– Afro-Panamanians are Panamanians of African descent, and constitute 15% of the population. The Afro-Panamanian population can be broken into the “Afro-Colonial”, Afro-Panamanians descended from slaves brought to Panama during the colonial period and the “Afro-Antillean“, West Indian immigrants from Trinidad, Martinique, Guadeloupe, Dominica, Grenada, Barbados and Jamaica, brought in to build the Panama Canal.-
I am a daughter of two Panamanians, born and raised in Brooklyn New York. During my young childhood I would fly back and forth between NYC and PTY ,because my single mother had to work extra so she could give me everything and more. My parents are Colonenses, and when I would be in Panama I was mostly in Rainbow City. Even though by the time I was 4 my birth certificate was all stamped up, I still didn’t know how to speak spanish until later in life. My mom loves to brag about how I understood all her telenovelas and when she used to take bathroom breaks I would later fill her in on lo sucedido in English . I would learn Spanish(without much choice) when I was 8, because my mom re married and we moved to Barcelona, Spain. The language barrier of my new home ,wasn’t as hard as you’d think, here’s this little black american girl who can’t speak Spanish and just found out that she has to learn simultaneously another one called Catalan; but against the odds by the end of the school year I was already fluent in both languages.
Naive little me thought that the language barrier would be the only obstacle I would have to face in this new country, I thought “well if they speak Spanish they won’t discriminate me, because my family is Panamanian and they speak Spanish…” It wasn’t until my teen years when I started to notice a couple things: I live in a place where people would stare at me, whisper things at one another about me,some people would cross the street to not walk by me and then cross the street again once I’ve passed, ladies would hold extra tight to their purses (mind you I’m a short little girl with a baby face, but yet they still found reason to fear me or assume I was trouble because of my skin color). Men would sexually aproach me, as if I was some kind of fetish for them; what really used to get my blood boiling was when some people would ask me: “What part of Africa are you from?” I live in a place where they call white pale skin tone “normal”, where I have to go to expensive make up shops just to get foundation in my skin tone;mind you:there are several shades darker than mine that are unavailable. Same place where people hesitate to sit next to me on the subway. I live in a place where they discredit my talents of dancing and singing because“you’re black that’s not fair or, you don’t count”. They even try to discredit me for my wins, because I’m better and they still feel the need to be credited for their own mediocrity.
I live in a place where the most common insult towards people of color is “negra de mierda”,or “moro de mierda” ; yes I am black, I’ve been that way since I was born, I have never been ashamed of who I am, I’ve only been ashamed of how it affected some people so much, and in such a negative way.
I live in a place where there’s a commemorative statue of Cristobal Colón, a place full of eurocentric douchebags, culture appropriators, and ignorant entitled self absorbed people. I live in a place where somebody told me with a straight face ”we only have to worry about bombs and mass death when it’s in Europe because it’s closer to home”, the sad thing is that this is how they teach their children; or I should say ,this is how they fail to educate them.
I live in a place which it’s society doesn’t accept outsiders, or they discriminate them, but they will take their culture, step and vomit on it and call it their own.
If I had a penny for every white person in blackface as a costume or a joke ,that I’ve seen, and had received nothing but laughs and appraisals; for every white person who says: I’m black on the inside” for wearing “dreadlocks” and listening to Bob Marley… I would be a billionaire.
I live in a place where Non Latinos and non Africans get paid to teach other white people how to dance salsa, merengue, bachata, African dances…. Meanwhile natives that could really teach these people a thing or two about their own culture can only get employed as service or have to start their own businesses in order to get a decent job .
These little actions of racism might have hurt my feelings, but never made me feel less of what I am, or ashamed of who I am. If anything I feel sorry for these people, they’re living life through a prejudice and hateful lense.
These 21 years of life haven’t been the least bit boring, but I do have to say it took me about 20 years to really know who I was and actually find myself spiritually. And how did I find myself? Taking a trip to my past,my mother’s,my grandmother’s and all of my ancestors past.
Although I was very aware of my panamanian roots growing up, I didn’t know who I was. I always thought I was african-american, well, because I was black; but my mother cleared that up for me with a simple “Our ancestors weren’t promised 40 acres and a mule.”Which is true, we descend from those who fought for their freedom in the Baptist war in Jamaica against United Kingdom.
And some may think, well same thing, you descend from slaves, but those slaves came from hundreds of different cultures and different regions of Africa, we need to be specific in order to really know where we are from, because Africa isn’t small.
So let me take you on a little trip on how I became Afro- Latina or to be more specific,
Afro – Antillana….
It’s the beginning of the 1900’s, in the great island of Jamaica, with his family struggling to eat properly and to live a decent simple life, a father and husband takes the risk with his family, and against his government’s wishes he sneaks off on a boat with his family and sails off to the istm of Panama. Why Panama? The Canal project had just kicked off and they needed workers, they mostly needed blacks to do the hard labour and under pay them, of course. I can proudly say that my own blood worked sweat and blood into the most important Canal in the World.
Fast forward a few years, in Bocas del Toro, my great grandmother is born. Now when I say I owe my life to a watch you might think I’m crazy, but just listen…
This proper and fine young woman met this fine young man, who “allegedly” took her watch and left for Colón; resulting in her going after him and looking for him in the canal zone, but little did she know she would never go back home. Luckily for me, that man was my grandmother’s father and well… you can figure out the rest.
Now if I could center your attention on my inner self, in a constant fight between my ego and my soul, a battle of the great, my ego drowns me in this need to be a model citizen: I was supposed to go to Law school,become a lawyer and earn a ton of money and my life would have been set. I lied to myself and said it was the wrong career for me, and that social work was better for me. Although I have a lot of the skills and traits needed in this career, I still felt like I was making a mistake.
I had to let myself know that I could only follow my dreams, even if it was the biggest risk or biggest mistake I’d make. Because we don’t seem to realise that everything is so fragile and we have to live for ourselves, because when I go, I’ll go by myself, my soul will fade into nothingness or greatness by itself. I can’t dedicate my life to satisfy my parents or follow the rules of the Government. I have to be free and at peace with myself in order to be happy.
Now I just have to find a balance between doing what I’m passionate about and surviving in this modern world. And in order to survive you need money.
I’ve achieved this enlightenment thanks to sound of the drums and chants of my Orishas. I feel the most at peace with Yemaya. Which I think makes so much sense. Ever since I was young I loved water; I recall when I was no older than 6, in Panama it was pouring rain, and at my great grandmother’s house there’s a garden area in the back, and I remember just standing under the rain and connecting with the rain somehow, I remember clearly because I got in so much trouble later… My zodiac sign is Aquarius, so there’s an obvious connection between that and yemaya, who is the Mother of the sea.
I noticed that ever since I got a full understanding of the Yoruba culture, everything is making more sense to me, and I feel as if I’m relieved from something, like I got something off my body. Now that I think about it, it’s as if I got the chains of my enslaved subconscious mind off my body, and now I am free.
Now that I don’t believe in everything society has told me for all my life, and now that I go back to my roots, it’s as if I’ve awoken from my sleep and now can begin to live my life to the utmost fullest.
Anays Chabeli Alexander
Chabeli was concieved in Colón,Panama. She was born and raised in New York and grew up in Barcelona,Spain. An aspiring rapper fluent in four languages is the epitome of mixed cultures and international life. Her first steps as a woman began when she dropped out of Law school and decided that music was going to be the only thing on her schedule. While deeply disappointing her mother she made a choice that she would repeat if needed. In comparison to others you could say she has had a privileged upbringing but still was raised with the pain of dealing with her mother’s addiction.
But regardless she is determined to make it and rule the game.