Ethnic Diversity

Photo courtesy of La Prensa/Eduardo Grimaldo

The territory that became the nation of Panamá was founded in ethnic diversity, as many indigenous tribes inhabited the area. With the building of the Panama Canal and the rise of the country as a commercial hub, immigrants from many parts of the world came to establish new lives and businesses. Here is a look at some of that ethnic diversity. 

Panamanian Culture

Celebrating Carnaval in the streets. Photo courtesy of La Prensa/Eric Batista

A Hot Hybrid

By María Mercedes De Corró

Panamanian culture has roots in at least three continents. It’s a heterogeneous culture, embracing elements from various communities that coexist peacefully, if noisily, within one of the smallest countries in Latin America, both in terms of land mass and in population. It is the result of a blending process that has been going on for five centuries, a hybrid that keeps evolving. Singling out the primary ingredients of this blend seems like a good way to decode it.


In the year 2000, the Instituto del ADN y del Genoma Humano de la Universidad de Panamá (University of Panamá’s Institute of DNA and the Human Genome) did a study to determine what percentage each ethnic group had contributed to the genetic pool in the 500 years since the conquistadores disembarked. The researchers came up with a composition that is 39.4 percent indigenous Indian, 31.2 percent Caucasian, and 29.4 percent black. The most salient characteristics in Panamanian popular culture, as observed today, can be traced to these groups.

The footprints of the conquistadores (Spanish Caucasian) are the most obvious in Panamá’s popular culture. Indigenous dialects are spoken among the Guna, Ngabe, Emberá and Wounan Indian groups—which number fewer than 200,000—but Spanish is the undisputed lingua franca. Besides their language, Spaniards imported their religion. In a 2012 national survey, 69.9 percent of the total population declared itself Catholic, followed by 16.4 percent evangelicals and 2.5 percent Adventists. At a personal level, Panamanians might be pragmatic, even flexible, but they respect the Church and its representatives and follow the rituals: family life follows the sequence from one sacrament to the other, with boys and girls expected to move from baptism and communion to confirmation and wedding. Regional festivities—the patronales—have a large pagan component, including binge drinking and dancing, but they center on a locally venerated saint honored with flowers, gifts and processions before the partying. Even the greatest national and eagerly awaited yearly celebration—the carnaval—is held preceding Lent.

The national dance, el tamborito, is of Spanish ancestry (although with obvious influence from native Indian dances), as is the much admired pollera. An off-the-shoulder top with a full skirt embellished with embroidery, lace and ribbons, thepollera is a tropical adaptation of the dresses that Spanish women wore in the 15th and 16th centuries. One of the traditional dishes, arroz con pollo (rice with chicken), is a humble cousin of the Valencian paella. Then there is the siesta, not so common anymore due to the distance between home and workplace, but still something of a Spanish legacy.

Panamanian popular culture, as expressed in the way people dress, paint their homes and promote their businesses, is colorful. And the love of color is a trait which might, at least partly, be attributed to its Indian heritage. Bright colors are used profusely and artistically in the clothing of the Guna and the Ngabe women, as well as in their art crafts: the molas of the Gunas, textiles which use the technique of reverse application; the chaquiras (beaded jewelry) and the chácaras (string bags) of the Ngabe, and even in the baskets woven by the Emberá.

The presence of corn in the local diet can also be tracked to the native ancestors, who not only ate it, but drank it in the form of an alcoholic beverage called chicha fuerte. Whether in the form of chichemetortillatorrejabollobuñuelo ortamal, Panamanians of all social classes enjoy corn products and eat it as much as Europeans do potatoes.

To the Afro colonials—descendants of slaves who were imported to work in the colonies—and the Afro-Antillean-Caribbean people who came to work in the canal—Panamanian culture owes a natural feel for music that makes dancing the national sport; and a way with drums and other percussion instruments that mark the beat at parties and resound in the parades celebrating the November holidays. 
The genome study did not find traces of Asian, Middle Eastern or Arab genes, which could be explained by the inbreeding that has characterized these communities, but they certainly are ingredients in the abstraction called Panamanian culture.

Asians started coming in during the times of the construction of the transisthmian railway (1850’s) and then during the excavation of the Panama Canal. The presence of the Chinese immigrant as shopkeeper is so common that grocery stores are called chinos or chinitos, depending on the size of the establishment. Chinese restaurants flourish even in the small rural towns; and the Cantonese, in particular, have so influenced the gastronomic habits of the locals that chow mein, fried rice, sweet and sour pork and even chicken feet are generally popular; and the ”dim sum” on Sundays is a family tradition for some.

The presence and influence of Jews from Europe and especially the Middle East is also noticeable well beyond the men wearing their “kipas” as they walk to the synagogue on Friday nights. Some local restaurants serve pita bread, “quibes” and “falafels.” This closely tight community is small in numbers, but very influential in economic terms, indeed often stereotyped as rich merchants because of their extensive commercial activity.


Panamá’s location between the two oceans and the two subcontinents makes it a natural bridge for the interchanging of goods. Its history, in this regard, goes back to the fairs of Portobello and all the way to the Zona Libre de Colón, the second largest free trade zone in the region. People arrived, stayed or passed by in different times in history—the colonization, the gold rush, the world wars, the construction of the railroad and of the Canal— leaving behind words, uses, customs; and especially goods. Despite always-present protectionist groups, Panamanians have enjoyed access to goods from all over the world, from Irish linen to Italian luxury goods to Japanese televisions. Panamá’s unique geographic position has put it in contact with many cultures, but paradoxically it has also made it a loner in the region, culturally and economically. These differences could also help to understand Panamanian culture.

The Panama Canal Zone, a special U.S. territory that disappeared when the Canal reverted to Panamanian sovereignty, has been described as the fifth frontier (the others being Costa Rica, Colombia, the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea). Panamanians saw the United States as their natural destination for studies, travel and leisure, and hopefully for business as well. Interactions with Costa Rica, on the other hand, were less common than expected, considering its geographical proximity. Likewise, the cultural influence of Mexico, palpable in Central America from Guatemala to San José, is less obvious in Panamá in terms of music, food or decoration.

Panamanians do not consider themselves South Americans either. Unlike the nations in Bolivar’s dream—Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela—Panamanians until recently favored baseball, rather than football, as the national sport, a preference that reveals the cultural nexus to the Caribbean.

As in Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Dominican Republic, coconut, plantains and yuca are a big part of the local diet. And tropical music—salsa, merengue, plena and reggaeton—is not only the one most heard at local parties, but also the genre in which local musicians thrive.

Yet it would be a mistake to think of Panamá as a place where women wear sandals and sundresses and men relax in Hawaiian shirts or guayaberas. Not so. Panamá has two climates: a natural one that is as hot and humid as can be; and an artificial one. Many Panamanians live, work, shop and dine in acclimatized spaces, where temperature emulates a Floridian winter season. Therefore, it is coat and tie for bankers and lawyers, and twin sets or suits for the ladies. Construction is also Miami style, with an abundance of glass and steel in the financial sector and plenty of concrete in residential areas. In the capital city, the modern high rises coexist with clothes drying on the balconies, especially in poor neighborhoods, and the holes in the street pavement.

As for Panamanian society, let’s start by saying it is matriarchal. The mother, the grandmother and even the godmother have important roles. The week previous to Mother’s Day, which is celebrated on December 8, marks the peak of the holiday season in terms of sales. The men, though, are especially privileged, for the women tend to them.

The local popular heroes are the boxers—world champions from Ismael Laguna to Roberto 'Mano de Piedra' Durán—as well as baseball players like Mariano Rivera, salsa composers such as Rubén Blades and singer Pedrito Altamiranda, who have captured the essence of Panamanian society in their lyrics.

Racism, which should be most improbable in a society where it is very difficult to draw the line between the black, mestizo and creole populations, does still exist. Panamá has nearly three million inhabitants, with close to a million living in or just outside Panama City. Part of the urban elite, which is a powerful minority, is composed of Panamanians of Spanish, but also of Italian and Greek, origins. Whiter than the rest, they’re called rabiblancos. Then there are the interioranos,mestizos (Spanish and native American mix) who live in rural areas; and people referred to pejoratively as cholos, namely Indians who have left the comarcas and adopted Western styles. The mulatos (white and black mix) are a big group and the most recognized victims of racism. Racism is, in fact, a part of Panamanian culture, but tolerance is as well. It is tolerance that allows a heterogeneous population with different, sometimes opposing beliefs, varied tastes and looks to cohabit happily and peacefully in a small, colorful, noisy territory.

María Mercedes de Corró has worked for La Prensa since 1995. She has written for various publications, including Revista Década, Cordialidad, Banco del Istmo and Banco General. In 2009 she published a biography entitled Hasta la última gota: Gabriel Lewis Galindo. She has a B.A. from Goucher College in Economics.

Muslims and Jews in Panamá

Joint investments among Jews and Arab businessmen are common. Photo courtesy of La Prensa/Eduardo Grimaldo

Building Communities Through Commerce

By Ebrahim Asvat

The Muslim community in Panamá, understood as a group that maintains its cultural and religious traditions, became rooted in the second half of the 20th century. It includes very distinct groups: Indian Muslims (my own ancestry); Arab immigrants from Lebanon; and Muslims of Palestinian and Jordanian origin.

These three communities are active predominantly in commerce, where they have been known to interact extensively and in good fashion. This peaceful coexistence and interaction extend well beyond the confines of the Muslim community. They apply as well to the two most successful business ethnic groups in Panamá, the Jewish and Arab communities, whose trading and commercial activities in many cases intersect. Both Jewish and Hindu employers once provided goods and services to Arab businessmen in Colombia. Then these Arab businessmen settled in the Colón Free Zone during the late ’60s in order to manage their own business transactions.

Frequent joint investments among Jewish and Arab businessmen in the financial, commercial or services sector are a legacy of the ancient Silk Road that marked trade activity between Europe and Asia—which helps explain the harmony and respect between these groups.

Muslims have migrated to Panamá for centuries, but a defined Muslim community is more recent. In the early 1900s, some immigrants of Arab origin came to Panamá, but they mingled with the Panamanian population and lost their religious identity.

Establishing a community requires the presence of women and children. The early Muslim immigrants arrived alone and failed to start families with religious unity. They intermarried; which is why many Christian families have Muslim last names such as Purcait, Sayyed, Hassan, Shaik, Ali or Malek.

The first wave of immigration from the Indian subcontinent occurred when Bengali Muslims reached Panamanian shores in the 1920s. Unlike migrants to Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, and Suriname, who left Calcutta and Madras as a result of the British Empire’s Indentured Labor Laws dating from 1837, the Bengalis who came to Panamá did speak English as their primary language and worked mainly as street vendors. Other Muslim Indians trickled in circa 1925-30, for the most part Punjabis, Bengalis, and Gujaratis.

My grandfather was among those early Gujaratis. He immigrated to Panamá in 1929, following his brother Ismail Asvat who, after seeing a flyer in Bombay advertising Brazil, jumped onto a ship and sailed across the Indian and the Atlantic oceans. From Brazil, he sailed on to the Caribbean and then Panamá. Before his arrival, the only Indian immigrants in Panamá were the Bengali Muslims and one or two Pashtuns from what is today Pakistan.

It was not until the 1950s that my parents came to Panamá. This is also the period in our history when Muslim women—mostly from the south of Gujarat—began immigrating. Thus the majority of Muslim Panamanians today come from this western state of India, followed closely by a substantial Muslim community in Colón, mostly of Lebanese descent, later joined by Palestinians and Jordanians, who began to form a community in the early 90s.

As more and more Indian Muslims came to Panamá, several organizations sought to bring them together. According to the Public Registry, the oldest association was Misión Islam, established in 1946, that brought together the Bengali Muslims and some West Indians. The Association of Indian and Pakistani Muslims of Panama was formed in the 50s to meet the religious needs of the community—the establishment of a place of worship (especially for religious festivals such as Eid ul Fitr and Eid ul Adha), adequate burial facilities according to Islamic rules, and religious instruction to children. In 1975 it was renamed the Sunni Muslim Religious Association of Panamá, and it is still active today.

Today, immigrants from Gujarat and neighboring Sindh, now in Pakistan—communities that have been pioneers of trade for centuries in India, Africa and the Middle East—stand out in the Panamanian commercial sector.

The second largest Muslim community in Panamá, in the city of Colón, is predominantly composed of Arab immigrants from Lebanon. Lebanese businessmen had immigrated in significant numbers to West Africa, Brazil, Chile, El Salvador, Honduras and Colombia. Many of these Lebanese Muslim traders who marketed products in Colombia began to establish businesses in the Colón Free Zone in the second half of the 60s. This prosperous and well-respected community built a mosque, an Arab country club and a school in that city and the Islamic Cultural Center of Colón in 1981.

The third Muslim community, of Palestinian and Jordanian origin, is scattered throughout the country, with mosques and religious centers in Penonome, Changuinola, Chitre, Santiago and David.
Panamá’s Jews are drawn predominantly from the Middle East, where Aleppo was a key player in the Silk Road. The Arabs arrived mostly from Lebanon, a country that has seen significant emigration of businessmen to West Africa, Brazil, Chile, El Salvador, Honduras and Panamá.

Paralleling the tradition of the Silk Road, these groups of migrants to Panamá (Indian Muslims, Arab Muslims, and Middle Eastern Jews) share common commercial aspirations that have transcended their religious and cultural differences. After the 1989 American invasion of Panamá to overthrow Manuel Noriega’s dictatorship, chaos reigned in the city of Colón for a few days because of a lack of police units. Members of the Arab community took it upon themselves to safeguard the shops and warehouses owned by Jews and Hindus from plunder and pillage.

Brutally divisive events—the formation of the State of Israel and the partition of India—have threatened peaceful coexistence between Muslims and Jews in the Middle East and Muslims and Hindus in South Asia. In Panamá, nevertheless, powerful interests and opportunities sustain the collaborative relationship among these different ethnic/religious groups.

Rather, in the New World, these three groups share equal footing, disarming tensions created by the tumultuous events of the last century in the Indian Subcontinent and the Middle East. They have not wanted to move the political conflicts of their homelands to Panamá. In an intensely interconnected age, threats to this status quo could come from external sources. But for now, the Silk Road tradition is alive and well in Panamá.

Ebrahim Asvat, a Panamanian by birth, is a lawyer who received a Master’s in Law from Harvard Law School. He taught international law at the Universidad Santa María La Antigua for twelve years. He was director of the Panamanian National Police from 1990-91 after the fall of Noriega. He was president of the newspapers La Estrella de Panamá and El Siglo from 2001-2011.

The Distortion of History

The sign reads, "86 Years of the 1925 Kuna Revolution; a people that loses its tradition loses its soul." Photo courtesy of La Prensa/Bienvenido Velasco

A Form of Genocide

By Arysteides Turpana

Panamá was already inhabited 11,000 years ago. Its history, nonetheless, is written from two perspectives: that of archaeologists and of historians. The British archaeologist Richard Cooke found classic stone tools used as spearheads and butcher knives from that early era in Laka Alajuela in Colón and Sarigua in Herrera. However, conventional historians begin the history of Panamá in 1501, when it was “discovered” by the Spaniard Rodrigo Galván de Bastidas.

Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano once asked sarcastically, “Are native peoples blind?” After all they lived by the Pacific Ocean, which allegedly had to be “discovered” by the Spanish. What in reality was discovered was the official Panamá only, the Panamá that is celebrated by the government with liquor and festivities, commemorating the date of September 25, 1513, when a Spanish adventurer first saw the Pacific Ocean (some say he arrived on September 26).

Actually, it was Bab Giakwa (known as Panquiaco in the Spanish dialect of Panamá), a man from the Dule (Guna) nation, who told Vasco Núñez de Balboa, on whose ship Galván sailed, about the Pacific Ocean, an ocean that our fellow Guna knew intimately from his childhood. Spanish priest Bartolomé de Las Casas writes that Bab Giakwa, dismayed because the Spaniards were displacing native peoples from their lands in their lust for gold, offered to guide them to the Pacific Ocean, “the southern sea.” Las Casas adds that Vasco Núñez had written to his admiral that he had hanged 30 native chiefs and was ready to hang anyone else who got in the way of the Spaniards’ goals; by doing so, he was demonstrating his service to God and the Spanish crown (Bartolomé de las Casas: Historia de las Indias. T.III. Caracas: Biblioteca Ayacucho, 1986. Pp.154-157).

Balboa himself admits that he portrayed his arrival to the Pacific Ocean in a January 20, 1513, letter to the King of Spain in a false and hypocritical way, saying that the native peoples had been treated very well and had told him about great quantities of gold.

In general, the Panamanian ladino historian interprets history from a very Hispanic point of view. There are indeed exceptions, such as Ana Elena Porras, Roberto de La Guardia, Jorge Kam, Francisco Herrera, Celestino Araúz y Bernal Castillo. But on the whole, as the poet and essayist Roque Javier Laurenza points out, Panamanian history is written by “clumsy novelists.”

As Isidro A. Beluche recommends:

Children, youth and adults of Panamá must acquaint themselves with the social institutions, cultural ways and the great deeds of the inhabitants of the isthmus before the arrival of the peninsular invaders, so that they will be able to understand the indigenous soul and to make sure that the written measures consecrated in our Constitution and the laws being developed or already promulgated in regards to indigenist policy (articles 94, 95 and 96 of the Constitution) be carried out in practice. (Isidro A. Beluche, “Interpretación de la historia nacional y americana,” in Memoria del Primer Congreso, April 18-22, 1956.)

This First [Indigenous] Congress, at which Beluche spoke, resolved in part “to ask the Education Ministry to name a commission to revise the programs and texts of Panamanian and [Latin] American history to adapt them to a genuinely American point of view, that interprets indigenous sentiment in the study of the process of the Spanish invasion and domination of America and especially in the isthmus of Panamá.” The Congress also resolved to “ask the government of Panamá to honor the forefathers of the indigenous race who tenaciously resisted the conquerors, so that these figures can stimulate our people to defend American and national sovereignty against any attempt at meddling in continental affairs [sic] through force or the intervention of foreign governments in our hemisphere.”

Twenty-five years later, in the Declaration of San José entitled “UNESCO and the Struggle Against Ethnocide,” in point 4, the international organization stressed: “Since the European invasion, the Indian peoples of America have seen their history denied or distorted, despite their great contributions to the progress of mankind, which has led to the negation of their very existence. We reject this unacceptable representation.”

Diana Candanedo (Solidarity Committee with the Guaymi people); Bernardo Jaén (from the Regional Coordinating Body of the Indian People of Central America) and Doris Rojas from the Universidad de Panamá all signed the declaration on behalf of Panamá.

Through the work of Las Casas, the three-volume Historia de las Indias, we can determine that our history as generally written by ladinos is a fraud and totally lacks appreciation both for the indigenous people and for the intelligence of humanity. The point of view of many of these Hispano-centric writers might even be considered unconstitutional, since article 81 of the Panamanian Constitution reads, “The national culture is composed of the artistic, philosophical and scientific manifestations produced by Panamanians throughout all time. The state will promote, develop and protect this cultural patrimony.”

As we have seen, the first Panamanian lived around 11,000 years ago. To say otherwise, to create a different type of false memory, is an act of cultural genocide. We are all Bab Giakwa, who as a boy saw the oceans, both the Atlantic and the Pacific, from the highest point of Demar Dake Yala, “the hill that overlooks both seas.” In any decent country, Bab Giakwa, the Panamanian who discovered the Pacific—the sea of the South—would be declared a hero of the motherland by the National Assembly.

 Arysteides Turpana is a Panamanian professor, writer and poet of Guna origin.

Encounters with Guna Celebrations

Photo by James Howe

View the photo gallery.

A Photoessay by James Howe

In 1681, an injured pirate named Lionel Wafer spent several months in the Darién region of eastern Panamá recuperating with the local Indians, who, he noted, gathered occasionally to enjoy a fermented corn drink. Wafer’s carefully neutral account of these parties, published in 1699, was not echoed by later observers. Most of them were appalled by what they saw, and in the early 20th century, missionaries and government officials tried, unsuccessfully, to impose prohibition.

By then the Indians, known today as the Guna or Kuna, had moved out onto small inshore islands along the Caribbean coast, where, among other things, they carried on holding the same celebrations as the ones in Wafer’s day. What their indignant critics did not understand is that these events, by no means simple booze-ups, marked a girl’s coming of age; that celebrants drank and toasted each other with great solemnity; and that between times the abstemious Guna did not touch alcohol at all.

My wife June and I first experienced these feasts for ourselves in 1970, three centuries after Wafer, when we spent a year in an island community. As a graduate student in anthropology, I had been sent to study local politics, but—like many other fieldworkers—I found I could not ignore major events just because they lay outside my chosen topic. In the case of the Guna, that meant drinking parties.

One celebration in particular we observed close up, sponsored by a close friend named Charlie Hernández. It started with his anxiously gathering fish, game, bananas and money for his daughter’s rite of passage. When villagers cooked cane juice for the dark brew known in Spanish as chicha fuerte, June helped fan the fire.

Two weeks later, when the chicha had reached maturity and June’s friends had outfitted her for the occasion in native dress, we joined in several days of drinking, singing and dancing, while the presiding ritualists, called “flutemen,” performed a long esoteric chant celebrating Charlie’s daughter’s passage to adulthood.

In other ceremonies that year, June and I were encouraged to participate and even to take photographs, so long as they did not include obviously intoxicated women. In the longer of the two types of ceremony, men and women spent a whole day in elaborate preparations—making flutes and rattles, weaving hammock ropes, and painting designs on balsawood boards—before settling in to several days of revelry. Village elders invariably complained afterwards of celebrants’ misbehavior, but stern and completely sober watchmen were always on the lookout for out-of-bounds actions.

Over the next four decades, I drank at several chicha celebrations but took no more photographs. A few images were published and exhibited, but the original negatives, most of them exposed in low light, languished in a drawer until digital scanning and editing rescued them in the new century.

In 2011, the revived photographs were exhibited in Panamá at the Museo del Canal Interoceánico, with the approval of the original villages and the official sponsorship of the Guna Cultural Congress. The large Guna crowd at the opening of the exhibit seemed every bit as pleased to see themselves on the museum walls as we were to display them.

By then, the Guna were photographing the celebrations for themselves. Two years before the exhibit, at a feast that occurred during a visit back to our field site, June sat with with an old friend from almost forty years before. As I stood nearby watching, marveling at the durability of Guna tradition, I wondered whether I might be allowed to bring out my camera. A moment later I realized that many of the younger people in the room were already snapping pictures on their digital phones and cameras.

James Howe is emeritus Professor of Anthropology at MIT and author of several books on Guna culture and history. He thanks William Morse Editions of Boston for rescuing and printing the photographs.

The Chinese of Panamá Also Have a Story to Tell…

New Year's Celebrations. Photo courtesy of La Prensa

By Ramón A. Mon

Panamá’s Chinese immigrants arrived 159 years ago after a hellish journey from their homeland. Hired by the Panama Railroad Company, the company in charge of the construction of the railway that would link, for the first time, the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans, the group of 705 Chinese arrived aboard the “Sea Witch” of the Holland and Aspinwall line on March 30, 1854. Sailing from Shantou (China), 11 passengers had died during the 61-day trip. These ships were called “floating hells” because of the inhumane conditions of the journey. Later, many of these workers died of tropical diseases and various committed suicide, but the few Chinese who survived made up a solid group that marked the beginning of a migratory flow which would be uninterrupted throughout our history as a nation.

The story of this first group of Chinese workers has been studied in detail. Panamanian, U.S. and Latin American historians have looked into the large number of suicides among the Chinese laborers that alarmed the directors of the Railway Company as much as the Panamanian community in general. Environmental causes such as tropical diseases (malaria, yellow fever) sometimes led to despair. However, miserable living conditions, the inability to communicate in their own language, the radical change in the customs and meals, as well as the lack of opium, fostered an attitude prone to depression and suicide. Historical studies show that when the directors of the Railway Company in New York learned about the cost of the opium distributed daily to the Chinese, which had been promised in their contracts, they abruptly suspended the supply, worsening the emotional situation of these immigrants. Similar self-destructive circumstances have been described in Chinese communities in Peru’s Chincha Islands, where guano was mined, and in Cuba’s sugar plantations.

The first Chinese immigrants became a sui generis class of workers. Many of them were consigned at the ports and enticed by misleading promises; others wanted to escape their situation of poverty and social marginalization at home. Among them were individuals with gambling debts or addiction to opium. Few knew for sure the place and the work that awaited them in foreign lands. However, all came from a much more developed society and from a civilization with knowledge transmitted from generation to generation. These factors guaranteed a good working performance and the possibility of upward labor mobility, compared to the performance of blacks brought to the Antilles. As recorded in their hiring and payroll records, the Railway Company paid $109.00 to labor recruiters for each Chinese brought to Panamá.

Men came alone. Some of their contracts expressly prohibited them from bringing their families, but as soon as they managed to save enough money, they would indeed bring the wife, children and other relatives. It often happened that immigrants formed a new family in Panamá and kept the other one in China; and in some cases the Chinese family emigrated and lived with the new Panamanian family, wives included.

Of the Chinese who survived the subhuman conditions in which they worked for the Trans-Isthmian Railroad, many were exchanged for black Jamaicans, and $17.77 was paid for each Chinese man brought to work on the sugar plantations of Jamaica. As many as 197 Chinese were exchanged at this rate; the remaining few stayed in the country. However, this small group began working as shift laborers or in service activities so successfully that the future Republic of Panamá decided to enact laws of exclusion and immigration restrictions against the Chinese, some of which are still in force. Today’s convoluted immigration laws, which restrict immigration from the People’s Republic of China (as well as several other countries ranging from Cuba to the United Arab Emirates), only encourage human trafficking. Immigrants from Taiwan, on the other hand, have easy access to permanent residence because of diplomatic treaties.

The waves of Chinese migration corresponded to large construction projects that were carried out in the Isthmus of Panamá during the last two centuries, such as the Trans-Isthmian Railroad and the French and American Canal.  World War II also attracted a large number of immigrants to our country, since it was an obligatory transit point for troops and warships going from one front to the other, and also because of the accompanying economic boom.  

The post-World War II Chinese community lived principally in the port cities of Panamá and Colón, many going into business or activities within the Panama Canal, while others became accountants, doctors, engineers  or engaged in services such as grocery stores, restaurants and laundry shops.  The process of assimilation was facilitated through mixed marriages, the adoption of Christianity, and active participation in the educational, social and political activities of the country.  

Despite their concentration in these cities, the Chinese were not limited geographically.  In a country as small as ours, with barely 30,000 square miles, the Chinese have been moving all over it since the last century, from the Darién jungle to our border with Costa Rica. Already in 1876 a French engineer, Armand Reclus, found in the Darién province Chinese mixed with runaway African slaves, native Indians and white people.

The relative acceptance of the Chinese by the lower classes in Panamá and measures by the Panamanian government against these immigrants promoted mixed marriages, and assimilation was speeded up; in addition, many needed “marriages of convenience” as a way of solving immigration problems.   In 1941, during the presidency of Arnulfo Arias, businesses of Chinese residents who were not nationalized were confiscated. Many Chinese got married then and/or transferred their businesses to their wives or children who were born into the Panamanian nationality, obtained either through jus soli or jus sanguinis, that is, the law of the place of birth or the right of blood, i.e. descent.

As the Chinese left Chinatown, located in the area next to the Public Market in the Old Quarter of Panama City, they began forgetting their language and customs. However, Chinese of the first and second generations formed Beneficence Associations according to their district of origin in China, and tried hard not to lose their cultural ties, just as they began to lose their ethnographic or ethnological ties.  Confucian precepts such as the importance of education, respect for the family hierarchy and filial love remain valid among Chinese descendants without their really being aware that these are and were traditional values of the Chinese transmitted unconsciously through identification with their parents and ancestors.

Those who have studied Chinese immigration to Panamá have noted that the circumstances and the social and political problems these immigrants face have been unchanged since 1904.

Today, although the Chinese in Panamá have kept their political allegiances, whether to the Taiwanese nationalist government or to the political order of the People’s Republic of China, they generally do not air their political conflicts publicly. There are newspapers of both ideological orientations, as well as known groups for either affiliation. The Republic of Panamá is one of the few nations to hold diplomatic relations with the Republic of China (Taiwan), while at the same time maintaining an Office of Trade Relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Both nations have strong commercial ties with Panamá; the PRC being the second user of the Panama Canal, while the two main ports of Panamá are handled by Chinese-funded enterprises: Evergreen (Taiwan) in the Atlantic Ocean at Colón, and Hutchinson-Whampoa (PRC) in the Pacific Ocean, at Balboa.

To say that the Chinese immigrants have succeeded in integrating into the Panamanian community does not mean that they have done so easily, or without any effort or unpleasantness.  This process demands an enormous psychological effort, which has a price.The psychological transformations that take place include denial, suppression and repression of some basic feelings. As every immigrant in this world, the Chinese individual tends to eliminate nostalgia for the homeland, for the family and friends left behind. This repression must take place to avoid feelings of melancholy that would endanger their adaptive process. Sometimes people seem to be extremely tolerant and patient in face of the aggressiveness of the surrounding medium, by suppressing anger or envy.

However, for new immigrants who decide to adopt this country as their new home, the process of integration, particularly for their children, will be made easier by institutions such as the Chinese-Panamanian Cultural Center. There, they will be able to gain an education while becoming familiar with the Panamanian culture and integrate without having to give up their language, traditions and customs.

And so the story of the Chinese in Panamá is one that will continue to have new and exciting chapters. The challenges that lay ahead may be familiar or unknown, but historians will continue to follow and document these transitions of the generations to arrive.

Ramón A. Mon is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst. He earned a Master of Oriental Studies of El Colegio de Mexico and has worked, from a clinical perspective, on immigration conflicts especially of Chinese in Latin America. Contact: