To punctuate the end of Black Ethnicity Month in Panama, I watched the first episode of a new Panamanian sitcom “Los Brownies,” about a black family from Colon province, who move to a rich neighborhood in Panama City. As is evident from the title, the show has no pretension of subtlety or nuance. The Brown family — who joke they are nicknamed “Brownies” because of their chocolate skin color — is an exaggerated stereotype of uncultured country hicks.
Developers have paid them $10 million to turn their land in Costa Arriba, Colon, into a lucrative resort. With the payout, the Browns buy into a wealthy neighborhood in Panama City, where their next-door neighbors are ostensibly various shades lighter and consider themselves many levels more sophisticated — a stereotype of “yeye” (pronounced J.J.) or high-class culture.
The first clashes between the two families give insight into race and class relations in Panama, albeit in highly exaggerated form. The rich family calls the Brownies “rakataka” — in the same way “ghetto” is used to describe specific black people in the United States — and assumes they are involved in narcotrafficking or the arms trade. And the Browns call their neighbors “rabiblanco,” a derogatory term to describe old-money Panamanians, which literally means “pale butt.”
The Browns have a dark-skinned, aspiring reggae artist of a son who meets and develops a crush on the well-groomed rich girl next door. She has a boyfriend, but hangs out with the young Brownie because she thinks he is “exotic.” Meanwhile the Browns’ nerdy daughter falls for the rich neighbor son, who brainstorms ways to take advantage of her naiveté.
The show is completely produced in Panama and stars Panamanian actors — a rare feat. I met the father character Melanio Brown several months ago, when he was Kendall Drayton, professor of theater at the University of Panama. He lamented the fact that younger Panamanians are denying their African ancestry and culture. I’d love to talk him about the role he wants this show to play in the conversation on race/ethnicity, once I get further into the episodes.
Not all are happy about the show. Some in the black community think the article is too dependent on stereotypes and does not adequately address race/class conflict in Panama. (Also, less discussed, the show features a painfully stereotypical portrayal of the rich family’s gay assistant.)
Although the stereotypes made the issues easier for me as an outsider to understand, I would probably be wary of this kind of simplified portrayal in the United States, especially since I think we are way beyond that point in the conversation. At least, the Browns are provoking conversation across wide swaths in Panama, in stark contrast to the normal near-silence outside of the black community.