El Mes de la Etnia Negra (Black History Month in Panama)

May was a very interesting month to be in Panama. The country embarked on a celebration of its people of Afro-descent WHO span from the descendents of enslaved Africans brought here by the Spaniards to the descendents of West Indian labourers and indentured servants who helped build the Panama Canal to more recent immigrants from the Caribbean and other parts of Latin America. The month was called El Mes de La Etnia Negra with the underlying theme of "Africa en America".

What surprised me most about the celebrations that took place around the city for  this month was that they even took place at all. Certain Latin American countries  still refuse to acknowledge the contributions of their Afro-descendent citizens, much less dedicate an entire month to them. The events themselves were diverse, spanning the range of concerts, panel discussions, movies, parades, and more. The conversations people had around the month weren't simply celebratory, but also dealt with difficult issues of the ongoing poverty in Afro-Panamanian communities racism, and stereotypes. Here are some photos from the events I attended this month:

When I arrived in Panama City, I noticed how straight (sometimes to the point of limp and damaged) all the women's hair were. This was in direct contrast to women in the U.S. who, regardless of race, are sporting hairdos with more body, for the most part.  I then noticed that I could never find makeup in the stores in any shade darker than Alicia Keys, or hair products for anything other than straightening your hair and keeping it that way. After a stylist damaged my hair in Nairobi to the point that several parts never curled back, I have been wary of letting anyone unaccustomed to not-chemically processed black hair come near me with a flat iron. Thus, although I wasn't a big part of the "natural hair community" and #teamnatural back in the U.S.,  I found myself searching online for a community here that could, at the very least, recommend a stylist.

I attended a panel discussion entitled "El Cabello Afro y la Identidad Afropanameña" (Black Hair and Afro-Panamanian Identity) that was posted on Natural Yansi's Facebook page. The room was packed- standing room only- when I arrived to see afros of all shapes and sizes gathered around. The discussion was fascinating as women discussed the prejudice they faced for having "pelo malo" or "pelo duro" (bad hair or difficult hair) in a country that still adheres to Eurocentric beauty standards. Some had been passed up for jobs or had relationships end due to their natural hair. But the conversation was also reaffirming as many talked about how they felt beautiful and empowered by this community. 

It was also interesting to see the diversity of people who attended the event. Men of different races came to ask questions and engage in the conversation. Latinas who did not have Afro hair but had sisters or family that did talked about how this community had taught them how to take care of their family members hair. I also found a stylist amongst the panelists! The photos from the natural hair event(s) below are from Natural Yansi's page. 

The month also included an Africa en America Concert with black artists performing music from various genres that have influenced Panamanian music and culture. 

Panamanian dancehall star Kafu Banton performed and got the crowd moving.

The band Afrodisiaco brought a modern spin to traditional Panamanian music.

Raices Y Cultura performed a soulful roots, rock, reggae set. 

The dynamic Afro-Peruvian artist Susana Baca poured her heart out on the stage, leaving the audience mesmerized. 

I also attended the parade to commemorate the month. Panama's diversity was truly on display as, not only did people of Afro-descent from all over the country attend in their region's traditional clothing, but Panamanians from all ethnic backgrounds participated in the revelry. The audience and the people marching in the parade often blended into one  as the audience swelled to join in on a dance, a song, or simply to follow a band along the road as they passed by. It was an atmosphere of fun and jubilation.

The tricked out cars were just as much a part of the parade as the people were.  Many provided the soundtrack for the parade as they drove ahead of the participants playing Haitian kompa, Jamaican dancehall, Panamanian plena, reggaeton, and other genres from the region. 

Perhaps my favorite part of the month's events was when I stumbled upon a group of women, some in their Pollera Congos, chanting, clapping, and dancing along to the sound of a single tambores (drum). The white pollera with its wide skirt is now a national symbol of Panama, but the style of dress was once reserved only for slaves before it became popular amongst the upper-class. The women were performing a Congo Dance, a form of musical expression by which the “Cimarrons” (Africans who'd escaped slavery) conveyed their feelings of anger, pain, and joy. This  tradition had been passed down from generation to generation, specifically in Colon. As I watched, the next generation took their place in the circle with ease, never missing a beat. The children danced with pride and purpose. In their faces I could see that the Afro-Panamanian legacy would live on forever.