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Charlotte Van Horn, Founder of Black Expats in Panama

When Charlotte Van Horn moved from Glassboro, New Jersey to Biloxi, Mississippi, the only people she knew who had spent time in another country had gone to Vietnam. Then she met a Panamanian, who she’d eventually marry, and the transition began.

“I didn’t even know where Panama was on the map,” confides Van Horn, formerly a legal secretary. She has since built a new home in a gated bedroom community near Panama City where she settled in 2010.

“Before I made the move, no one could tell me there was any place in the world better to live than the U.S.A.”

Today, Charlotte Van Horn, 58, is a certified SisterLocks specialist who commands a thriving organization, Black Expats In Panama (BEIP). Launched in 2019, the goal is to assist Black Americans transition to that Central American country, provide resources, cultural enrichment and diversity that makes sense.

Van Horn says BEIP, offering ‘travel with a purpose tours’ and resettlement support, grew out of a need to foster kinship to a community of mostly Black women who shared connections and lived experiences that they left behind in the states. “The result was something magical.”

She witnessed a rapid uptick in resettlement between 2019 and June 2020, hastened by the pandemic, the George Floyd murder and what Van Horn calls the weight of the hostile political climate colliding with Black people’s need to find refuge outside the land of their birth.

The Black expat movement is not new, dating back 100 years. Following World War I, a cadre of artists and political activists issued their discontent with their feet, spanning out and winning acceptance by a global community. It included celebrated intellectuals, before and after the Harlem Renaissance, led by artists and activists like Josephine Baker, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Maya Angelou and Nina Simone.

Today, the mass exodus to far-flung countries includes untold millions of lesser known Black American expats. There is no census data on this population, but it is believed the vast majority are women — many retired, others working remotely — seeking solace, serenity, adventure or opportunities not found stateside.

As part of our multi-media narrative, our Unerased podcast will spotlight Black expat women and our May Facebook live event will explore the joys and challenges of forging new frontiers.

Twenty-One Reasons Why You Should Choose a BEIP Cultural Relocation Tour

Van Horn, featured in our podcast and FB Live, offers these insights on expatriation.

Expats Upside 

Peace of Mind. First and foremost, you leave behind the trauma of racial discord, traded for a safety and security that allows you to exist without fear of “breathing while Black.”

Economic Independence. In Panama and most developing countries your lifestyle is enhanced by a cost of living that carries you and your American green backs further than you could ever go in the states.

American Experience. Technology and advancements in the most developed nation on earth comes with built-in advantages drawn from our exposure and understanding of how to translate circumstances into opportunities. “In the states you may be an everyday Joanne,” says Van Horn, “But in Panama, you can be a Super Star.” 

Welcomed Weather. Outside of the hurricane belt, just north of the Equator and centered within the tropical rainforest, Panama enjoys 12 hours of daylight and warm temps that vary between 75 and 90 degrees. 

Expats Downside

Homesick & Alone. Many folks relocate without realizing the impact of leaving family and loved ones behind until they’ve made the move. Feelings of loneliness and isolation sometimes creep in, especially in the early days of relocating.

Language Barriers. Unless you are fluent in Spanish, relocation can be difficult. Although many Panamanians are bilingual and welcome opportunities to engage in English, you are often out of the loop when you are not at least conversant in the native tongue. 

Cultural Challenges. Even the humblest of us wear our Americanism on our sleeves. The clash of cultures is often subtle and unspoken for the usually outspoken American. There is a steep learning curve calibrating who we are in the context of where we are, and clearing the hurdles of being culturally foreign.

Access and Ease. When you’re used to modern convenience, creature comforts and access to quick and reliable resources at your fingertips, huge adjustments must be built into your resettlement plan as you trade access and ease for a slower, simpler pace. 

— Gwen McKinney, author