Reclaiming Afro-Latinx visibility in Panama and the U.S.

Shyanne Figueroa Bennett | Guest Writer

Shyanne Figueroa Bennett is a Brooklyn poet with roots in Panama, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico. Her work has been published in Oversound, The Acentos Review, and Queen Mob’s Tea House, among other places.

Currently, she is an MFA candidate at Columbia University, where she is a recipient of a Chair’s Fellowship and a Creative Writing Teaching Fellowship. She can be found on Instagram @shyanne.bennett


At the beginning of this year, I went to Panama on a travel grant to conduct research for a poetry manuscript I am writing. Before this trip, I had spent countless hours researching Panama Canal labor history, and I learned that tens of thousands of Black West Indian workers provided the bulk of the labor in the Panama Canal construction. They received the lowest wages for doing the most dangerous jobs, including laying the dynamite. Thousands of them died. Their bodies are littered across this “Wonder of the Modern World.”

This historical reality has been a deep site of mourning for me in my poetry, especially when I thought of how my own great-grandfather was one of those laborers. I became so obsessed in my grief-writing that I built a whole manuscript out of it. I knew I needed to see the monstrosity in person—I needed to see the Panama Canal.

blue skies over placid waters and the locks joining two sides of wooded land
Gatun Locks, Panama Canal. PC: Shyanne Figueroa Bennett

The Panama Canal cuts 51 miles across the continent and uses three locks and 52 million gallons of water to move a ship from the Atlantic to the Pacific. This requires an absurd scale of operations. Somehow, in all my research, I could not comprehend the magnitude of the Canal until I was there on the deck of a little boat in the midst of the Gatun Locks. I was suspended 85 feet above sea level with the glimmering Atlantic sprawled out before me. 

In the background my mourning still persisted, but new feelings began to co-mingle with my mourning—awe and pride. My grandfather built this. My people built this.

Black West Indian, or Afroantillano, contributions to Panama are not just limited to the Canal. At the entrance of the West Indian Museum of Panama (Museo Afroantillano de Panamá), local artist Martanoemí Noriega painted a mural that captures the many contributions of Afroantillanos to Panamanian culture in the areas of infrastructure, cuisine, music (the original reggaetón), sports, and education. 

However, despite the manifold contributions of Afroantillanos, their influence is downplayed in mainstream Panamanian culture. This phenomenon of Black invisibility is not just isolated to Panama—it’s pervasive throughout Latin America and within U.S. Latinx communities

long, colorful image of Black Panamanians and their contributions to culture. Mural is labeled and on a fence outside the museum.
Martanoemí Noriega’s mural at the entrance of the West Indian Museum of Panama, PC: Shyanne Figueroa Bennett

Latinx identity is portrayed as a Brown monolith. When we talk about diversity within the Latinx community, we merely talk about the differences between nationalities, and we rarely talk about the differences within nationalities. We exclude indigenous peoples, Chinese Latin Americans, Jewish Latin Americans, and certainly Black Latin Americans. 

We don’t know the Garifuna (or Garínagu) are an Arawak-speaking Afro-indigenous people in Central America, or that Brazil has the largest Black population, numerically, outside of Africa (their 2010 census shows that 50% of the population identifies as Black or mixed), or that the Dominican Republic was the first Black-majority colony in the U.S.

I would like non-Latinx people to know that Latinx racial identity is multitudinous. Likewise, I would like Latinx people to know that racism is rampant in our communities in the U.S. and back home, and it is necessary to become anti-racist. 

Reclaiming Black visibility within Latinx communities is an assertion that Black lives really do matter. Rejecting homogeneous narratives of Latinx community creates space for the whole community to be truly seen and embraced. 

Some resources to begin your self-education of Afro-Latinx peoples include the following: 

I would like non-Latinx people to know that Latinx racial identity is multitudinous. Likewise, I would like Latinx people to know that racism is rampant in our communities in the U.S. and back home, and it is necessary to become anti-racist. 

Shyanne figueroa Bennett

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