The Politics of Race in Panama: Afro-Hispanic and West Indian Literary Discourses of Contention

The Politics of Race in Panama: Afro-Hispanic and West Indian Literary Discourses of Contention

The Politics of Race in Panama: Afro-Hispanic and West Indian Literary Discourses of Contention

The Politics of Race in Panama: Afro-Hispanic and West Indian Literary Discourses of Contention


Delves into the historical convergence of peoples and cultural traditions that both enrich and problematize notions of national belonging, identity, culture, and citizenship."--Antonio D. Tillis, editor of Critical Perspectives on Afro-Latin American Literature

With rich detail and theoretical complexity, Watson reinterprets Panamanian literature, dismantling longstanding nationalist interpretations and linking the country to the Black Atlantic and beyond. An engaging and important contribution to our understanding of Afro-Latin America."--Peter Szok, author of Wolf Tracks: Popular Art and Re-Africanization in Twentieth-Century Panama

Illuminates the deeper discourse of African-descendant identities that runs through Panama and other Central American countries."--Dawn Duke, author of Literary Passion, Ideological Commitment: Toward a Legacy of Afro-Cuban and Afro-Brazilian Women Writers

This volume tells the story of two cultural groups: Afro-Hispanics, whose ancestors came to Panama as African slaves, and West Indians from the English-speaking countries of Jamaica and Barbados who arrived during the mid-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries to build the railroad and the Panama Canal.

While Afro-Hispanics assimilated after centuries of mestizaje (race mixing) and now identify with their Spanish heritage, West Indians hold to their British Caribbean roots and identify more closely with Africa and the Caribbean.

By examining the writing of black Panamanian authors, Sonja Watson highlights how race is defined, contested, and inscribed in Panama. She discusses the cultural, racial, and national tensions that prevent these two groups from forging a shared Afro-Panamanian identity, ultimately revealing why ethnically diverse Afro-descendant populations continue to struggle to create racial unity in nations across Latin America and the Caribbean.


On June 9, 2009, Parecen noticias [Looks Like News], a popular weekly program in Panama that satirizes politics, parodied Panama’s recently nominated minister of education Lucy Molinar in a segment called “Yo quiero a Lucy” [I Love Lucy]. The program created a caricature of Molinar using the stereotypical image of a gorilla. The association of Molinar with a gorilla is offensive because she is black. Appointed by President Ricardo Martinelli (2009–14), Molinar is one of the few visible blacks who had a presence on Panamanian television, as former anchorwoman of TVN’s (the national television network) Channel 2 morning-news program. Although Molinar did not respond publically to the parody, in a letter to present-elect Martinelli, the president of the Society of Friends of the West Indian Museum of Panama [Sociedad de Amigos del Museo Afro Antillano de Panamá, or SAMAAP] requested that Martinelli make racism and discrimination a priority in his current administration in light of the recent event. In the same fashion that civil rights leaders in the United States reacted and continue to react to racial injustices, West Indians lambasted the news organization for its racist characterization. The protests by SAMAAP resulted in a public apology broadcasted on the show as well as one generated in person by the show’s producers at one of their weekly meetings, which I attended. This event is significant because it dispels age-old myths about racial democracies in Latin America and the nonexistence of racism in Panama. The fact that . . .

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