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Culture, Society and Religion

Panama - Culture, Society and Religion


Panama's culture has evolved from all the different ethnic groups which have made their home in the country, most of them indigenous. These include Cuna, Guaymi and Panamanian Indians, and the culture was affected further by the colonization by the Spanish during the 16th century. The Cuna is one of the most famous tribes in Panama and is well known for creating close communities which can be seen and experienced throughout the country.

The current population is around 70% those with mixed heritage, 14% those of American Indian and Caribbean heritage, 10% white and 6% native Indian.

The society of Panama has over the years reflected the geographic position of the country in that it has long been considered to be a transit zone. As many people passed through to get to other places they left their mark on the country. There have long been expat communities in the country from Asia, Europe and North America and their beliefs and lifestyles have integrated with those of the native Panamanians.

For many years there was a definite class system in Panama, with the richer white population at the top and the native Indians and black population at the bottom. The divisions in society were also based on the type of work that you did, your wealth, the type of education that you had and your family background. These divisions began when the Spanish colonized the country - the locals were not able to afford the lands and property which came to be owned by the settlers and with land came further wealth and power.

Panamanian culture still includes many old fashioned attitudes, although the cities are becoming more cosmopolitan. These include the opinion that a woman’s place is in the home - in the cities it is not uncommon for women to go out to work and often hold senior roles within a company, but in rural areas it is mainly the men that work.

There are also many customs which are a strong part of the country’s culture. There is a bright national costume worn by the women for festivals and special occasions and there is a toned-down version of the same outfit that can be worn on a daily basis. This costume is known as the pollera montuna and consists of a full floral skirt and a white lace blouse. The men wear a costume which is not as brightly coloured, consisting of black trousers, white shirt and a straw hat. Each Indian tribe has their own traditional style of dress and most will use it as daily wear. The One Thousand Pollera Parade is a celebration of the national costumes which is held every year and brings together all the different ethnic groups in the country.

Fairs and festivals are a strong part of the culture and the Panamanians throw themselves into celebrations with gusto. The town of Macaracas, for example, is home of the Epiphany celebration and there are public dances, weddings, parades and other performances. This celebration dates back nearly 200 years and part of this festival sees the town come together to build a home for a poor family.

Music is an important part of everyday life and wherever you go you will hear it in shops, restaurants, taxis and even buses. Most of the music is tropical salsa which is extremely popular in Panama. Theatre is also popular although most shows are amateur productions. Productions are staged in Spanish but there are one or two English-speaking theatre companies in the country which stage well-known musicals and plays.

Most Panamanians are Roman Catholic. They are often referred to as mestizos, a broad term which has been used to describe anyone of mixed racial heritage. Around 80% of the population is Catholic, but there is no religious oppression and individuals may practice whichever religion they wish. Protestantism has grown in popularity over the last few decades. There are also growing Jewish communities in Panama. Religious festivals and the celebrations of saints' days are very much a part of the culture in Panama, often with music and parades.


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