the rain forest and to claim government forest lands through "squatters' rights." Urban migrants are similarly involved in large scale land invasion in idle lands on the periphery of the city. Some of these are planned, others are spontaneous.

Commercial Activities. Interioranos have a system of rural markets and fairs in which locallyowned shops are tied to Chinese shopkeepers and

A Kuna woman applies paint to her face in the San Blas Islands. Four Indian ethnic groups are officially recognized, including the Kuna.

wholesalers in the towns. Since the 1960s, Panama has become an international banking center.

 

Major Industries. Panama never had a plantation economy. Today agribusiness specializes in the production of sugar and bananas.

Trade. The economy relies on transit, transhipping, and banking to earn foreign currency. Panama exports coffee, bananas, beef, and tropical hardwoods. As a major international transshipping center, all types of the world's industrial goods pass through Panama, which keeps or imports electronics, automobiles, and a wide variety of luxury goods. Panama also imports petroleum, as it has no oil fields.

Division of Labor. As of 1997 estimates put 18 percent of the labor force in agriculture, another 18 percent in industry, and 67 percent in service. Of these sectors agriculture is the least productive, accounting for only 8 percent of the gross national product, with industry at 25 percent and services at 67 percent.

Social Stratification

Classes and Castes. The urban Creole upper class, known as the rabiblancos ("white butts"), mingles socially with Americans, Spaniards, Italians, and the oldest segment of the Jewish community, the Sephardic Jews, who came to the country in the 1890s. Prosperous merchants in the small Hindu community worship at a prominent hilltop temple. The Chinese community includes a few wealthy commercial families, members of the professions, a middle class of shopkeepers, and a few very poor recent immigrants. It is perceived as monolithic. People from the interiorano community, other mestizos, and some blacks have also risen to wealth and prominence through the professions, government, and business and services. These people do not intermarry with the old elite. The large urban middle classes consist of interioranos, mestizos, blacks, and educated Indians, especially Kunas.

Symbols of Social Stratification. Class division is not rigid, and the elite is not resented. It is closely linked to the symbols of the republic through its descent from illustrious ancestors and the founding fathers of independence from Spain and Colombia, many of whom have streets named after them.

Political Life

Government. The republic is a constitutional democracy. Panama inherited from Colombia a binary system of liberals versus conservatives, both of which agreed on opposition to the presence of the United States in the Canal Zone. In 1940, these were eclipsed by a nationalist movement led by Arnulfo Arias, who employed fascist rhetoric and methods and was deposed during World War II. Elected again decades later, Arias was deposed again. Omar Torrijos, a military leader, instituted a corporatist, welfare-oriented state with a new constitution that declared him as head of government above a subservient president and cabinet. Although there was a legislative assembly and local councils throughout the republic, the regime was largely a command structure. It borrowed funds from abroad to build an infrastructure, including electrification and education, and united the public behind its effort to gain control of the canal. Torrijos died in a plane crash in 1981, and shortly after his death the military leader Manuel Noriega took over the civil government. After refusing to recognize the results of the 1989 elections, Noriega had the legislature declare him president. Five days later, the United States invaded to protect the Canal, restore democracy, and eventually arrest Noriega for drug trafficking.

Leadership and Political Officials. In the aftermath of the invasion, the Defense Forces were abolished, and Panama has come to have a lively and openly debated political life. Political leaders include members of the old elite. Most persons in public life tend to be middle class, of urban or interiorano origin.

Social Problems and Control. Crime is scarce outside of certain slums in Panama City and Colon, where robberies are common. International drug smuggling is a problem in jungle areas near the border with Colombia. Drug cartels, however, are not reputed to maintain bases within the republic. Panama has never had a leftist guerrilla movement. All the regimes have been able to contain social tensions without endemic violence.

Military Activity. The armed forces have become a police force with a limited defense role. Although the United States vacated its bases, it retains the right to defend the canal against an attack from any source.

Social Welfare and Change Programs

Many social welfare programs were initiated by the Torrijos regime in the 1970s. Today there is a social security system of public hospitals and rural clinics, and the bureaucracy encourages local people to seek outside aid for development projects. The retirement policy for civil servants is very liberal, providing a modest pension after age fifty. The current trend has been to favor privatization and self-help programs.

Nongovernmental Organizations and Other Associations

Many international organizations, including the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO), and the World Health Organization (WHO), operate locally. Fundación Dobbo Yala was founded by indigenous professionals to represent the native American groups and channel foreign aid funds for educational and development projects. Native Lands attempts to protect indigenous land holdings and reserves.

Gender Roles and Statuses

Division of Labor by Gender. The current president is a woman, and women have reached the top levels of all the professions, especially government service and education. However, there is almost no feminist movement, and relations between the sexes are traditionally Hispanic, with a double standard for sexual relations. Prostitution is legal, and workers in highly visible urban brothels claim to have been secretaries or schoolteachers from other republics whom hard times forced to emigrate in search of economic survival.

Relative Status of Women and Men. In the role of Carnaval Queens, young unmarried women enjoy the very highest symbolic status in almost every municipality in the republic, since all celebrate carnival. Similarly the Kuna Indians revere adolescent girls, and celebrate their coming of age in an elaborate three day ceremony, the inna suid, which culminates in the young woman's hair being cut off down to the scalp. Women enjoy public equality with men, and are seen on the job and in public places such as restaurants, mingling freely with male family members, while being accorded deference and respect.

Marriage, Family, and Kinship

Marriage. Although Guaymí Indian leaders may have more than one wife, other Panamanians marry only one spouse at a time. Divorce is permitted under liberal terms by the Civil Code. Couples of African descent on the Atlantic coast tend to live together without marrying. These unions frequently dissolve as men and women may find new partners during the weekly pre-carnival Congo dances.

Domestic Unit. The ideal family unit for most Panamanians is the nuclear family of a married couple and their children. The Kuna Indians, however, prefer to have new husbands go to live with their brides in the latter's house. These then become extended families around a grandmother, her husband, and her married daughters and their husbands.

Inheritance. Kuna Indians inherit their houses from their mothers. All other property is inherited equally among all heirs from both parents. In the rest of Panama the Civil Code provides for a similar system. In the absence of a will, a deceased widowed man's property goes equally to all his children, male or female.

Kin Groups. Kindreds, networks of related nuclear families, are very important to the urban elites. Upper class persons are likely to give parties, for example,

View of the Panama Canal. Opened in 1914, the canal is an engineering marvel and a source of pride among Panamanians.

attended only by relatives. Interioranos and naturales also value similar extended family networks. One man will be a pioneer in frontier areas, for example and his and his wife's relatives will follow. Such extended families are opening up the frontier areas.

 

Socialization

Infant Care. Increased rural-to-urban migration has emptied some villages, especially those of coastal blacks and some interioranos, of young adults. Children live with their grandparents; in extreme cases, there are villages that skip a generation. Among the Kuna, male labor migration has left wives behind in matrilocal households to raise children.

Child Rearing and Education. The educational system is effective through the primary school level. Official literacy rates are as high as 90 percent, and an assumption of literacy prevails in daily interactions in the cities.

Higher Education. The University of Panama is state-supported and has a long history. The Catholic University of Santa Maria la Antigua is its major competitor.

Etiquette

Panamanians are formal in dealings with strangers. There is a minimum of greeting behavior in public, and manners tend to be stiff and not courtly. Once included in family and friendship groupings, a stranger can be incorporated into a party-going network quickly. Dress tends to be formal despite the tropical climate.

Religion

Religious Beliefs. Panama is 85 percent Roman Catholic. Traditional beliefs and practices have been maintained among the native American groups despite a history of missionization.

Rituals and Holy Places. The most important ritual is Carnaval. The capital closes down the five days before Ash Wednesday, and a young queen chosen by charitable organizations presides. A competing "more authentic" celebration takes place in Las Tablas in the interior. Coastal blacks celebrate the Congo, which starts in January and also is presided over by a queen in each community. Its male and female dance groups perform each weekend. The colonial port city of Potrobelo on the Atlantic coast is the site of a shrine to an icon of the Black

Men surround a bull and spectators watch from behind a fence on the Plaza Colonial as they prepare for a bullfight.

Christ, an object of great veneration and of an annual pilgrimage that attracts great numbers during Holy Week.

 

Medicine and Health Care

The construction of the canal led to the conquest of yellow fever and advances in public health. A legacy of that period is safe drinking water throughout the republic. Gorgas Memorial Hospital specializes in tropical medicine. There is one world-class private hospital, Clinica Paitilla, and several crowded public hospitals.

Secular Celebrations

Panama celebrates two independence days, on 3 November from Colombia and on 28 November from Spain. Festivities tend to be low-key, however, although school children parade in most localities. New Year's Eve and New Year's Day are occasions of much merriment, with children burning effigies of Father Time at midnight in many areas. Larger towns in the central provinces hold rodeos for cowboys almost every Sunday.

The Arts and the Humanities

Support for the Arts. Funding from banks has helped art galleries thrive, and local artists are in great demand. The National Institute for Culture (INAC) and the school system both support graphics arts education. Other than that support mainly stems from the open market in art and native and local crafts. A private group, the National Association for Concerts, contracts with local and foreign performers for classical music concerts. The best museum is the Museo del Hombre Panameño in the former railroad station.

Literature. Panama has a number of writers producing short stories, novels, and poetry. Rogelio Sinán is a successful poet and novelist who has acquired an international reputation, but most writers produce for the local market, where they are well received.

Graphic Arts. The Kuna Indians are world-famous for their molas, applique textile panels in geometric or representational designs. The Embera Indians produce basketry of very high quality, as well as wood carvings in tropical hardwoods.

The State of the Physical and Social Sciences

Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute runs Barro Colorado Island, a wildlife station inside the canal waterway. There are numerous social scientists, but none has fully described the overall national culture.

Bibliography

De St. Malo, Guillermo and Godfrey Harris. The Panamanian Problem: How the Reagan and Bush Administrations Dealt with the Noriega Regime, 1993.

Doggett, Scott. Panama, 1999.

Drolet, Patricia Lund. "The Congo Ritual of Northeastern Panama: An Afro-American Expressive Structure of Cultural Adaptation." Ph.D. dissertation, University of Illinois, Urbana, 1980.

Figueroa Navarro, Alfredo. Dominio y Sociedad en el Panamá Colombiano (1821–1903), 1978.

Gasteazoro, Carlos Manuel. Introducción al estudio de la Historia de Panamá. I: Fuentes de la Época Hispana, 1956.

Howe, James. A People Who Would Not Kneel: Panama, the United States, and the San Blas Kuna, 1998.

Joly, Luz Graciela. "One Is None and Two Is One: Development from Above and Below in North-Central Panama." Ph.D. dissertation, Gainesville, 1981.

McCullough, David. The Path between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870–1914, 1977.

Moore, Alexander. "From Council to Legislature: Democracy, Parliamentarianism, and the San Blas Cuna." American Anthropologist 86 (1): 28–42, 1984.

Salvador, Mari Lynn, ed. The Art of Being Kuna: Layers of Meaning among the Kuna of Panama, 1997.

Wali, Alaka. Kilowatts and Crisis: Hydroelectric Power and Social Dislocation in Eastern Panama, 1989.

Young, Philip D. Ngawbe: Tradition and Change among the Western Guaymi of Panama, 1971.

Web Site

U.S. State Department, Central Intelligence Agency. World Factbook: Panama http://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/pm.html

—A LEXANDER M OORE

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