Armando Fortune- ‘Without the Black Race, Panama Would Not be Panama’

Image thanks to the Biblioteca Nacional

Were it not for the intellectual and literary legacy of Professor Armando Fortune (1921-1979) we of the Afro Panamanian ethnic group of Panama – especially the West Indian Panamanian group- would not be celebrating Black Ethnicity month today.

With all due respect and recognition which the Honorable Claral Richards Thompson and Diputado Osman Gomez deserves, Professor Fortune, as a brilliant predecessor, fertilized the ground so that this Black Etnicity movement could occur.  We must remember the Honorable Richards Thompson and Legislator Osman Gomez were the movers and shakers behind Law # 9 of May 30, 2000 which gave El Día de la Etnia Negra a national legal basis, establishing it as a valid commemoration of the contributions of the Black race in the country of Panama.  Professor Fortune, however, was more than a brave soul.  He was a true champion for the cause of the recognition of the vital presence and role of the Black men and women in Panamanian history and culture.

Armando Fortune, whom I had the great fortune of meeting back in 1975, was born on February 16, 1921 in Panama City.  A man of humble nature, he was, nevertheless, very talented and among the multiple hats he wore he was an a secondary school teacher, an economist, a journalist, and was the private secretary of Ricardo J. Alfaro.  He was also a “tireless fighter for the recognition of the contribution of black people to Panama’s nationality.”

He was also a member of the Panamanian Academy of History and the Panamanian Academy of Language –La Academia Panameña de la Lengua.  In his passionate acceptance speech for the latter he revealed the theme that had so burned in his heart for so many years:

 “For many years, for personal reasons, we began to scrutinize Panamanian life, and immediately the black man stepped in our path.” It was natural that this should happen since without the black man Panama would not be Panama. As a human element of high regard in the total population of the isthmus, the Panamanian black not could continue to be ignored. There was a need to study this factor of Panama’s national identity.  But, it was something rare until then since no one had studied it with the detail and objectivity that this group deserved, and it seemed that no one wanted to study it; rather, the intention was to hide this group, and that even the same black person, and especially the Mulato, wanted to forget himself, ‘a truly sad case of the phenomenon of self deprecation’ as Dr. Fernando Ortíz would say, and so, in this way, forget his past, just as sometimes the leper hides from others the misfortune of his condition.”

In this manner we begin this series with the reserved and unpretentious figure of Professor Armando Fortune, one of the most overlooked of Panama’s intellectuals despite his extraordinary brilliance.  In our next installment we hope to develop Professor Fortune’s unique concept – “Panama is a sancocho.”

This story continues.

7 responses to “Armando Fortune- ‘Without the Black Race, Panama Would Not be Panama’

  1. Pingback: From The Silver People Chronicle | Travel Panama News

  2. Roberto R Sinclair

    It is very sad, that in panama the black man tries to hide his very rich heritage, through my life I have seen how brilliant black men show their ignorance in trying to hide their color or their heritage behind a title that they have, thanks to the sacrifice of their black mother or black father. It is time for them to realize that their blackness does not disappear with their title or their money. When you are born black you die black and that should be a matter of pride not shame. Remember “Black is Beautiful”.

  3. Mr. Sinclair,

    I couldn’t agree with you more. Many of these brilliant men (and women) live here in Panama and/or come down to visit every year to touch base with the land of their birth but, you can’t really say much to them. Some of them have even scorned our blogs because they feel we are dwelling in the past- a past they wish to forget. Poor saps! What they are missing, and probably will never realize is that your present and future hinges on your past, your history and all the people who made up that history. Thank you for stopping by.

  4. Louis Emanuel

    Few years ago while at a forum on black solidarity the main speaker whom spoke with authority at the Continental hotel in Panama city, of the three ethnic groups of blacks in this country. The first, whom were here before the so called conquistadores. The second group whom were brought as slaves by the spaniards. The last group whom came from the West Indies to build the Panama railroad, and almost half a century later, to build the canal. After the forum was over I approached the main speaker and inquired about the first group mentioned. What can you tell me about that group. How did they arrive to this continent?

    • Louis Emanuel:
      The first large groups of West Indian Blacks to reach the shores of Colon Panama, were recorded to have been attracted by the offers of work to not only clear the way for a railroad but also to aid in assisting tourists coming from the East coast of United States who were really interested in getting across the jungle to the beach front to take boats to the West coast of a place called California to dig for precious Gold (the 49’ers going to pan for Gold). For there were no trains as yet reaching that coast. Read up on the Indian Wars in the USA.

  5. Thomas Bright

    Actually, the first group of blacks the speaker mentioned were not West Indian blacks at all. The first group of blacks that arrived in Panama arrived there in the mid-1490s, before the white man ever stepped foot on Panamanian soil. These were escaped black slaves who rebelled and overtook the slave ship they were being brought in to the Americas. The ship landed somewhere along the northeastern Venezuelan shores. These black men then made their way west into the Darien jungles to escape the Spanish Conquistadors. They befriended the Native Americans and settled in Palenques deep in the Darien jungles. These escaped slaves also mixed with the Natives, giving birth to the Garifuna people who to this day inhabit the western coast of Central America from Belize through Costa Rica. In Panama the descendants of the escaped slaves tormented the Spaniards by raiding them constantly to steal the gold they tried to take across the Las Cruces trail from Panama City to Portobelo. There were many great leaders among them. One whose name is still heard to this day was Bayano. This is what makes Panama the one country in the Americas that was discovered by Africans before the Europeans.

    • Thomas,

      Please focus on the topic and the theme in question. We are talking about the movement of the “West Indians” of Panama, not the Blacks per se. Just a correction of your correction. Prof. Fortune studied the subject of Panama’s black people long before any of us were born and gathered substantial research material on this whole topic which, by the way, he donated to us. As stated in the article, he was never really recognized for all his work and writings by the academic community of Panama, i.e. The University of Panama.