Day 547 - Volunteer Service - Article 17

This article was published in the Ames Tribune November 14, 2008.

The election's Panamanian angle By: Jeff

I do not know if either presidential candidate had any pro-Panama stances but I did run into two issues that swayed peoples' opinions. Early in the primaries a farmer asked me which candidate I supported. I was intrigued because at the time, I had not even bothered to learn who all was running.

Without prompting, he told me, "You must vote for the Panamanian."

I told him that a person born in Panama would not be permitted to run for president of the United States. He was adamant, and to my chagrin, he was right. John McCain's birth in the Canal Zone in Panama City, Panama, was hardly an issue. The area was U.S. soil at that time.

On election night, I walked to the pay phone and called my family to find out how the election was progressing. Barack Obama was ahead but it was too early for any certainty. To pass time, I walked over to a nearby porch were people were sitting around feeding the mosquitoes. I told them why I was trying to call home and one of them said in a loud confident voice, "Juan McCain will win!" Guessing, I said, "You want him to win because he is Panamanian?"

He said, "No, wait. Which one is black? I want the black one to win."

I eventually decided to go to bed and find out who won in the morning, but by the next day, the phone was not working (a distressingly common situation). That evening, the fickle phone was working again, and I was able to call a friend for details and the electoral vote results.

Race is an important issue in Panama, but skin color is not necessarily the distinguishing factor. There are "black" people (of African descent), but to be identified as black, you pretty much have to be 100 percent. The majority of Panamanians have skin darker than Obama, but would not be identified by themselves or others as black. They would be more like to say mestizo, Spanish, indigenous or just Panamanian.

On one occasion, I was told that if we have black people in the United States, there should be black people in the government. I pointed out Condoleezza Rice in an issue of Newsweek but the indignant response was, "She is obviously a chola; just look at her hair." (In Panama, chola or cholo refers to someone with indigenous blood. It is also a common nickname for anyone with straight black hair. It can be derogatory but is usually just a physical description.)

With the race over, I perceive slightly positive disinterest from Panamanians toward our president-elect. If the choice of the United States' president was up to my Panamanian neighbors, they may have decided based on a single, superficial, unimportant issue.

Foy and Jeff are Peace Corps volunteers in central Panama, some 40 miles northeast of Panama City. They live in a town of about 50 people that has no electricity. Their Peace Corps assignment is from May 2007 to August 2009.

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