PRONUNCIATION: pah-nuh-MAY-nee-uhns


POPULATION: 2.6 million

LANGUAGE: Spanish; English; native Indian languages

RELIGION: Roman Catholicism; Protestantism; Islam; small numbers of Jews, Hindus, and Baha'is


Panama first made an impact on world history in 1513 when Spanish explorer Vasco Nuñez de Balboa crossed the isthmus (narrow strip of land) of Panama and discovered the Pacific Ocean. Geography made Panama strategically valuable to the Spanish Empire, particularly for shipping gold and silver from Peru. Panama declared its independence from Spain in 1821 and became part of Colombia.

The discovery of gold in California in 1848 changed Panama forever. Hundreds of thousands of fortune seekers from Europe and the eastern United States travelled through Panama. For them, the isthmus crossing was the fastest route to the gold fields. A rail line was built to speed them on their way. In the 1880s the French tried, but failed, to build a canal across the isthmus. When Colombia refused to allow the United States to take over the project, Panama declared its independence from Colombia, with U.S. backing, in 1903. The Panama Canal was completed in 1914. The United States was granted "in perpetuity" (continuously) a 5-mile (8-kilometer) strip on either side of the canal.

Before long, Panamanians were demanding a revision of the treaty that, in effect, cut their nation in two. A settlement was finally reached in 1977. The United States agreed to return the Canal Zone to Panama in 1979. It was also agreed that the canal itself would be returned to Panama at the beginning of the year 2000.

Relations between Panama and the United States plummeted again in 1988. Panama's dictator, General Manuel Antonio Noriega, was charged in U.S. courts with drug traficking. In December 1989, 23,000 U.S. troops landed in Panama City, seizing Noriega and installing a new government.


Panama is a little smaller than the state of South Carolina. It occupies the narrowest part of the American mainland separating the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Heavily forested mountain ranges form the spine of the country. The Panama Canal runs through a gap in these mountains. There are also more than 1,600 islands off the shores of the mainland. The climate is tropical except at mountain elevations, and rainfall is heavy.

Panama has a varied racial composition. More than two-thirds of its people are mestizo (of mixed blood), including Indian, European, and African ancestry. A smaller number are white or black. The blacks are descendants of migrants from the British West Indies who helped construct the railway and canal, and who worked on banana plantations. The Indian population is mostly Guaymí, Cuna, and Chocó. There are also significant numbers of Chinese, Asian Indians (from India), and Arabs.


Spanish is the official and almost universally spoken language. Panamanian Spanish is spoken very rapidly in a distinctive accent. It includes a great deal of slang and many distinctive words. English is the first language of some of the Blacks who are descended from West Indians. It is widely spoken and understood in the world of business. It is also the required second language in schools. The Indian groups still speak their own languages, as do immigrants from many parts of the world.


Many peasants believe that on All Souls' Day (November 2), those who died during the previous year are summoned before God and the Devil for judgment. There are two types of curanderos (folk healers). One is the herbal-medicine practitioner, who also may cure by praying and making the sign of the cross over the patient. The other is the hechicero (sorcerer), who uses secret potions. The witch (bruja) is an evil old woman possessed by the Devil. Witches can change themselves into animals, especially deer, but only some witches can fly. To avoid harm from witches, one should turn a piece of clothing inside out. Also to be feared are black dogs and black cats and the chivato, an evil animal spirit.

There are numerous other spirits, including duendos (fairies). A red shirt on a newborn wards off evil, as does a necklace of the teeth of jaguars or crocodiles. Infants gain protection by being bathed in water in which certain leaves and plants have been steeped. Panamanian folklore is perhaps best expressed in the nation's many festivals, during which folk dramas and dances are performed.


More than 80 percent of Panamanians are Roman Catholic. Protestants and Muslims (followers of Islam) account for about another 5 percent each. Some religious practice is a required for complete integration into Panama society. As elsewhere in Latin America, women are the mainstay of the church. In addition to churches and mosques, Panama City has a Jewish synagogue and Hindu and Baha'i temples.


Carnival is celebrated on the four days before Ash Wednesday (in February). In Panama City, the festivities include music, dancing, costumes, and a big Mardi Gras parade. Carnival comes to an end at dawn on Ash Wednesday with a mock ceremony called the "Burial of the Sardine." Holy Week (late March or early April) also is marked by costumed dances and drama, and by Good Friday processions.

Portobelo's Festival of the Black Christ, on October 21, draws pilgrims to a life-size statue said to have miraculous powers. Similar is the pilgrimage to the shrine of Jesus of Nazareth in Atalaya on the first Sunday of Lent. Each town has a yearly fiesta in honor of its patron saint.

The chief secular holidays are November 3 and 28, which commemorate Panama's independence from Colombia and Spain, respectively. Mother's Day, which falls on the day of the Immaculate Conception (December 8) in the church calendar, is also a national holiday, reverently observed.


Baptism is absolutely necessary for Panama's Catholics. It is believed that fairies, witches, or the Devil can carry away a child who is not baptized. First Communion is generally observed only by the middle and upper classes. A country boy receives his first machete (swordlike knife) at the age of seven or eight. This is an early symbol of machismo, the spirit of male assertiveness common to Hispanic America.

The street is the playground for lower-class urban youth, who also may join a padilla (gang). Girls are more closely supervised. A girl's fifteenth birthday is an important event. In well-off families it is marked by a debut with a reception and dance.


Like other Hispanic Americans, Panamanians greet friends and relatives more demonstratively than is the custom in the United States. Common among men is the abrazo (embrace), particularly if they have not seen each other for some time. Acquaintances will shake hands both on meeting and departing. Women often embrace and kiss on one or both cheeks. People are likely to stand closer to one another in conversation than is common in North America.


The basic peasant dwelling in Panama is the rancho or quincha. It is a hut supported by poles, with walls of palm fronds, cane, clay, or boards. The thatched roof is of palm fronds or grass. Neighbors gather to help build these houses. Houses in town are often of cement block, with a tile roof. The urban poor usually live in overcrowded, decaying two-story frame houses with tin roofs. Migrants from rural areas often settle in squatter communities (on lands or in housing to which they have no rights and for which they pay no rent) on the urban outskirts. There are high-rise apartment buildings in Panama City.

Panama, Costa Rica, and Belize are more prosperous than the other Central American countries. In the early 1990s, 80 percent or more of the people had access to health care services, safe water, and adequate sanitation.


The nuclear family of parents and children is central in Panama. The average household has three children. Wider kinship relations are essential, however. The extended family provides economic support in a society where the larger community cannot be counted on for help. Married children may visit their parents every day, and grandparents, uncles and aunts, and cousins routinely gather together on Sundays, holidays, and birthdays. Godparents are additional support for families. They are expected to take a lifelong interest in their godchild's welfare, as well as to provide gifts on special occasions.

Church and civil marriage are both legal. Formal marriage is not the rule outside the middle and upper classes. Most new couples merely take up residence in a new home. Well over half of Panama's children are born from unstable, short-term unions. There is little social disapproval of illegitimacy. Many households are headed by a woman. In contrast to men, women are expected to be gentle, long-suffering, forgiving and, above all, devoted to their children.


Peasant clothing has traditionally consisted of simple cotton garments, homemade sandals, and handwoven straw hats. More recently rural folk have begun to adopt urban dress, much like the summertime clothing in North America.

By contrast, there is a wealth of costume displayed at the nation's many fiestas. The spectacular pollera, the national costume for women, is perhaps the most beautiful traditional apparel in Latin America. It consists of an embroidered two-piece dress with an off-the-shoulder neckline, hand-made lace and petticoats, gold chains around the neck, flowers and jewelry in the hair, and satin slippers. The far simpler and more rustic men's montuno is of Indian origin. It is made of unbleached muslin embroidered in bright colors, and consists of a long fringed shirt, short trousers, sandals, and a true Panama hat: braided, not woven.

12 • FOOD

Unlike other Central American countries (except Belize), rice is at least as important as corn in Panama. A basic breakfast is guacho, rice mixed with red beans. Meat, yams, yucca, and other ingredients can be added for a more filling meal. Cornmeal is used for tortillas, tamales, and empanadas (like tamales but fried). Lechona (suckling pig) is wedding fare. Carima–ola is yucca root fried and wrapped around seasoned ground meat. Panama's bountiful seafood catch yields many dishes. Roasted iguana, tapir, and monkey are treats in the remote forested areas.


Panama's literacy rate (percentage of adults who are able to read and write) approached 90 percent in 1990. Public education is free between the ages of six and fifteen, and six years of primary school are required. Most children attend primary school, and about half go on to secondary school. School attendance is higher than in most other Central American countries. Panama has three universities.


Panama has two traditional song forms, both of Spanish origin: the copla, sung by women, and the mejorana, sung by men and accompanied by the small native guitar of the same name. The saloma is a male song style with yodeling and falsetto. Blacks sing calypso, and the Cuna and Chocó have their own songs which are sung to the accompaniment of flutes. Panama has a national symphonic orchestra and a national school of music.

The most popular folk dance, the tamborito, is of African origin. Drums furnish the rhythmic background, while female voices sing to the melody. Couples dance one at a time within a circular area. Panama has a rich variety of folk dances.

Costumed folk dramas are performed at festivals. In Los Montezumas, the confrontation of the Spanish and Aztecs in Mexico is acted out. Los Grandiablos, a dance-drama, portrays Lucifer and his band of devils in battle with the Archangel Michael for the possession of a soul.

Important Panamanian poets have included Dário Herrera (1870–1914) and Ricardo Miró (1888–1940). Panamanian painters have included Roberto Lewis (1874–1949) and Humberto Ivaldi (1909–47). Among composers have been Narciso Garay (1876–1953), Roque Cordero, and Gonzalo Brenes.


Most important to Panama's economy are government services, commerce, and agriculture. Traditional subsistence farmers (who grow their own food but have little or no surplus for marketing) are being displaced by cattle ranchers. Other peasants find seasonal work on banana, sugar, and coffee plantations. Most factory jobs are in food processing. Panama has become one of the major international banking centers in the Americas. The Colón Free Zone is the world's second-most important duty-free trading zone (Hong Kong ranks first).


Baseball is Panama's most popular sport. A number of Panamanians have played in the North American major leagues. Panama-born Rod Carew (b.1945) is in baseball's Hall of Fame. There have also been several Panamanian boxing champions, including Roberto Durán (b.1951). Swimming, fishing, hunting, and horseback riding are popular. Panama City has horse racing.

Bullfighting in Panama is merely teasing, in which participants annoy the beast while avoiding danger. It is performed at festivals. Cockfights, accompanied by betting, are popular throughout the country. Cuna and Guaymí Indians hold pole-tossing contests. Children play a game like marbles with cashew seeds.


For rural people, festivals are still the high points of the year. These include agricultural fairs, in which a queen is crowned, judges pick prize-winning animals, and carnival rides draw youngsters. Traditional forms of live entertainment, however, are giving way to the lure of discos, movies, and television. By law, all foreign-language movies must be subtitled in Spanish. Panama City has many nightclubs and more than twenty gambling casinos.


Handicraft articles include baskets, straw hats, net and saddle bags, hammocks, straw mats, gourds, woodcarvings, and masks. Most pottery is dark red and dull-finished. Molas are colorful handstitched appliqué. Georgina Linares is known for her paintings on leather.


There is a serious street-crime problem in urban slums. Domestic violence against women is widespread. According to official 1994 statistics, one-fifth of all families do not have enough money for a minimum diet, and a further one-fourth cannot meet their basic needs. The nation's forests are being reduced at an alarming rate, and soil erosion is a serious problem.


Adams, Richard N. Cultural Surveys of Panama, Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras . Detroit: B. Ethridge, 1976.

Biesanz, Richard, and Mavis Biesanz. The People of Panama . New York: Columbia University Press, 1955.

Cheville, Lila R., and Richard A. Cheville. Festivals and Dances of Panama . Privately printed in Panama, 1977.


World Travel Guide. Panama. [Online] Available , 1998.

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