Panama Table of Contents

Family and Kin

In the late 1980s, family and kin continued to play a central role in the social lives of most Panamanians. An individual without kin to turn to for protection and aid was in a precarious position. Loyalty to one's kin was an ingrained value, and family ties were considered one's surest defense against a hostile and uncertain world. This loyalty often outweighed that given to a spouse; indeed, a man frequently gave priority to his responsibility to his parents or siblings over that extended to his wife.

Co-resident parents, children, and others living with them constituted the basic unit of kinship. Family members relied upon each other for assistance in major undertakings throughout life. Extended kin were important as well. Grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins faithfully gathered to mark birthdays and holidays together. Married children visited their parents frequently--even daily. In some small remote villages and in some classes (such as the elite), generations of intermarriage created a high measure of interrelatedness, and almost everyone could trace a kinship link with everyone else. Co-residence, nonetheless, remained the basis for the most enduring ties an individual formed.

A significant portion of all marriage unions were consensual rather than contractual. A formal marriage ceremony often represented the culmination of a life together for many mestizo and Antillean couples. It served as a mark of economic success. Grown children sometimes promoted their parents' formal marriage. Alternatively, a priest might encourage it for an elderly sick person, as a prerequisite for receiving the rite of the anointing of the sick.

The stability of consensual marriages varied considerably. In rural areas where campesinos' livelihood was reasonably secure and population relatively stable, social controls bolstered informal unions. Mestizos themselves made no distinction between the obligations and duties of couples in a consensual or a legal marriage. Children suffered little social stigma if their parents were not legally married. If the union was unstable and there were children, the paternal grandparents sometimes took in both mother and children. Or, a woman might return to her mother's or her parents' household, leaving behind her children so that she could work. Nevertheless, there were a significant number of femaleheaded families, particularly in cities and among the poorest segment of the population.

Formally constituted legal marriage was the rule among the more prosperous campesinos, cattle ranchers, the urban middle class, and the elite. Marriage played a significant role for the elite in defining and maintaining the family's status. A concern for genealogy, imputed racial purity, and wealth were major considerations. Repeated intermarriage made the older elite families into a broadly interrelated web of kin. As one upper-class wife noted, ". . . no member of my family marries anyone whose greatgrandparents were unknown to us."

Men were expected to be sexually active outside of marriage. Keeping a mistress was acceptable in virtually every class. Among the wealthier classes, a man's relationship with his mistress could take on a quasi-formal, permanent quality. An elite male could entertain his mistress on all but the most formal social occasions, and he could expect to receive friends at the apartment he had provided for her. Furthermore, he would recognize and support the children she bore him.

The ideal focus for a woman, by contrast, was home, family, and children. Children were a woman's main goal and consolation in life. The tie between mother and child was virtually sacrosanct, and filial love and respect deeply held duties. Whatever her husband's extramarital activities, a woman's fidelity had to be above reproach. An elite or middle-class woman derived considerable solace from her status as a man's legal wife. Nevertheless, middleclass and more educated women often found their traditional role and the division of labor irksome, and were particularly offended by the diversion of family funds into their husbands' pursuit of pleasure.

Campesinos, too, divided social life into its properly male and female spheres: "The man is in the fields, the woman is in the home." As a corollary, men were "of the street" and able to visit at will. Women who circulated too freely were likened to prostitutes; men who performed female tasks were thought to be dominated by their wives.

Childrearing practices reinforced the traditional male and female roles and values to a greater or lesser degree among all classes. Boys were permitted considerably more latitude and freedom than girls. Girls were typically tightly supervised, their companions screened, and their activities monitored.

Because children were deeply desired, their birth was celebrated, and a baptism was a major family event. The selection of godparents (padrinos) was an important step that could have a pronounced influence on the child's welfare and future. It resulted in a quasi-kinship relationship that carried with it moral, ceremonial, and religious significance, and broadened family ties of trust, loyalty, and support.

Parents tried to choose for their children godparents whom they respected, and trusted, and who were as high on the social scale as possible. A certain degree of formality and ceremony was expected of godparents in social interaction, but the bonds primarily involved protective responsibility and a willingness to render assistance in adversity.

Campesinos followed two distinct patterns in choosing godparents. The parents might choose a person of wealth, power, or prestige, thereby gaining an influential protector. Such a contact could give a parent the confidence to launch a child into an alien outside world, in which he or she might have little personal status or experience. By contrast, among some campesinos there was strong informal pressure in the opposite direction. They believed it was inappropriate to ask someone of higher economic status to act as a godparent, so they sought out instead a relative or friend, especially one who lived in the same area. The choice here tended to reinforce existing social ties and loyalties.

Rural Society
Urban Society
The Elite
The Middle Class
The Lower Class

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress