The Historical Intersection of Race and Citizenship in Panama

This post is part of our online roundtable on Kaysha Corinealdi’s Panama in Black.

Panama City, Panama – Nov 4th, 2019 – Women dressed in African-style traditional dresses in the street during a parade on Flag Day, a national public holiday in Panama. (Shutterstock/ Kristin Greenwood)

The Afro-Antillian Museum of Panama is located where the main arteries from outside and through the capital meet. The museum’s central location in Panama City is a metaphor for the Afro-Caribbean community’s contributions to Panamanian nation-making and race-making. In Panama in Black: Afro-Caribbean World Making in the Twentieth Century, Kaysha Corinealdi’s rich archival research uncovers the discursive struggle that Afro-Caribbeans waged against racist and xenophobic forces in order “to be Panamanian” (ser panameño, pg. 122). Corinealdi’s book positions Afro-Caribbeans at the center of a metaphorical map of both Panamanian history and the broader history of Black diasporic world-making in the Americas. As such, Panama in Black “questions the veracity of histories of the region that neither engage with questions of Blackness and anti-Blackness nor feature Black people at the center of unpacking these questions” (pg. 193).

In Corinealdi’s re-telling of 20th Century Afro-Caribbean history in Panama, she identifies a system of Isthmian race-making forged through dual struggles between anti-Black and pro-Black forces and imperial and anti-imperial forces. Like the central location of the Afro-Antillian Museum, Corinealdi positions Afro-Caribbean activism at the intersection of the main arteries of Panamanian nation-making. Anti-Blackness provided the basis for labor exploitation of Afro-Caribbean laborers in the U.S. Canal Zone and the equally virulent project to mestizo-icisize Panamanian national identity (or homogenize national identity through racial mixture) outside of the Zone. Anti-imperialism motivated both the mestizo project to denationalize Afro-Caribbeans (and erase Blackness more generally) from national identity. Within the contradictions of racist imperialism, Afro-Caribbeans created opportunities to resist racist labor practices in the U.S. Canal Zone and race-based denationalization in Panama’s terminal port cities.

Through her novel concept of diasporic world-making, Corinealdi introduces the complexity of forging a path to Black freedom through multiple structures of oppression.

Panama in Black differs from many of the monographs that precede it, because it makes a conscious attempt to elevate the voices and contributions of Afro-Caribbean women in the struggle to create a Black diasporic world in Panama. From the introduction of the book, she shows us that gendered hierarchies were a defining feature of diasporic world making in Panama. The book opens with a photograph of the inauguration of Parque Young in the Afro-Caribbean Río Abajo neighborhood in 1966. The photo is of the staff of the Panama Tribune, the leading Afro-Caribbean newsweekly at the time. Claudina McIntosh (the daughter of the park’s honoree) is the only woman featured in the photograph of the 11 staff members. By opening with this photograph, Corinealdi sets the tone for Panama in Black. The book uses rich archival material to expose the radical imagining of Black freedom and the rigid constraints of gendered, racial and nationalist hierarchies, the combination of which incubated the Afro-Caribbean world making project in newspapers, Canal Zone school rooms, labor unions and Panamanian enclaves in Brooklyn, New York.

Panama in Black tells a macro-historical narrative of racial formation, reminiscent of work by Melissa Nobles, Mark Sawyer, and Tianna Paschel. These authors provide copious evidence that anti-Blackness was a political and social project in Latin America and further evidence that reforms that liberalized this racial order have left much of the infrastructure of Black marginalization intact. Corinealdi does an excellent job explaining how the cross-pressures of U.S. imperialism and de-nationalization ultimately created an opportunity for Afro-Panamanians to (re-)claim their rights to citizenship and “ser panameño”, while sacrificing some of the community’s linguistic and cultural distinctiveness.

 Panama in Black shows us that the structures of race and citizenship are mutually constitutive in racialized societies. White and mestizo Panamanian elites used the predominately Black immigrant labor force as a scapegoat for the crises of financial and territorial sovereignty that waxed and waned from the 1920s until the 1960s. Nativists framed the “West Indian problem” as a threat to “the future of the Latin race in Panama” (pg. 48). The Panamanian legislature encoded this racist and exclusionary discourse directly into law, and it consequently shaped how Afro-Caribbeans articulated their own racial and national identity to challenge the legal restrictions to their citizenship. Individuals like Esmé Parchment, the child of “parents classified as belonging to a restricted race” (pg. 57) emphasized that she was born in Panama, that she was economically self-sufficient, and professionally trained in Panamanian institutions. Afro-Caribbean organizations, like the National Civic League (Liga Cívica Nacional, LCN), likewise responded to the legal challenges to Afro-Caribbean citizenship by incorporating the nativist framework deployed by elites. In the organization’s mission statement, they advocated for “assimilating all of [the LCN’s] members to the culture, customs, and language of [Panama], with the ultimate goal of making a wholly united and homogenous nation” (pg. 68). Denationalized individuals were required by law to send individual petitions to the executive branch containing “notarized evidence” of their “spiritual and material incorporation” into the Panamanian nation for the mere possibility to have their citizenship rights restored.

To be Afro-Caribbean and Panamanian meant to accommodate and navigate a conditional form of citizenship. Corinealdi puts it eloquently and succinctly, “In no other part of the Americas did Afro-Caribbean[s] find themselves both stateless and vital participants in nation-building processes” that is, until the 21st Century project to denationalize Haitians in the Dominican Republic (pg. 21). Panama is thus a critical historical case for understanding the varied forms of racial formation and mestizaje historically and contemporarily in Latin America.

As a scholar of race and electoral politics in Latin America, this era of Panamanian history provides a propitious moment to study the rise and fall of race as a politically salient issue. Contrary to typical depictions of mestizaje as racially demobilizing for Blacks, the construction of mestizaje through nativism in Panama had the opposite effect, politicizing a large community of Afro-Caribbeans that would come to serve as a key constituency for the political parties vying for power in the 1950s and 1960s (chapters 3 & 4). Diasporic world-making was a mechanism for constructing Black consciousness that made Afro-Caribbeans an ideal constituency for political parties to court at election time. The bargain that Afro-Caribbeans struck with statesmen committed to Panamanian nationalism as a path to sovereignty, explains the electoral demobilization of this powerful constituency. Ultimately the terms of their acceptance as Panameños “rested on homogeneity, assimilation, exclusion, and a constant policing of ideological, cultural, racial and physical borders” (pg. 119).

Corinealdi’s work takes up the mantle of Afro-Panamanian scholars like Melva Lowe Goodin, George Priestley, and Gerardo Maloney to center the uniquely Afro-Caribbean contributions to nation-building in Panama. In so doing, Panama in Black illuminates the uniquely diasporic, Pan-Caribbean nature of this project and positions Panama at the center of the Afro-Caribbean diaspora. This book is a powerful invitation to remap the terrain of hemispheric race-making and activism in the 20th century. 

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Marcus Johnson

Marcus Johnson is an assistant professor of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland, College Park. His work examines racial disparities in political behavior in democracies that are stratified by race. He is particularly interested in how historical and contemporary patterns of racial inequality affect the political behavior of people of African descent in Latin America. Marcus was awarded a Fulbright Research Award to conduct field research in Panamá in 2016. He earned his PhD from Princeton University in 2017.