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Reflections in May: Black Ethnicity Month in Panama

From my perspective as a Black woman in Panama, I encounter a series of challenges and reflections that arise in a context that often trivializes and distorts our African heritage when the month of Black ethnicity is meant to be commemorated. Additionally, there's a debate about the concept of "Black Ethnicity" in Panama. I question the validity of this category that tries to encompass such a diverse population. There is not just one black ethnicity in our country; rather, we are a heterogeneous population with a wide range of distinct cultural and linguistic experiences. On the other hand, the population that does not consider itself of African descent has more cultural and linguistic characteristics in common than the entire Afro-Panamanian descendant population. Why isn't there a "Panamanian mestizo ethnicity"? Grouping us under one label only serves to make our differences invisible and perpetuate simplistic stereotypes.

In the month of May, we celebrate Black Ethnicity Month in Panama, an opportunity to reflect on the contributions and diversity of the Afro-descendant population in our country. However, this celebration is often overshadowed by the commercialization and folklorization of what it means to be Afro-descendant. Stereotypes that reduce our identity to superficial elements such as food, dance, and "African" dresses, which have little to do with the historical and cultural reality of our ancestors, continue to be perpetuated. It is regrettable to see how opulence is glorified through the display of expensive dresses, while the true history of suffering and resistance of our enslaved ancestors is overlapped by these lands. This trivialization and commercial exploitation of our African heritage reflects that a celebration like this does not escape from a neoliberal system where everything is monetized and our African roots are not exempt from it.

It is urgent to create spaces where we can reflect critically and affirm our black identity authentically and loaded with ancestral meaning. We need to challenge the stereotypes and generalizations that limit and silence us. Beyond mere superficial representations focused on food, drums, and dresses, it is essential to consider vital aspects such as health conditions, access to education, violence against black women, and migration within the black community. These are issues that deeply impact our lives and deserve to be addressed with seriousness and commitment.

One of the areas where this struggle for the affirmation of Afro-descendant identity is most evident is in the area of public safety. Mothers of black children in Panama live with constant fear and worry due to the racial profiling managed by security agencies. The reality is that Afro-descendant teenagers face a higher probability of being detained or profiled by security entities simply because of the color of their skin, we must not forget that in the first penitentiary census of the country, Afro-descendant adolescents represented 50% of the population and in the case of adults, this same percentage was 41% This fear and concern are experiences that mothers of white children and from "good families" will never have to face.

"New Hope" Penitentiary Center in Colon Panama

It is essential to create safe spaces where Afro-descendant mothers can share their experiences and concerns without fear of judgment or stigmatization. We need to discuss openly and honestly the social consequences of structural racism that condemns the majority of the Afro-descendant population of the country to live in impoverished sectors.

It is crucial to recover the spirit of resistance and freedom of cimarronaje, a legacy that our ancestors have left us, that encourages us to live proudly and with a solid black consciousness, to feel pride in how and who we are, without denying our African roots, those same roots that can help us connect and recover that combative spirit of resistance and re-existence so necessary at this moment throughout the region.


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