Greeks are indeed everywhere, even in the tiny Central American nation of Panama. The Greek community there is small, but active and vibrant. A community of no more than one thousand souls has already made its mark on the economy, politics, gastronomy and culture of this beautiful, verdant country.
“A Greek is always a Greek wherever he goes,” says taxi driver Costa Gianareas who has lived in Panama for fifty-five years.
The first Greeks went to Panama in the late 1800’s, most lured by jobs related to the construction of the Canal. There were just a few families at the time, and they stuck together. As time went on, more Greek immigrants who originally had planned on settling in the United States decided to try out Panama, as the US was experiencing a financial depression at the time.
The Greek presence has been strengthened over the intervening decades as Greek shipping gradually conquered the world, and many shipowners chose to sail their vessels under the Panamanian flag.
The community has unquestionably made its mark, with the children and grandchildren of immigrants integrating and contributing to society, becoming lawyers, doctors, teachers and very successful businessmen.
“Whatever Greeks do, they do it more successfully when they live abroad,” says Fr. Nick Agoris, the priest of the ‘Iglesia Orthodoxa de Panama’.
A former president of Panama, Demetrio Basilio Lakas Bahas, was Greek. The son of Greek immigrants, Bahas served as the 27th President of Panama from December 19, 1969 to October 11, 1978.
“He was the President in a very delicate time for Panama. He did some incredible things. He always kept his eye on his fellow Greeks,” says Evangelos Koumanis a close friend of the former president and the owner of the famous Parillada Jimmys.
“He did not do it for fame or money. He believed in it, he did it for his soul. He was a simple man. He was a true ‘leventis’“, notes Koumanis.
Antonio Taquis, a shipping agent and owner of Panama Shipping Agency, whose grandparents immigrated to Panama from the Greek village of Dorio, explained to the Greek Reporter how Greeks, “mostly from Messinia,” ended up in the Central American country.
“My spirit, my heart is with Greece and Orthodoxy, and this is what I am trying to transmit to my daughter,” he says.
Unsurprisingly, Greek food has also become an integral part of Panamian life. Greek specialties such as souvlaki and gyros are very popular as well as pies and sweets. Greek restaurants are thriving.
“Panamanians love Greek food. They even know how to pronounce the names such as taramosalata or galaktoboureko,” says Suvlas CEO, Antonio Androutsos.
The Greeks who immigrated to the country have become very involved with sharing their rich culture with the Panamanians.
The Greek community also organizes the annual Greek Fest, an event showcasing the hellenic spirit as well as Greek food, folksongs and dancing to show Panamanians the Greek way of having a good time.
“Many Panamanians have become ‘Greeks’…They want to learn the language, they go to the church and they want to baptize their children according to the Orthodox traditions,” says Panayoti Liakopulos, the President of the Greek Community of Panama.
There is also a Greek school, “Instituto Atenea,” where over one thousand students, most Panamanians, are enrolled — and again, the main mission there is to share the Greek culture and language with the local people.
The school was founded in 2002 by a group of Greeks led by Haralambos Tzanetatos, a businessman who came to Panama from the Greek island of Kefalonia.
Students sing the Greek national anthem at the Institute every morning before they enter their classroom. Apart from being taught the Greek language, students also learn Greek dances.
Atenea Institute makes sure the Greek community of Panama has a bright future.