How to Be Blackety Black in Panama, Part One.

I moved to Panamá sight unseen two years ago with a huge box of condoms and what can be described as a body bag for king-sized murder victims. Open-minded, fearless, and not getting any younger, I was ready for a change, ready for excitement, especially since it didn’t look like I was going to become famous for anything I could tell my mama about in Los Angeles any time soon. Ahem.

I figured that learning perfect Spanish in a classroom in Los Angeles, a textbook Spanish that I would encounter exactly nowhere on this earth, was not the way to master the language. So, armed with a four-point plan of action, a heap of determination, and a bottle of lube, I copped that one-way ticket to freedom and took to the sky. 

Being half Panamanian, I'd heard stories about life down here. I had seen pictures of my happy, well-dressed beautiful Black relatives from their days in the Canal Zone, seen molas and polleras. I had eaten enough empanadas and arroz con pollo to fill Yankees Stadium, but had no firsthand experience to form my own opinion. Every. Single. One of my cousins had either grown up in or visited Panama repeatedly, and I figured it was my damn turn.

Going off of what my grandmother prepared me for, I spent my first week on the lookout for gangs that laid strips of nails in the street to hijack or rob buses at intersections. Thankfully, I managed to avoid getting raped and lynched and skinned and re-raped for my precious American passport. Whew.

What I actually faced was nothing like anything I had conjured up. Lush and overdeveloped and imperfect and shiny on the exterior, Panama City welcomed me openly. It represented endless opportunity for growth and exploration. So I soaked up everything, ate everything, humped everyone, and tried everything. I learned 100 things a day, developing linguistically and socially, and finding my way. However, I had no one to tell me the real deal before landing, especially as a Black man. My mother and grandmother's experiences, which ended when they packed up and moved to America in the 1970s, could never have prepared me for what to expect in Panamaland.

Because one can easily find glossy, friendlywhitewashed explanations of life here (in which mostly brown areas are labeled as RED ZONES OMG DON'T GO THERE OR YOU'LL SURELY GET KILLED IN THE FACE) in travel guides and on expat websites, I feel personally responsible for sharing my Black ass perspective with other Black ass people considering visiting or relocating here. And so, I shall offer you a few (of 100 million) things I've learned from living in Panamaland. We’ll go through this in nice, digestible chunks, yes? And while there are countless beautiful things about living in Panama, I figured I would start with the shit you're least likely to be told elsewhere and work our way on up to the rosy stuff. Okay.

1. White is right.
If I had no Afropanamanian relatives or had no knowledge of the surprising cultural diversity of the region, and had just left the airport and rode through the city in a taxi, looking solely at billboards and advertisements, I would think that this was a country of model-like, beautiful white people who lived in pristine white deluxe white apartments in the white sky, driving white luxury cars, with perfect whiteriffically white teeth with which to smile at their blond-haired perfectly white children while being whitingly white in the (white) hood.

I understand the concept of projecting aspirational images in marketing. Since images of prosperous white people are in no short supply, that tells you a great deal about how things work here in the isthmus. Know that the smiling faces on billboards look so unlike the bulk of the people you’ll encounter daily. Not in the grocery stores or malls. Not on the news. This, of course, speaks to the Panamanian love of all things White. For this, you can thank the wildly successful White Is Right campaigns enacted relentlessly worldwide by your favorite culture-crushing melanin-free superpowers of yesteryear. You, Black person, shouldn’t expect to see many positive images of yourself in the media. Though there are in fact Black CEOs, attorneys, and people of note, they are not nearly as visible. You can, naturally, expect to see an abundance of images of yourself:

  1. As an athlete
  2. As a rappity rap dude
  3. Getting put into the back of a police vehicle on the news, or doing something illegal and terrible
Don’t feel too bad. There is indeed a tiny upside to being scarcely represented. I’ll get to that shortly. Thanks to that aforementioned White is Right campaign, you will notice the existence of white supremacy’s understated yet pervasive stepchild, which we get to next.

2. Colorism is everywhere
Thanks to colonialism, capitalism, missionaries, slavery, and a fascination with all things American, my culture shock upon arrival to Panama in July 2011 wasn't too jarring. Who knew that Six Degrees of Darkness was as popular a game down here in the Platano Belt as it was back home? Here, instead of brown folks reveling in their proximity to Whiteness (or, distance from Classic, Regular old Black) with greatest hits like high yellowredbone, and octaroon, bekinked chicos y chicas compare their skin with such fun everyday items as cinnamon, café con leche (coffee with milk), cookies (which certainly doesn't mean Oreo), sand, and my personal favorite, khaki. Yes, khaki. As in, “Yo no soy NEGRO negro. Soy más como…khaki.” Whatever. A close friend of mine has even been corrected when referring to herself as a Black woman, being told that she was instead the more preferential, safer, cleaner Morena (brown woman). It's quite the complex issue--explored in depth here--but certainly provides for colorful daily interactions.

Well done, Whiteness. Well done. 

Unless you decide to brave the lawless junkie derby that is also known as Driving in Panama, you will develop your own special love for taxi drivers. I’ve done the hard work for you, compiling this wonderful resource to help you in your endeavors:*

Hierarchy of preferred customers for taxi drivers in Panama:
  1. White women
  2. White men
  3. All others who would pass a brown paper bag test, including all other breasted peoples.
  4. Terribly dressed, dirty-haired backpackers and others
  5. White Zombies with chainsaws
  6. Black men, well-dressed or otherwise
This hierarchy is altered under three circumstances:
  1. You are a Black man with a White woman
  2. It is Sunday, when streets are empty and taxi drivers circle like vultures for passengers
  3. The taxi driver is Black, in which case they will almost always rescue you, unless:
    1. The bell pepper-nosed motherfucker doesn't consider himself Black, in which case:
      1. He doesn't identify with your plight, and
      2. You're better off walking.
Now. Take a deep breath and govern your rage accordingly.

*= to be printed, laminated, stored in your wallet and referred to in times of distress

Alright. I’ve got 700 things I could share, but that’s enough for today’s episode of Black in Panama: On Being Someone’s First Black Screw How to Be Chocolatey and Wonderful and Blackety Black Black in Panama. Stop by again soon for a few more more survival tips.

Now go forth and be somebody's chocolate fetish. More on that later.

Continue on to Part Two.

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  1. Don't know how late I am on this, but thank you for being candid about what you saw in Panama. Most of us sugar coat our experiences for fear of being negative. But this right here, was REAL!

  2. Great post. Love your honesty! I have always hoped to visit Panama and what you have mentioned are all things I have read and heard about in that part of the world.

  3. Alex,

    Excellent! You're a gifted writer. I couldn't have said this better myself. I came back to live in my beloved but highly racially-confused Panama about 20 years ago and I've noticed the same exact things. I believe things are worse now in terms of Panamanians' attitude toward blackness.

    Keep writing and I am glad you belong to our Afro Heritage Group of Panama on FB. We would like, with your permission, to translate this article and post it to Rapsodia Antillana, our web blog in Spanish. Let me know.


  4. THIS was hilarious. And true. My tio Alito still drives a taxi there. And I also still use the nickname Canela kindly bestowed upon my by my 'buela. Hope part 2 includes some tales w/ Chinese Panamanians...

  5. Sadly, Spanish rule in Latin America has left the populace(the entire region) with a tremendous inferiority complex and a yearning for all things white.The Americans have been able to take advantage of all of them(from mexico to Argentine, including Puerto Rico,the Dominican Republic,etc.) because of this tremendous insecurity, flaw and stupidity.

  6. The writer of this op ed will have the same experience no matter he or she goes, Panama, Europe, Brazil, Columbia, it does not matter, because they think black first, and thus have an inferiority complex.
    I rreturned to Panama in 1991, after being away for over 30 years and I opened an Insurance Agency, A car repair shop with the Military as my clientele. My business relationship was with Insurance Companies in Panama. They wine and dine me to do business with them. I frequent the Marrior, and many hotels in Patilla... I left because the closing of the bases impacted my business. However, I open a catering business and had two vans delivering food to Almacen 99, and many Banking Officials who were my steady clientele. I was respected in the Banking Community, was able to walked in and get a loan on the spot. NO ONE TELL ME I WAS BLACK, BROWN TO DO BUSINESS WITH ME.
    I build a home near Tocumen and paid of the Mortgage and will return to Panama to start another business.
    My late ran a tutorial business teaching English to Rabi Blanca who will travel to Spain and return with gifts for her, expensive perfume. They never once reffered to her as Chomba, Mulata, Black...
    The racism the writer experienced is the footprint left by American Aparthide in Panama....I was a Silver Roll Employee, and could only use the bath room that said "Helper". Could not go to Magarita, or Balboa Commissary....
    Our problem stem from our Parents telling us to STAY AWAY FROM THOSE DIRTY PANIA PEOPLE...When I went back in 1991, I mingle with every one from Chiriqui to Darien and found some of the sweetest people on Earth!


    1. You try not to think black but the citizens on the business sector "SEE YOU BLACK UNLESS THEY KNOW YOU SPENDING MONEY". If you are visiting establishments as a ordinary black person, you will feel the difference in the treatment you receive.

  7. You must look at your billboards along the highways and biways and see how many black faces is on them. Look in the Government and see how many black faces there is in it. You have those Blacks that brag about how much School they attended and 99% of them are walking around singing that old brainwashed Antemn TODO POR LA PATRIA. A lot of Panamanians move back to Panama and thought that with their Dollars they were going to live like Kings and Queens but the white skin people let them know that they will be treated just like the Black person that never left. most of them are shamed to return back to the Country that open it's hand and made them someone.

  8. Well said!! This is a topic a close friend and I have spoken ad naseaum. My observation has been the same and it starts as soon as you land into Tocumen airport. As you leave the airport and travel into the city, 90% of billboards have images of White skinned folks grinning. I truly understand the importance of marketing; however, in Panama these strategies are blatantly obvious that the marketers are advertising their product to certain segment of the population. This type of illustration will lead one to believe the country is predominately White - which is incorrect, Panama is a country of mixed races and it is heavily populated by folks who are dark skinned. In terms of customer service, if you are White you get AAA service or if you are Black and speaks English well, you are treated the same. Many years ago, I have been a victim of discrimination where my friends and I were denied entry into a nightclub. This quickly change when the security guard (who is also Black) heard us speaking English among ourselves. This practice of discrimination needs to be brought out and exposed and hopefully things will start to change for the better.

  9. My initial reaction was simply....WOW!!! Not because it's so unbelievable but rather because I could completely relate on EVERY SINGLE POINT he made! I too am a child of Panamanian parents and grandparents (with Barbadian great-grands (Mami's side) and St. Lucian great-grands (Daddy's side). My history is almost identical to the one he describes except mine is occurring in Brooklyn, NY. I, and many of my generation born here in the States from the late 60s to early 70s to Afro-Panamanian parents, have heard many tales about the "La Boca Commissary gold and silver system", their constantly being referred to as "chombos/chombas" (neg. terms that persist to this day) and the distinctions, real and/or imagined, between "Zonians" and other black Panamanians, i.e. those from Colon or the poor, Pacific-side barrios of Calidonia, Chorillo, etc. I proudly and loudly consider myself a panamena, a label made much more credible to my American/"other" friends because I am not only bilingual but because my siblings, cousins and I have grown up surrounded by all things Afro-Panamanian --- molas, polleras, Seco, empanadas, arroz con pollo, tamales, baile tipico events, Panamanian reunions, desfiles panamenos en Avenida Franklin (sorry but y'all might not know about the annual Panamanian parade down Brooklyn's Franklin Ave. in October unless your'e an East Coaster!); Bajan cu-cu; fishcakes and bacalao, and of course fiestas full of salsa, merengue, soca, Haitian compa, reggae....I've embraced my family's culture with open arms. But I have also always been aware that things back "home" are exactly as he writes above. My primos (who've never left Panama) and I often discuss the unfairness of them (i.e. lower income black Panamanians) being expected to spend their money in places that consider them um, sub-standard. They smile and seem to silently accept this treatment, though they protest loudly out of earshot of their economic and racial oppressors. Suffice it to say that Alexander is correct in stating that in Panama (and throughout the Afro-Hispanic diaspora) WHITE IS DEFINITELY are a person of color with $$$ to spend. Then, at least on the face of it, the only color that matters is green. I have repeated an experiment with my cousins in Panama City when we go out to a nightclub or restaurant in a "ritzier" part of town like Paitilla, Cangrejo, Punta Pacifica, Coco Del Mar or Costa del Este, to name a few. My cousins span the color spectrum from "chocolate" to "casi blanca" and while it is interesting for me to hear how they designate and refer to themselves based on their respective shades, it is even more interesting to observe how different is the treatment we receive when service people overhear them speaking to me in English. Fortunately for my bilingual cousins, they have an advantage over those (mostly Latin) Panamanians who have to pay someone to teach them English. My distinctly "American" accent IMMEDIATELY changes the level of service we receive and we get asked: De que pais es Ud., señorita? OR Es Ud. de fuera? This happens to us repeatedly when shopping, dining out, clubbing, using public transportation, etc. We always laugh afterward about how the staff subsequently knock themselves out trying to get the "American tip" but it's really sad, on so many levels, when you think about it. No one should still be experiencing racism, of any kind, in this day and age. But, I say all this to say, that I look forward to his future episodes....besides being true and informative, Mr. Alexander's take on present-day Panama is hilarious...and I really like his writing style. He should consider writing a series of travel guides....LOL

  10. The problem is historic: The USA and Europe brought discrimination and racism to the Isthmus. All Panamanians were affected and we can see the results today. Everyone tries to be anything except Black (remember Irene Cara's breakdown). This is tragic. However, there seems to be a awakening of some Blacks that reject the bullsh*t perpetuated by the non-Black a$$holes..


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