At ACR Spanish Translations, I am passionate about the Spanish language and I know that a language is only as alive as the cultures in which it is used and evolves. That’s why I will be profiling Spanish-speaking countries in this blog series: so you can get to know all of the amazing places this world has to offer where Hola means hello and everything Spanish will help you get by! This month, we’re visiting the fascinating crossroads of the Americas: Panama!
Country Name: Panama
There are several legends and theories about the origin of the name “Panama.” According to one story, the first Spanish colonizers in the region encountered a village called Panama, meaning “an abundance of fish.” Most linguists say that “Panama” is a Hispanicization of bannaba, which means “distant” or “far away” in the Kuna language.
The historical importance of Panama’s crucial position as a crossroads between North and South America and between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans dates back 3 million years, when the land bridge formed. The Isthmus of Panama allowed animal and plant species to move between the two continents, and later made movement of people, agriculture and technology through the Americas possible. Some of the earliest pottery-making in the Americas, dating to 2500 – 1700 BCE, has been found in Panama. Spectacular burials, Gran Cocle-style polychrome pottery and monumental monolithic sculptures are other important traces of the ancient cultures of the region.
Panama today is known for relaxation, fun, family and friendships, beautiful natural settings, and being at a crossroads of so many cultures. Panamanian food is often hearty with various combinations of rice, meats, and fried foods like holjadra (fried dough). There is also a lot of seafood in coastal areas and a notable (albeit somewhat surprising!) Chinese influence because of the large presence of Chinese migrants there. Panamanians are a social people, in general, and love to party, spend time socializing and, of course, love to dance to quality traditional and popular music like tipico. If you visit Panama, check out the local fairs in every city and town each night where good food and fun activities for families!
Why do Panamanians speak Spanish today?
Rodrigo de Bastidas was the first European to explore the Isthmus of Panama, sailing from Venezuela in search of gold in 1501. In 1502 Christopher Columbus established a short-lived settlement in the area. It was in 1513 that Vasco Núñez de Balboa determined that Panama was the path between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. At this point Panama became the crossroads of Spain’s empire in the Americas. Gold and silver shipped from colonies in South America was carried across the Camino Real (Royal Road) to the Atlantic to be shipped to Spain.
Panama was under Spanish rule from 1538 to 1821 as part of the Viceroyalty of Peru and later the Viceroyalty of New Granada. Spanish control of the region was frequently challenged, though. The important and dangerous Camino Real trade route was also known as the Camino de Cruces, Road of Crosses, for the number of gravesites along the route due to anti-colonial resistance. Before European contact, the isthmus was widely settled by Chibchan, Chocoan and Cueva peoples and Indigenous peoples continued to effectively resist conquest of their territories until late into the colonial period. The Panama route was also vulnerable to attack from English and Dutch pirates and Cimarron – Africans who had freed themselves from slavery and lived in communities in Panama’s interior and islands. Spain eventually made an alliance with the Cimarron, guaranteeing their freedom in exchange for military support in 1582.
Panama became independent from Spain on November 28, 1821 and united with Gran Colombia in December 1821. There were several attempts to secede from Colombia and Panama became independent in November 1903.
Today Spanish is the official language of Panama and is spoken by 93 percent of the population. Panamanian Spanish is closely related to other varieties of Caribbean Spanish. Indigenous languages continue to be spoken in their native territories by an estimated 400,000 Panamanians. Second languages include English, French and Arabic.
Largest city: Panama City
Famous Panamanians: Omar Torrijos, Manuel Noriega, Bayano, Panama Al Brown
Currency: Balboa (PAB) and United States Dollar (USD)