Panama Ethnic Groups

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Panama has been the focus of international commerce for a long time, and this has had some interesting impacts on its population. In this lesson, we are going to explore what ethnicity and diversity mean to Panama.


Location, location, location. It's been said that location is everything, and in many senses this is true. However, there are some major problems with having a great location. For example, people tend to invade you. Point in case: Panama. Due to its very narrow size, Panama is the easiest place in the Western Hemisphere to cross from the Atlantic to Pacific locations. This made it very desirable for European empires, and Panama was raided, invaded, and traded across the last several centuries. As you can imagine, this has had some important impacts on its population, composed of people who understand perhaps better than anyone that it's all a matter of location, location, location.

Panama is the narrowest point of the Americas


Panama was originally home to a diverse range of Amerindian peoples. Then, it was invaded and conquered by Spain. Later, it achieved independence from Spain as part of Colombia, then broke off to become its own nation before a mixture of British, French, and American groups basically took over and opened up the nation to international businesses. Considering this heritage, it's probably not surprising that Panama's largest recognized ethnic category is 'mixed'. Literally, the dominant ethnic group in Panama are the mestizos, which officially are people of mixed Amerindian and European heritage, an ethnic category that first emerged as an important part of society in the Spanish Empire. Approximately 65% of Panamanians today identify as mestizos.

Panama society is largely composed of ethnically-mestizo people
Panama people

Amerindians and Europeans

At first glance, the mestizo ethnicity seems pretty straightforward, but it's actually quite complex thanks to the fact that both categories of Amerindian and European contain numerous variations. The Panama government recognizes seven different ethno-linguistic Amerindian groups, as well as a vague 'other' category to cover the numerous highland groups whose populations are actually pretty small. Overall, most people of indigenous heritage also have European ancestry, making them mestizos. Only about 12% of people in Panama identify purely as Amerindian. The largest single group of Amerindians belong to the Ngäbe ethnicity. The Ngäbe make up a large amount of mestizo heritage, and about 8% of the total population is purely Ngäbe. The majority live in a semi-autonomous zone called the Comarca, which they won in 1997 after a long political struggle for rights. The other recognized Amerindian ethnic groups of Panama are the Buglere, Kuna, Embera, Wounaan, Naso, and Bribri.

The Ngabe are the largest Amerindian group in Panama
Ngabe man

The other half of the mestizo ethnicity comes from people of European heritage. In most of Latin America, this refers almost exclusively to people of Spanish descent, but in Panama it's a bit more complex. People of mestizo ethnicity trace their heritage back to populations from Britain, Ireland, the Netherlands, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Poland, Russia, Ukraine, and the United States. Only around 8% of the population identifies purely as being ethnically European; most are mestizos.

With this wide mixture of people, it's not too surprising that most Panamanians are bilingual, if not more. Spanish is the official languages, but many Amerindian languages are spoken as well. On top of that, many people in Panama speak a creole language, or a language that is a composite of various other languages. Most common is a mixture of Spanish, English and the Ngäbe language, a composite called Guari Guari or Colon Creole.

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