Magazine article ReVista (Cambridge)

Panamanian Culture

Magazine article ReVista (Cambridge)

Panamanian Culture

Article excerpt

PANAMANIAN CULTURE HAS ROOTS IN AT LEAST three continents. It's a heterogeneous culture, embracing elements from various communities that coexist peacefully, if noisily, within one of the smallest countries in Latin America, both in terms of land mass and in population. It is the result of a blending process that has been going on for five centuries, a hybrid that keeps evolving. Singling out the primary ingredients of this blend seems like a good way to decode it.


In the year 2000, the Instituto del ADN y del Genoma Humano de la Universidad de Panamá (University of Panamá's Institute of DNA and the Human Genome) did a study to determine what percentage each ethnic group had contributed to the genetic pool in the 500 years since the conquistadores disembarked. The researchers came up with a composition that is 39.4 percent indigenous Indian, 31.2 percent Caucasian, and 29.4 percent black. The most salient characteristics in Panamanian popular culture, as observed today, can be traced to these groups.

The footprints of the conquistadores (Spanish Caucasian) are the most obvious in Panamá's popular culture. Indigenous dialects are spoken among the Guna, Ngabe, Emberá and Wounan Indian groups-which number fewer than 200,000-but Spanish is the undisputed lingua franca. Besides their language, Spaniards imported their religion. In a 2012 national survey, 69.9 percent of the total population declared itself Catholic, followed by 16.4 percent evangelicals and 2.5 percent Adventists. At a personal level, Panamanians might be pragmatic, even flexible, but they respect the Church and its representatives and follow the rituals: family life follows the sequence from one sacrament to the other, with boys and girls expected to move from baptism and communion to confirmation and wedding. Regional festivities-the patronales-have a large pagan component, including binge drinking and dancing, but they center on a locally venerated saint honored with flowers, gifts and processions before the partying. Even the greatest national and eagerly awaited yearly celebration-the carnaval-is held preceding Lent.

The national dance, el tamborito, is of Spanish ancestry (although with obvious influence from native Indian dances), as is the much admired pollera. An off-theshoulder top with a full skirt embellished with embroidery, lace and ribbons, the pollera is a tropical adaptation of the dresses that Spanish women wore in the 15th and 16th centuries. One of the traditional dishes, arroz con pollo (rice with chicken), is a humble cousin of the Valencian paella. Then there is the siesta, not so common anymore due to the distance between home and workplace, but still something of a Spanish legacy.

Panamanian popular culture, as expressed in the way people dress, paint their homes and promote their businesses, is colorful. And the love of color is a trait which might, at least partly, be attributed to its Indian heritage. Bright colors are used profusely and artistically in the clothing of the Guna and the Ngabe women, as well as in their art crafts: the molas of the Gunas, textiles which use the technique of reverse application; the chaquiras (beaded jewelry) and the chácaras (string bags) of the Ngabe, and even in the baskets woven by the Emberá.

The presence of corn in the local diet can also be tracked to the native ancestors, who not only ate it, but drank it in the form of an alcoholic beverage called chicha fuerte. Whether in the form of chicheme, tortilla, torreja, bollo, buñuelo or tamal, Panamanians of all social classes enjoy corn products and eat it as much as Europeans do potatoes.

To the Afro colonials-descendants of slaves who were imported to work in the colonies-and the Afro-Antillean-Caribbean people who came to work in the canal-Panamanian culture owes a natural feel for music that makes dancing the national sport; and a way with drums and other percussion instruments that mark the beat at parties and resound in the parades celebrating the November holidays. …

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