"Becoming More and More Panamanian": Contemporary Constructions of West Indian Identity in Urban Panama
Degree awarded: Ph.D. Anthropology. American University
The rapid political, social, and economic changes in urban Panama during the last half century have differently affected Panamanians of West Indian heritage that grew up in Colón, Panama City, and the U.S. controlled Canal Zone. This study uses specific events to survey contemporary constructions of West Indian identity practice: the 1964 flag riots, the 1977 Torrijos-Carter Canal Treaties, the 1989 U.S. invasion, the 1999 American civilian and military withdrawal, and the 2010 Panamanian census. Together, these events structure my examination of relationships between identity construction and the state. This study explores the ways in which Black identity is constructed in distinct areas of the same nation, how and why those constructions change over time, and how those changes influence the current economic and political realities of Panamanians of West Indian heritage in the Republic of Panama. This dissertation uses ethnographic data and qualitative research methods to explore the discursive and cultural practices of West Indian identity in Panamanian urban spaces. Unlike other works about West Indians in Panama, I geographically unpack the assigned identity of "West Indian" and consider the ways in which location of origin complicates contemporary belonging and group identity. Panamanians of West Indian heritage lived both inside and outside of the U.S. controlled Canal Zone and on the Pacific and Atlantic coasts of the Republic of Panama, which created varying relationships with the American state via the U.S. controlled Canal Zone, the Panamanian state, and with each other. I conclude that Panamanians of West Indian heritage identify each other differently based on perceived differences in where and, consequently, how they grew up. These perceived differences shape social networks, organizational belonging, and group cohesion. Although Panama has two distinct groups of Black ethnicity, coloniales and West Indians, the absence of a divisive American territory and the influx of foreign immigration have moved African-descendent populations away from traditional ethnic divisions and toward a shared nation-based racial identity of Afro-Panameño.
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