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Navigating Identities in Panama

Peace Corps’ Intercultural Competence, Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility (ICDEIA) approach seeks to reflect and support the diversity of the United States through its staff and Volunteers, who represent a broad collection of social identities, including race, ethnicity, color, national origin, disability, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, religion, marital status, and socioeconomic status, among others.

How might a Volunteer’s social identities impact their service?

The information below provides additional context about how different social identity groups may experience service and what types of ICDEIA-related support you can expect from the Peace Corps.

Accessibility and disability considerations

  • Peace Corps staff will work with Volunteers with disabilities to support them in training, housing, jobsites, or other areas to enable them to serve safely and effectively.
  • In Panama, Volunteers with disabilities may encounter people in their community who think that they require special assistance and cannot function on their own. They may find that some Panamanians consider them incapable of work that requires physical exertion or that they are less competent.
  • Volunteers with disabilities may encounter frank or inconsiderate remarks concerning their disability.

Gender role considerations

  • Panamá has a male-dominated society. While women do hold important positions in government, business and academics in Panama, the concept of traditional binary gender roles can be strong in some communities and families.
  • Volunteers identifying or presenting as women may be the target of unwanted attention up to verbal or physical harassment. They also may not be taken seriously intellectually or in their work.
  • The behavior of Volunteers identifying or presenting as women may be more scrutinized or criticized by members of the host community than that of their peers identifying or presenting as men – for instance, they may be judged differently for behaviors such as smoking, drinking, walking alone, or going out at night. In addition, because they are from the United States, they may be assumed to be sexually promiscuous. They may not be able to socialize with men without giving the impression that they are flirting.
  • Volunteers may encounter conservative attitudes regarding gender equality – for instance Panamanians may consider it strange that Volunteers identifying or presenting as women do not spend their days cooking, cleaning, and washing (this may be especially true in more rural areas of Panama).
  • Volunteers identifying or presenting as men may feel pressured to drink more alcohol or may find it difficult to work with community members that are women, particularly in indigenous areas.

LGBTQI+ considerations

The Peace Corps actively supports Volunteers of all genders and sexual orientations and staff can provide Volunteers with additional local context and perspective about LGBTQI+ considerations in Panama. Many countries where the Peace Corps serves have more restrictive cultures regarding sexual orientation and non-conforming gender identities, though some are more permissive. For instance, in Panama, same sex marriages are not conducted nor recognized. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTQI+) individuals have full legal rights in Panama. However, Panamanian law does not prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, and there is societal discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Specific considerations for LGBTQI+ Volunteers in Panama:

  • There is an active Volunteer-led LGBTQI+ affinity group.
  • Volunteers may encounter in their work location and/or communities a limited understanding of gender expressions and identities other than binary and cisgender. While a diversity of sexual orientations may be more understood in these communities, there is little acceptance of same-sex relationships.
  • It is suggested that LGBTQI+ Volunteers explore the safety and integration implications (with the support of staff if needed) prior to sharing this part of their identity with community members. Some LGBTQI+ Volunteers have chosen to come out to community members, with a result of positive and negative reactions. Many have chosen to be discreet about their orientation and/or gender identity within their host community.
  • Volunteers have told us they feel they can be open with other Volunteers and staff, and that they are able to identify support mechanisms and networks outside of their host community.

Racial and ethnic diversity considerations

Some Panamanians may expect all U.S. citizens to be White and are unfamiliar with the racial and ethnic diversity of U.S. citizens. For Volunteers, the range of responses to their skin color may vary greatly: from being mistaken for a community member to being questioned about their U.S. citizenship, to facing behavior and language skill expectations or ridicule, to being able to get better prices for goods and services. All Volunteers should be mindful of the issues of race/ethnicity that are embedded in U.S. culture and within Panama and are invited to be active allies for fellow Volunteers.

  • Black/African American Volunteers may be judged less professionally competent than White Volunteers. African Americans may be called negro, chombo, moreno or mulato depending on complexion. These are generally not understood as derogatory terms by Panamanians, rather as the local words used to describe People of Color. Some Panamanians may also use these terms to describe different skin tones within Latinx populations. Panama is home to a vibrant Afro-Caribbean population and culture, and historians estimate that fifty percent of Panamanians may have some African ancestry.
  • Latinx/Hispanic Volunteers may not be perceived as being North American and may be expected to speak Spanish fluently. Latinx/Hispanic Volunteers may be labeled el cubano, el mexicano, etc. Latinx/Hispanic Volunteers may be expected to interact in Panamanian society with more ease than other Volunteers.
  • Asian American and Pacific Islander Volunteers may experience microaggressions, stereotypes, labeling, and negative comments. Asian American Volunteers may be called Chinese (chino) despite efforts to clarify or explain their ethnic background. Also, they may not be considered “true” North Americans. In addition, Panamá’s historical involvement with certain Asian countries or the presence of Asian merchants in the community may have an impact on how Asian American Volunteers are perceived.
  • White Volunteers will likely experience privilege in many ways. Navigating this and being an ally to Volunteers and locals who may not have the same experience will be important as a Volunteer. One such privilege may be not having your U.S. citizenship questioned and automatically being assumed to be U.S. American, while some of your fellow Volunteers may experience the contrary. At the same time, White Volunteers may stand out more and receive different types of unwanted attention more often because of this aspect of their identity.

Age considerations

  • Older Volunteers may be assumed an expert and be granted additional respect and privilege in their community that others might not receive – for instance, receiving an audience with an elected official; or being trusted with information or insights that a younger Volunteer might not be privy to.
  • Peace Corps’ approach to training, especially during intense pre-service training, can be stressful for older trainees, whose lifelong learning styles and habits may not lend themselves to the techniques used.
  • A 50+ individual may be the only older person in a group of Volunteers, and initially may not feel part of the group.
  • Some 50+ Volunteers may find it difficult to adapt to a lack of structure and clarity in their role as a Volunteer after having worked for many years in a very structured and demanding job.
  • Considering the complexity of financial realities some older Volunteers may face while abroad, they may want to consider assigning power of attorney to someone in the United States to deal with financial and family matters.

Religious considerations

  • In Panama, Volunteers of religions other than Christianity may face stereotypes about people of their religion. They may not be thought of as real Americans.
  • Jewish Volunteers may occasionally be considered anti-Christian.
  • Some Volunteers may not feel comfortable disclosing their religion to the people in their community.
  • Volunteers may not be able to find a suitable place of worship near their community or may find it difficult to fulfill their religion’s dietary requirements.

Considerations for Volunteer couples

  • Couples may face pressure from Panamanians to conform to traditional relationships in-country – specifically regarding binary gender roles. Panamanians may not be familiar with different (egalitarian) relationship dynamics and may be outwardly critical of relationships that do not adhere to traditional gender roles.
  • It is helpful for couples to prepare for service by thinking about how pressures to conform to local culture may be challenging to different genders in very different ways. Be prepared to consider how your partner is being affected and discuss what, if any, aspects of your relationship could be adjusted to help reduce stress for you both.

Types of ICDEIA support available in country

  • Peace Corps Panama has an ICDEIA committee called the Bridge Committee which includes staff and Volunteers working together to promote a culture of inclusion at post. The committee works on topics such as supporting efforts to make programming and training more inclusive, diverse, and accessible, as well as co-creating approaches to strengthen inclusion and belonging for Volunteer, staff, and host country partners.
  • Peace Corps Panama also has Volunteer-led affinity groups that support Volunteers who self-identify as one of the identities currently supported by the groups. New groups can be formed if there is interest among the Volunteer community.
  • Staff and Volunteers receive training on ICDEIA topics and have access to information to support navigating differences between cultures.