Story Publication logo October 7, 2021

A Return to Panama



As Panama develops new infrastructure, Afro-Panamanians are rediscovering their heritage and...

Crowd at Panama
Crowd celebrating the opening of the Panama Canal. August 15, 1914. Image courtesy of John Barrett / Library of Congress. Panama, 1914.

The last time I came to Panama, I met some of my father’s family for the first time. I was focused on bonding with them through the language barrier and playing—not engaging in politics, of course. I grew up, and now I’m political and politicized. As soon as I stepped off the plane, I felt the effects of being treated as a dark-skinned woman with natural hair. It was either complete fetishization or being ignored.

I noticed that my social position changed from when I was a child with long relaxed hair; I was Culisa then and Negra now. I wanted to write about this experience, the Black experience. I wanted to peer into how these social constructions impacted Afro-Antillean people and unearth its systemic roots, but three weeks was not enough.

That idea required a decolonization process to understand which parts of me were American, West Indian, woman, and Black. I could not talk about environmental racism at the intersections I saw, because there was a politic of mestizaje and nationalism that I needed to understand deeply first. I had to rework my research question to see where I could be accountable.

I wasn’t alive when the invasion happened, but the family and community that helped shape my world were. I wanted to take this opportunity to understand how my Afro-Antillean community could sport a gold rendering of a flag that oppressed them and move to a country that aided and abetted their discrimination. It was important that I saw my elders as historical actors and changemakers first and stand up on my soapbox later. I hope my American audience sees their resistance is why the United States military amped up their imperialism, and how that impacted them.

The reality is that the Afro-Antillean culture is dying with our elders. The article I am writing is a pledge to revitalize our story in tandem with Panamanian youth. It is an opportunity to document the names of elders who did their time, and the next chapter is the story of now. I plan to return to Panama in November, this time talking to Black youth there, learning from their experiences with colorism, police brutality, and environmental racism. In the future, I hope to inspire other youth to reconnect with Afro-Antillean culture and tell their story of now.