The culture, customs, and language of the Panamanians are predominantly Caribbean Spanish. Ethnically, the majority of the population (70%) is mestizo (mixed Spanish and Indian) or mixed Spanish, Indian, Chinese, and West Indian.
Back in Colonial times the Spanish permitted the integration of the indigenous tribes, black African slaves and white Europeans, creating a very unique, special blend of cultures and physical characteristics.
These distinct features are well represented throughout Panama, most notably among the creollos and mulattos. In fact, there is a commonly repeated expression, which when translated into English, reads "the best thing that the Spanish left on our soil were the mulattas". Their beauty and sensuality that results from the delicate union between blacks and whites is very noticeable.
A melting pot of races, in Panama one can find food and traditions of almost any country. Over the years the various communities of immigrants have created important commercial centres like the Colon Free Zone and the Banking District, where together they work: Arabs, Panamanians, Jews, Americans, Chinese, Hindus, and Japanese, each with one thing in common; born in Panama.
More recently Middle Eastern people, Swiss, Yugoslavs and North Americans have also added to this diverse cultural mix due to Panama's unique location and history as a crossroads of the world.
from the US and Canada also add to the pot in the winter months!
The indigenous population of Panama comprises approximately 6% of the population and is composed of 7 distinct groups which are the Kuna, Embera, Waounan, Ngobe, Bugle, Nassau, and Terribe people.
Miss Panama 2008
The ‘elite’ and moneyed classes in Panama
The urban Creole upper class, known as the rabiblancos ("white butts"), mingles socially with Americans, Spaniards, Italians, and the oldest segment of the Jewish community, the Sephardic Jews, who came to the country in the 1890s.
The upper middle class are made up of prosperous merchants from the small Hindu and Chinese community as well as members of the professions and shopkeepers.
People from the interiorano community, other mestizos, and some blacks have also risen to wealth and prominence through the professions, government, and business and services. However these people do not intermarry with the old elite however. The large urban middle classes consist of interioranos, mestizos, blacks, and educated Indians, especially Kunas.
Class division is not rigid, and the elite are not resented. It is closely linked to the symbols of the republic through its descent from illustrious ancestors and the founding fathers of independence from Spain and Colombia, many of whom have streets named after them.
Interestingly there has been some new wealthy blood on the block recently with a surge in Venezuelans entering Panama. It is estimated that about 15,000 of them settled in Panama just in 2006 and fearing their left wing President Chavez will shape Venezuela in into a highly Communist regime like Cuba, wealthy Venezuelans are emigrating and buying luxury property in Panama in increasing numbers
The Poor in Panama
The indigenous peoples of Panama are the poorest of the poor, especially one group, the Ngobe-Bugle. The other indigenous communities live in similar conditions, but the Ngobe-Bugle are the most mistreated and most marginalized. Over 95%of residents of indigenous areas (197,003 people) fall below the poverty line and 86% live in extreme poverty.
In the words of Father Conrado Sanjur ‘in addition to racial discrimination, (the tribes) suffer a denial of their right to self-determination and to the lands on which they live. The land is closely linked to the culture and social organization of indigenous communities, as is the environment. It's not only a question about the right to work the land, but about the right to live in harmony and unity with the natural environment’.
Schooling of the indigenous people is mostly left to church missionaries who try and convert them from their traditional religions. Sound like they have found themselves between a rock and a hard place!
Although poverty is not as widespread or as deep in urban areas (15% of the urban population) as in the rural areas, Panama's cities account for an important share of the poor (232,000) of which close to 40% of the urban poor (over 90,000 people) live in the Panama City - San Miguelito area.
Traditional crafts include the colorful Mola, Tagua nut carvings, Wounaan and Embera woven baskets, balsa and cocobolo wood carvings, and pottery. The sale of native crafts to tourists has increased and helps to support the needs of the villages and native people. Indian influences dominate handicrafts such as the famous Kuna textile molas. Artist Roberto Lewis' Presidential Palace murals and his restoration work and ceiling in the National Theater are well known and admired.
Panama is rich in folklore and popular traditions taken from all over the place. Brightly colored national dress is worn during local festivals and the pre-Lenten carnival season, especially for traditional folk dances like the tamborito. Local music combines African drums with European lyrics and guitar playing.
Lively salsa, a mixture of Latin American popular music, rhythm and blues, jazz, and rock is a Panamanian specialty, and Ruben Blades (now the minister for tourism) its best-known performer. Spanish is the official and dominant language; English is a common second language spoken by the West Indians and by many in business and the professions.
As for religion, Roman Catholics account for 85% of the population and Protestants 15%. Life expectancy, what ever your belief, is nearly 79 for women and 73 years old for men.
In terms of occupation, agriculture now only accounts for 20.8% of the population, industry 18% and the service sector employs the remaining 61.2%. The GDP per capita is around $6,500.More than half the 3.3 million population lives in the Panama City-Colon metropolitan corridor.
More than 65,000 Panamanian students attend the University of Panama, the Technological University, and the University of Santa Maria La Antigua, a private Catholic institution. Including smaller colleges, there are 14 institutions of higher education in Panama. The first 6 years of primary education are compulsory, and there are about 357,000 students currently enrolled in grades one through six. The total enrollment in the six secondary grades is about 207,000. Nearly 91% of Panamanians are literate.
Fashion & Clothing Etiquette
These days in Panama City you can see belly shirts and piercings, and even some tattoos. Generally though dress code is still a bit more conservative than in the US or Europe.
If you see someone in jeans and a t shirt in the mall it's probably a foreigner (or any type of safari tropical wear is the sure sign of a tourist!). If a Panamanian woman wears jeans it will be with high heeled shoes rather than sneakers.
Generally everyone dresses up more in Panama; the European influence of dressing to go out is still in place here, i.e. full make up, jewelry etc. As a rule in the government offices and banks you will not be allowed in if you are in shorts or you have spaghetti straps on your blouse.
If you are going to a disco (that's what they are still called here) the dress style is more open. As a man if you wear jeans and a three button collar shirt you will be admitted to most restaurants and public buildings, as a woman if you wear dressy pants or a skirt and blouse you will be granted the same admission. This is the safe way rather than trying to figure out what is acceptable where.
For information on Panamanian Food click here