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Prez Candidates Woo Panamanian Blacks

On March 21st, the Foro Afropanameno hosted a conference with Panama’s May 2014 presidential candidates. Each candidate (or his/her respective representative) denounced structural anti-black discrimination and promised to improve the economic and social development of Panamanian blacks. Of the three candidates slated to win the election, only Juan Carlos Navarro showed up to make a speech. (Jose Domingo and Juan Carlos Varela sent their VPs/reps.) Navarro charmed the crowd from the get-go by speaking in English, an important sticking point especially for English-speaking Afro-Antilleans, many of who value the language as part of their culture.

Navarro and several candidates who followed him used the pronoun “we,” when talking about the struggles blacks have faced in Panama. Several in the crowd seemed to appreciate it as a nod to the fact that most Panamanians have some African heritage. But it brings up important issues of identity politics and privilege Continue reading

Pollera Conga in Portobelo, Colon

On March 15th, I went to my first Pollera Conga festival in Portobelo, a small town in the province of Colon. Starting in the 16th century, some African slaves brought to the province’s regions of Costa Arriba and Costa Abajo managed to escape into Panama’s dense forests and begin their own communities. Eventually, many came down from the forests and founded the town of Portobelo. The town’s citizens are direct descendants of these escaped slaves, the latter sometimes called “cimarrones” or “wild ones”/”maroons.” (Many photos at the bottom of this post under the jump. EDIT: SORRY, PHOTOS NOW ADDED!)

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On “The Hot Cool of Panamanian Calypso”

Today, I had a short piece published in Ozy on the life and evolution of calypso music in Panama. In reporting this piece, I was excited to take a break from the heavy topics I usually follow. I sat in on a calypso band practice, traveled to a Caribbean-influenced archipelago, and spoke with musicians and teachers who were genuinely in love with their art. It was hard for me to narrow down to 600 words — I learned so much about the genre that I wasn’t able to include in the Ozy piece. I hope you enjoy reading it.

Thanks to all who have followed this blog and contacted me personally! I appreciate the support.

In the Mouths of the Bull

Last Monday, I hopped on a bus and rode nine hours to Bocas del Toro, a set of islands in the Caribbean Sea, in the northwest corner of Panama.

bocas map

I had three goals: 1) report for a short piece I’m writing, 2) make contacts for a future long-term stay in the region, and 3) enjoy lots of sun and beach. I’m happy to say I accomplished all three. Photos below.

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Womanism in the Foro AfroPanameño

Yesterday, I went to a major meeting of the Foro Afropanameño, a forum started in 2003 and made up of various political organizations working for black communities in Panama. They spent the day preparing a set of social demands to be presented to this year’s presidential candidates in late March, before the May elections.

The most important demand: the creation of an autonomous body in the national government to look after black civil interests and development. The Secretaria Nacional para el Desarrollo de los AfroPanameños or SENADAP would be composed of four or five different levels and would have offices in all regions of the country.

In 2007, during the government of Martin Torrijos, black activists managed to successfully lobby for a similar governmental group, but the current president Ricardo Martinelli has not bothered to check in with Afro-Panamanians or include them in the legislative process. With the upcoming president to be decided in the next few months, the Foro Afropanameño wants to regain its seat at the table.

At the meeting, activists from different regions of Panama discussed a draft of the proposal to be presented to the presidential candidates. I enjoyed hearing the debates on subtle internal terminology, for example, who was included within the term “afropanameño” and whether it was as inclusive as the term “afrodescendiente.”

Education reform was another major topic discussed, since low-income black regions are more likely to have low-quality educational systems. Rasta Nini, from Colon, argued that both English and Spanish were languages of colonizers, and that the Foro should push for the instruction of African dialects in public schools.

I am always fascinated by the internal workings of activist movements, of the power dynamics that form and shift. I was excited to note the presence of a strong feminist/womanist push within the overall black movement. Near the end of the meeting, members of different organizations sat in a panel at the front — seven men and three women. One of the women took the microphone to call attention to the discrepancy: “We need women to be executive, not just nominative,” even if the men don’t want it.

In Spanish, plural male nouns are inclusive of both genders: for example, the word “chicos” can be used to describe either a group of “boys” OR of “girls and boys.” But throughout this meeting, the women insisted on the use of both female and male plurals in addressing the audience (afropanameños y afropanameñas; todos y todas). It’s a subtle difference, but definitely necessary to get people to stop conflating “black issues” with “black male issues.” In my conversations with some older black activists, I’ve noticed an antiquated, non-feminist approach to race politics, which either excludes women or disempowers them.

I was also really interested to note that sexual orientation was not mentioned at all as one of the intersectional identities the Foro was seeking to protect. This is interesting especially since there is now a law in the National Assembly that would for the first time criminalize discrimination against identities including sexual orientation and race. I assume this is a divisive issue and I’m interested in delving into it at some point.

Four down, four to go

Last night I woke up panicked and jittery, tangled in my sheets and covered in sweat.

I was nervous not because of Valentine’s Day, but because today marks the halfway point of my fellowship in Panama. I tossed and turned till morning, worrying about whether I’d done enough with the time/money I have and whether I would know what to do when the time/money finally ran out.

The first four months in Panama slowly trudged by, but it seems like nothing now at the end. I’m using this post to give myself a bit of perspective, to remind myself of what I’ve done so far and refresh my goals for the final stretch.

I’m also hoping that by offering the gritty details of my process/journey, I can help future off-the-beaten-path freelancers feel a little less alone. I cannot say this enough times: I have no idea what I am doing. Continue reading

On “Two Women and a Mosque”

Yesterday, I was published in Religion Dispatches with an article on Panama’s black Muslim converts, which I began reporting in mid October. I was drawn to the story because I grew up with black Muslim convert parents. In the past couple of years, I’ve talked to them a lot about how they came to Islam and how they feel about the divisions within their Muslim community. When I met the Muslim community in Colon, I was immediately reminded of my parents and knew I had to pursue the writing project.

My first draft of this article was very impersonal. It was written entirely in third person and entirely without mention of my Muslim background. But my editor at RD suggested a personal touch would draw more readers in. At first I was a bit hesitant, but I’m now really happy I took her advice.

Hope you enjoy, share, comment, etc!

Breaking Down Rainbow City

As children during the United States occupation of the Panama Canal Zone, Josefa Barrios and her siblings used to play in the small graveyard bordering her grandmother’s house. The stream that separated the gravestones from her segregated black neighborhood was clean and fast, well maintained by the U.S. for resident workers on the Panama Canal.

But since the U.S. passed the Canal Zone over to Panama in 1979, the neighborhood of Arco Iris — “rainbow” in English, because of its brightly colored squat houses — has fallen into disrepair. The stream Barrios played around is now filled with trash and debris. And residents claim the Panamanian government refuses to sell them the deeds to their land, instead intending to force them out and sell their land to private owners.

Now, Barrios is leading a group of citizens taking on proposed governmental decree 96, which would increase the price of the land to $60 per square meter, essentially preventing residents from ever being able to purchase their homes. Continue reading

Western Privilege and Blackness Abroad

Recently I found blogger Black in Asia’s posts about Western privilege and how to navigate it abroad. This part (in the first link) about being a black Westerner abroad really spoke to me:

We inhabit a liminal space which is difficult to dissect, but that’s why a more nuanced analysis is necessary—with “Westernness” bestowing on us some privileges abroad (e.g. diplomatic immunity) rooted in the global power of our countries of origin, but our “blackness” leading to our oppression due to anti-black sentiments. We encounter and live both while abroad as black Westerners.

As a non-Latino Black woman reporting in black communities in Panama, I’m finding this in-between space difficult on a daily basis, most often when dealing with the way Black American culture is consumed and fetishized here. My roommates are more current on mainstream American rap and hip-hop than I am, though they understand none of the English lyrics. They mime exaggerated swagger and sag their pants and ask me whether they’re doing the correct “black” dances. Based entirely on one-dimensional, dehumanizing stereotypes, their conception of American Blackness is neither positive nor complex. But it’s still very different from the way black Panamanians are viewed, which is less “black cool” and more black indigence, criminality and failure. (Especially since race/skin color and poverty are linked so deeply. Poorer cities in Panama have a greater population of people with darker skin.)

In a country where almost everyone has African heritage but only ten percent consider themselves black, what does it mean that my roommate recently greeted me using the n-word? He argued that it was the equivalent of “negro,” which plainly means “black,” even when I tried to explain the difference in the historical meanings of each. The Spanish word “chombo” is somewhat equivalent to the n-word — it refers to dark-skinned English speaking blacks from the West Indies. It’s unlikely anyone would ever use it to describe me.

As a researcher/journalist from the U.S., I am privileged in being more easily able to separate myself from that one-dimensional stereotype of blackness, in ways a black Panamanian might not be able to, sometimes regardless of class or educational level. I spoke with a black Panamanian professor at the University of Panama who said she’s heard students call her “chombo” as she walks down the halls.

Panama is an interesting country to look at the nuances of blackness and privilege in, because its history is so intertwined with the United States’. Many black Panamanians have actually spent decades in the United States. Some chose to leave for economic purposes, for example, in Colon, as the city slid into poverty and disrepair in the mid-twentieth century. Unable to flee, the poorer Colonenses were left in the city center.

I have had trouble navigating this history in my journalistic interviews, because many Panamanians who self-identify as black have perceptions on race heavily informed by their time abroad. I’m trying not to prioritize viewpoints just because they seem familiar or similar to my own. Also, certain approaches to racism that could be successful in the U.S. would never work here, and vice versa.

Generally, being an American journalist reporting on marginalized groups in a developing country is complex and difficult, irrespective of my race. The other day, I met the wife of a sociologist I have been trying to contact for weeks. She told me he might not ever respond to me — Western academics are constantly traipsing into the country, taking the information they need and then leaving with it. Sometimes he never hears from them again. And even if he does, he rarely actively benefits from the information transfer.

I think about that often, and it can be paralyzing. But I’m trying instead to use that knowledge to be more intentional about the way I carry out my research. I can’t be an expert on other people’s lived experiences, but I can work to record and present them in a way that is ethical, informed and truthful.