Expats in Panama
Expatriate: n. a person who voluntarily lives outside his/her native country, either temporarily or permanently. In abbreviated form, expat.
Expat (Panama): n. a self-appointed term to refer to an English-speaking, light-skinned foreigner who speaks limited to no Spanish. Also referred to as ¨gringos¨ by the greater population.
The word expatriate comes from Latin– ex (meaning ¨out of¨) and patria (¨fatherland¨ or ¨country,¨ also a word used in Panamanian Spanish to patriotically refer to ¨Panama¨). The term umbrellas anyone from study abroad students to retirees, executives, entrepreneurs to actors filming abroad to military families to surfers. David Beckham, Ernest Hemingway and Sean Connery are all examples of expats.
The term ¨expat¨ in Panama, however, is a word used by the English-speaking populations living in Panama to refer to themselves and each other. For example, the large expat communities from the U.S., Canada, England and Australia, among others, would use this term to refer to their families, neighbors, friends, coworkers, etc. living in Panama: My Mom is an expat/Pedasí has a growing expat community/We celebrated Thanksgiving with a few fellow expats. However, the growing number of Colombians, Venezuelans, Nicaraguans and Dominicans in Panama- all technically ¨expats¨- would typically not be referred to as ¨expats¨ by each other nor by the other expat groups. Typically, these fellow foreigners are referred to by their country of origin, identifiable among Panamanians by their Spanish dialect and socio-economic status.
Interestingly enough, a ¨gringo¨ in Panama is a term used without negative connotation by Panamanians and Panama´s expats to refer to what we say use in English as ¨expat.¨ Gringos are typically expats from the U.S., although most English-speaking, light-skinned foreigners who don´t speak Spanish (or with a heavy accent) are lumped together as ¨gringos¨ by Panamanians. A Google search of ¨Panama¨ and ¨gringo¨ reveals many blogs, newsletters, apartment guides and even facebook groups written and created by expats for expats, and also highlights the comfort and commonality of the expat support system in Panama.
Panama is home to many expats, with several well-established expat communities in Panama City, Coronado, El Valle, David, Boquete and Bocas del Toro. Most recently, especially in the past decade with Panama´s stability and growing economic possibilities, it is more than common to find expats anywhere in Panama, from running their U.S.-based marketing company from their home on an isolated beach in Chiriqui province (and giving room and board to a former U.S. school teacher) to opening up a yoga studio in a town of less than 2000 people. Blogs, forums, facebook and LinkedIn groups; events from pub crawls, beach weekends to poker tournaments all keep expats connected, aware and supported. There´s tips about how to maintain that vegan diet to where to find the ingredients for your grandmother´s Christmas cookie recipe from `back home´ (Panama City´s Riba Smith is a wonderful recommendation, although there are several other gourmet deli/grocery stores).
Panama is also comfortable for expats, dubbed a ¨haven¨ in a 2010 New York Times article for its multinational presence and rising number of entrepreneurs. There are several types of expats found in Panama, and even the retiree expat category, strong in numbers, cross over into the entrepreneurial side as they see that anything from hosting zumba classes to dabbling in real estate to opening pancake breakfasts is possible. Or they just sit tight and enjoy their pensioner´s visa discounts and maintain a Spanish-English dictionary on their bookshelf. Young-professionals from abroad form another large group of expats, who either work in growing multinational corporations like P&G, Caterpillar, Adidas, Nestle, Colgate, etc., one of several international schools, are starting up their own business from surf lessons to cafés to investing, or are learning Spanish, loving Latin living and going through an ¨Eat Pray Love¨ experience of their own. There´s a lot of quirky expats too- those that didn´t quite fit the mold in their own home country and don´t feel that a law or two in Panama apply to them either. Bunk into this type of expat and you´ll be sure to get an earful. Panama does have a place for everyone.
The list of Panama´s expat types goes on, all with their stories of how they came to decide on Panama to be their home. Take a glimpse at the numerous resources available online, googling both ¨expat¨ and ¨gringo,¨ and be sure to take note of who you´ll meet: everyone has a story and you might find one similar to your own.