The first great economic depression for the newly emerging West Indian working men since the slavery days ending in 1833 initiated a period of quiet struggle for cultural identification for the entire West Indian populace. For most West Indians it was also a way of gaining that assertion of human rights, using their right as freedmen and laborers to accentuate their rights as bonafide citizens.
These rights as working men however, would not be part of the human experience for the Hispanic branch of the African people in the Panamanian theater, in which, up until the 19th century, the Diaspora had remain enslaved.
Later, the first decade of the 20th century would see the increase of strife created by the demands of labor for more benefits from their employers. The labor stoppages would increase in the area of Bocas del Toro province, before reaching its crescendo in 1919.
Soon, after the initiation of the American Canal, the canal areas for the West Indian workers would become and remain a virtual concentration camp, with segregation and outright racial discrimination the rule rather than the exception. Government after government in the Panamanian political scene would maintain a ‘hands off’ posture until much later in the decade of the 1960’s in which the Hispanic laborers would force the government to be come more involved. Only until then, in order to favor the laborers the government had to declare an impasse over labor conflicts and take a ‘hands on’ attitude in favor of labor for the first time in the country of Panama.
The first Great Exodus of the Westindian population in Panama began in the 1940’s and it would set into motion a current of human energy, as waves of people left Panama in the decades of the 1950’s and 1960’s. Many Westindian Panamanians vowed never to return to the Panama of their birth, a Panama which they felt had turned its back on them as a people. And, sadly enough, with justification, upon examining Panama’s political policies regarding the West Indians. In fact, it had been a Panama which had continually taken sides against them.
By the 1940’s the peoples were on the move, running from a Panama that had declared them as ‘unwanted,’ taking on an aggressive posture, and outright threatening to deport their young people. The youngsters who were still small children were targeted, and constitutional amendments and laws were passed declaring the children of Westindian parentage as unwanted (indeseable) ‘illegal aliens, a class of people not fit to be considered citizens.’
During the New Canal inauguration ceremonies of 1914, the events would go virtually unnoticed by the Panamanian and the Westindian laborers for neither group would be invited to the celebrations. What the Westindian would take notice of would be the promulgation of the Constitution of 1946, that had Black Westindians written all over it, since many of its provisions were designed to exclude, expel and generally vilify their status in Panama.
By then the great exodus north to the United States was also joined by a special group of chosen young teachers, the educators who had been given scholarships to study in the U.S with the aim of bettering the future of education for Black Zonian children. But, as with most of their fellow West Indian countrymen, many of the scholars sent to some of the best universities in the United States would never return to the segregated Panama Canal Zone.
This story continues.