Upon being in Panama City well over a month now, I have seen some pretty impressive things along with some pretty strange ones. Of all things in Panama, I am most fascinated and intrigued by Panamanians themselves, the people. Of the many things that intrigue me about Panamanian culture, three stand out more than anything else.
- The diversity of the people and culture
- The importance of beauty
- The “Juega Vivo”
The first thing that enthralls me with Panama when I walk the streets is the ethnical diversity. No matter where you are there will be people of all ethnicities together. When the majority of the country is made up of mixed race people, it does something to the mindset and identity of a country. There is a feeling of freedom in the streets when it comes to racial diversity, a feeling that everyone is free to express themselves and no matter what you look like you could be a fellow Panamanian. While racism is not non-existent, it is definitely apparent in Panama that most people will not judge you by the color of your skin.
On a similar note, beauty is loved and coveted by all. Not that this is an inherently Panamanian characteristic, more it seems that Panamanians are always looking for something beautiful. Traveling with five girls for the first part of our time here it felt as if the entire world started whistling and did not stop (I even got a couple, which is weird). A study done by TNS research in the area revealed that the number one way Central Americans want to be seen is beautiful. This proved true across the board with no discernable difference in terms of age, gender or socioeconomic level.
Lastly, and perhaps the most distinct, is the Panamanian concept of “Juega Vivo.” Explained to me by Abraham the Director of the Internship program, it may be one of the most defining characteristics of Panamanians.
Juega Vivo literally means to “play live” as if one were playing a sport or in some sort of contest. The implied message that this phrase carries is something like “look alive” or “be crafty.” It means get as much as you can out of every situation. A value in Panama, this mindset creates very resourceful and savvy people but also can be the cause of many inefficiencies and negative circumstances. In many ways, when everyone is “jugando vivo” it’s every man for himself. You must be smart and quick witted to not get run over. Panamanians “juega vivo” when they drive, work, and interact with people; this cultural value makes Panamanians one of the most colorful and adventurous people in the world. The more and more I spend time here the more I find my Panamanian self coming out with the locals.