The Evolution of Panama’s Black Ethnicity Day Celebration

Some groups of teachers and students proudly display their Etnia Negra fashion.

As the month of May approaches, we want to divert our attention momentarily from our chronicle and focus on the coming Black Ethnicity Day Celebrations here in Panama.

Although the undeniable presence of the Black African race has been genealogically, culturally and linguistically evident in Panama since before it became a Republic, it is only recently that real attempts have been made to recognize it in a significant way.

Panama, with its large scale “mestizaje”- mixture of races- has acted as a stage for the meeting and mixing of basically two groups of Africans, those who were here since colonial times, the Afro-Coloniales, and the Black Westindians (the Afro-Antilleans, as they are identified in our country) who began arriving in large numbers during the California Gold Rush/Panama Railroad construction days of 1849.

Panama, however, has always taken a very negating attitude towards its Black population and it has only been in recent years that it has yielded to pressure to not only recognize its population of African descent but to measure and value it.

A small step was taken with the passage of Law #9, which was signed into law by President Mireya Moscoso back in the year 2000.  A Commission was created appointing May 30 as the official celebration day commemorating “Panama’s National Black Ethnicity.”  As we’ve stated in our article “Black Ethnicity Day Celebration,” however,

the original idea for this celebration, in fact, had been born from the inspiration and vision of one of Panama’s native sons born in the Province of Chiriqui, in the area of Arena of the district of Puerto Armuelles. The Honorable Claral Richards Thompson, an afro Panamanian champion discus thrower during the First National games in the year of 1955 in which he represented the Republic of Panama, also represented the country as a baseball pitcher, having signed a contract with the San Francisco Giants in their minor league as a professional ball player. This outstanding athlete, up and until the date of his retirement, was also a supervisor for the United Fruit Company in the area.

Why May 30th ?  This day in particular was chosen because on May 30, 1820, the King of Spain, Ferdinand VII, declared the abolition of the slave trade in Spain and all its colonies due to pressures exerted by blacks who were part of the National Assembly of France during its revolutionary period at the time.

As originally conceived, the Commission would coordinate a series of cultural activities during this period in order to provide a sampling of the dances, cuisine, music and linguistic expression that characterizes the community of African descent in Panama.  It aimed to draw attention to the cultural contribution of the black groups who arrived in Panama during the colonial period and to develop an investigative spirit of the historical type with regards to many truths and experiences lived by Blacks in the Republic of Panama.

We, at The Silver People Heritage Foundation envision a broader view of Black Ethnicity Celebration in our proud country since our Westindian forefathers (and many of us descendants today) played a very important role in making Panama what it is today.  We’ve undertaken to amplify the study and valorization of the heritage of our ancestors to place them on Panama’s cultural and historical map in a dignified manner worthy of their legacy.

This story continues.

24 responses to “The Evolution of Panama’s Black Ethnicity Day Celebration

  1. Daniel Webster

    I just bought the book The Canal Builders. I have not read it. Do you have any thoughts on this book?

  2. Renaldo Manuel Ricketts

    This is a plutocratic “Repubic”- it’s about the preservation of the old. The US gov. weaves a very complex game lined with deception and fractional truths. Your only weapon is information; read baby read! As the great Frederick Douglass said “power concedes nothing without demand.” So, if you sit on yah ass night after night and …watch TV and do nothing then you’re demanding to be kicked in the ass daily. People have to get up off their asses and dance to liberation. TV is not an active participant revolution which is internal. It starts in your soul and manifests itself in your actions.

    Reading frees your mind, the chains of ignorance will never enslave a developed mind. They count on your negligence of self. Become aware of your history and their history. The lies told are unfolded once you seek truth. The truth is like a blade of grass it will crack concrete and bend steel. Look at your sidewalks. Why does that blade of grass frighten concrete and why does it concede to the power of nature? The truth goes marching on .

  3. Renaldo,
    Reading does free you and I absolutely agree about the chains of ignorance not being able to enslave a developed mind. As you have discovered by reading our blog, the information we are providing is vital to beginning your journey towards knowledge of self.


  4. I agree with everything Renaldo said. A lot of us are caught up with the Hispanic background of Panama. We are the only blacks in the Americas that are wearing the clothes that the people who once called us Chombo and took away our parents’ citizenship.

    You never seen a Afro Cuban wearing any Guajiro clothing like we do with Polleras and Montunos. That is not our culture.

    • Kenny,

      I remember my mother dressing us up in Pollera and Montuno and also dressing us up one Christmas and Carnaval in an American Cowboy outfit which they purchased from the Sears Catalog. My little sister was always given a white faced, blond haired Shirley Temple doll. Are we supposed to hate white people in the USA for that? But that is not our culture either. We ARE Panamanian. We were born in this land where OUR forefathers dug the Canal, almost all by themselves.

      So, we are, at this very moment, making culture and we are not Afro-Cuban, Afro-American, Afro-Colombian, Afro-Dominican or Afro-Puerto Rican- we are Afro-Panamanian descended of West Indian Silver People with our own distinct culture, music, and other things yet to be developed.


    • Donna Kirton

      Yes Ken Thomas. I would love to see your photo. My grandfather Huntley Wallace and my grand-uncle Oswald Wallace were the owners and photographers of Foto Wallace.

  5. Yes Roberto. I am all that too. I am not a racist but I am proud to be a black man. I am not Hispanic. I too have a child hood photo taken at Foto Wallace decked out in a Montuno. My wife and I traveled to Ghana and Senegal to visit the Castle at Elmina and Gpree Island in Senegal and I am satisfied and at peace with my blackness. I am not now or ever been a racist. When I am in the West Indies I see nothing but blacks being black. Pa que tu lo sepa te doy la razon. Kenny

  6. Roberto,
    Too many people talk about African culture and know nothing about it. The pollera, cumbia and the tamborito all are connected to African people.

    Years ago I taught at a school and presented a lecture on the Panama canal to my fellow teachers, and at the end of the workshop, I had a video tape on Panamanian dances- the cumbia tamborito and the bullerengue.

    At the end of the presentation my colleagues, mostly whites told me up front that they heard the sounds of Africa in the cumbia, tamborito and the bullerengue.

    White Americans are not like Latinos who believe that it is possible to hide Africa when she is all over the place.

    Some Panamanians(black and whatever) are the only ones who cannot see the great and extent of African influence in Panamanian traditions.

    Also I would like to explain to to Ken Thomas that every aspect of Cuban culture has African influences. Hasta los guajiros. Just imagine the first set of guajiros were black people, similar with the gauchos in Argentina, the jibaros in Puerto Rico and the cowboys of North America. Just because they are seen today as non-whites does not negate the historical link they had with black people.

    There are some Panamanians of West Indian descent who believe that black Panamanians should not dance tamborito, but often these people are not even familiar with Panamanian culture.

    I do not know of any culture throughout the entire Americas(North, South, Central and the Caribbean) where African traditions do not exist, blended in, or standing strong. This is the nature of Africa.

    It is not easy to rub out Africa from any place. Once She (Africa) is, or was there, she remains there forever. De verdad, para siempre.


    • Ana:
      It is always refreshing to see you mention some of the work that you have done as an educator. But we must always remember that white Americans are no different from other people when the race issue pertains to our Black race. It might be that some of our messages are getting through or even that the times are taking its toll on the way most people all over the globe are used to seeing us as an African Race.

      Because one would have believed that native (Indigenous) people would all embrace the suffering people of the earth, as we blacks have been throughout our history. But, not all of them do, whether north or south especially on this continent. So we must continue to pray and labor to see such a a day.

  7. Hello Ana, I know that the Cumbia is African. I never heard the others.
    The Guajiros are the Gallegos that were sent to Cuba by the Spanish
    gov’t because the slaves had become the majority. In the Mejorana I hear the Blues. All I am saying is that I am an African born in the Americas. My Grandfather’s Sister whom I met in Brooklyn told me that their parents were Nigerian slaves brought to Barbados and that they were Yoruba. Ecua Hey!

  8. Hey Dude,
    I sent you a message on Tito Marshall. Did you get it? Tito was a rated top ten Junior Middleweight and fought and beat a lot of good boxers.

    He always traveled alone, no trainer, no managers and always had to look out for himself. Raton is the director of the Bombero Band. Check him out and see if that is the Raton you are inquiring about.

  9. Hey Kenny:
    I really didn’t know this about Tito Marshall. The times that I saw him was at some Panamanian dance in Brooklyn , I had recently been around after getting my discharge from the Air Force in 1962, so I had to really rely on the layad, Jaslyn McC. About that boy. After that day I never ran into him again and remember only seeing him while I was at the M. Garden selling Panamanian flags for Duran first fight there.

  10. Roberto:
    I was only speaking about those white teachers I worked with at that time. I know pretty well that some Anglo Americans are as close minded as a door that cannot be opened.
    My problem is with some people from Latin America who are so confused about their own history that they have created stories that do not exist.
    Kenny, Guajiro is a peasant from Cuba. Guajiro is a countryman and countrywoman, a farmer or peasant, a campesino. Many blacks and whites in Cuba share a farming tradition.There is an extensive culture that is Guajiro in Cuba.
    Argentina had a sizeable black population in the past that was decimated with the war with Paraguay.During the colonial period, Argentina had many black people living there. As a matter of fact the Argentinian government sent black men to fight that war. This is why today you hardly see any black people in Argentina .
    The remaiming Black women intermarried with many of the European immigrants and this is how the black race practically disappeared from Argentina.

    The early gauchos were black cowboys who roamed the pampas . Many workrd as hired workers for the haciendas.

    And we also know the jibaros are Puerto Rican peasants.

    Latin Americans have a tendency to explain and interpret the culture as entirely coming from Spain when the truth is, Indigenous and African cultures are very strong all over there.

    And too many people believe that if the people in a region does not look entirely African or Indigenous then there cannot be African and Indigenous traditions there.

    • Ana:
      Por favor, you shouldn’t have any problem with people from Latin America. Because their problem is still today the purging of fascism from their system of thought; and even though they have fashioned some kind of “Democracy” in all their countries, it still smell of racist fascism.

      Entonces, my thoughts are always reverting to the fact that we, the Silver People of Panama, have a long way to go in recovering the vestiges of our own culture and history from the rubble of a systematic dismantlement. Then how do we expect to deal with a people with whom we have not, still today banded together to offer coherent rebuttals. Our forefathers did try to get them to unite as one people of the working class, to fight the virtual slavery they all as laborers suffered, but to no avail. Today, we also have taken up the banter and are hoping to see the day of unity and not of division, forcing out fascist racism from getting in the way of racial unity.


  11. I would like to hear from people who had a photo taken of them or of family members by “Foto Wallace”, which was my grandfather Huntley and my granduncle Oswald. I would like to hear stories about your experiences at their studio. My grandpa passed away in 1974 and my granduncle in 2007

  12. Interesting read, especially all the comments. I just met a woman who is from Panama, who was EXTREMELY offended when someone assumed she was black. She insists that she’s Hispanic. But I’m here to tell you, she’s black. I came across this article as I was researching African influence on Panama. Apparently she is one of the many “Panamanians(black and whatever) [who] are the only ones who cannot see the great and extent of African influence in Panamanian traditions.” Thanks for the insight.

  13. Faunbon,
    Your comment brought a smile to my face. Before I ever met my husband, who is the born Panamanian, I met and got to know maybe 3 Panamanians in New York. All three were black, 2 from Colon. From them I arrived at the conclusion that Panamanians were all black, very well educated, eloquent in 2 languages, artistic, fun and very intelligent. After living in Panama for all these many years, I feel that the African influence is what really has made them so unique. They, for the most part, deny their link to Africa or at least down play it and this is a very sad mistake. After everyone in the world comes to the realization that the link to Africa has enriched them greatly, the Panamanians will sadly remain behind.

  14. Norma Broome

    Mr. Reid


    What can you tell me about the Museo Antillano
    was it re located, is there anything new. I, have a few
    relative at Corozal Cemetary hope to find grave site.
    I, am very proud of black Panamanians they are making
    great progress just has a slow start.

    Norma Broome

  15. Norma,
    Thank you for writing in. The Museo Afro Antillano is still there where it has always been except that the construction of the Metro (subway) has the area around it blocked off from much of the foot traffic making it hard to access. This is supposed to be a temporary thing until that Metro station is completed.
    In regards to Corozal Cemetery, if you’ve been keeping up, our Law to declare Silver Corozal- where your relatives and mine are buried- Mount Hope and Gatun Cemeteries National Patrimony has just passed last week into being the law of the land. This will help us the descendants demand protection for our ancestral burial grounds.

    We need financial contributions, even small ones, from all those who are able to carry forward our program to get these cemeteries restored, preserved and provided with perpetual care for our posterity and the world. This is a humongous responsibility and we need your support, so please help us by using the Donation button or send us a check.

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  18. Hello,

    Would anyone have a picture of my granddad’s Huntley Wallace and GrandUncle Oswald Wallace’s studio – Foto Wallace in Caledonia?
    Any submissions would be greatly appreciated. Thank you