Afro-Panamanian women’s hair heritage overcomes oblivion

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  • Mon, 05/21/2018 - 11:52
Cultura Afroamericana
  • EFE

With pride, vanity and cultural identity, Afro-Panamanian women have not hidden their hair, and they see that between their curls, braids and turbans the elements indicated to avoid forgetting their history and flourish above the oblivion and the stigma that still persists in the society.

Dressed in a large African cloth known as "guelé" in gold and a brightly colored dressing gown, Silvia Miller, an expert in turbans, carefully examines the piece before placing it on one of her students, who will learn the art and essence of an ancestral piece.

While looking at one of her creations, Miller told Acan-Efe that in African culture women have had to choose to tie their hair, whether for religious, decorative or functional use; so she takes advantage of her relationship with the Committee of the Black Ethnicity of Columbus to spread her origins among the Panamanian community.

This tradition, which arrived with black women from Africa to the American continent to be enslaved, settled among Afro-descendants in Panama; and by the time of 1960 its use was established.

Today, Miller says, two types of turbans are used, the guelé and the handkerchief type, adapted to multiple shapes and colors, although their use is very different for each occasion. The first is only used for special events such as weddings, baptisms and funerals; while the second is usually for daily use and for informal activities.

Miller asserts that there are still criticisms of Negroid clothing, and what most annoys her are the comments that her outfits are disguises foreign to Panamanian culture, an error that questions the country's diverse multiculturalism.

According to the specialist, Afro-Panamanians are descendants of African slaves who arrived in Panama during the Spanish conquest and colonization, beginning in the 15th century and to the descendant population of Antilleans who arrived as labor during the 20th century to build the Panama Canal.

In an exhibition house that the expert was in, a local fairground, accompanied by the Colonel writer Angélica Simpson, with her hair disheveled and brown, seems to have overcome the impositions by certain stereotypes of beauty that persist between the young Panamanians.

Tired of beauty salons and the typical smoothing to finish with her curls, she tells Acan-Efe that she had to go through an acceptance process to find her identity and stop doing it, reason that inspired her to write a book called "El Cabello que Dios me dio."

"To look beautiful I had to undergo treatments that injured me, this could be because I did not want to feel the offenses that women lived in the era of slavery that had to hide their hair because they were simply told they were horrible", Simpson says.

She assures that this pattern has been cast from that period to the present, and she regrets that girls and women who choose to wear braids are suppressed by suggesting that they wear their hair smooth, which in their opinion is a lack of equality.

Meanwhile, Dennisse Almanza, a young woman from the central province of Coclé who struggles to spread the word that there are black descendants in her region, believes that it has been difficult because discrimination is a long-standing problem.

She believes that it is partly due to the lack of dissemination and research that not only in the Caribbean provinces of Colón, Darién and Bocas del Toro are the original "afro of Panama"; but in areas such as Coclé with historical indigenous and colonial past.

Almanza exhibited with Miller and Simpson part of their arts in a fair that seeks to claim the contributions, traditions and legacy of black ethnicity through artistic-cultural activities.

According to the National Institute of Statistics and Census (INEC), in Panama there are currently 586,221 Afro-descendants, representing 14.9 percent of the total population. The data is significantly higher than the last census in 2010, which put the black population at 405,813 people, 9.2 percent of the total.

In Panama, every year the day of the Black Ethnicity is celebrated on May 30. It is celebrated on this date, since in 1820 King Ferdinand VII of Spain abolished the slave trade throughout its territory, as it was influenced by blacks who belonged to the National Assembly of France at the time of the revolution.

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