The stately, larger-than-life wooden figure of Jesus Christ staring out onto the pews in the quiet of Iglesia de San Felipe in Portobelo, Panama, was immediately familiar: adorned in purple robes, dark hair flowing from his crowned head, a heavy cross on his shoulder.

The striking difference here was that the face of Jesus — lined in agony of his heavy burden — as well as his outstretched hands, were a deep, deep mahogany.

Meet the Black Christ, or Cristo Negro, the subject of an annual pilgrimage each October to Portobelo, on the country’s Caribbean coast. The story of how the 8-foot statue ended up in a church built in 1814 is in question, but its place in the hearts of many Panamanians of African descent is undisputed.

It’s just one symbol of how their culture has influenced the country’s history and its present, and was a definite emotional highlight on my recent trip to Panama on Copa Airlines’ new direct flight between BWI and Panama City.

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“Do you see Africa in the culture? Yes, that’s us,” explained Teo Jolly, a guide with international tour company ITA Global, which operates across several countries in the Caribbean. “I see here that my roots are everywhere.”

The number of Panamanians of African heritage has increased to around 24.5% of the population, according to data collected in 2019 from the country’s National Institute of Statistics and Census and shared by the International Institute on Race, Equality and Human Rights. As Jolly said, the obvious influence of those people is in the food, like Caribbean and West Indian flavors in the coconut rice and fried fish we ate for lunch, and the art and culture, particularly in the Colón region, where Portobelo is found.

The Colón district in Panama, near the Panama Canal, is home to much of the country’s Afro Panamanian people. (Chrissy Benoit)
Art at the Casa de la Cultura Congo in Portobelo. (Chrissy Benoit)

Jolly leads an Afro Panamanian cultural tour in conjunction with Black Expats In Panama, created by former Virginia resident Charlotte Van Horn as a hub for Black Americans considering relocating, either partially or permanently.

You know how a lot of people discuss moving to Canada or Europe as an alternative to the political or economic situation in the U.S.? Van Horn said that since 2021, about 270 people have gone on the tour and 26 have either moved or invested in Panama, which has significant communities of residents with European, Native and Asian backgrounds, as well. Those who have moved, she said, consider the Central American country to be a friendly “soft landing” from the current racial unrest in the States.

“It’s quite diverse, with an African American subset and culture that is appealing,” said Keith Early, 71, an attorney in Rockville who went on the tour in July and was intrigued enough to plan a follow-up trip this year to look at possible places to rent and live part-time.

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I’m not moving anywhere at the moment, but Jolly took me and a friend to many of the stops along the Black Expats in Panama tour. We started in Colón, near the Panama Canal, an area where a majority of Afro Panamanians live. As a port city on the Atlantic, it is a stop for cruise ships, a center for shipping and, these days, considered by some to be depressed and dangerous. Jolly said it was once “the most beautiful, like Havana, with nightclubs,” attributing the beginning of the area’s decline to the closing of the nearby U.S. military bases. It reminded me a little of former industrial cities such as Baltimore, where loss of industry and economic support can have catastrophic effects. Jolly made a point of driving us past the crumbling buildings downtown to pretty houses above them in the hills.

“There is beauty here,” he said.

Nearby was the vibrant Casa de la Cultura Congo, featuring a hotel, a museum of Black Panamanian culture and history, and a restaurant serving local delicacies like the aforementioned fish so fresh it was literally swimming that morning. The museum offers a helpful map of where African-descended people existed in the country, surrounded by the work of local artisans. There was a series of paintings resembling Elizabethan portraiture but depicting smiling, striking Black faces in vibrant African colors — a reminder of the breadth of the diaspora.

A map of the impact of African people in Panama as seen at the Casa de la Cultura Congo. (Chrissy Benoit)
Ruins of a Spanish fort along the Caribbean side of Panama. (Chrissy Benoit)

We also visited the ruins of forts built along the Caribbean coast by the Spanish. Jolly explained that descendants of Africa came to the country in three main eras: as enslaved people in the 1500s brought in from Spain, in the Afro-Antillean wave in the mid-1800s to early 1900s to do agricultural work, and in 1904 to build the Panama Canal.

Looking over the crumbling stones and intact cannons, Jolly explained how some of those first people, brought to the country as chattel escaped bondage and fled into the jungle. Eventually called the Cimarrons, they began fighting back and attacking Spanish transports — to the point where ships starting avoiding the area, he said.

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Of all the stops we took, the most moving was our visit to the Black Christ. The version of the legend that Jolly tells is that a ship, perhaps from Spain, sank in the port, and when the statue was found, the wood had turned black. This gave strength and divine connection to the local enslaved people — to see themselves literally reflected in the face of God.

“To see an image that the Europeans never showed them was so powerful,” he said. “To think that God sent a Black Jesus to save the Black people — [it was] something we had never seen. Someone that looks like me.”