May in Panama is the time for the Fiesta de la Etnia Negra or, loosely translated, Black History Month. Unlike many holidays celebrated here, this is a month-long event, one that culminates today, May 31, referred to as Día de la Etnia Negra Nacional, when a customary parade takes place in Colón.
The Día de la Etnia Negra Nacional is a celebration of ethnic heritage but it’s also a time of inclusion. People of all colors, heritage, and origins are encouraged to join events, parades, and the overall celebration. So I hope you put on your party shoes and hit the streets.
Panama’s Unique African Heritage
In Panama two major migratory movements of black people occurred: The first was when Panama was a Spanish colony and enslaved Africans were brought to the region. The second was when the Antilleans were brought to Panama during the construction of the trans-isthmian railroad and Panama Canal.
If you are unfamiliar with the history of the Antilleans, the West Indian Museum (Museo Afroantillano) is a great place to learn. It reopened on May 3, 2018, after remodeling, in time to initiate the celebration of the Fiesta de la Etnia Negra and commemorate International Museum Day on May 18. The museum is located in Calidonia, in the urban center of Panama City. It features a photo gallery, dioramas, and guided tours focusing on different aspects of the culture, both past and present.
Although different in some ways, the two migratory groups are linked by their African roots. You may hear these groups referred to as Afro-descendants or Afro Panamanians, and together, they make up a unique part of Panama’s rich cultural diversity. Although only a small portion of the population has direct links to their African roots, many identify with the culture through their mixed heritage.
Events are held to celebrate black history throughout the month. You can attend anything from braid workshops to seminars. Film screenings, photography expositions, concerts, and other social gatherings also take place. If fashion is your interest, the African Fashion Festival each year is a must-see—mark your calendar for 2019… in the meantime, you can enjoy colorful ensembles and African-inspired garb by attending a street parade.
A Social Dialogue
Celebrating Africa’s cultural influence in Panama’s past, present, and future helps create a dialogue on social and political empowerment. The best way to find out about events near you is by tuning in to your local radio station, listening to the news, or simply asking your friends and neighbors. Some events are also posted online.
In Panama City, early on May 20, a grand parade was put on by Afropanameños Unidos in Río Abajo. It was followed by a sample of cine afro (Afro films) on May 24 at the library of the Regional University Center of Colón.
If you enjoy parades, you’ll always find an opportunity in Panama, and fans of the fiesta are always offered plenty of chances to party.
Día de la Etnia Negra Nacional, established by Law 9 of May 30, 2000, to commemorate ethnic diversity in the country, is no exception. The inspiration for the day came from the province of Chiriquí, specifically Las Arenas de Puerto Armuelles, home to the Honorable Claral Richards Thompson, an Afro-Panamanian who was a famous discus thrower as well as renowned baseball player.
The celebration’s background and the law that created the national holiday has not only made it possible to appreciate the country’s Afro heritage, but also to highlight its abolition of slavery in 1851. This was during a period in which Panama was united with Colombia, then called Nueva Granada, before the separation of Panama in 1903.
The party takes place throughout the country… In Barú, for example, you’ll find the Dianas De Los Bomberos, a migratory musical event that kicks off at 5 a.m. And while Panama City plays host to many of the events, some of the best known celebrations are in Bocas del Toro, Colón, and Chiriquí.
At the street fairs, families line the sidewalks with chairs and umbrellas, the children in tow. Vendors set up along parade routes and in green spaces, many selling Afro-Panamanian delicacies such as guacho de mariscos, a traditional seafood soup with rice, much like a New Orleans gumbo. Try cocada or enyucado if you crave sweets… made respectively with coconut and yuca (cassava), they’re different and delicious.
The streets packed, the parades commence, filling the space with music, dance, and rhythm. The center of attention are the Afro-ethnic groups who are famous for their bright colors, showy outfits, and unique dance styles. Grade schools, high schools, and college groups participate, but none in school uniform, everyone opting for African-style clothes instead. Members of the community, políticos, and band members support Afro heritage by dressing in diverse colors, as well.
As anyone who’s enjoyed a fiesta in Panama knows, event schedules are more like suggestions in many pueblitos, and the party doesn’t end when the parade does.
In this case, the party carries on till the last day of the month…
It all culminates today, May 31, with the Black Ethnicity Celebration, a grand event taking place in the Corregimiento de Palenque in Colón at 12 p.m. This event is organized by The Society of Friends of the West Indian Museum of Panama (SAMAAP), which is a civic non-profit organization. They are focused on “supporting and sponsoring activities that contribute to the social and cultural development of the community and feature the best aspects of Afro Caribbean culture.”
If you go, let us know. We’d love to see your pictures.
In Barú, several smaller local events will take place carrying into the first week of June.
This is the perfect time to learn more and be part of the often overlooked Afro heritage of Panama—a great time to enjoy with friends, neighbors, and those you don’t already know… yet!
Be part of Fiesta de la Etnia Negra and help support the organizations that work to promote Panama’s Afro heritage and facilitate empowerment of the community.