The College of Saint Rose and UDELAS in Panama

A partnership about education, culture and the exchange of ideas

Diverse Population in Panama


Panama is very diverse place and the term, Panamanian, I have figured out is very broad and represents many different ethnic groups.  This week, I have talked to Panama natives on the subject of ethnic groups in Panama and I have also compiled researched on my own to add to my topic. 

Refer to the map of Panama: 

Raul, an older man I met in Colon, said that there were three different groups of people in Panama; indigenous tribes, the blacks, and the farmers.  However, I have discovered that to narrow the Panamanian people down into a few groups is very difficult.  The people of Panama come from many different backgrounds, which causes there to be a wide range of skin color among its people.  A majority of Panamanian people are mestizos, a mix of European and Native American descent, or mulattoes, those of European and African heritage.  Blacks, whites and Native Americans make up the rest of the country. Additionally within these categories, minorities of whites from Europe and North America, Asians, Jews, Caribbean blacks and people of Middle Eastern descent all exist.

When we first arrived in Panama we recognized just how diverse even the city of Panama is.  Where our Hostal is located in Punta Paitilla, we were told it is a very rich area where many of the Jews in Panama live.  Additionally, when we went drove through Casco Viejo, a poorer part of the city of Panama, I saw the city’s China Town. 

It is known that the Chinese first settled in Panama during the mid-1900’s since they were a major source of labor in completing and operating the Canal Railway system.   

Demetrio, a man I work with at the finance office in the university, UDELAS, stated how there were five different indigenous tribes; the Kunas, Nöbe Buglé also known as Guaymie, Embera-Wounaan, Teribe, and the Bokata.  Demetrio is actually a part of the Kuna tribe.  You can recognize the female Kunas throughout the city since they wear hand make the same outfits and head piece, and also wear jewelry that covers their legs and arms. 

The men, including Demetrio, wear modern clothes; so many times it is hard to recognize that they are a part of the Kuna tribe.  The Kunas are known to never marry Latinos, only within the Kuna tribe or Americans.  Additionally, I asked if many Kunas or other indigenous people go on to receive their post secondary education, and Raul stated how very little indigenous people do attend universities.  So Demetrio would be included in the small percentage of indigenous people who receive their Bachelors degree and go onto to obtain exceptional careers.  Most of the Kuna people we have seen throughout the city have been vendors at all the artesanías (Souvenir Shops).

I first assumed that the Kuna tribe was the largest indigenous tribe in Panama since we frequently saw Kunas throughout our daily adventures here in Panama. However, I learned from Raul that the Nöbe Buglé is in fact the largest indigenous tribe in the country.  They reside mainly in Chiriquí Province and Bocas Del Toro.  Women of tribe wear handmade bright colored gowns sewn in geometric shapes while men’s dress is basically modern.  The people of the Nöbe Buglé commonly work in restaurants.

Embera-Wounaan tribe that Raul also talked about discussed resides in the town of Darién.  He stated how the people live in baja casas known as teepees in which the men and women only cover their bottom half of their bodies.  Many Emberas marry within the tribe or with Columbian Blacks.  The Embera tribe is bilingual and speaks Spanish and Embera.


The Teribe tribe is another small, indigenous tribe in Panama.  Many Teribes have adopted the dominant mestizo culture, and the knowledge of the history and the traditions of the tribes are diminishing generation by generation.  However, the Teribe tribe speaks their own language, and the tribe is known to not use any Spanish words within their language.

The Bokata tribe resides mainly in eastern Bocas Del Toro, an area so remote that up until the mid-eighties hardly a road existed.

Panama had recognized that most the country’s illiterate people many years ago, was within the indigenous tribes.  With the help of the government, the number of illiterate indigenous people has declined tremendously, since the government improved its education by building many Indian schools.

We were fortunate to be here on May 30th, the day of the country celebrates Etnia Negra.  At the university UDELAS, we joined in on the celebrations and watched traditional dances and ate Panamanian cuisines.  Raul also stated how October 12th is the Dia de Rasa, the Day of the Race, that is celebrated every year by all of the Panamanian people.

In conclusion, you can see how diverse the population in Panama really is.  It has been very interesting to see many different skin colors and different backgrounds in Panama, compared to my experience in Mexico, the other Spanish-speaking country I have been to.


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