Panama is the smallest Spanish-speaking country in Latin America by population and ranks sixty-fourth in world population comparable to the US states of Utah, Oklahoma, Kansas and Iowa. Panama has about 30,000 square miles of surface area about the size of South Carolina. There are about 3 million citizens roughly the size of Chicago, Illinois. The width of Panamanian ranges from 48 to 118 miles. About 70% of the population is meztiso a mix of the local Indian and European with African, Chinese, East Indian and Sephardic veins flowing through the rest of the population mix. And one local paper recently opined that 40% of the republics citizens have some Chinese genes with about half of those live in Panama City. Median income is $4600 dollars annually, with 40% of the population living in poverty and 9% on less than a dollar a day. About 20% are Rabi Blanco (Panamanian for white butts/pale cheeks) or upper class and 40% own a car a middle class marker here. A substantial number of the poor are original peoples living on Comarca’s, something like US reservations, and the others subsistence farmers or day labors from the outlying communities. In comparison, the annual per capital income in Beijing 2005 was $2,263, and in Vietnam $600 and some 2.7 billion others on the planet live on less than $2.00 a day, $730 a year while we in the US struggle by on $43k a year.
Any discussion of Panamanian foodways and society must include the foods and cultures of the surrounding West Indies and Caribbean coast as well as the pre-Columbian inhabitants who developed the bases for the hybrid cuisine and cultures of lower America. Boundaries set by modern cartographers or nation builders really have little to do with the influence of hybridized foodways and cultures. The population of all the nineteen Caribbean Islands combined, not including Cuba, is about 11 million and Central America’s seven countries are home to 42 million of the total 53 million. California has 38 million so you can see the difficulty of defining or validating the cuisines these 26 small countries. I guess we could divide California into cuisines but that’s only possible because there’s an awful lot of food to categorize and choose from. The nations known as the Caribs, Arawaks, Taino, Olmecs, Incas and Aztecs, although these names were bestowed by the Spanish invaders not the existing cultures, were the progenitors of today’s Caribbean diet. Furthermore some of the oldest samples of corn, chilies and yams in the Americas come from a rock shelter called the Ladrones Cave in Panama dated about 8000 years ago the jury is still deliberating as to whether or they were gathered or cultivated. Many accepted tenets of 20 century anthropology are beings displaced by today’s newer more accurate dating and genetic investigation techniques. The indigenous peoples of the area were thought to have been wiped out, by whatever equation of Spanish aggression, native warfare or imported disease you chose, but new investigation prove that those gene pools still exist with low blood quantum’s since those cultures were assimilated into the post Columbian genetic base.
The Olmecs, known as the rubber people in native Nantua, were the first of the larger established great societies and through trade and cultural interaction certainly must have influenced the other peripheral cultures of the area. The Aztecs influenced people south of then while the Inca those to the North and both these cultures used the isthmus as the conduit. It’s difficult to really assign international boundaries to any pre-Columbian culture since people moved between the islands of the west Indies and the coast easier by sea without having to slug through the jungle. The Taino told Columbus of the fierce Caribs who had eaten their way thought the Arawaks of the surrounding islands before his arrival. It’s probable that the Aztecs, Incas, Mayans and Olmecs may have all indulged in a little human now and then but as to how much we’ll undoubtly never know. There also are several forms of cannibalism … you liked the person, you didn’t like the person, the gods made you do it or you were so hungry you could’ve eaten a horse but didn’t have one. Some jungle anthropologists are convinced that the practice continues in the interior of Brazil. Columbus and his chroniclers have left many drawing of human abattoirs, feasts and the method of cooking now know as barbecue using pimento wood to impart a smoky taste to large cuts of man, women and child. Legends tell us that jerk seasoning was a condiment invented to preserve and spice up the occasional bland human of whom the Spanish were said to be the toughest and least flavorful.
The first blacks were Iberians who accompanied Columbus and other explorers. During the first decades of the sixteenth century hundreds of Ladinos, black slaves born in Spain, found their way to Hispaniola. Things accelerated after King Charles of Spain, bowing to the pleas for labor in the new colonies, allowed the transport of black directly from Africa. Within 50 years, the Spanish had gained control over the richest, most civilized, most populated and exploitable regions of the Aztec and Inca empires. They soon dominated their respective region and the most productive islands in the Caribbean with no rivals but the Portuguese in Brazil. They were later joined by French, English, and Dutch arrivals who settle the most undesirable and uncultivable land. The Spanish built cities for their elite with an entitled, through a 1533 papal bull by Paul the III declared the locals humans, indigenous serving class. Hard labor was supplied by imported black laborers who spent a year acclimatized in feed lot like “conditioning camps” before they were tethered to fields all loosely stitched together by the power of the Catholic church.
The slavery paradigm developed and supplied by the Portuguese, became the production mode throughout Lower Latin American. Slaves outnumbered, often by double-digit ratios, their custodians. Members of the Ashanti, Fanti, Yoburu and Ibo tribes came together on the same plantation and each nation brought their own different language, religion, cultural memes and food along. This early diverse composite of different languages helps to explain the wealth of culinary titles for the same item. Runaway slaves called Cimarron’s or Maroons even established their own governing areas recognized by the Spanish, Dutch and English. Slaves were only given the basic of diets using the widely known salted meats and cod of the day which they ingeniously combined with the local cultivars or imported ones from Africa. A slave ship with 500 on board would stock 100,000 yams for the middle crossing. Estimates put traffic to at least 4 million to Brazil, the Spanish West Indies at 2.5 million, 2 million to the British , 1.6 to the French and ½ million to the Dutch West Indies and a paltry half million to the American South.
That’s not to say that slaves or indentured labor didn’t come from places other than Africa. Europeans did come as indentured labor early on and many were hostages and prisoners from Cromwell’s campaign to conquer Scotland and Ireland. But they, like many of those who followed, succumbed to the tropical conditions. Irish slaves were first sold in Brazil part and parcel of England’s century long attempt to answer the Irish and Scottish question. By the latter sixteen hundreds over 200,000 Irish slaves had been deported to the Americas and these included 100,000 children under the age of 14 with a few Scotsman thrown in for good measure. The estimates for African slaves imported up until 1870 reached 10 to 15 million with only 5% going to North America. The first Chinese came to Trinidad in 1806 or some argues several hundred years earlier with Admiral Zheng He’s treasure – exploration fleet.
East Indians began arriving in earnest by 1838 and an estimated ½ million had migrated by 1917 mostly to the English West Indies but this figure, like those for all forced immigrants, does include those who died on the crossing with an estimated 10% just tossed overboard. When the British abolished slavery in 1834, a severe shortage of labor at their New World plantations ensued. English representative soon set up recruiting centers in India to fill the personnel gap with indentured conscripts who were promised excellent opportunities in the West Indies. These unknowing usually rural bumpkins assured that they wouldn’t end up converting to Christianity and start eating cows and pigs, gladly signed on for two, five or seven-year contracts. Of course conditions were not what they were represented to be and many lost their lives but their surviving ancestors have and still do affect the foodways of the whole Caribbean area. Since they settled in mostly what where British possessions of the period their influence is most evident along the coasts and on the islands. Initially they toiled in Jamaica, Trinidad-Tobago, and Guyana until their terms were up and then many moved to continental areas where more land was available. As with the Chinese, their gene pools have been greatly diluted so in this exploration we’ll think of all the racial types as people of ethnic origin who brought their own respective cultural memes with them.
In other words, many of these people with East Indian Origin have no connections with the old country other than a few social and culinary artifacts displayed as great or little traditions and a recipe or two from their grandmothers. Yet their foodways have still affected those of the Caribbean area even though many have converted to Christianity and no longer adhere to the religious taboos of their ancestors. They furthermore have intermarried with the locals and many other races as participants in Latin America like their Indian counterparts in England today. The lower Americans have over a million people of East Indian Origin and population figures for Panama City exceed 100,000.
The Portuguese were losing most of their Eastern empire and when rumors about gold and sliver began emanating from the interior of Brazil, they moved westward. There were striking differences between the Spanish and Portuguese labor pool. Even after newly introduce animal and human vector diseases had taken their toll the Spanish still had a large population of from which to recruit their labor. But Portuguese Brazil had a much smaller indigenous population in the interior of the jungle who were not easily enslaved, so labor had to be imported from Africa in a model that most of the new world would follow. Conditions were hellish, few of the Brazilians slaves survived long to reproduce offspring, so need for replacements was constant. However, the landed and administrative gentry could still produce offspring and did so frequently quickly jump starting the racial diverse populations Brazil and the first American racial fusion although this equality is only at evident at carnival and holidays usually represented by common ritualized menus.
Cultural memes, languages, foods and religions were virtually ineradicable in most of Brazil’s hinterland areas. The variegated examples fertility propitiation woven into many Catholic ceremony’s, as well as the language and food types of modern-day Lower America are striking examples of artifacts that refused to die. Both the local peoples and African imports were under franchised and that explains the abundance of black and cappuccino colored saints, old country food names, cuisines, fashion and social dynamics that developed apart from the Spanish, Dutch, French or English-speaking land owners of the colonial period. Many of the blacks who migrated to Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Honduras to work bananas and the railroad came from Barbados and Jamaica. Imported food, like salt cod and meats, was cheaper than the crops being worked so many slaves left the islands for the mainland not just for freedom but also for something to eat. Furthermore, the mixed tribal membership, customs, language and religion of the new arrivals insured little solidarity amongst the diverse group. Laws separated East Indians, locals and Africans and propaganda so there would be no intermarriage, or collusion between the early groups that might foster solidarity.
The Spanish helped to give the Americas a common culture, tongue, religion and cuisine that still holds sway over the lower Americas. The conquistadors put the different cultures in touch with each other more than early trade had. The early South American settlements of the Spanish had been coastal ones until the rumor and quest for gold and other commodities spurred explorations into the interior. Like their food, the Spanish took pride in their mixed ancestry and the inclusion or substitution of the indigenous tongues with that of Iberia are prime example. The Spanish invaders readily accepted and affected native dress, holidays, foods and arts and even dressing in tribal attire for balls. For a millennia or so European trade had flowed from the East to the West simply because the east had all the neat stuff like spices, silk, porcelain, fine art, literature and medicine and the means and routes for supplying them. Gold and silver from Peru and Mexico and emeralds of Ecuador gave Europe hard coin to trade with and new sources of food to spur population growth. During the middle eighteen hundreds, the sliver Mexican peso was the coin of trade in the China – Manila – Acapulco triangle trade route. This new wealth opened up the long isolated regions of lower American as never before allowing an exchange of culture and cultivars that otherwise might never have happened especially along the Peru to Mexico trade route. Mule trains carrying sliver across the isthmus and along the plate river through Bolivia to the Atlantic also took food with them and the euphemism “in the mule driver’s style” often became the descriptive nomenclature for newly transmitted recipes.
Escaped slaves settled in the most remote and inaccessible areas for obvious reasons and soon began intermarrying with the natives creating Zambo societies like the Garifuna. Many slave uprisings and rebellions only intensified the already existing attitudes towards the blacks established when the moors thrown out of Spain when the reconquista purged the Moors (Blacks) and Jews. Racial classification or Castas were created with many levels that still exists as cultural memes today although not as vehement as it had been in earlier history. Lack of good girls from home meant that many blacks birthed caste children and if you weren’t white or a slave you were a casta … everybody’s grandmother was a “Cherokee Princess”. Acedula de gracias al saccar could be bought from the crown making you a card-carrying rabi blanco, although it is unknown whether this made any difference to the holder or their children, and parents could prevent their children from marrying anyone of unclean blood. Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Brazil and Panama have the highest proportion of blacks in all of Latin America and 1/3 of the total population overall is black while a World Bank study of 2007 states that 72% of all Panamanians are of traceable African descent.
The Atlantic side Panama was often raided for both slaves and tortoise-shell by Jamaican and Nicaraguan entrepreneurs to supply the British West Indies which greatly decreased the population of both turtles and the local Indians. Black Jamaican took advantage of this sparsely populated Atlantic coast and settled in Costa Rica and Panama while they continued to stay in touch with their families and culture in the islands by sea. Blacks built the railroads in Central America and hired on as mercenaries for 20 years of various local civil wars. When the wars ended or rails ceased to be laid many settled in Bocas del Toro where they began to grow bananas. Five thousand died in the building of the canal and many local dances are a distillation of African choreography using African inspired instruments. Caribbean Coastal menus show heavy African influences and were classified by their island origin and language. Coloniales were Spanish-speaking slaves, Antillanos were English-speaking Creole blacks, the Miskito were Spanish-speaking Indian-Blacks and a small group called Garifuna maintained their own language with Spanish undertones. Blacks working on the railroad came mainly from Barbados because Jamaica taxed any of its citizens who migrated to Panama as laborer after the French failure of the first isthmus railroad.
The Chinese first settled in Trinidad in 1806, or perhaps with Zheng He the Three Jeweled Eunuch between 1405 and 1433, and gradually spread throughout Central and South America with the largest population now living in Peru where there are some 2000 chifas, little restaurants, serving different arroz chafu or Chinese fried rice. Panama has the largest population of Chinese in Central America with an estimated 100,000 bloods residing in Pandemonium City reading two Chinese newspapers and listening to the only Chinese radio broadcast in the lower Americas in several dialects. Their influence permeates the culture, which boasts 35 benevolent societies as well as a Chinese cultural center offering Mandarin and cooking classes. About a thousand Chinese had arrived by 1854 to answering the world-wide casting call, that also brought Irish, German, Hindu, French, German and Malays, to build the world’s first transcontinental railroad since Americans were put off with warning of endemic cholera, dysentery, yellow fever and malaria. They came as indentured laborers with their own cooks who were to be supplied by labor contractors with foods from home that included dyed fish, salted vegetables, noodles, rice, soy sauce and a ration of opium for each worker. When railroad authorities in America discovered this drug use, without any knowledge of addiction or withdrawal, they ordered a cold turkey stoppage of the supply. Well withdrawals are a bitch, that coupled with staggeringly bad working conditions, unavailability of fresh vegetables, and a cholera outbreak threw the celestial community in a malaise that prompted the suicide of hundreds by hanging, decapitation and self-impalement. Of the surviving 400 local authorities sent 200 to Jamaica to join some 50 others who had fled there earlier where they influenced that islands culture and, like in Panama, would soon control the grocery business and influence the diets of the Caribbean.
By the nineteen forties estimates put at the number of Chinese owned little markets in Panama at close to 3,000 explaining the euphemism “The Chino’s” used today to mean any market. Masters of marketing these little grocery stores, especially in the interior, did and still do offered items in the smallest of increments at affordable prices like one slice of cheese , one egg , one ounce of cooking oil or one roll. Those who settled on the Caribbean coast, especially Colon, spoke more English than those who lived inland or on the Pacific coast because of the canal and their proximity to the English West Indies just another example of the striking difference between coastal cultures even when the distance separating them might be no more than 60 miles apart.
America’s 1870 naturalization, which stipulated that only whites and blacks could migrate and its 1882 Chinese exclusion act preventing any Chinese migration shifted destinations to the lower Americas primarily Panama and Peru. In addition, because most of the immigrants were male an interesting patanomic name structure evolved that used Hispanic given names coupled with Chinese surnames creating delightful monikers like Jesus Loo de Martinez, Jessie Wang Fu de Gamboa, and the like. This vivid racial composition would certainly explain some of the interesting fusions of food and names in Panama and Central America. Considering claims that up 77% of the population has an Afro, 40% Chinese, 10% European and 6% Native genetic backgrounds meztiso is indeed the best possible term for Panamanians. You’ll see varying colors of people on the street with Asiatic and occidental eyes, and might even counter with a diminutive albino member of the Kuna Nation, who have the highest levels of albinism in the world. Estimates place the number of “blood” Chinese at 100,000 in Pandemonium City. Of note is that the only human causality of the November 4, 1903 break with Columbia was a Chinese merchant named Wong Kong Yee. In 1903 Panama halted all Chinese immigration but we all know there are ways to get around edicts in Panama. About 1000 celestials were expelled in 1941 after anger surface over their control of the grocery business when they were stripped of citizenship and prohibited from owning business. In 1950 of 1759 of Chinese immigrants entering Panama 1625 were men and of those 1065 settled in Panama City.
The Caribbean side has a higher population of English speakers then the Pacific side because of the early migrations of slave labor from the English-speaking islands of Jamaica and Barbados. In fact when the Americans took over the building of the canal the governor of Jamaica prohibited migrating to Panama for the project because it was causing a severe local labor shortage and levied a tax on anyone wished to migrate as labor. These Creole speaking African descendants also imprinted the cuisine of the country, with spicy chilies, okra, frou frou, and challoos. Although the guidebooks might tell you Spanish is spoken here they don’t tell you it’s Caribbean Spanish that has its own patois and many euphemism derived from African, Chinese, Hindi, English and various indigenous Indian dialects.
The early Spanish used to bring sliver to Panama City from Peru to Portobello and then haul it across the isthmus to the Caribbean by mule via the cobblestone Los Cruces trail. The hard cash and other valuable assets were shipped to Spain on a yearly treasure fleets, think the black ship in Shogun, until the route became unprofitable due to the pirates of the Caribbean and the course changed to round the Cape of Good Hope, South America. Early Panama, as with later colonized areas of South America, had a surplus of beefs and the meat stayed here, no refrigeration, while the hides were shipped to Spain for tanning until the advent of the canning industry and corned beef. So beef was available to lots of people during the colonial period and the locals learned to cook and eat every available part of the cow.