The Supportive Women of Bocas del Toro

A very old photo of a Westindian washer woman, probably Jamaican, near a work camp in Empire.

West Indian women would remain in their role of supporters to the working men of the plantations. Even I had seen women living the life of wives and temporary live-in women for some men.

However, the quiet life of underground prostitution existed amongst them and it was never discussed frivolously amongst the men at work. To working men of yesteryear, according to Bea, and to the men of my days it seemed as though there was no problem with women. Although my personal life experience was different in perception than most men I met at the time, most women seemed to adapt to the rhythm of life on plantations and were eager to be of service to the men.

Whether it was to fill the role of wife for busy workmen, or cook or companion, there would be some woman involved. As Old Bea pointed out, there were women in the old days to keep the men clean, follow after them to cook three daily meals, seek them out and come up with some social event, which was usually a Saturday night dance, or usually just sit as psychologist and listen to the men talk. However in my days, as introverted as I was, I kept to myself, did not go to town on pay days, which involved taking the free train ride to the town of Almirante. I did not drink alcoholic beverages and usually looked for opportunities to work extra hours on Saturdays and Sundays.

There were no movie houses to choose from as there were in Colon and Panama, and what movies the local Chinaman would bring in were usually boring American films. So, most of the time I just remained in the barracks as the men would file out to do some gambling or drinking in the only Cantina next to the Company’s Store on week ends. The rest of the time we all were so tired after working all day that after our meal in the only private fonda, or small restaurant under our base camp cook’s home, we would all file back to the barracks, shower and settle down for a night’s rest.

I really did not get involved in the local lifestyle of the small pueblo of Baseline until I worked in the Engineering Office, which was the administrative office for the area. For a while I worked and then sought housing for my young pregnant wife as we settled down to raise a family. That was when I began to notice real plantation life amongst the people that surrounded us. The Westindian women I had occasion to come in contact with would be at the only Saturday night dance I ever attended in Almirante and some of the women lived in the town in which we resided.

However, I knew about and observed a quiet kind of prostitution going on between the single men I worked with and Westindian women who frequented the plantations.That was some arrangement that I came to call “the live in woman for a while.” It was where some woman would come up from the towns of Bocas Town or Almirante and shack up, or live with that man for a while. This mode of prostitution amongst the single men was the preferred amongst other the services the women provided such as washing, dress making or providing information to find out who knew how to get what done. The only social organizer I knew about was a Latino girl who organized the Comparza troupe for Carnival of that year, 1955, which was celebrated in Almirante.

Then there were the crare onflicts that could arise from these arrangements. There was one incident in which a Westindian working man came home to find his wife with another man in his home. The intruder was a Westindian, one of my supervisors in the office, and he was caught during the morning hours, after the town had settled down to be the sleepy quiet place it always had been.

The raucous that ensued between the two men caused a stir in the town that day, and it would come alive again at evening when most of the men knocked off from work. The office man ended up severely slashed to the point where he was disabled and had to wear a sling over his left shoulder. When he returned to work after the incident I found out he had been fired from his job and disappeared from the area all together.

That the occurrence of incidences like the one described above existed, there could be no doubt, but no one who had experienced working for some time on plantations would deny that women played a very important role in behalf of men who worked day in and day out; men who, for most of their lives, their race would condemn them to meagre wages, even into their old age. These men could not have survived alone, even up until they breathed their last breath, were it not for the supportive relationships they had with those women who were willing to serve them, and whohelped them throughout life to make the passing of time pleasant.

So, although most of the Westindian workmen would remain, just that, working men most of their lives, laboring for slave wages, even until the end of the century, passing through what we have come to know as the age of industrialization and modernization, many would not feel able to to do justice by their women folk. The day was coming, however, for justice to be granted our women who had sacrificed to see the day of their people’s real economic freedom. The greedy, avaricious speculators too would see their day coming soon, days in which they would end up expelled by public opinion, from those same countries where they once had been treated as royalty and declared kings of all of the Americas.

We will return to our story, however, and will let the people who research the issues involved tell their stories here on these pages. Articles which we hope the whole world of young energetic people of all races would come to read and understand how race and class have reeked havoc on our planet, making wars where there was peace amongst people of different races who had never even hear of each other before. Then sit back and notice how those battered young people return home after each and every war to the same wretched life they had come to know before, without benefits and again suffer hate for their race and color of their skin.

This story continues.

2 responses to “The Supportive Women of Bocas del Toro

  1. Interesting post. Sometimes people in the old mining camps and logging towns up here used to get involved in situations like this. The police used to look away unless there were other problems.

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