The College of Saint Rose and UDELAS in Panama

A partnership about education, culture and the exchange of ideas

Family & Related Topics in Panama City


The family dynamic is an aspect of American culture that we’ve all learned without having to be taught in school. It’s an interesting thing to try to pick up on when you’re an outsider observing the culture. It’s also a difficult topic to ask others questions about, because there’s a lot of cultural stipulations around privacy and asking questions that I don’t exactly have a handle on yet. I was asking one of the students in the speech clinic, Milagros, about how much a speech pathologist might make in this country and if it is a comparatively lucrative career. She grew red in the face and told me, “no le pregunte“, “don’t ask that.” So when interviewing three other students in the clinic about Panama’s family dynamic, Margarita, Angelo, and Yulymay, I tread with caution.

Margarita is a 21-year-old girl with a friendly face and big dimples who lives with her mother and brother, Angelo is a 19-year-old male student who lives with his mother, stepfather, and brother, and Yulymay is a 19-year-old who resides with her mother and three brothers. Contrary to the American stereotype of Latino families, it is not customary to live with your grandparents or extended family. All of them reported that their extended family lived hours away and they saw them mostly on holidays and that was it. They all live within the limits of Panama City and attend UDELAS to study speech-language pathology/audiology.  UDELAS is a public institution that costs about (you might want to sit down for this) $1500 per year to attend. It is not customary to take out loans from the bank to pay for education, so to have enough disposable income to pay for tuition annually means the students I interviewed are generally lower-to-upper middle class, much like most university students in the United States. The students told me that most of the students who attend public universities in Panama have parents who have “government jobs”, but I’m pretty sure there’s a flexible definition to that term. Nurses, speech pathologists, a lot of the careers associated with health are all paid by the government. So their opinion of family will be subjective, but I suppose that’s true of anyone depending upon their experiences.

They told me that mostly lower class families have more children and upper class families have less. They shrugged their shoulders when I asked why, but I imagine that it’s the same reasons that this is a trend all over the world, in developed and undeveloped countries alike. Lack of education, lack of knowledge of and access to contraception, and the tendency to start families earlier in life. However, it wasn’t strange to see some of the girls walking around campus with shirt uniforms taught around pregnant bellies. (Yes, all of the students at the university level are issued a uniform which is dependent upon their field of study.) A 19-year-old who is currently observing in the clinic, Tifani, has a one-year-old. I asked the students when it was typical to start having kids and raising a family. “15 or 16” they told me, which was pretty shocking. They added that financial independence and moving out happens for most people between 20-25 yrs, depending on the family, which is similar to the United States. They explained that there were some really extreme cases of people becoming pregnant as early as 8-years-old, but it’s “raro“, rare. Angelo and Margarita attended public high school (escuela secundaria) and said it wasn’t weird in high school to see a lot of the girls attending class, after-school activities, and going about their teenage lives pregnant. It’s not seen as scandalous, in fact, it’s fairly normal to have kids in high school. Angelo said that having children in high school usually doesn’t stop girls from finishing up and getting their high school diploma- it usually doesn’t discourage them from studying at the university level, either. No idea how they work that out. Yulymay went to a private high school, where she reported that high school pregnancy is less common. Just like in the states, the difference between public and private schools is the cost of tuition. However, a faculty member at UDELAS who works closely with us, Alexis, told us that private schools offer a richer education than the public schools, depending on the area. Private schools also put heavy stress on bilingualism. Speaking English, and more currently, Mandarin, is a huge advantage for those who can afford to learn it.

Another interesting aspect of family is the culture surrounding marriage. The Catholic church is largely strict and conservative here. Because so many couples are having children before their marriage ceremony, they cannot have a wedding ceremony in church here. They all agreed that more commonly, a wedding ceremony is done by an equivalent of a justice of the peace and sometimes even the parents of the bride and groom aren’t present. There is sometimes a big party afterwards, but the size and caliber depends on the family.

I’ve been finding other little tidbits of information about family life here. The driving age is 16 yrs to begin learning and to drive in certain places or only drive certain types of cars, and 18 yrs to drive independently. A driving class is mandated by the government, one week for a regular program or two weeks for an intensive program. The law also mandates that you buy car insurance. From what I understand, it sounds about the same as the system going in the US. Most kids my age use their parent’s car if they do drive, meaning their parents need it for work and they don’t get to take it to school.

For a modest house in the outskirts of Panama City, Alexis told us that 2 or 3 bedrooms will cost about $20-30,ooo. Panamanians use the American dollar and refer to it as “balboa“. With the economic crisis, he said that prices are constantly climbing. He lives alone and bought himself a “rather large” house a few years ago for $30,000 which is now worth about $70,000. Larger houses in wealthier neighborhoods can cost up to $200,000, but that’s extremely costly to Panamanians. Wow! He went on to say that utilities: gas, water, electric (remember, they have AC everywhere), cost him for one person about $200 per month. It’s no small wonder it’s becoming increasingly popular for Americans to move down here!

I’m learning more with every day and every conversation here in Panama. It’s almost exhausting having so much information to take in. I look forward to sharing more soon. Hasta luego!


1 Comment»

  foxa488 wrote @

I didn’t know that some Panamanians don’t feel comfortable about providing certain information such as the annual income. Very interesting and good to keep in mind when interviewing for my next blogs!

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