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?”