Though I’m here to learn more about black Panamanian communities, I’m realizing it might be difficult to find anyone belonging to them. On Tuesday, I had coffee with Ariel Rene, who started identifying as black only in the past few years when he began researching his family history. He is dark-skinned but his family members span a range of colors. Families like this are common in Latin America, fueling the myth of the “mixing pot” in countries like Panama and Brazil. But in a true mixing pot, race-based discrimination would not exist — that is not the case in Panama.
Now Ariel is writing a book about his grandfather, who attended a segregated medical school in Tennessee and became one of the first black Panamanian doctors. He suggested I begin by speaking with the “black intellectual” community of professors, politicians and professionals who can help give me an overview of the many facets of blackness in Panama. But talking to the average Panamanian about race will be difficult. By the flawed historical one-drop rule in the U.S., most Panamanians would be considered black, but only 9 percent of them in a recent census identified that way.
Yesterday, I talked with a Panamanian journalist about my project; I said I was writing about the connection between race and socioeconomic status in Panama, especially in Colon. She said that the main problem in Colon is that its inhabitants are known to be lazy. They are continuously offered jobs and opportunities but squander them, because they would rather do nothing. She said they self-segregate themselves in ghettos and refuse to learn Spanish and integrate into society.
By US standards, this journalist would be considered black — her grandfather was a black slave. But she said she is just Latina: “There are some who make a big deal out of being black, but I don’t see what is the big deal.” Class is more important than race in Panama, she said. I asked her whether there was a connection between skin color and class and she brushed off the question by saying, “Well, the Indians have it worse.”
Though conversations like these are depressing and discouraging, I’m looking forward to hearing from the country’s black activists and intellectuals. Tomorrow afternoon, I’m going to a meeting at the Afro-Antillean Museum of Panama and hope to start there.