central america slang

Words that Piss off Panamanians and Why You Need to Stop Using Them

By James Bloomfield

Earlier this year, I asked my facebook chums to weigh in on something that I had been struggling to get to grips with properly. It was something that may seem like a non-issue for some, while for others it might be an everyday issue that frustrates and angers them.

I’m talking about words that we as foreigners use to label Panamanians.

Specifically, how slang and phrases can be interpreted or used as insults in everyday conversations held in Panama. You have to be able to criticize things to make correct choices, yet I sometimes think that the frequent use of these words is indicative of a rush to judgement. So why ARE they so offensive and why should we stop using them?

Why I Don’t Know What I’m Talking About!

I find it troubling that a lot of my conversations with non-Panamanians always rely on similar crutches in regards to talking about Panamanians – “They’re lazy” “It’s the culture here” “They’re too entitled” “It’s too easy to get a job”. These sentiments are very commonly expressed by the immigrant community here in Panama, who see themselves as in possession of a totally different work ethic or quality of delivery.

These kind of conversations can be brushed off fairly easily as just so much background noise.

Yet the frequency with which one hears these complaints and grousings means that they’re amplified. You start BELIEVING in the frequent sigh of the expat/immigrant: “That’s Panama!”.

This is bad enough, if understandable at times (I once saw an electrician turn up a day late, at midnight, on one project). Nonetheless, while a lot of this is relatively thoughtless gossip-style group “wisdom”, it can be harmful in its densest, most crystallized form: the derogatory word.

This word is the casual insult, the thoughtless bracket term for a whole country of people, the slur produced by anger or bitterness at inefficiency or corruption.

Sure, there are reasons for using them. It’s rarely TRULY justified though. I opened up the debate about it because sometimes I don’t know where I stand on these issues – I was hoping that other people’s reasons for rejecting these terms or employing them might provide some clarity.

A Different Kind of Conclusion

What I got instead was a really interesting insight into what people from abroad and Panamanians think about these potentially troublesome words.

I assumed that it would be a relatively straightforward “Panamanians think this, immigrants think that” deal. I couldn’t have been more wrong, as my Panamanian friends and “gringo” buddies set about dismantling my preconceived notions of what was offensive to them as individuals.

My original question was this:

“Panamanian friends, what phrases, words, or concepts describing Panamanians do you find most offensive or upsetting? (Especially when said by foreigners) “

You can revisit the thread here if you’d like to add anything to the conversation!

I learnt that there are some levels of offense that are almost unknown by foreigners – “Canaleros” was one. It is used by neighbouring countries such as Costa Rica and Colombia, mainly in regards to sporting endeavours. You’ll hear it a lot at an international soccer game in Panama if you’re sitting in the away end! This was accompanied by the phrase “la zona” which accomplishes the double sin of using the diminutive (and offensive) “la” or “el” in front of the description. Don’t use that one. I also heard “Indios Tiraflechas” as well, which is literally “spear chucking indians”.

Needless to say, don’t use that one.

Some people decried the use of the word “chombo” or “cholo”, especially by non-Panamanians. These words are slang for either poorer people or for black people, especially chombo. Nonetheless, both words had passionate defenders who were… mostly Panamanian? Some say that the use of these words is familiar rather than offensive, used as a way of indicating immediate familiarity and social proximity.

In a similar category were the words “chino” and “china”, which you’ll hear in most corner shops or Chinese-owned stores in Panama. It literally means Chinese or Chinese person and can be used aggressively to gain attention or as a way of overcoming the discomfort of not knowing the name of someone who you see 10+ times a week during your shopping runs.

“Joven” (youth) is also a word that excites serious debate daily on its use, with some swearing blind that it’s the most tremendously offensive way of grabbing someone’s attention while others use it quite happily. If you feel uncomfortable calling a 60 year old waiter “youth” when you’re looking for service, this may not be the word for you.

Cutting Both Ways – Simple Rules for Success

One of my friends noticed that perhaps this cuts both ways, saying that “the same concepts would upset gringos.” So, if you don’t want to be called something like, say, “gringo”, then try not to call people something in the same vein.

A simple rule of thumb I try to follow when I talk about Panamanians:

Does the word I use….

Define someone by their social class?

Define them by their race or ethnicity negatively?

Take in a lazy concept or pre-existing bias?

If it’s one of these three, I will try and excise it from my vocabulary. I don’t need to use it and both English and Spanish have plenty of great alternatives – English has a quarter of a million distinctive words and Spanish at least 100,000+. Don’t be lazy – grab a dictionary instead!

Summing Things Up

I was genuinely surprised by what I found. I expected a simple binary relationship between Panamanian and non-Panamanian. What I got was a huge mess, with everybody having great cultural points and showing up the limits of my knowledge regarding what people in Panama really think. I know that personally I will be careful with the words that I use, as they can be loaded weapons of spite and I don’t truly understand their context, culture, or true meaning. It’s a tough one for immigrants to Panama to take in but, please, try and think about your throwaway vocabulary – regardless of whether there’s a Panamanian in the room.

I’ll leave you with the eloquent words of Rob Rivera, founder of PortoDiao, who put things in .

“I think it’s lame to live in a Spanish-speaking country and not care enough to learn/use the local language. If you’ve been living in PTY for years and your lights go out, if you can’t call the electric company because you can’t or dont want to understand/talk to them then, well, why are you in PTY in the first place?”

swearing central america


22 thoughts on “Words that Piss off Panamanians and Why You Need to Stop Using Them

  1. Super glad you wrote this. It’s something so important to remind ourselves of. It’s strange- even though somewhere in the back of my head I know all of this, I still find myself guilty on occasion, and then stopping to think about what that really says about my perceptions and how there’s always room for improvement. Thanks for such a well-said, much-needed post!

    • I liked your post from a while back about 5 things that Expats Complain about and Shouldn’t. Saw it today and it kind of confirmed to me that others are thinking along similar lines. I had written this up a while back but it took a while to get some of my thoughts together – I’ve been thinking about it since that massive Facebook discussion!

      Cheers for the comment – I’m also in the same boat regarding letting silly comments come out of my mouth occasionally, without really thinking about their power to wound.

  2. Reblogged this on In Da Campo and commented:
    Hola dear friends out in Blog Reader/Writer Land! Those of you who haven’t found this great article please take a read…Shelly you are excluded since you beat me to it. 🙂

  3. Well thought out article. Although a lack of speaking Spanish isn’t why I wouldn’t want to call the electric company here. Also, I study Spanish everyday and still can’t understand most of what I hear everyday. I have to say I’m incredibly sick of being judged for that.

    • The thickness of the Panamanian accent has got me continually puzzled! I love the slang and the colorful nature of the language but sometimes, especially in a group, I’m left at a bit of a loss and feeling like a chump!

    • I think we all share the disdain of having to deal with the electric company, regardless of where we come from; it’s a universal problem, I think. However, my comment doesn’t come from a gross generalization of foreigners as a whole, but from a combination of personal experiences in different situations. Even if your Spanish is not fluent, you still deal with them and overcome the fear of not being understood… I feel the notion sings to the topic of this article.

      You can choose to do or not to do whatever you want, for whatever reasons you might have. But living in a Spanish-speaking country implies some commitment to the local culture. “When in Rome…” as they say. Choosing not to lean the language in spite of this is not only rude to the culture that as embraced you, but to Panama in particular due to the (admittedly outdated) association with English and the US. Whether we think it’s dumb or not is another discussion, but we can’t deny it’s there and ex-pats should pay that in mind as a common courtesy.

      Is that too much to ask?

      • Totally agree. Anyone who misses out on the fantastic opportunity that is being able to speak a second (or indeed third or fourth!) language is truly missing out on some of the most fun, most awkward, and most intensely human of moments. I would repeat it all again one hundred times.

  4. Very important topic to address, good on you James.

    I find that one of the easiest ways to justify our attitudes – including the terms we use for people – is by accepting them as common terms used by locals. When first learning Panamanian Spanish (which is one of the least proper forms of Spanish in the world), it’s often difficult to differentiate legitimate terminology from what might be offensive terminology. This is especially difficult when the majority of locals use these terms, even when describing themselves. But as I spend more time learning the feel of the language – not just the vocabulary – the source as well as the social weight of the terms becomes more apparent. It’s very important to understand that the terms that we use in any language and any society contribute very directly to the overall spirit of the culture we are in and that the acceptance of negative connotations – no matter how common they may be – encourages and continues the subtle negativity that is attached to it. It is up to each individual to combat disrespect, racial stereotyping and overall social complacency with conscious and carefully-chosen use of the verbal tools that we develop within both our own native cultures, as well as the new cultures that we take on as we travel and relocate.

  5. I see that you are a gringo picking trouble with this article. If you are invited to live in the beautiful Republic of Panama be, nice or go home. Leave your false sense of superiority at home since there are much uglier words that many people have of you gringos

      • I doubt Chela really bothered to read the article or the comments, or she may have misunderstood the conversation. Sometimes people mistake making observations with a sense of superiority just because you are viewing culture from a different perspective.

      • I am sorry I simply skimmed through your article and then realized you wrote an objective article after I had made my comments.
        You see, I am just tired of North Americans going to Panama and instead of being respectful, are writing all kind of garbage on the internet about Panamanians. The average Panamanian who does not read Panama blogs by American living in Panama are clueless as to some of the things the so called American expats say about them.
        All right you are not a bad gringo. Just remember,Panama has its flaws just like any other country. Enjoy Panama

      • Thanks for reading it all the way through Chela. I appreciate that some of the foreigners who live and work in Panama aren’t ideal representatives of the human race but there are plenty that are. I appreciate the fact that you’re so passionate about people’s perception of Panama and I look forward to more fiery comments in the future! 🙂

    • Chela, for whatever reason, it’s pretty obvious that you just generally don’t like gringos and are attacking people from the U.S., which seems obvious because most of your comments are attacking people from the U.S. even though none of the comments you replied to were written by people from the U.S. Just because someone is visiting from another place and is making observations about your country doesn’t mean that they are being mean or picking trouble, and it definitely doesn’t mean that they feel superior. People are allowed to travel and experience other cultures and discuss their experiences and observations, and they should be able to do that without you taking things personally and being mean yourself.

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