Any phrase that is used to describe Panamanian culture invariable uses the words diverse cultural mix. Due to its suitability as a crossing point between two oceans Panama has always attracted a variety of interests. Over time these influences have blended, with varying levels of integration, but always a fair level of tolerance, to form a hybrid culture known as Panamanian.
The Spanish were quick to establish colonies once they realized the link Panama could play in their trade routes. Descendants from these and successive colonists form the majority of the population. Called meztizos they are people of mixed Spanish and indigenous decent. Panama’s rural working classes, campesinos, are by and large meztizos. Often living a materially poor lives, machete handling and horsemanship are prized life skills. Creole people are of purer Spanish decent and form a smaller, wealthier elite. They enjoy similar living standard to Europeans and usually speak English as well as Spanish.
Sadly, much of the indigenous tribes at the time of colonization were decimated so colonists transported slaves from Africa. These afro-colonists are largely Spanish speaking and once slavery was abolished, settled as free men. Afro-Caribbean immigrants from Jamaica, and the West Indies came to Panama as laborers on the canal or banana plantations. They speak heavily accented English and bring a vibrant Caribbean element to the culture, most evident in their food and music. Significant numbers of Chinese, Latin American and a small number of Europeans also came to work on the canal and stayed on exerting their influences on the developing cultural hotpot.
Indigenous groups that endure in Panama attempt to continue their culture in autonomously governed regions. There are three Comarcas (self-governed regions) in Panama – The Kuna Yala, in the San Blas islands, the Ngöbe-Bugle in highlands of Chiriquí and Bocos del Toro and the Emberá-Wonaan in Darién. The Kuna Yala people are legendary amongst Latin America Indians, for maintaining their culture in the face of a surrounding modern world. A growing number of Kuna now live in Panama City and throughout the country, have businesses and a sound education, but still wear traditional dress. The Emberá and Wounaan people have been protected from outside influence due to their remote location in the Darién Gap, but this situation is changing.
The importance of the canal on global shipping routes, the US presence within the canal zone and more recently the establishment of Panama City as a global center for commerce and banking has attracted a distinctly international cliental to Panama. This influence can be seen in the cosmopolitan atmosphere of Panama City, particularly its restaurant scene and the large number of Panamanians who speak English.
Contemporary Panamanian culture is a blend of all these influences. They have a strong sense of their importance as a nation and are embracing a more global future without fear of losing their “Panamanianness”.