I was just on the street chatting with a few Panamanians about race and identity in Panama. I’ve been chatting with locals ever since I arrived here. Initially, I wanted to know why every black person I encountered sounded exactly like a Jamaican. Surprisingly, they weren’t Jamaican. And their linguistic register has to do with more than the story of the many Caribbean persons who visited Panama during the Panama Canal’s building process.
Growing more intrigued about race in Panama, on a daily basis, I entered restaurants, bought food, smiled, and started conversations about race and sexuality with sellers. I didn’t always have to go to people. Sometimes, hustlers came up to me on the street, telling me they have “the powder” and “the weed.“
When I told them I don’t do drugs, they seemed disappointed.
“Anything you want, I can get it for you,” is their favorite comeback.
“Ok,” I usually replied. You can help me out if you tell me about race in Panama.
Regarding race, I wanted to know why some Panamanians in Bocas Del Toro found it difficult (not uncomfortable) to identify with a specific race; and some even laughed when I asked what was their race. One woman told me that I am very bold with my questions. Indeed, the conversations were uncomfortable at points. But I never failed to assure the people I was talking with that I only wanted to match faces with history and geography because I found the differences in the physical features fascinating. That explanation always made everyone relax; and they usually smiled.
Btw folks, I am not here doing research. And I am not here on any scholarship that has anything to do with school. I am just fascinated by how people identify themselves, why, and how I can map history by looking at people’s faces, how they walk, dress, pose, and sigh.
Visiting Brazil recently, and now coming to Panama, has been really eye opening for me. Yes, I had always known about the Afro-diaspora in Latina America, but to witness it puts me in a position where I can no longer talk about “black people” and just imagine mostly peoples from the Caribbean, America, and Africa.
I also worry about the label “Black” because many of these dark-skinned people of African descent cannot understand why “Black” as a term applies to them. They see it as a very domineering American label. Henry Louis Gates did a documentary series about blackness in Latin America years ago. It remains a very useful documentary, but I think Gates misses the point that these people do not want American intellectuals to name them.
Years ago, I would have thought Afro-Latin Americans were trying to erase their blackness; but I now know that many of them aren’t trying to erase anything other than a set of assumptions embedded in the word “black.” They see it as America and Europe forcing them to place white knowledges at the center of their identities.
I seriously value their point—and I am wondering why do we identify them as even Afro-Latinos instead of Latinos/as-Afro. Why should “blackness” and its genealogy be imagined as their genesis, (prefix), of their identities?