Some five percent of Panama’s population are Afro-Antillanos – descendants of the black workers from the English- and French-speaking West Indies who began migrating to Panama in the mid-nineteenth century to help build the railroad and canal. Widely considered second-class citizens or undesirable aliens, Afro-Antillanos worked and lived in appalling conditions under French and American control. Most of the twenty thousand workers who died during the French canal attempt were West Indians, and the mortality rate was four times higher among black workers than white during US construction.
Throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first century, successive Panamanian governments have ignored the needs of Afro-Antillanos, and they remain among the most marginalized segments of the population. In spite of this, they maintain a vibrant and distinct culture whose influence is widely felt in contemporary Panamanian society. Many second- and third-generation Afro-Antillanos still speak the melodic patois of the West Indies, and the street Spanish of Panama City and Colón is peppered with Jamaican slang. Unique Protestant beliefs imported from the West Indies continue to thrive, heavily spiced Caribbean dishes permeate Panamanian cuisine, and the music, from jazz in the 1950s to “reggaespañol” in the 1990s, has made an indelible mark on the region.