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Panama Antillean Blacks
Sources: The Library of Congress Country Studies; CIA World Factbook
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    Black laborers from the British West Indies came to Panama by the tens of thousands in the first half of the twentieth century. Most were involved in the effort to improve the isthmus transportation system, but many came to work on the country's banana plantations as well. By 1910, the Panama Canal Company had employed more than 50,000 workers, three-quarters of whom were Antillean blacks. They formed the nucleus of a community separated from the larger society by race, language, religion, and culture.

    Since World War II, immigration from the Caribbean islands has been negligible. Roughly 7 to 8 percent of the population were Antillean blacks in the 1980s. Their share in the total population was decreasing, as younger generations descended from the original immigrants became increasingly assimilated into the Hispanic national society.

    The Antillean community continued to be marked by its immigrant, West Indian origins in the 1980s. Some observers noted that Antillean families and gender ideals reflected West Indian patterns and that Antillean women were less submissive than their mestizo counterparts. The Antilleans were originally united by their persistent loyalty to the British crown, to which they had owed allegiance in the home islands. Many migrated to Panama with the intention of returning home as soon as they had earned enough money to permit them to retire. This apparently transient status, coupled with cultural differences, further separated them from the local populace. Another alienating factor was the hostility of Hispanic Panamanians, which increased as the Antilleans prolonged their stay and became entrenched in the canal labor force. They faced racial discrimination from North Americans as well. Their precarious status was underscored by the fact that the 1941 constitution deprived them of their Panamanian citizenship (it was restored by the 1946 constitution). The hostility they faced welded them into a minority united by the cultural antagonisms they confronted.

    The cleavage between older and younger generations was particularly marked. Younger Antilleans who opted for inclusion in the Hispanic society at large generally rejected their parents' religion and language in so doing. Newer generations educated in Panamanian schools and speaking Spanish well identified with the national society, enjoying a measure of acceptance there. Nevertheless, there remained substantial numbers of older Antilleans who were trained in schools in the former Canal Zone and spoke English as a first language. They were adrift without strong ties to either the West Indian or the Panamanian Hispanic culture. Isolated from mainstream Panamanian society and increasingly removed from their Antillean origins, they existed, in a sense, on the margins of three societies.

    In common with most middle- and many lower-class Panamanians, Antillean blacks valued education as a means of advancement. Parents ardently hoped to give their children as good an education as possible because education and occupation underlay the social hierarchy of the Antillean community. At the top of that hierarchy were ministers of the mainline Protestant religions, professionals such as doctors and lawyers, and white-collar workers. Nonetheless, even a menial worker could hope for respect and some social standing if he or she adhered to middle-class West Indian forms of marriage and family life, membership in an established church, and sobriety. The National Guard, formerly known as the National Police and subsequently called the Panama Defense Forces (Fuerzas de Defensa de Panamá--FDP), served as a means of integration into the national society and upward mobility for poorer blacks (Antilleans and Hispanics), who were recruited in the 1930s and 1940s when few other avenues of advancement were open to them (see Manpower , ch. 5).

    Data as of December 1987

    NOTE: The information regarding Panama on this page is re-published from The Library of Congress Country Studies and the CIA World Factbook. No claims are made regarding the accuracy of Panama Antillean Blacks information contained here. All suggestions for corrections of any errors about Panama Antillean Blacks should be addressed to the Library of Congress and the CIA.

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Revised 10-Nov-04
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