The Caribbean is composed of wonderful cultures, languages, and belief systems. The region can be defined geographically, culturally, or a mix of both, but however you define it, migration (forced and unforced) is a key component. It is at the heart of the definition of the Caribbean. The movement of people and African cultural retention in the Caribbean has led to a unique art scene. This is no different for Afro Panamanians in Panama. Panama has sustained significant cultural contributions from people of African descent in food, music, and art. Despite Panama not being widely recognized as a Caribbean nation, when considering the cultural contributions from Afro Panamanian artists we should think of Panama as part of the Caribbean region. Not only are artistic expressions throughout Panama largely influenced by Afro Panamanians, but these artistic expressions also highlight Afro Panamanian’s centrality to the nation building of Panama.
Similar to many Caribbean nations, Panama has a racial hierarchy. Therefore historically, Afro Panamanians, particularly of West Indian descent, have faced significant discrimination. In this article, I give a brief history of the immigration of West Indians to Panama and then discuss their involvement with Diablos Rojos, Panama’s well known public buses.
History of West Indian Migration to Panama
West Indian immigration to Panama marked a turning point in the nation’s history. West Indians were recruited to Panama to assist in large economic development projects. The first wave of Caribbean immigrants to Panama came primarily from Jamaica in the 1850s to build the Panamanian railroad. Since Panama’s economy was centered around moving goods from the Atlantic to the Pacific and vice versa, building a railroad was of national importance. In this first wave of migration, approximately 5,000 Jamaicans immigrated to Panama. The second wave of migration came in the 1870s and 1880s during the “French attempt” at building the Panama Canal. This second wave of migration saw more English speaking West Indians immigrate to Panama, but also French speaking West Indians as well. The French administration recorded that in May 1884, more than 18,000 workers were listed on the payroll, with most of these laborers coming from Barbados, Martinique, Saint Lucia, and Jamaica. Upon French failure to build the canal in 1889, approximately 13,000 workers were left stranded in Panama. The British would later repatriate approximately 7,000 of these workers back to Jamaica. The last wave of migration to Panama from the Caribbean (1890–1915) saw a significant increase in the number of people, many of whom stayed. In total, from 1850–1915 approximately 130,000 people from the British West Indies immigrated to and remained in Panama. The majority of migrants were young males in search of work opportunities.
Caribbean immigrants to Panama typically settled in the urban cities of Panama City or Colon City near the Canal. Their arrival did not only produce a change in the economics of Panama, but also the culture of the country as well. However, this culture change was not received well by the dominant Hispanic culture. Prominent Panamanian politicians were fearful that West Indians would change the national identity and lead foreigners to believe that “there are only Blacks” in Panama. In 1941, President Arnulfo Arias enacted constitutional changes which discriminated against English speaking West Indians. Although President Arias was soon deposed and the constitution returned to its original form, negative views towards West Indians continued.
Panama, like many Latin American countries, constructed a rainbow society (crisol de razas). In this rainbow society, the presence of Blacks is minimized. Additionally, this society seeks to differentiate Blacks with Spanish sounding surnames of colonial origin, with Blacks having English sounding surnames of Caribbean ancestry. Blacks with English sounding surnames are often referred to as Chombos. In this hierarchical society, Blacks of Caribbean ancestry are at the bottom. Negative attitudes towards Panamanians of West Indian descent persist today. In Panama there exists a saying trabajar como negro, meaning “work hard like a Black person.” Although it disparages Black people in Panama, it also highlights the significant economic contributions Black people have made in Panama. Despite this, Black people, particularly of Caribbean descent, have often been excluded from wider Panamanian society including its art scene.
In Panama, many people, particularly the working class, do not own vehicles. To move around the city, public transportation is used. Until about 10 years ago, the primary method of public transportation (along with taxis) were Diablos Rojos (Red Devils) buses. At times, the number of buses was about 1,200. Diablos Rojos buses are former United States school buses which were repainted to mirror Panamanian society. Paintings on the buses include religious, political, and cultural scenes and figures. They serve as similar outlets of expression as minibuses found in Paramaribo, Suriname except they often cover the entire body of the bus.
Diablos Rojos get their name from Diablos Sucios costumes seen at festivals in Panama, as well as the buses’ rojo (red) base paint. On Panama’s Atlantic coast, Diablos Sucios costumes reflect the region’s Afro-colonial history. In festivals, the “satanic-like” Diablos Sucios costumes represent Spanish settlers who terrorize escaped enslaved Africans known as Congos. Moreover, both Diablos Sucios and Diablos Rojos evoke emotions of a rojo (red) hell.
It’s important to note that although the Diablos Rojos collectively served as Panama’s public transportation, each one was privately owned and operated. Consequently, the art on each bus reflected its owner. The idea was that the more visually spectacular the bus, the more likely it was to attract customers. The painters of these buses were often descendants of West Indian immigrants. Thus, the art on the buses often takes the form of Afro Caribbean expression, containing elements important to the African Diaspora. The buses were a true window into Afro Panamanian culture and how that influenced the wider Panamanian society.
For decades, Panama’s Diablos Rojos appeared as Afro Caribbean expressions traveling throughout the country. These artistic expressions were counter cultural to the national identity put forth by the Panamanian government. Despite this, Diablos Rojos and the loud reggaeton which could often be heard from buses’ speakers, are what international travelers remembered most about Panama. Although Diablos Rojos have been replaced in Panama by commercial buses, their art lives on. The same artistic expressions that could be found on Diablos Rojos continue to decorate walls in barbershops, supermarkets, and restaurants.
When considering the nation of Panama, it is not usually discussed as being part of the Caribbean region. However, when evaluating the artistic works of Afro Panamanians we can see there is a clear and strong link to the Caribbean. In Panama’s West Indian community, artists have contributed to the nation’s famous Diablos Rojos which acted as a canvas for cultural, religious, and political scenes and figures in Panama. Despite the Panamanian government’s deliberate actions to minimize Afro Panamanians, particularly those of West Indian descent, some of Panama’s most important cultural objects (beyond just Diablos Rojos) are intertwined with Afro Panamanian artistic expressions. These expressions do not hinder Hispanic culture within Panama, but instead indicate that Panama is a Caribbean nation too.