Negotiating Blackness: West Indians and Afro-Hispanics in Panama

June 2015

Sonja Stephenson Watson, The Politics of Race in Panama: Afro-Hispanic and West Indian Literary Discourses of Contention (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2014); 184 pages; ISBN 978-081304986 (hardcover)

In recent years there has been an explosion of scholarly work on blacks and blackness in Latin America that has moved away from simply demonstrating that racial discrimination exists to analyzing the different ways black communities represent their multifaceted identities, relate to the neoliberal state, and mobilize politically internally and transnationally for political representation and inclusion. There remains much scholarly work to do on black writers in Spanish-speaking Latin American nation-states; their history remains glossed over or entirely absent.

Sonja Stephenson Watson has written a much-needed intervention on the histories of literary production and how it has shaped discourses on blackness in Panama. The Politics of Race in Panama: Afro-Hispanic and West Indian Literary Discourses of Contention is one of the first texts to conceptualize Afro-Panamanian identity by articulating its multiple productions as a result of variously distinct black diasporas. In addition, it highlights these black communities’ quest to become Panamanian after centuries of slavery and statelessness and decades of postcolonial Antillean migrations. This study is a significant contribution: by exploring the similarities and differences of how the very national apparatus excludes and folklorizes both black communities, it unsettles the simplistic fallacies that black Panamanian communities are divided by language, assimilation, and religion.

In her introduction, Watson masterfully lays out a foundational historiography on black literature and its intrinsic linkage with nineteenth-century Panamanian nation-building projects. She notes, “Black literature in Panama falls into two general categories, the writings of Spanish-speaking blacks (Afro-Hispanics), direct descendants of enslaved Africans in Panama, and the writings of West Indians, who are part of the community who migrated primarily from the Anglophone Caribbean to work on the Panama Railroad (1850–55) and the Canal (1904–14)” (2). Watson is poignantly attentive to the historical tensions between both black communities as Afro-Hispanics are appropriated into the narrative of mestizaje in Panama’s self-making as a unified Hispanic nation. However, West Indians and their descendants remain perpetual foreigners, despite their decades of contributions to the nation, because of their blackness, language, and religion. Most works on blacks in Panama have focused on either West Indian heritage or the Afro-Hispanic presence. Watson’s significant intervention is to place both these black Panamanian communities into conversation with each other: noting their complexities, tensions, and possibilities of unification through the umbrella term Afro-Panamanian.

The starting point for Watson is nineteenth-century Panamanian nation-building rhetoric and its suppression of black consciousness through the literary productions of black writers. Beginning at the historical conjuncture of postindependence Panama is an important discursive move because of the racial project of mestizaje. Mestizaje as a nation-building project intends to construct an imaginary of a racially mixed nation-state whose racial mixedness creates race sameness that is divorced from racial oppression. This illusion of racial democracy is the very pillars of nation-building rhetoric throughout Latin America’s postindependence era. Race and nation have remained inseparable concepts in Panama that have excluded peoples of African descent by reinforcing national discourses of homogeneity. Afro-Hispanic poets Federico Escobar and Gaspar Octavio Hernández illustrate the tension that race created in their writings during the formation of the new republic. Black Panamanian writers during the period 1880–1920 promoted a nationalistic unity based on an imagined and deracialized cultural homogeneity.

Watson digs into a forgotten literary archive of Afro-Hispanic writers whose simultaneous affirmations and distancing of blackness narrates a complex story of being black and of writing during the height of nation-building. Watson observes, “It was a constant struggle for these writers to affirm their blackness in their poetry and to maintain their national identity and acceptance by other Panamanians during the formation of the new republic” (20). Escobar and Hernández’s poetry challenges antiblack national discourse of Panameñidad by engaging with their own blackness and identifying as black with hints of “bipolar racial consciousness” (41). Watson’s attention to these contradictions is an important analysis; it serves to unearth the historical conflicts rooted in antiblackness between Afro-Hispanics and West Indians, specifically, the particular negotiations performed and lived by Afro-Hispanics at a pivotal moment of Panama’s nation-building. The works of Afro-Hispanic writer Joaquin Beleño illustrate his central role in being the mouthpiece for all Panamanians against US imperialism and the construction of the Panama Canal. Watson’s analysis of Beleño’s Canal Zone trilogy is centered on the complexities of the canal as a catalyst for social change and conflict in Panama. She observes that Beleño envisages West Indians as outsiders who have “corrupted” the Spanish language and as intruders who are unwilling to assimilate into Panamanian society. By critically engaging the Panamanian literary canon, Watson reveals to us that antiblack racism was lived by both Afro-Hispanics and West Indians in different ways but in ways that place both forms of blackness outside of the imagined community of Panama’s nationhood.

The West Indian as a literary character is conflicted and constructed as an outsider by Afro-Hispanics and other nonblack Panamanians. Watson turns to works by third-generation West Indian writer Carlos “Cubena” Guillermo Wilson to illustrate how he recuperates the denigrated West Indian figure. In many ways, Watson resuscitates Wilson’s work, which has received little to no recognition as part of the national canon. “Wilson’s omission from the Panamanian literary canon,” she asserts, “is because his texts reveal decades of discrimination toward Afro-descents and West Indians in Panama who helped shape the nation pre and post-emancipation” (73). Wilson’s novels inform us about the Afro-Panamanian experience and what it means to be black in a nation that is constructed around whiteness and antiblackness. His novels make an important intervention by exemplifying what it means to be black and English-speaking in a nation of Spanish speakers. For example, Watson examines Wilson’s choice of chombo—an offensive, pejorative anti–West Indian term used by many non–West Indian Panamanians—as the title of one of his novels. Although the usage of the term by non–West Indian Panamanians is overwhelmingly negative, Wilson appropriates the dissenting image for his novel. As Watson observes, “Chombos are the center of the action, and as a chombo himself, Wilson takes ownership of the expression and uses it to convey that West Indians in Panama are not ignorant, lazy, promiscuous, or uncouth” (80). Wilson’s trilogy unearths the contributions of peoples of African descent in Panamanian history and attempts to unite Afro-Hispanics and West Indians.

In her concluding chapter, Watson analyzes contemporary black Panamanian writers Melanie Taylor and Carlos Oriel Wynter Melo, whose fiction and short stories expand notions of being black and Panamanian. These contemporary writers are carving a literary space for articulating black Panamanian identity in multiple ways inclusive of various black identities. Historical and contemporary ethnic conflicts between Afro-Hispanic and West Indian communities are real and experienced in violent forms every day. Lived articulations of antiblack racism in both communities remain despite assimilationist politics and representative visibility. While an in-depth analysis of how antiblack racism and alienation shape both communities is missing, this text is nevertheless incredibly useful to students and faculty whose interests lie in African American studies, African diaspora studies, Latin American and Caribbean studies, and English and Spanish literature. It is a major contribution to deepening our archives on blacks in Central America, and I look forward to using it in my courses on blacks and blackness in Latin America.


Paul Joseph López Oro is a doctoral student in the Department of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. He is a current McNair Scholars Graduate Fellow. His research interests include Garifuna Social Movements and transnational migrations to the United States; blackness, indigeneity, and Afro-Caribbean politics and cultures in Central America; and afrolatin@ studies.