Discussing gender relations, roles and sexuality in reference to our experiences in Panamá is a bit more difficult than many of the other aspects of culture that we’ve experienced. It’s not as simple as recording observations about how people drive, how they behave at sporting events or how they shop. Perhaps it would be best to begin with the standard subject: cat calls. We’ve all heard that this is a normal practice throughout Latin America and were all “warned” to be prepared for it, since it’s not something that happens in the U.S. The first day we were here we all walked as a big group to the University for our orientation. The entire walk was peppered with whistles, honks and comments from the surrounding construction areas, traffic and local pedestrians. Part of this was due to the fact, I think, that we were obviously a large group of Americans, including at least four blondes. Avoiding that kind of attention was impossible. When we walk in smaller groups it’s much less noticeable, and if I’m by myself it’s usually just a handful and nothing particularly invasive (I have noticed that walking with just one blonde elicits exponentially more shouts and whistles). When I was in Spain I managed to avoid calling too much attention to myself because I looked and dressed relatively European. Obviously in Central American my biscuit dough skin color makes me stand out a bit more, but I frequently get mistaken for a German tourist, so my interactions with locals are often a bit different. Back to the subject at hand though: cat calls. They are indeed a normal part of gender interactions on the street. There is no denying that. There are three standard MOs that I’ve observed: the whistle, the hiss and the comment.

The first and last are things that I was previously familiar with, since they happen with relative frequency in the States also. It shocked me how many people were surprised by it, acting like they’d never heard it before, but I suppose that’s a result of they neighborhoods we all live in. I grew up essentially on Bardstown Road where honking and whistling is pretty normal (although admittedly not as frequent as it is here). I didn’t notice the hissing at first, either. I think I was hearing it and just thought that it was some sort of automotive noise, which is pretty funny I guess, but that’s what it sounded like.

This sort of cultural practice would seem to indicate a subjugated position for women in society as a whole. However, from what we’ve been told Panamanian women occupy a different position in society. They are purportedly highly independent and strong willed, with single mothers often priding themselves on the fact that they are both mother and father to their children.