Because the isthmus holds a central position as a transit zone, Panama has long enjoyed a measure of ethnic diversity. This diversity, combined with a variety of regions and environments, has given rise to a number of distinct subcultures. But in the late 1980s, these subcultures were often diffuse in the sense that individuals were frequently difficult to classify as members of one group or the other, and statistics about the groups' respective sizes were rarely precise. Panamanians nonetheless recognized racial and ethnic distinctions, and considered them social realities of considerable importance.
Broadly speaking, Panamanians viewed their society as composed of three principal groups: the Spanish-speaking, Roman Catholic mestizo majority; the English-speaking, Protestant Antillean blacks; and tribal Indians. Small numbers of those of foreign extraction--Chinese, Jews, Arabs, Greeks, South Asians, Lebanese, West Europeans, and North Americans--were also present. They generally lived in the largest cities, and most were involved in the retail trade and commerce. There were a few retired United States citizens--mostly former Canal Zone officials--residing in Chiriquí. The Chinese were a major source of labor on the transisthmian railroad, completed in the mid-nineteenth century. Most went on to California in the gold rush beginning in 1848; of those who remained, most owned retail shops. They suffered considerable discrimination in the early 1940s under the nationalistic government of President Arnulfo Arias Madrid, who sought to rid Panama of non-Hispanics.
There were also small groups of Hispanic blacks, blacks (playeros), and Hispanic Indians (cholos) along the Atlantic coast lowlands and in the Darién. Their settlements, dating from the end of the colonial era, were concentrated along coasts and rivers. They had long relied on mixed farming and livestock raising, adapted to the particular exigencies of the tropical forest environment. In the mid-twentieth century, they began marketing small quantities of livestock, tropical fruits, rice, and coffee. In the 1980s, they were under pressure from the mestizo population, as farmers from the central provinces expanded into these previously isolated regions.
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