Geography And Culture Of Panama Cultural Studies Essay

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Full country name: Republic of Panama

Area: 78,000 sq km (30,420 sq mi)

Population: 2,611,000 (growth rate 2%)

Capital city: Panama City (pop 610,000)

People: 62% mestizo, 14% African descent, 10% Spanish descent, 5% mulatto, 5% Indian

Language: Spanish, English and Indian languages

Religion: 84% Roman Catholic, 5% Protestant, 5% Islamic

Government: Democracy

President: Mireya Moscoso (

Location and Geography. The country is a natural land bridge connecting the South American continent with Central America. The isthmus runs east-west in the form of an inverted "S." Low mountains run through most of the country, leaving a gap in the centre that is nearly at sea level. The Pacific coastline, with the Azuero Peninsula jutting south to define the Gulf of Panama, is longer than the Atlantic coastline. The area of the country is 25,590 square miles (74,046 square kilometres).

Demography. In 2000, Panama had approximately 2.816 million inhabitants, 700,000 of whom lived in Panama City, with another 300,000 in the immediate suburbs. The urban elite is primarily Creole, mostly of Spanish descent. There are also populations of Spanish, Italian, Greek, and Jewish origins. There is a long time Chinese community, and a small Hindu community lives in the capital, Panama City. The largest demographic group is the interioranos ("interior people"), who are classified as "Hispano-Indians." This group is largely mestizo (mixed European and native American), and its members consider themselves the "real Panamanians." Some interioranos grade imperceptibly into an acculturated native American population known pejoratively as cholos, who refer to themselves as naturales ("natives"). Together, these two groups constitute 70 percent of the population. There are four officially recognized Indian ethnic groups (the Kuna, Guaymi or Ngawbe, Embera, and Waunan), which number fewer than 200,000. People of African descent account for 15 percent of the population. These "Afro-colonials" descend from slaves who were imported in colonial times. They speak Spanish and are Roman Catholic. The "Afro-Antillean" group descends from Caribbean residents who came to work on the construction of the Panama canal. They speak English, French, or an English patois at home and are mostly Protestant.

Linguistic Affiliation. The official language is Spanish, but English is used widely in business, especially banking and tourism, and by some people of African descent.

Symbolism. Some coins bear the image of Urraca, an Indian chief who resisted the Spanish conquests, but most coins depict Vasco Nuñez de Balboa, the discoverer of the Pacific Ocean.

Food in Daily Life. Unlike other Spanish colonies, Panama's subsistence agriculture never depended on corn. Game and fish were always sources of protein, and corn is eaten mainly in the form of thick cakes called arepas and maize gruel. The Kuna roast bananas and boil them in a soup dish that consists of water squeezed through grated coconut meat, fish, and fowl or a game meat. This dish resembles the sancocho eaten by many non-Indian Panamanians-a soup of poultry or meat cooked with root vegetables and corn. All the towns and cities have Chinese restaurants, a legacy of the Chinese who came to work on the railroad in the 1850s.

Food Customs at Ceremonial Occasions. Upper class families are likely to serve fresh seafood at weddings, baptisms, and other celebrations. Their cooking style tends to be continental. Interioranos, in contrast, value beef. Their traditional Sunday meal is tasajo, smoked and cured beef with the flavour of ham.

Basic Economy. Before 1502 the native populations practiced slash-and-burn agriculture, growing a variety of root crops. When the urban elite bought rural property, they turned to cattle raising and exported the meat and hides. Livestock production is still an important economic activity, even on very small landholdings, and parts of the rain forest have been converted into pastureland. The naturales and Indian groups still practice slash-and-burn agriculture and do not raise cattle. Afro-colonials engage in coastal horticulture and fishing, as do the Kuna. The unit of currency is the balboa, which is pegged to the United States dollar.

Trade. The economy relies on transit, transhipping, and banking to earn foreign currency. Panama exports coffee, bananas, beef, and tropical hardwoods. As a major international transshipping centre, all types of the world's industrial goods pass through Panama, which keeps or imports electronics, automobiles, and a wide variety of luxury goods. Panama also imports petroleum, as it has no oil fields.

Classes and Castes. The urban Creole upper class, known as the rabiblancos ("white butts"), mingles socially with Americans, Spaniards, Italians, and the oldest segment of the Jewish community, the Sephardic Jews, who came to the country in the 1890s. Prosperous merchants in the small Hindu community worship at a prominent hilltop temple. The Chinese community includes a few wealthy commercial families, members of the professions, a middle class of shopkeepers, and a few very poor recent immigrants. It is perceived as monolithic. People from the interiorano community, other mestizos, and some blacks have also risen to wealth and prominence through the professions, government, and business and services. These people do not intermarry with the old elite. The large urban middle classes consist of interioranos, mestizos, blacks, and educated Indians, especially Kunas.

Symbols of Social Stratification. Class division is not rigid, and the elite is not resented. It is closely linked to the symbols of the republic through its descent from illustrious ancestors and the founding fathers of independence from Spain and Colombia, many of whom have streets named after them.

Government. The republic is a constitutional democracy. Panama inherited from Colombia a binary system of liberals versus conservatives, both of which agreed on opposition to the presence of the United States in the Canal Zone.

Marriage. Although Guaymí Indian leaders may have more than one wife, other Panamanians marry only one spouse at a time. Divorce is permitted under liberal terms by the Civil Code. Couples of African descent on the Atlantic coast tend to live together without marrying. These unions frequently dissolve as men and women may find new partners during the weekly pre-carnival Congo dances.

Domestic Unit. The ideal family unit for most Panamanians is the nuclear family of a married couple and their children. The Kuna Indians, however, prefer to have new husbands go to live with their brides in the latter's house. These then become extended families around a grandmother, her husband, and her married daughters and their husbands.

Inheritance. Kuna Indians inherit their houses from their mothers. All other property is inherited equally among all heirs from both parents. In the rest of Panama the Civil Code provides for a similar system. In the absence of a will, a deceased widowed man's property goes equally to all his children, male or female.

Kin Groups. Kindreds, networks of related nuclear families, are very important to the urban elites. Upper class persons are likely to give parties, for example,

Child Rearing and Education. The educational system is effective through the primary school level. Official literacy rates are as high as 90 percent, and an assumption of literacy prevails in daily interactions in the cities.

Higher Education. The University of Panama is state-supported and has a long history. The Catholic University of Santa Maria la Antigua is its major competitor.


Panamanians are formal in dealings with strangers. There is a minimum of greeting behaviour in public, and manners tend to be stiff and not courtly. Once included in family and friendship groupings, a stranger can be incorporated into a party-going network quickly. Dress tends to be formal despite the tropical climate.


Religious Beliefs. Panama is 85 percent Roman Catholic. Traditional beliefs and practices have been maintained among the native American groups despite a history of missionization.

Rituals and Holy Places. The most important ritual is Carnaval. The capital closes down the five days before Ash Wednesday, and a young queen chosen by charitable organizations presides. A competing "more authentic" celebration takes place in Las Tablas in the interior. Coastal blacks celebrate the Congo, which starts in January and also is presided over by a queen in each community. Its male and female dance groups perform each weekend. The colonial port city of Potrobelo on the Atlantic coast is the site of a shrine to an icon of the Black


Panama celebrates two independence days, on 3 November from Colombia and on 28 November from Spain. Festivities tend to be low-key, however, although school children parade in most localities. New Year's Eve and New Year's Day are occasions of much merriment, with children burning effigies of Father Time at midnight in many areas. Larger towns in the central provinces hold rodeos for cowboys almost every Sunday.

The isthmus of Panama is the umbilical cord joining South and Central America. It borders Costa Rica to the west and Colombia to the east. Panama's arched shape reflects both its role as a bridge between continents and as a passageway between oceans. At its narrowest point, it is only 50km (30mi) wide, but it has a 1160km (720mi) Caribbean coastline on its northern shore and a 1690km (1048mi) Pacific coast to the south. The famous canal is 80km (50mi) long and effectively divides the country into eastern and western regions.

There are hundreds of islands near the Panamanian coasts. The two major archipelagos are the San Blas and Bocas del Toro chains in the Caribbean Sea, though the best snorkelling, diving and deep-sea fishing are to be found in the Pacific near Coiba Island and the Pearl Islands. Panama has flat coastal lowlands and two mountain chains running along its spine. The highest peak is Volcán Barú at 3475m (11,400ft).

Rainforests dominate the canal zone, the north-western portion of the country and much of the eastern half. Although Costa Rica is widely known for its fantastic wildlife, Panama has, in fact, a greater number of flora and fauna species, more land set aside for preservation, and far fewer people wandering through the jungle looking for wildlife and inadvertently scaring it away. There's much truth in the Panamanian saying that in Costa Rica 20 tourists try to see one resplendent quetzal, while in Panama one person tries to see 20 of these exquisite birds.

Panama has two seasons. The dry season lasts from January to mid-April and the rainy season from mid-April to December. Rainfall is heavier on the Caribbean side of the highlands, though most people live on or near the Pacific coast. Temperatures are typically hot in the lowlands (between 21°C and 32°C/70°F and 90°F) and cool in the mountains (between 10-18°C/50-64°F). These vary little throughout the year.

Economic Profile

GDP: US$8 billion

GDP per head: US$2400

Inflation: 1.5%

Major industries: Banking, shipping and agriculture

Major trading partners: USA, Germany, Costa Rica


Panama's arts reflect its ethnic mix. Indian tribes, West Indian groups, mestizos, Chinese, Middle Eastern, Swiss, Yugoslav and North American immigrants have all offer contributed ingredients to the cultural stew. Traditional arts include woodcarving, weaving, ceramics and mask-making.

Spanish is the official language, though US influence and the international nature of the canal zone reinforce the use of English as a second language. West Indian immigrants also speak Caribbean-accented English. Indian tribes have retained their own languages. Panama is predominantly Roman Catholic, but there are sizable Muslim and Protestant minorities and small numbers of Hindus and Jews.


Panama City

The capital of Panama is a modern, thriving commercial centre stretching 10km (6mi) along the Pacific coast from the ruins of Panamá Viejo in the east to the edge of the Panama Canal in the west. The old district of San Felipe (also known as Casco Viejo) juts into the sea on the south-western side of town. It's an area of decaying colonial grandeur, striking architecture, peeling paint and decrepit balconies. Attractions include the 17th-century Metropolitan Church, the Interoceanic Canal Museum of Panama, the Plaza de Bolívar, the presidential palace, the History Museum of Panama and the sea wall built by the Spaniards four centuries ago. Via España's banking district is the complete opposite to this yesteryear charm, with aggressively modern buildings and sophisticated entertainments.

Attractions on the fringes of the city include the Panama Canal, the 16th-century ruins of Panamá Viejo, the Summit Botanical Gardens and Zoo, the tropical rainforest of the Sobreranía National Park and the 265-hectare (655-acre) Parque Nacional Metropolitana.

Panama Canal

The Canal is both an engineering marvel and one of the most significant waterways on earth. Stretching 80km (50mi) from Panama City on the Pacific coast to Colón on the Atlantic side, it provides passage for over 12,000 ocean-going vessels per year. Seeing a huge ship nudge its way through the narrow canal, with vast tracks of virgin jungle on both sides, is an unforgettable sight. The easiest and best way to visit the Canal is to go to the Miraflores Locks, on the northeastern fringe of Panama City, where a platform offers visitors a good view of the locks in operation. There's also a museum with a model and a film about the Canal. Boats leave Balboa, a western suburb of Panama City, for a five-hour tour through the locks to Miraflores Lake.

Isla Taboga

This charming and historical island, 20km (12mi) south of Panama City, has an attractive beach, some lovely protected rainforest, and is home to one of the largest colonies of Brown Pelicans in Latin America. Known as the Island of Flowers, because at certain times of the year it is filled with the aroma of sweet-smelling blooms, the island is a favourite retreat from the city. Taboga has a long history and was settled even before Panama City. There is a small church here, claimed to be second oldest in the Western Hemisphere, and Pizarro set sail from here for Peru in 1524. The island's annual festival is on 16 July, and involves nautical processions and celebrations. Taboga is a one-hour boat trip from Balboa.


The origins of reggaeton begin with the first reggae recordings being made in Panama during the late 1970s. Reportedly, the Jamaican influence on Panamanian music has been strong since the early 20th century when Jamaican labourers were used to help build the Panama Canal ( It was common practice to translate the lyrics of Jamaican reggae song into Spanish and sing them over the original melodies, a form termed "Spanish reggae" or "Reggae en español.". Spanish Reggae developed as a result of Jamaican immigration to Panama as a result of the Panama Canal. Eventually, many of these Jamaicans had intentions to go back to Jamaica, but many of them ended up staying, and eventually assimilated and became part of the culture.

Overview of Panama and Jamaica



Part of the Caribbean

Panamais a Central Americancountry

Surrounded by Caribbean Sea

Atlantic Ocean on one side, Pacific Ocean on another side

1 island

800 islands and 2 oceans

Columbus landed in Jamaica 1492

Columbus landed in Panama 1502

Henry Morgan - lived in Port Royal

Henry Morgan plundered &almost destroyed P/City but missed immense gold altar because it was painted black

324 species of birds - 28 are endemic, 15 have been introducedby humans, and 160 are rare

850 species of birds

Blue mountain - 7,000 ft

Mountains over 11,000 feet

Indians - Tainos

Emberá People

Famous for Reggae, dancehall genre in music

Multicultural and international ethnicity, therefore famous for Salsa, Merengue, bachata, Pop, Rock en Español, US hits, tipico folkloric music, reggae, reggaeton, cumbia, vallenato, samba, jazz, and classical music are all widely listened to by the population.

The Panamanian flag became official on July 4, 1904, after independence from Colombia was won through the intervention of the United States, which was determined to construct the Panama Canal. The flag was influenced by the United States, and its quartered design was said to symbolize the power sharing of Panama's two main political parties.

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