The diversity of ethnic groups coming to Panama since the European colonization along with its native peoples gave way to most of the current population of the country. This unique blend of cultures has enabled the emergence of a rich variety of traditions. You can identify different cuisines, festivities and handicraft styles all over the country.
Panama has over 4 million inhabitants and each one of them represents the diversity that makes this country unique. Almost 70% of the population is mixed or mestizo. This is the obvious result of 500 years of such rich cultural encounters and mixing of the races.
Indigenous communities in Panama have been granted a special status inside their “comarcas” (protected territories) where they enjoy a large amount of autonomy. There are 3 comarcas that represent about 20% of Panamanian territory where the following indigenous groups live today: Nägbe-Buglé, Guna Yala and Emberá and Wounaan.
Gunas belong to an ancient race whose origin can be traced to the north of Colombia and around 6000 years back. It is generally accepted that it was the Gunas who helped Spanish conquistador Balboa in his attempt to cross the isthmus in 1513. It is also their fearsome resistance to any non-Guna authority that forced the Panamanian government to create the first comarca in 1938, after a bloody Guna rebellion.
Although closely associated and collectively referred to as the Guaymí, the Ngäbe and Buglé are two separate groups of people with their own language and culture. Their comarca extends over the western highlands in the Provinces of Chiriqui, Veraguas and Bocas del Toro and with around 160,000 people, they are the most numerous ethnic group. Other minorities that also live in the comarca are the Naso or Teribe, the Bri-Bri and the Bokota.
Embera and Wounaan
The Embera and Wounaan belong to the Carib race that originated in the center of the Amazon. Even though the Emberas and the Wounaan share the same culture and live sometimes together within the same village, they have a completely different language.
They migrated from the Choco region in Colombia (which is why they are sometimes referred to as ”chocoes” ) and settled in areas in eastern Panama in the Province of Darien. A few Embera groups settled in the Chagres River region during the 1960s, not far from Panama City.
Panamas’ melting pot
Another essential part of our culture is that of the descendants of African slaves and Panama Canal workers from the West Indies. Together they make up for 12-14% of the population.
During colonial times, Africans were brought to Panama much against their will. Those who survived the harsh times of the Spanish oppression, still celebrate their African heritage through dance and music, one of the main expressions being the Congo performances from the Caribbean province of Colon.
Much later during the times of the Canal construction a new mass immigration took place: the Canal required labor so thousands of men started coming from islands like Jamaica, Guadalupe and Martinique to make Panama their new home.
White people, mostly of European or North American descent, represent about 10 % of Panama’s population. Some are the descendants of families from the colonial era and of Panama Canal builders; others are immigrants from Europe, North and South America. Socioeconomically, this has been the dominant group for generations.
Asians arrived during the construction of the railway from 1850 to 1855. About 3 % of Panamanians is of Chinese origin. They are very active in Panama’s economy and play an important role in the retail sale market nationwide.
Panama’s diverse heritage translates into customs, dances, and festivals that vary from region to region; from folkloric festivals to religious celebrations where locals dress up with elegant gowns or in extravagant costumes and dance to the beat of traditional tunes. Music plays an important role during these festivities and most of the musical instruments are still handmade.
Panamanian cuisine is a unique mix of worldwide techniques, dishes and ingredients that reflect its diverse background. Commonly used are corn, rice, plantains, yuca (cassava), beans, sugar cane, beef, chicken, pork and seafood, together with tropical fruits such as mango, coconut, passion fruit, watermelon, cantaloupe melon and other less known exotic fruits.