From Local to Global: Interpreting the Golden Arch in Panama City

2023 H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellow

By Annie Schentag

Published July 7, 2023

Of all the incredible buildings in Panama City, it was actually a McDonald’s that surprised me the most.

McDonald’s adjacent to the Administration Building in Balboa, Panama City.

McDonald’s adjacent to the Administration Building in Balboa, Panama City. Photographer: Annie Schentag

It certainly was not on my itinerary. In my first week on the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship, those golden arches were the last thing I wanted to see. This adventure was meant to put me at the doorstep of ‘true’ Panamanian architecture, a mythical local landscape far beyond American influence. I had not anticipated that this particular McDonald’s would be an excellent place to study the architecture of American imperialism.

Positioned in direct contrast to the Panama Canal Administration Building in the former Canal Zone, this fast-food nuisance tells a nuanced story of international relations between America and Panama during the twentieth century. Situated at the edge of the town of Balboa in the former Canal Zone, this McDonald’s is located in an area that still conveys strong historic associations with twentieth-century American occupation of Panama. About 10 miles wide and 50 miles long spanning the width and length of the Panama Canal, the Canal Zone was created as part of the 1903 Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty. Written in English by the United States, this treaty declared Panama’s independence from Colombia. In order to protect American interests and investments in constructing the canal, the treaty also included a major clause that designated the Canal Zone land for American use as if it were their own sovereign land. This essentially created a strip of American land within the country of Panama, where generations of canal workers, military personnel, and their families lived as American citizens until it was officially given back to Panama on December 31, 1999.

The architecture of the Canal Zone that remains today was largely built by and for Americans, with former military bases, residences, schools, and a cemetery attesting to this near-century of occupation. Commercial buildings and restaurants there once catered to American families, providing a strange sort of whiplash of American architecture slicing across Panama.