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Diaspora and Belonging in Panama: Cultural Performance and National Identity for Panamanians of Chinese Descent


The first Chinese migrants arrived in modern-day Panama aboard the clipper Sea Witch in April of 1854. In their first steps on what was then known as New Granada, they arrived as laborers to work on the Panama Railroad, a project commissioned by the United States to help transport wealth accumulated from the California Gold Rush that was taking place at the time. Since their arrival, waves of migrations have occurred over the past century and a half. With each wave of migration, people bring with them their own customs and ideals, of which music and dance are of great importance. This research makes evident the importance of Chinese presence in Panamanian culture and society. As one of the largest Chinese diasporas within Latin America, the case of Chinese Panamanians provides a compelling case study for understanding the sociopolitical consequences of being ethnically Asian within a Latin American context.

In this dissertation, I argue that cultural performances through music and dance construct, maintain, and express unique bicultural, transnational, and often shifting identities to assert belonging through difference as Panamanians of Chinese descent continue to redefine and negotiate notions of Panamanian nationhood. Central throughout this project, cultural performance through music, dance, religious worship, and sporting events becomes an important tool for validating and asserting a Panamanian national identity in light of a long history of marginalization. By incorporating Chinese art forms into the most meaningful personal and nationalistic moments of their lives, Chineseness no longer becomes a symbol of what is not Panamanian, but instead becomes a representation of what Panamanian can be. In doing so, this community deconstructs the barriers of national identity that have historically marginalized them in very openly hostile ways. A result of ten months of ethnographic fieldwork in Panama City, Panama between September 2017 and July 2018, this dissertation explores issues of diaspora, belonging, and nationhood for Chinese Panamanians and Panamanians of Chinese descent and the complexities inherent in performative expressions of identity in situating national belonging, validation, and recognition of such identities in the Panamanian national imaginary.

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