The Problem of Culture in Panama

This is a sample cartelera from a Latin American tour. Image from

Right now I am involved in workshops at the National Assembly’s Commission on Education, Culture and Sports to hammer out a law (Proyecto de Ley #416) that would transform our beleaguered and under-funded INAC (Instituto Nacional de Cultura) into a full Ministry.  It was long overdue in my opinion.

I agreed to participating in these workshops because I remembered my youthful days of school marching bands and the weak attempts of the government schools at providing a modicum of music appreciation when, admittedly, there was no legal or social infrastructure to nourish our national culture.  This is the basic problem of culture in Panama.

This is Armando Boza and his original La Perfecta. He is the standing figure in the middle. Image thanks to

All of us who have survived from the late 40’s and 50’s remember that there was a lot of music and dance in Panama’s popular culture but most of it was imported from Spain and Latin America, and even the jazz from North America that I loved so much couldn’t be considered either local or highbrow culture although some of Latin America’s musical legends like Beny More and Armando Boza incorporated jazz rhythms into their music.

From time to time during our boring school day the teacher took us or let us out of class to roam the school usually to listen to a performance of the National Philharmonic. There were also the rare events we were treated to through presentations by foreign entertainers usually followed by some instructive movie involving health themes like preventing venereal disease, etc.

It was during this period of time (early 1950’s) that we kids from the barrios for the first time would have an opportunity to see live shows at the Olympic Stadium- for free. It was the first time that we would witness actual public or governmental support of culture in Panama; a time when the mass of people and their children could say they had enjoyed a genuine classical music concert or a ballet or, for instance Holiday on Ice, without having to pay for it.

Racism and social exclusion, however, would continue to dictate who could be part of the development of culture in Panama.  Being barred from the National Conservatory had effectively discouraged me from ever asking again and then there was the exclusion of us barrio kids from entering the public swimming pool, from which we were rudely discouraged from entering.

The swimming pool is still on Avenida Peru, one of the only Olympic swimming pools in the country.  We colored kids of the Barrios, who were brave enough to aspire to learn to swim, would hang around hoping someone would organize a class. If we even succeeded in being admitted we would then be met with the cold and mocking looks of the little white kids and straight out told that we “could not swim there.”

This story will continue.

6 responses to “The Problem of Culture in Panama

  1. Say what they want to say about the military, but during those days, Panamanian culture flourushed and I can remember many fabulous musical bands and singers, homeborn and internationally renowed entertaining us right there in Panama.
    It is amazing now that the very people the Panamanian elite has invited to live in Panama is now criticizing Panama all over the internet, for according to them, Panama has no culture.
    The blame lies in the powers that be in Panama whom apparently live in another world altogether right there in he Republic Panama.
    The same way they have no vested interest in promoting Panamanian Sports, there is also none in encouraging the Arts.
    What a profound stifled and stunted nation my beloved Panama has become.
    Panama is going backward as fast as the speed of light.
    It is apparent that the Conquistadores have never left Latin America.

    • Ana,

      In all fairness, there are some of us right here in the Republic who are, as it were, the voice crying in the wilderness and working toward making some changes in this attitude. The steps are slow but determined and we will probably see more change down here than in the U.S.’s continual step backward.

  2. castalia x. prados

    to me the americans are still here check the people living in coronado and in boquete and all the call centers and negocios donald truimp is booming panama whe was ask why panama did you hear is awnser

    • Hi Castalia,

      Thank you for stopping by and leaving a comment. We have noticed the same things here in Panama. Looks like “they” are still here.

  3. CobraLady, I applaud your efforts; however I don’t understand your comment about the “U.S.’ continual step backward”, and just who do mean by “they”. Those of us born in the Canal Zone and Panama of US parents are as Panamanian as you and have as much right to live there. I do not understand your hostility.

  4. Renaldo ricketts

    Panama pays lip service to Blacks of West Indian decent, it’s all a smoke screen, until we publicize the truth and expose Panama as a racist country they’ll continue the practice of benign neglect. Please don’t get your hopes up. The Panamanian gov has ostracized Black people from the West Indies. They still refer to you as “Chombos” i.e. Nigger. They have simply eliminated you from history. You don’t even exist in the history books and the “zone ” where you lived has no landmark denoting your presence. Wake up and smell reality they are TAKING YOU FOR A KNEEGROW ride yah a mere a silly bride at the altar. You’ve fallen for the pana okie doke!@