CULTURE AND TRADITION HOLDERS: Beautiful Afro-Panamanian women in their traditional Africa heritage dress during the African heritage Day Celebration in USA, Afro-Panamanian are Panamanians of African descent. Afro-Panamanians are 15% of the population and it is estimated 50% of Panamanians have African ancestry.
The Afro-Panamanian population can be broken into the "Afro-Colonial", Afro-Panamanians descended from slaves brought to Panama during the colonial period and the "Afro-Antillean", West Indian immigrants from Trinidad, Barbados, Martinique and Jamaica, brought in to build the Panama Canal. Afro-Panamanians can be found in towns and cities Colón, Cristóbal and Balboa, Río Abajo area of Panama City, the Canal Zone, and province of Bocas del Toro. Although many panamanias like to think they are hispanic, they are not considered to be true hispanics.
The story of the descendants of African peoples in Panama is not only the story of the first persons of African origin in modern times to arrive on the mainland of the Americas, but also the story of a community that has long struggled to obtain basic civil rights. Just as in Costa Rica, Panama (and the Canal Zone) had at one time an official policy of racial discrimination against its citizens of African descent.
In 1496 Columbus’ brother Bartholomew established the first permanent European settlement in the Americas at Santo Domingo (Hispaniola). By 1501, Rodrigo de Bastidas had explored the Caribbean coastline of Central America and became the first European to set foot on what is today Panama. The following year, Columbus attempted to establish a colony here but it did not survive a series of native attacks and was abandoned within a year. It was not until 1509, that the first permanent European outpost on the mainland of the Americas become permanently established when Diego de Nicuesa founded Nombre de Dios at mouth of the Rio Chagres. That same year, on the Gulf of Uraba (in what is now Colombia) another settlement was founded and given the name of San Sebastian de Uraba by its founder Alonso de Ojeda. This settlement was moved by Balboa to the eastern coast of Panama and renamed Santa Maria la Antigua del Darien. In 1519, Santa Maria was relocated to the other side of the isthmus and renamed Panama, the forerunner of today’s Panama City.
Panama has not always been considered a “Central American nation” in the historical and cultural sense. For several centuries it was a part of Colombia, and the history of its African descended peoples are actually a part of that country’s history up until the time of Panama’s independence in 1903. Panama was not a part of the five nation “Central American Federation” and most Central American’s in the other republics do not consider Panamanians to be “Central Americans”. Geographically perhaps, but not politically or historically. This could be the reason why historians have long considered the arrival of the first black people in Central America to have occurred with De Avila’s landing on the North Coast of Honduras in 1524 and not the with their arrival with Balboa in 1513.