Like USA, Like Panama

Communication Designer and Brand Manager, Michelle Barrios

By Michelle Barrios

Dateline: Barcelona, Spain

After seeing what is happening in the USA and the world at the moment, and after seeing so many people protesting about the system, I have been thinking a lot about how we still live in, what I call, an “assumed system” in countries like Panama.

I was born in the city of Panama (Central America) and there I am a “trigueña” (brunette) because I have curly hair (“not so afro”) and tan skin with “fine” facial features. In Panama, called itself “melting pot of races” (we are all one human race but…), we have our categories of skin colors with this and other names like “chombo” (black with hard face features, wide nose, thick lips), “white chombo” (like chombo but with light skin), “bemba” to mean very thick lips, “culiso” (very dark skin with straight or wavy hair), “Black Chinese” (black with facial Asian features) and others … These categories are very interesting to me and inspired me as part of our popular culture to create a visual communication design project. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get the project going.

Racism in Panama is, as in most Latin American countries, a systematic virus that limits the opportunities of those who are not part of a “good race” or have “good hair”.

It is so ingrained in our genes that dark-skinned ones tend to accept and behave with servility. Attitudes learned from slavery and colonialism? I’m not an expert in history. It’s just my personal feelings.

From what I remember, in schools and offices, it was not well seen to go with curly or afro hair, but “presentable”, “combed”, with straight hair. Especially in “serious” environments such as law firms, government institutions, etc. But this is well maintained because most of the people do not feel comfortable with their African descent, which contributes to the preservation of the system and aesthetics. The white you look, the better and more opportunities you will have. Some makeup with lighter shades, light eyes (contact lenses), and of course straight hair. There will be those who buy products to lighten the skin

“Improving the race” is one of the goals of dark-skinned people in this country and is clearly lived in families.

My granny is 100 years old and has changed a lot throughout her life. But she will always see a white more handsome than black. Also, she prefers straight hair. “Michelle, when are you going to straighten your hair? It suits you very well.” This is stronger than she and I recognize this fact. I respect it and it even fills me with tenderness. In the end, as she loves me, she accepts my curls because she knows that I look beautiful with them. But it shows me how deep-rooted this idea is.

The close relationship between racism and classism is part of us and we assume it. You will never see a white woman marry a black or dark-skinned man no matter how much good vibes exists between them. It is not well seen in high white society. Despite this, we are a very small country, so we end up mixing, but only for social gatherings, not to create families or plan a future together.

Curiously, I married a white man from the United States when I came to Barcelona, ​​and when we go to Panama, people think that we are both foreigners, because this type of mixed couple is practically invisible. Fortunately, I have never felt less than anyone nor can I say that I have had any racist episode in Panama. Or maybe I didn’t even notice!

Racism didn’t have any space in my mind. My circle of friends and work colleagues were all open-minded people so when my white and non-black friends called me “negrita” or “chombita” I loved it. By the way, in Panama blacks are called “morenos” (brown), because it sounds less bad, haha! It’s the same as the adjective “of color” which is also ridiculous to me. I am not offended of labels or categories as I think they help to describe, but it’s true that many hate the categories as they see it as discrimination.

I was always proud to be from a colorful place and I was never offended neither by the curiosity of some to touch my hair to see how my curls feel. I always felt that I could be myself. At the time I decided to leave my country, I felt fulfilled, happy, and determined to enjoy my curiosity to see the world. I lived my first encounter with racism in Madrid, but in a silly situation that all it did was arouse my curiosity on this issue.

An older man in the street said to me: “I don’t know what the hell are you doing here” and I said to him: “Well, I am living my life and you will have to go to the psychologist for therapy.” Lol! I still find funny my reaction. I thought: “How boring his life must be with people like him.”

Here in Spain, I am no longer brunette, but black or mulatto. I am grateful to be now so close to the black cause. I am part of the Barcelona International Black Sisters (BIBS) group, an international group of black and mestizo women from different parts of the world with whom I share many ideas, joys, and vision of life. We communicate in English and laugh and feel in all languages.

In the 20 years that I have been out of Panama, I have seen more and more Afro empowerment there and I’m glad. Hopefully the conservative and double moralistic Panamanian society will evolve, but I think that changing the system in Latin American countries is as difficult as eradicating racism or changing the US system, which by the way is closely linked to Latin America. The US sets the pace for us.

I feel that now the process of real change begins. Martin Luther King in 1963 dreamed that blacks and whites could live in harmony. Some of this is already happening in 2020, but there is still a long way to go to solve racism, classism, and any type of intolerance happening not just among black people but in other cultures, countries, and societies too. It all has to be cured with education and personal evolution.

Hopefully, we will find the way. I really hope.




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  1. What a beautiful thought piece Guapetona! I love you and your mind. Thank you for being you and for sharing so openly. As a black woman with heritage from Bermuda and the US, ideas of race, color and class are deeply rooted. Your POV and what you experienced in growing up in Panama is an experience so many go through and it’s critical that the diaspora of black peoples consider all the ways we are affected cross-culturally. Very well stated opinions. I’m grateful you identify with the cause of black people and have joined the fight.

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