Panamanian americans

by Rosetta Sharp Dean


A country slightly smaller than the state of South Carolina, Panama is located in Central America. Its land mass measures 29,762 square miles (77,381 square kilometers), bounded by the Caribbean Sea to the north, Colombia to the east, the Pacific Ocean to the south, and Costa Rica to the west. The climate of the area is tropical with a dry season that extends from January to May and a rainy season from May to December. Rainfall varies from 130 inches on the Atlantic coast to 68 inches on the Pacific side. Temperatures generally range between 73 and 87 degrees Fahrenheit (23-31 degrees Celsius).

Panama has a population of slightly over 2.4 million people; 70 percent are of Mestizo origin (mixed Spanish, and Indian) or mixed Spanish, Indian, Chinese, and West Indian. The rest of the population comprises various ethnic minorities, including West Indian (14 percent), white (ten percent), Indian (six percent). Most of the population is Roman Catholic, however, there are several other denominations as well as Judaic and Islamic faiths represented. The country's official language is Spanish, and its capital city is Panama City. Panama's national flag consists of four rectangles arranged lower left, blue; upper right, red; upper left, white with blue star in the center; lower right, white with red star in the center.


Panama was the native name of a village on the Pacific Coast of the Gulf and Isthmus of Panama. Before its discovery by the Spanish, Panama was inhabited by a large number of Amerindians. The groups lived in organized chiefdoms, depending on the area's fish, birds, and sea turtles, and on starchy root crops for food. Numbering nearly one million when the Spanish arrived in 1501, the largest group was the Cuna. The country's name, which means "land of plenty fish," may also come from the Cuna words panna mai , or "far away," a reply to Spaniards who wondered where to find gold. The name Panama is also believed to be a Guarani Indian word meaning "a butterfly," and also signifying a mud fish, perhaps because the flaps of the mudfish resembled the wings of a butterfly.

Panama has been subjected to numerous occupations by foreign powers since the Renaissance period. Since 1513, when the Spanish explorer Vasco Nuñez de Balboa crossed a narrow strip of land and discovered the Pacific Ocean, the Isthmus of Panama has been a major crossroad of the world, linking two great continents and separating two great oceans. His discovery opened up a shorter route to Peru and the gold of the Incas. Fortune seekers from Europe could land at Colón, cross the narrow isthmus, and set sail on the Pacific for Peru. Shortly after his discovery, Balboa was condemned for treason and put to death with the help of a former aide, Juan Pizarro, who then used the route to conquer the Incas. Panama became an important travelway and supply post for the Spanish conquistadores (conquerors).

By 1519 Spanish settlements had been established, and the king's appointed governor, Pedro Arias de Avila, had settled in the village of Panama. Under his rule, Balboa's Indian allies were killed and other Indians were enslaved. Many fled to the jungle or to the swampland and isolated islands on the northeast coast. A priest, Bartolomé de la Casas, was outraged by the Indian enslavement and persuaded Spain's government to send African slaves in their stead. By this time, many Indians had died from disease and mistreatment, while those who escaped had become isolated in the forests and swamps. The separation of Indian groups from Panamanians remains today. African slaves became so important that the British were given a contract to deliver 4,800 slaves a year for 30 years. Slave revolts moved the Spanish king to interrupt the delivery for a time.

From the beginning, the narrowness of the land inspired the idea of a canal. The Spanish, however, were disinclined to build one, wanting to keep rival fortune seekers away from the Pacific Ocean. So for 300 years the only route was a muddy jungle road from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. Outsiders often attacked. British forces captured a fortress on the Atlantic, Portobello, several times, and buccaneers troubled the area in the 1600s. The Scottish attempted to begin a colony and open the land to trade in 1698, but failed due to disease and the resistant Spanish. Spain held on to the land and controlled its markets until 1740, then allowed Panamanians to trade with other countries. Panama, though, seldom had the freedom of self-rule. From 1718 to 1722 the Spanish government in Peru held authority over Panama. Spain's viceroy of Granada (who ruled Panama, Colombia, and Venezuela), assumed control in 1739. When this government was abandoned in 1819, the viceroy moved to Panama and ruled there for two years. Although Spanish occupation of Panama ended in 1821, close relations between the Spanish and Panamanians flourished; mixed marriages and the adoption of Spanish culture and language gradually molded the Spanish and Panamanians into a distinct ethnic entity. The ancestors of the modern Panamanian people managed to preserve their Spanish heritage despite governance by European and Colombian conquests. The Spanish language in Panama has survived as a member of the Romance language group. In 1821 Panama obtained independence from Spain, and joined the new republic of Greater Colombia. The French started a canal in 1879, but after 20 years of struggle with the jungle, disease, financial problems and the sheer enormity of the project, they were forced to abandon it.

The California gold rush in the 1840s renewed interest in travel between the oceans. In 1845, the United States helped build the first transcontinental railroad that crossed Panama. Meanwhile, France, Britain, and the United States explored the possibility of a canal to join the two oceans by way of either Panama or Nicaragua. In 1879 Ferdinand de Lesseps of France, and builder of the Suez Canal, began construction of a canal in Panama under a license from Colombia. However, disease (yellow fever, malaria), rain, and mud made him abandon the project. From 16,000 to 22,000 workers had died.


In the early 1900s Colombians fought a civil war—the War of a Thousand Days. Colombian rebels operated from bases in Nicaragua, passing through Panama on their way to fight. The United States now had a growing interest in building a canal across Central America. In 1902, it intervened in the war and established a truce. In 1903 and 1904, Panama declared its independence from Colombia, drew up its first constitution, and elected its first president. In 1903, the United States signed the Hay-Ban-Vanilla treaty in which the concession for a public maritime transportation service across the Isthmus was granted; the treaty also granted the United States control over strips of land five miles wide on either side of the canal. The United States did not own the Canal Zone, but the treaty of 1903 allowed it to lease the area "in perpetuity." In return the United States agreed to pay Panama $10 million plus an annual rent of $250,000, which was later increased to $1.93 million.

In 1904, the United States purchased France's rights to the unfinished canal for $40 million and began the Herculean task of carving a canal through the isthmus. Many able and dedicated men were involved in this venture. Among them were Colonel William C. Gorges, an army doctor who achieved a major triumph in wiping out yellow fever and reducing malaria. Colonel George W.

"Getting off Ellis Island, my mother was dressed up. She had been making this suit for a year to land in. And I was dressed up with handmade lace and all. It was jampacked with mostly Europeans. And most of these people were dirty, actually dirty. I was terrified."

Ayleen Watts James in 1923, cited in Ellis Island: An Illustrated History of the Immigrant Experience, edited by Ivan Chermayeff et al. (New York: Macmillan, 1991).

Goethals, an army engineer who later became the first governor of the Canal Zone, was put in charge of the operation in 1907. The giant excavation through the mountains of the Continental Divide at Culebra Cut, later renamed Gaillard Cut, was directed by engineer David Gaillard. After seven years of digging and construction, and the expenditure of $380 million, the Panama Canal was officially opened on August 15, 1914, and the U.S. cargo ship Ancon made the first transit.

After World War II, Panamanians opposed to U.S. presence in the Canal Zone demanded renegotiation of the 1903 treaty; however, the arrangement of the 1903 treaty between the United States and Panama continued until the 1960s when disputes arose over U.S. control of the canal and zone. The United States agreed to negotiate new treaties relating to the Panama Canal and the Canal Zone. The treaties, which were accepted in 1977 and signed by General Omar Torrijos Herrera, head of the Panamanian Government, and U.S. President Jimmy Carter, stipulated joint administration of the Canal starting in 1979, and the complete return of the Canal to Panama on December 31, 1999. The treaties, which replaced the treaty of 1903, turned over to Panama the government of the Canal Zone and the territory of the Canal Zone itself, except for areas needed to operate and defend the canal. The United States remains responsible for the operation and military defense of the canal until December 31, 1999, after which it will come under complete Panamanian control.

The presence of the Canal changed lifestyles in the country. A people that had primarily earned their living as subsistence farmers now gained most of their income from the Canal. The canal employs about 3,500 United States citizens and some 10,000 Panamanians. Among the available housing areas assigned to canal employees are Balboa and Ancon on the Pacific side and, on the Atlantic side, Cristobal, Coco Solo, and Margarita. Gatun and Gamboa are communities primarily for people who work at the locks or in dredging and hydroelectric operations.


In 1988 General Manuel Noriega used his military prominence to seize control of the Panamanian government, establishing a dictatorship, which brought him great personal wealth. Previously supported by the United States, Noriega became the object of condemnation, based on evidence linking him to drug trafficking, murder, and election fraud. In an attempt to squash Noriega, the United States imposed severe economic sanctions on Panama. Although the Panamanian working class suffered from these actions, Noriega himself was virtually unaffected. In December of 1989, a U.S. invasion of Panama led to the ousting of Noriega, who officially surrendered in January 1990. He was taken to the United States and was convicted on drug charges in 1992.


Panamanians, among other Central Americans have a recorded presence of almost 175 years on American soil. More than one million immigrants from Central and South America have settled in the United States since 1820, but their role in the development of American society remains uncharted. The U.S. Census Bureau did not tabulate separate statistics for Panama, Central and South American nations until 1960. The number of Panamanian Americans in the United States increased slowly. In the 1830s, only 44 arrivals were recorded, but by the early twentieth century more than 1,000 came annually. After World War I, immigration tapered off. The 1940 census listed only 7,000 Central Americans; many apparently had died or returned home.


After World War II, the number of immigrants increased rapidly and by 1970 the Central Americans numbered 174,000. Paradoxically, the flow of emigrants from Panama was small for nearly the entire period in which there were no immigration restrictions on applicants from the Western Hemisphere, but increased dramatically after the 1965 Immigration Act, which imposed a ceiling of 120,000 admissions from the hemisphere. By 1970, Panamanians constituted one of the largest of the Central American groups in the United States. Most Panamanians were nonwhites. Women outnumbered men among Panamanian immigrants by about one-third. The number of immigrant males per 100 females was very low in the 1960s, falling to 51 for Panama. The percentage of immigrants under 20 years of age was higher for males than for females; most female immigrants were between 20 and 49, many of them service, domestic, or low-paid, white-collar workers who immigrated to earn money to send home. Since 1962 the percentage of employed newcomers who are domestic servants has remained high, ranging from 15 to 28 percent. The entry of homemakers and children after 1968 was eased by the immigration preference system favoring family reunions. As of 1990, there were approximately 86,000 people of Panamanian ancestry living in the United States.


Most Panamanian immigrants live in New England, or on the Gulf Coast, or Pacific Coast, or in middle Atlantic or Great Lakes areas. New York City contains the largest urban population of Panamanians. A substantial number of Panamanians settled in Florida and California. Over 15,000 Panamanians lived in New York in 1970, with fewer than 600 in San Francisco. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Panamanians congregated in urban areas, especially in very large metropolitan cities. In 1920, for example, when 49 percent of the U.S. population lived in rural areas, 87 percent of the Panamanians were living in cities. They gravitated to urban centers because their education, occupational skills and lifestyles were suited to urban society. Mestizo, black, and Indian Panamanians are more numerous in New York than in any other U.S. city, numbering over 17,000 in 1970. But the forces that have led these groups to one locale or another (employment opportunities, the nucleus of an ethnic community, transportation links with the homeland) are not well understood.

Acculturation and Assimilation

Little is known about the early Panamanians in the United States. Indeed, in the past, insufficient knowledge of Panamanian ethnic characteristics generated misconceptions in America. For example, the U.S. Census Bureau did not tabulate separate statistics for individual Central and South American nations until 1960—the characteristics of the individual national groups were buried in aggregated immigration and census statistics.

It is often assumed that the Panamanians of Central America and the South Americans share a common culture. Although the majority share a Spanish or Portuguese heritage, they represent very diverse peoples who have been incorporated into nation-states recently. In the newer version of acculturation and cultural pluralism, an immigrant does not surrender ethnic and cultural identity to become an American. With this approach, America is viewed more realistically, with many diverse ethnic and cultural groups. This view recognizes that one of America's strengths is in its cultural diversity and that this diversity should not be denied but highly valued.


In the city and country, Panamanians share certain values. One is personalismo, a belief in interpersonal trust and in individual honor. With this belief comes a distrust of organizations and a high sensitivity to praise or insult. The most valued unit is the extended family. Another universal is machismo, the belief in male dominance and an image of the man as strong and daring. Women are expected to be gentle, forgiving, and dedicated to their children.

Most Panamanians are Roman Catholic, but the church and state are separate and religious freedom is guaranteed by the constitution. The religious feeling of the Panamanians is reflected in their frequent celebrations of religious holidays.


Besides Christmas Day, New Year's Day, and Easter, Panamanian Americans celebrate the Independence Day of Panama on November 3. Other holidays such as Good Friday, Mother's Day, Father's Day, Thanksgiving, and Valentine's Day are also celebrated.


Panamanians love festivity, and during their celebrations one can see in their traditional costumes and folk dances some of the more colorful aspects of life in Panama. The national dance is the tamborito, in which a man and a woman, surrounded by a circle of other dancers, pretend to flirt with each other while they dance. Other couples take turns dancing in the circle. The dance is performed to the beat of the caja and pujador, drums that were originally used by slaves brought to Panama from Africa and the West Indies during the colonial period. During the dance the woman wears the pollera —a full long white dress decorated with embroidery, or the montuna —a long skirt with bright floral patterns worn with a white, embroidered, off-the-shoulder blouse. The man's costume, the montuno, is a long white cotton shirt, with fringe or embroidered decorations, and knee-length trousers. The tamborito is especially popular during Carnival, a four-day period of joyous festivity that precedes Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. Lively salsa—a mixture of Latin American popular music, rhythm and blues, jazz, and rock, is a Panamanian specialty.


Panamanians enjoy a variety of international dishes. However, food is similar to that eaten throughout Central America. Two popular dishes are sancocho —a soup made with meat and vegetables, and tazajo —ox meat beaten thin and grilled and covered with a tomato sauce. Other favorites include ceviche (raw fish, cured, and mixed in lime juice, with onions, red peppers, and other spices), empanadas, tortillas, and carimanolas (each made with ground beef that is stuffed in a corn meal or flour dough), tamales (a mixture of chicken or pork, onions, olives, and other hot or mild spices stuffed in a corn meal mixture wrapped in banana leaves, tied with string, then steam cooked). Some nutritious vegetables enjoyed by Panamanians are plantain, yellow yam, yucca, and bread fruit.

Traditionally, every meal is accompanied with rice or a variation of rice and peas or beans. The most popular drinks are chicha fuerte, a liquor made with a corn base, beer that comes from the guanabana fruit (fruit of the soursop, a tropical American tree), and a beverage called palm wine.


There are no documented health problems or medical conditions that are specific to Panamanian Americans. Many families have health insurance coverage underwritten by various ethnic organizations. Like most Americans, Panamanian American business owners and professionals in private practice are insured at their own expense, while employees benefit from their employers' health plans when available.


The Panamanian dialect is distinct to its native origin in Panama. For the first generation of immigrants, regardless of the period of arrival in America, Spanish was the primary language. Subsequent generations spoke Spanish less often, eventually switching to English as their principal language.

Family and Community Dynamics

During the first three decades of the twentieth century, the Panamanian American family underwent profound changes. The first immigrants were typically single males who had left their families behind temporarily to save enough money to send for them later. They settled first in apartments. Panamanians are among the one million immigrants from Central and South American to have settled in the United States since 1820. In most discussions, Panamanians are not considered apart from other Spanish-surnamed people, although they are not a homogeneous group. The number of African Panamanians, for example, can be inferred only from the count of nonwhites in the 1960 and the 1970 Census. The husband is the usual source of authority in the family.

Panamanians gather at social clubs, and organizations for the maintenance of ethnic ties; there they discuss social, political, economic problems and news from Panama. Since many Panamanian women work outside the home, economic conditions have gradually improved, and immigrants are able to purchase a home, cars, and modern appliances, or rent larger apartments in more prosperous neighborhoods.

The typical Panamanian household features Panamanian art such as the famous Cuna Indians textile molas, which generally depicts native wildlife and themes, the Panamanian flag, and other cultural icons displayed in a common area. Panamanians have always held the family in high esteem. Demographics show that Panamanian families usually have two or three children. In 1970, nearly 40 percent had one wage earner, 54 percent had two, and only six percent had no income earner.


Most wedding ceremonies involve two requirements: the man and woman must say that they want to become husband and wife; the ceremony must have witnesses, including the official who marries the couple. If the couple has a religious ceremony, it is conducted by a member of the clergy, such as a minister or priest. If a couple is marrying in a civil (nonreligious) ceremony, a judge or other authorized official performs it. Many couples prefer a traditional religious ceremony, though some Panamanians depart from custom. Some even write their own wedding service. The traditional wedding ceremony begins with the bridesmaids and ushers walking slowly down a center aisle to the altar. They stand on each side of the altar throughout the ceremony. The groom enters and waits for the bride at the altar. The bride then walks down the aisle with her father, another male relative, or a family friend. She wears a white dress and veil and carries a bouquet. At the altar, the bride and groom exchange marriage vows and accept each other as husband and wife. The groom puts a wedding ring on the ring finger of the bride's left hand, and the bride may also give the groom a ring. After the ceremony, the bride and groom kiss and then leave down the main aisle.

Many Panamanians follow the traditional wedding ceremonies, but certain religious groups add their own features to it. For example, different Protestant groups have their own versions of the ceremony. Many Roman Catholic weddings take place during a mass, and the bride and groom receive communion. The reception is held either at a private home, hotel, or restaurant. Guests give gifts or money at the reception or bridal shower. The reception is accompanied by music and dancing.


When a child is ready for baptism, the parents first select the godparents. The godfather— padrino, and godmother— madrina, are often the same couple who served as best man and matron of honor at the parents' wedding. The parents bring the child to the church, where the priest confers the grace of God by putting his hand on the child and then anoints the child on the forehead with blessed olive oil. The baptism is completed by sprinkling the child with holy water. It is customary to have a large or small dinner after the baptism.


A death in the family is followed by a funeral. The practices include public announcement of the death, preparation of the body, religious ceremonies or other services, a procession, a burial or other form of disposal, and mourning. The body typically is washed, embalmed, and then dressed in special garments before being placed into a coffin. Many people hold an all-night watch called a velorio. The funeral may include prayers, hymns, and other music, and speeches called elogio that recall and praise the dead person. Many funeral services take place at a funeral home with the embalmed body on display. After the funeral, the mourners return with the bereaved family to their house and share food.


Law requires all Panamanian children aged six through 15 to attend school, but this rule is not rigidly enforced. Particularly in rural areas, enrollment drops greatly in the secondary years as teenagers seek employment to augment their family's income. About half the secondary-age population was enrolled in 1982. The early immigrants cared very much for the children, and instilled in their children the importance of education. Many first-wave immigrants managed to obtain or to hold jobs. Encouraged by their parents, the second generation of Panamanian Americans placed more emphasis on vocational training and college education. While most newcomers are domestic, very few are agricultural or industrial laborers. In the last two decades many Panamanians have embraced professional careers, and others have become white collar workers. Subsequent generations have progressed even further in their educational and professional pursuits. As a result, Panamanian Americans have been able to make many significant contributions to American society.


Panamanian Americans' social relations with other ethnic groups in the United Stated defy generalization. Their ties with other Hispanic groups in the United States are not well developed; but similarity of religion, lifestyle, and language often draw them together despite country of origin. Although their ethnic group boundaries are permeable and flexible, they may be rigid with respect to class and race. Panamanian workers generally came into contact with other ethnic groups in the workplace; they began to interact with other ethnic groups as they moved into better residential areas and suburbs. All these factors, including the proliferation of mixed marriages, have contributed to the integration of Panamanians into mainstream American society.


Approximately 93 percent of the population nominally belongs to the Roman Catholic Church, and six percent are Protestant (Evangelical). Other religious denominations represented in Panama include Seventh-Day Adventists, Baptists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Unitarians, as well as the Judaic and Islamic faiths. Women are the ones who attend church with the children. In Panamanian Catholicism, much emphasis is given to the mother of Jesus, Mary, who serves as an example for the women

Employment and Economic Traditions

Early Panamanian immigrants and their occupational characteristics have changed little in the latter decades of the twentieth century; 30 to 40 percent are professionals and white-collar workers—highly skilled and educated persons—with very few agricultural or industrial laborers. It is estimated that Panamanians and other Hispanics represent a consumer market of between $140 billion and $190 billion, and that market will be responsible for much of the consumer market growth in the United States in the future. In addition, revenues of owned businesses were estimated to be $29.6 billion in 1990, up 48 percent from 1987. Many experts expect an upward surge in Panamanian and other Hispanic economic growth and development during the 1990s.

However, as a whole, Panamanian Americans and other Hispanics suffer from high poverty levels compared with non-Hispanics. For example, as determined by assets owned, income, employment status, education and other factors, the average net worth of a white household is about eight times that of a Hispanic household ($43,279 as opposed to $5,524).

In the private sector, Panamanian workers are active members in the nation's work force. Panamanians have had some degree of occupational upgrading during the past decade, but they are more likely than the overall work force to be employed in lower-skilled, lower-paid occupations. Most of the increases in the employment of approximately 60 percent of Panamanian women were in mid-level occupations (technical, sales, and administrative support) and the generally lower-paid service occupations. Another 15 percent of Panamanian women were employed in management and professional positions. The occupational levels among Panamanian men have been stable in the managerial, professional, technical, sales, and administrative support positions. Occupational growth for Panamanian men has been concentrated in occupations requiring intermediate skills (operators, laborers, and fabricators), which has accounted for nearly one-third of their employment.

In the federal government, Panamanian presence is evidenced throughout all departments and agencies. No longer are Panamanian Americans limited to the social service sector of government—Departments of Education, Health and Human Services, and Housing and Urban Development. They are also in the Commerce, Labor, Interior, the State Departments, and the Pentagon, as well as the White House. During the last two decades, Panamanian Americans and other Hispanics have been ambassadors to numerous Central and South American countries.

Politics and Government

Panamanian Americans are extremely aware that their increasing numbers translate to increased political influence, and they are exerting political power that complements their growing numbers and economic influence. In addition, they are carefully identifying issues that bring a measure of political unity to their diverse population.

Although each Hispanic group has its own identity, they are finding that their commonalities provide them with a more effective political voice. In recent years Hispanic politicians have been rallying around points of commonality as their political involvement increases. Panamanian Americans have also made significant political contributions to United States foreign policy in Latin America. Domestic issues such as civil rights, affirmative action, and bilingual education have often brought them together in a unified front.

Three million Panamanian and other Hispanic voters are concentrated in six states, which, when combined, account for 173 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win a presidential election. This underscores the importance of Hispanics as a voting bloc, particularly in the Southwest. There has been a significant increase in registered Hispanic voters in recent years; and, as more young Hispanics reach voting age, Hispanic strength as a political force will increase even more significantly. Hispanic political influence is directed by such organizations as the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education fund (PRLDEF), National Council of La Raza, League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), American G.I. Forum, Cuban National Planning Council, Inc., National Image, Inc., Puerto Rican/Latinos Voting Rights Network, and many others.


The military history of Panamanians and other Hispanics contains a full scope of duty and dedication. No less than 37 Hispanic Americans have received the Medal of Honor, America's highest military decoration. During the Spanish-American War, Hispanic soldiers rode with Theodore Roosevelt's "Rough Riders." Military historians estimate that a quarter to a half million Hispanics served in the armed forces during World War II. Eight Hispanics received the Medal of Honor for actions during the Korean War, and 13 were decorated for actions in the Vietnam conflict. Panamanians played active roles during United States operations in Grenada, Panama, and Saudi Arabia. As of September 1990, Hispanics accounted for 2.1 percent of all active officers. The Army officer ranks had 1.9 percent Hispanic representation, the Navy had 2.4 percent, the Marine Corps 2.4 percent, the Air Force 2.0 percent, and the Coast Guard 1.7 percent.


Panamanian Americans have always been proud of their homeland and have maintained ties beyond normal relations with family or friends left behind. Cultural ties between the two countries are strong, and many Panamanians come to the United States for higher education and advanced training. In cooperation with the United States government, many Panamanian Americans provide needed resources and training and joint operations with the Drug Enforcement Agency trying to fight illegal narcotics. In addition, Panamanian Americans supported the renewal of democracy and stability in Panama, and a fundamentally strong relationship with the United States, which became severely strained by the Noriega regime during the late 1980s. Presently, some Panamanian Americans are involved in developing business ventures in Panama. There is also a steady flow of scholarly exchanges between Panama and the United States—via grants and scholarships—in which Panamanian Americans take an active role through academic organizations.

Individual and Group Contributions

Although Panamanian Americans represent only 0.4 percent of America's total population, they have made significant contributions to American popular culture and to the arts and sciences. The following sections list Panamanian Americans and their achievements:


Panamanian writers did not begin to make a significant contribution to world literature until the early twentieth century. Among the most notable of this group was the poet Ricardo Miró. Panama's best-known contemporary writers are Demetrio Korsi, a poet, and Rogelio Sinan, a poet and novelist. Korsi's works are sometimes critical of United States influence on Panamanian culture. Sinan's works have a cosmopolitan tone that reflects the author's extensive travels.


Lucho Azcarraga, an internationally renowned organist and composer, is best known for Panamanian folklore music. Ruben Blades is an internationally renowned singer, actor, songwriter and producer of Buscando America; noted films are Predator II and The Landlord.


In boxing, Panama Al Brown was a bantamweight champion in 1929; Roberto Duran became a lightweight champion in 1972 and 1978, a welterweight champion (WBC) in 1980, and a light-middleweight champion (WBA) from 1983 to 1989; Ismael Laguna was a lightweight champion in 1965 and 1970; Jorge Lujan was a bantamweight champion from 1977 to 1980; Ernesto (Nato) Marcel was featherweight champion in 1972 and retired in 1973; Eusebio Pedroza was a featherweight champion from 1978 to 1985; Enrique Pinder was a bantamweight champion (WBC) in 1972; Rigoberto Riasco was a super bantamweight champion in 1976; Hilario Zapata was a flyweight champion in 1985. Famous jockeys include Braulio Baeza, Lafitte Pincay, Heliodoro Gustines, Jorge Velasques, and Jacinto Vasquez. These jockeys have ridden at race tracks in Panama, Belmont, and Aqueduct. And in baseball, Rod Carew played in the American League.



El Diario/La Prensa.

Published Monday through Friday, since 1913, this publication has focused on general news in Spanish.

Contact: Carlos D. Ramírez, Publisher.

Address: 143-155 Varick Street, New York, New York 10013.

Telephone: (212) 807-4600.

Fax: (212) 807-4617.

Mundo Hispanico.

This publication was founded in 1979 and is published twice a month in Spanish with some English and distributed free or by subscription.

Address: P.O. Box 13808, Atlanta, Georgia 30324-0808.

Telephone: (404) 881-0441.

Fax: (404) 881-6085.


Que Pasa Panama !

Bi-monthly newsletter that updates information on Panama and the Panamanian communities in the United States and abroad.

Contact: Fulvia Jordan, Editor.

Address: 290 Lincoln Place, Suite D-2, Grand Central Station, Brooklyn, New York 11238.

Telephone: (718) 638-0862.

Fax: (718) 638-0862.


WAOS-AM (1460).

Operates sunrise to sunset.

Contact: Samuel Zamarron, President.

Address: c/o WAOS Radio, 5815 Westside Road, P.O. Box 746, Austell, Georgia 30001.

Telephone: (770) 944-6684.

Fax: (770) 944-9794.

WHCR-FM (90.3).

City College of New York (National Public Radio).

Contact: Frank Allan or Linda Prout.

Address: 138th and Convent Avenue, New York, New York 10031.

Telephone: (212) 650-7481.

WKAT-AM (1360).

This is a Latin-owned broadcast featuring community news as well as Hispanic music.

Contact: Julio Romero.

Address: 13499 Biscayne Boulevard, Suite 1, North Miami, Florida 33181.

Telephone: (305) 949-9528.

Fax: (305) 944-4788.

Organizations and Associations

Asociacion Panameno-Americana de Asistencia Social.

Address: 6081 North Kendall Drive, Miami, Florida 33156-1966.

ASPIRA Association.

Grass roots organization working to provide leadership development and educational assistance to Latino persons, thus advancing the Hispanic community.

Contact: Ronald Blackburn-Moreno, National Executive Director.

Address: 1444 I Street, N.W., Suite 800, Washington, DC 20005-2210.

Telephone: (202) 835-3600.

Fax: (202) 835-3613.

Hispanic Institute.

Address: Colombia University, 612 West 116th Street, New York, New York, 10027.

Telephone: (212) 854-4187.

Hispanic Organization of Professionals and Executives.

Address: 1625 K Street, N.W., Suite 103, Washington, D.C. 20006.

National Council of La Raza.

Founded in 1968, this Pan-Hispanic organization provides assistance to local Hispanic groups, serves as an advocate for all Hispanic Americans, and is a national umbrella organization for 80 formal affiliates throughout the United States.

Address: 810 First Street, N.E., Suite 300, Washington, D.C. 20002.

Telephone: (202) 289-1380.

Panamanian Association of the Sacramento Area.

Contact: Cecil D. Inniss.

Address: P.O. Box 1640, North Highlands, California 95660-1640.

Panamanian Social Appeal.

Contact: Lonnie M. Ritzer.

Address: 2000 Charles Center South, 36 South Charles Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21201-0000.

La Sociedad Panamena de Atlanta (Panamania Society).

Hosts a Panamanian Independence Day celebration and scholarship drive in November to provide high school scholarships for high school seniors who are Panamanian natives or of Panamanian descent.

Telephone: (404) 284-3434.

Museums and Research Centers

Circulo De Arte Latinoamericano (Latin American Art Circle).

Part of the Twentieth Century Arts Society of the High Museum of Art, it sponsors artist and events at the museum and a Latin American film festival in November.

Telephone: (404) 733-4200.

Panamanian Chamber of Commerce.

Offers membership services between the southeastern United States and Panama for commercial relationships, trade missions to Panama to meet with business and government representatives, information center for trade and business development, cultural and educational exchanges, and networking opportunities for members meeting with distributors from Latin America through the Colon Free Zone.

Address: 260 Peachtree Street, N.W., Suite 1760, Atlanta, Georgia 30303.

Sources for Additional Study

Chambers, Veronica. Mama's Girl. New York: Riverhead Books, 1996.

Dolan, Edward F. Panama and the United States: Their Canal, Their Stormy Years. New York: F. Watts, 1990.

The Encyclopedia of World Faiths, edited by P. Bishop and M. Darton. New York: Facts on File, 1989.

Focus on Panama, Volume 10, edited by K. J. Jones. Panama: Focus, 1981.

U.S. Bureau of the Census. Panamanian Population in the United States: April 1990. Washington, D.C., 1990.

Webb, S. C., et al. A Mosaic: Hispanic People in the United States (Report). New Orleans, Louisiana: Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute, Topical Research Intern Program, 1991.

Wright, Almon R. Panama: Tension's Child, 1502-1989. New York: Vantange Press, 1990.

User Contributions:

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Apr 24, 2007 @ 9:21 pm
I just wanted to say how helpful this article is. I myself am an 11 year old Panamanian girl. I don't know much about my culture and am doing a research project on really clued me in! Thanks again!
Ronald Huerta Quintero
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Jun 12, 2008 @ 7:19 pm
I'm a panamanian who is looking for a chance to stu a Master degree in linguistics in the Us or any country I'm finishing my major in English In Chitre and It is good to know that there are organizations that try to help Panamanians there. The article has been very helpful. If someone knows how I can get final aid to accomplish this goal, this would be just a dream that comes true. Y que viva viva Panamà y Ahora VIVA PANAMÁ...
Roland deCastro, Jr.
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Feb 28, 2009 @ 2:14 pm
Fantqastic article. I would like to see more information about americans that lived on Military bases and would love to move back to the the Balboa area. Do you know what the requirements and cost of housing in that area would be?
Thank you
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Jul 25, 2009 @ 4:16 pm
it was a very well written piece and i liked it very good!!!!!!!:)
jorge arauz carrera
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Sep 27, 2009 @ 8:08 am
i'm panamanian i reside in stafford,texas
thi's good information,about panama.thanks
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Oct 5, 2009 @ 3:15 pm
This is an excellent source of information on Panamanian-Americans. Little study has been done on this ever-growing sector of society. Having spent time in Panama, I know that the Panamanian people have a diverse and fascinating culture.
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Feb 13, 2010 @ 10:22 pm
I'm a Panamanian n i've been in da U.S for 30 years and i found it very helpfull. I do alot of research on Panama because i love to learn about my country. This information is a little piece of home, ad the family i haven't seen since 1980"s.
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Nov 3, 2011 @ 2:14 pm
WOW thank you so much for taking the time to write such an amazing article I'm an american/Panamanian young man who had little to no knowledge about Panama. Now i can proudly say I know what Panama is really all about.
Thank you
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Nov 4, 2011 @ 3:03 am
Thank you very much for writing this because it has been a great help to my research. Also i never knew Panamanians had so much contribution to sprots especially in Boxing. I never knew Panama could give out scholarships to Panamanian decendents thats cool, this could really help on my journey towards college. As a teenage Panamanian I can be even more proud of my roots, VIVA PANAMÁ.
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Jan 15, 2013 @ 9:09 am
I would like to know why some panamainians move to the us and why they leave their home country.
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May 23, 2014 @ 6:18 pm
This is a very thorough and helpful article. I am a third generation Panamanian Indios descendant and American citizen. It has been wonderful to learn the history, culture, values, and beliefs of my ancestors. Although I have not had the privilege of visiting Panama, I have extended family there who I know I would love to meet someday.
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Mar 12, 2015 @ 8:20 pm
Correction to 1903 treaty is known as Hay-Bunau-Varilla (not "In 1903, the United States signed the Hay-Ban-Vanilla treaty...).
Also, your citation on "getting off Ellis Island..." cuts your paragraph & splits Colonel George W. Goethals' name.
Did not complete the read, but so far, it's excellent info that I will share with my daughter & grands, in addition to panas.

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