Panama – The Society and Its Environment
PANAMANIAN SOCIETY OF the 1980s reflected the country’s unusual geographical position as a transit zone. Panama’s role as a crossing point had long subjected the isthmus to a variety of outside influences not typically associated with Central and South-America. The population included Asian, European, North American and Middle Eastern immigrants and their offspring, who came to Panama to take advantage of the commercial opportunities connected with the Panama Canal.
African Antilleans, descendants of African Caribbean laborers who worked on the construction of the canal, formed the largest single minority group; as English-speaking diverse group, they were set apart from the majority by both language and religion. Tribal Indians, often isolated from the larger society, constituted roughly 5 percent of the population in the 1980s. They were distinguished by language, their indigenous belief systems, and a variety of other cultural practices.
Spanish-speaking Roman Catholics formed a large majority. They were often termed mestizos–a term originally denoting mixed Indian and Spanish parentage that was used in an unrestrictive fashion to refer to almost anyone having mixed racial inheritance who conformed to the norms of Hispanic culture.
Ethnicity was broadly associated with class and status, to the extent that white elements were more apparent at the top of the social pyramid and recognizably Black and Indian features at the bottom. Members of the elite placed a high value on purported “racial purity”; extensive ties of intermarriage within the group tended to reinforce this self-image.
Class structure was marked by divisions based on wealth, occupation, education, family background, and culture, in addition to race. The roots of the traditional elite’s control lay in the colonial era. The fundamental social distinction was that between wealthier, whiter settlers who managed to purchase political positions from the Spanish crown and poorer mestizos who could not. Landholding formed the basis for the elite’s wealth, political office for their power. When the isthmus became more pivotal as a transit zone after completion of the canal, elite control became less focused on landholding and more concerned with food processing and transportation facilities. Occasionally a successful immigrant family acquired wealth as the decades passed. Nevertheless, the older families’ control of the country’s politics remained virtually intact until the 1968 military coup.
The relationship between landowners and tenants or squatters, between cattle ranchers and subsistence farmers, was the dynamic that underlay social relations in rural Panama in the twentieth century. Cattle ranching had expanded to meet the growing demand for meat in cities. Small farmers cleared the tropical forest for cattle ranchers, planted it for one to two seasons, and then moved on to repeat the process elsewhere. As the population and the demand for meat increased, so too did the rate of movement onto previously unsettled lands, creating a “moving agricultural frontier.”
Migration, both to cities and to less settled regions in the country, was a critical component in contemporary social relations. City and countryside were linked because the urban-based elite owned ranches or plantations, farmers and ranchers provisioned cities, and migration was an experience common to tens of thousands of Panamanians. Land and an expanding urban economy were essential to absorb surplus labor from heavily populated regions of the countryside. It remained to be seen how the social system would function in the face of high urban unemployment in the more straitened economic circumstances of the late 1980s.
Panama has a cultural multiplicity that makes it unique in the region. One of the biggest contributors to the country’s richness is the constant presence of visitors and the blending of cultures from other parts of the world. As a point of contact and a crossing site, this small strip of land is considered a true crucible of diversity. With almost four million inhabitants, Panama’s population consists of 67% mestizos (mixed race Amerindian and white) and mulatos (mixed race white and African-Caribbean), 14% African-Caribbean and African-American, 10% white, 6% Amerindian indigenous and 3% of people from varied ethnic origins. This ethnic mixture has been stimulated by the atmosphere of tolerance and harmony that has always reigned in the country.
Although all forms of religious practice are respected, the population is mainly Roman Catholic and the religion is deeply bound to the traditions and cultural expressions of the country. In the interior, for example, the greatest celebrations are related to a diverse group of saints and these saints are even considered the “owners” of different towns. One of the greatest celebrations relating to Catholic beliefs is the Carnival of Panama. The Carnival is a massive four day celebration that precedes the “Cuaresma” – the 40 days from Ash Wednesday until Easter that are observed as a season of fasting and penitence in preparation for Easter.
Another important aspect of the cultural wealth of the country are the traditions of the seven indigenous groups of Panama. These groups are based in semi-independent “Comarcas”- autonomous territories where indigenous groups maintain a traditional lifestyle and can freely practice ancestral customs. Panama’s indigenous populations maintain musical and dance traditions that date back centuries and their most visible cultural contribution is their highly-prized traditional folk art. Other ethnic groups of more recent arrival complete the unique cultural diversity of Panama, making it a warm, friendly and dynamic country that welcomes diversity.
The society of Panama has over the years reflected the geographic position of the country in that it has long been considered to be a transit zone. As many people passed through to get to other places they left their mark on the country. There have long been expat communities in the country from Asia, Europe and North America and their beliefs and lifestyles have integrated with those of the native Panamanians.
For many years there was a definite class system in Panama, with the richer white population at the top and the native Indians and Black population at the bottom. The divisions in society were also based on the type of work that you did, your wealth, the type of education that you had and your family background. These divisions began when the Spanish colonized the country – the locals were not able to afford the lands and property which came to be owned by the settlers and with land came further wealth and power.
Panamanian culture still includes many old fashioned attitudes, although the cities are becoming more cosmopolitan.
Sources: countrystudies.us ; expatfocus.com ; nativatours.com
See also: http://www.enjoypanama .com/culture.htm