My standard of living in Panama is better than I deserve. I just got back from the United States as I had gone to see my daughter and my grandsons during the Christmas break. I was shocked with how many people were on the street. I haven’t been in the United States for a couple of years and I almost wanted to cry. You don’t see that here in Panama.
There are poor people here in Panama, but you don’t see people on the streets. The poor Panamanians might have a very humble house, and they might have plastic for a roof, but they might also have a widescreen plasma TV in that humble house. Everybody in Panama seems to have a place, and you don’t see people on the streets.
Even the poorest people in Panama, who are typically the indigenous or the Indians, have shelter and are not on the streets or on the corner begging for money.
The standard of living in Panama varies. There are the unbelievably wealthy known as rabiblancos, which translates to “white ass.” Rabiblancos are the original Spanish families who came to Panama 500 years ago, and are on the highest level of wealth and control. They don’t really interact too much with the lower class, so they’re not visible.
Below that strata of ultra-wealthy people there’s the landed aristocracy, which refers to the people who have big farms or very large businesses. These people are living very comfortable lives: they drive Porsches and Audis and are living very large with the best clothing. They’re living the life.
Below that class are people with a smaller tract of land. They’re not the landed aristocracy but they’re not physically working the land themselves and have employees working for them. They might be growing coffee, have a new truck and are living pretty well.
Then there are people who are working for others. These people have a modest house but it’s theirs, and that’s something that I like here in Panama- most people own their house. That’s a big deal.
In the United States, most people are paying the bank for their house. Here in Panama, almost everybody owns a house.
The next level down is somebody who’s working a job, is secure, and whose kids are probably going to either public or private school. These people are living comfortable lives.
A step down from that are the people who are on the poorer side, and are probably renting a house. They don’t own their own house, so they’re either renting or living with their family, from whom they never really got away. They spend most of their money on things, like a $120 pair of Nike tennis shoes, or a $300 phone, but they don’t have a lot of discretionary income. These are people who spend time and money on appearance.
Next are those who are working as day laborers. Most of these people are the indigenous or the Indians who come in from the reservation called the comarca to pick coffee or work on the farm. These are the people who do most of the labor here in Panama. They have large families and their wages are not high so they don’t have a lot of discretionary income. At times these laborers have a lot of money, for example, during the coffee season, they might make $125 a day which is a King’s ransom here, but it might also go at the bar.
Apart from those five different groups who are typically Latinos, there are the Chinese, who are the mercantile here in Panama. The Chinese run all of the stores in Panama. They typically don’t interface with anyone other than themselves, although I have a Chinese friend who owns a store here in Río Sereno. He eats at my house and I eat at his house but that’s atypical. The Chinese are typically wealthy. They belong to upper middle class, and they run the small stores.
Then you have the expat community. Typically, expats stay with other expats. They don’t really get out or interact with the Panamanians as a whole. Expats live in areas where there are lots of other expats.
There are at least seven different socioeconomic groups that are present in Panama. This is one of the things that I don’t like about Panama: there is an unspoken caste system. I try to break that stereotype. Obviously, I’m an expat. I have a large farm and a big house, but I don’t care. I’m not better or worse than everybody else. I try and move throughout all of those groups with fluidity and not really be aware of the socioeconomic situation.
I’m 70 years old and have a Social Security pension. I don’t necessarily live on my pension, but it’s $2,000 a month, and I can live very well on $2,000 a month here in Panama. Depending on where and how I was living, I don’t know that I could live on $2,000 in the United States. I surely can’t live in New York with $2,000 a month, although I might be able to live in rural Arizona, but I wouldn’t be buying fillet at the store like I do here in Panama.
I’m in a rural community, so I know when the cows are coming in to be butchered. They butcher on Wednesdays and Saturdays. I also know the butcher and that he pulls the fillets and puts them on the side. That would probably not be the case in Volcán, and I certainly couldn’t do that in Boquete or in David.
So much of what I say is atypical because I live in a rural area and I interact with the community at large. That’s why my standard of living here in Panama is far beyond my means if I compare myself to what I could do in the United States if I had to live on my Social Security.
(Off the grid home, Finca Cazador, near Rio Sereno, Panama.)