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.

A Pitch…A Swing and a Miss

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been working on pitching articles to U.S. media outlets, which is a difficult part of the freelancing process. Few U.S. outlets exist that publish traditional journalistic news features, and even fewer that publish international pieces. (And then not all take first-time contributors or “cold pitches.”) Reporting from Panama has its pros and cons: I have little competition for reportage on urban social issues BUT I also have to try harder to show my stories’ relevance. Though the U.S. has played a large role in Panama’s history, Panama is barely on the average American’s radar.

But I’m making progress! I’m working on two articles right now (one shorter, one longer) and have gotten vaguely positive responses about at least one of them. Editors are more likely to take a look at your e-mails if you have some mutual connection who can vouch for you. I’ve checked in with friends and mentors in the journalism world for advice, but I’m otherwise horrible at the networking process — it always feels sort of slimy.

Either way, I’m writing and reporting almost non-stop these days, and if no one will publish me, I’ll publish here on this blog. Hopefully I can share at least one of my writing projects with you soon.

A Muddy Political Arena

One of the most difficult parts of reporting on political conflicts, especially locally, is untangling an individual or group’s actions from its ulterior motives. Talking to a small network of activists can quickly turn into a game of he-said-she-said.

In Colon, all lower- and middle-class citizens want the same things: real economic growth and improved services for city-center inhabitants. But opinions on how to get there vary. Some activist groups are angry at protest group Frente Amplio because last year’s protests yielded nothing from the government. Some think the Alianza’s movements for the unemployed are too subservient to political parties. Some think Colon’s citizens are not taking enough action to improve their city.

I don’t want to portray any one approach as the panacea for all the city’s problems. It’s difficult to balance realistic critiques of the political landscape with emotional descriptions of government neglect.

“Viva los martires!”

On Saturday October 19, protest group Frente Amplio por Colon holds one of its first meetings in a year. They are commemorating the five people that died during last year’s violent protests against the proposed government sale of the Colon Free Zone. I walk uncertainly into Iglesia San Jose, through the church’s main entrance and out into the central courtyard. They told me the event would start at 10 a.m., but that’s in Panama time. By the time I walk in it’s 10:30 and everyone is still getting ready.


Outside of Iglesia San Jose

Continue reading


Eugenics in Panama

It’s a fact demonstrated by the census that the population of the isthmus [of Panama] has increased very little, as it is also a fact that since 1903 until now, the little immigration we have had has been almost totally constituted by races considered undesirable, which has obligated our National Assemblies to sanction laws like Law 13 of 1926, Law 16 of 1827 and Law 6a of 1928, which prohibit immigration by “Chinese, Japanese, Syrians, Turks, Orientals, Indians, Dravidians and blacks of the West Indies and Guyana, whose original language is not Spanish, to the Republic’s territory.”

This indicates that a large percentage of our public feels the urge to take measures against the degeneration of the race, or at least to prevent where it is possible the entrance into the country of parasitic races like those named above, that generally dedicate themselves to business and that have a life standard inferior to Panamanians, making it impossible for [Panamanians] to compete with [the immigrants].

– excerpt from “Eugenics: The Improvement of the Race,” written by then University of Panama professor Arnulfo Arias in 1934

(translated from Spanish)