Image from www.africanamericans.com
Today it is with hind sight that we reflect upon an era in which our ancestors lived as foreigners, though their children were being born and raised as Panamanians to become, for decades, a community of people who lived under tensions on both sides of the borders of the American Canal Zone.
It was the Zone which, at the time, had been locked up by a “perpetuity clause,” and that seemed for our people as if they were traveling on a space craft named “Jim Crow” into the unknown future, a people sandwiched in without escape between the two forces on either side of the great Ship “Jim Crow.”
Blazoned with all the insignias of the American Ku Klux Klan and expecting the Panamanian Latino elite to throw them over board into the infinite darkness of space, the United States Canal would represent the ushering in of a new century, but another round of struggles with the old fear. The Westindian people would meet the decade of the 1900’s under the scrutinizing gaze of the so called benign and civilizing influence of the Yankees.
Enclosed in their fearful minds they would quietly suffer and watch as old enchained Africa refused to adapt completely to American, French or Latino cultures. Ultimately, during those early years of the 20th century the Westindians would be vehemently accused of not wanting to adapt to Latino culture, something that would later prove to be a farce intended to deny the children born in the country the legitimacy of citizenship.
History would prove, in fact, that this mentality of the colonials, which made war where peace had reigned, at least in Panama, had been a trait which had been detected long before the Westindian people met up with Panamanian history, a trait that spanned the whole Spanish colonial period to reach our days, with the added Yankee colonialist attitude.
Although today we can look back and reflect upon an era in which our ancestors lived as foreigners, the complete integration of the Westindians into Panamanian society did not really start until the latter end of the 20th century. Although they had, with their labor, intellect and economy come from being hired hands on the various projects since the Panama Railroad and the banana plantations works, and then the French and Yankee Canal Zone , they would not see their inclusion in Panamanian until the second half of the last century.
Although we would be the inheritors of their West Indian culture, being their children born and raised as Panamanians, many would flee Panama, the country of their birth, disillusioned. They would join other Westindians, from both the former British and Spanish colonies, in what for all of them would become a Mecca of Westindian Culture. That New York City would become for most all of them home, a segregated area in which to “be” Latin and Westindian. It would, however, become a community of people who, decades later, would live under the same tensions we had lived under on both sides of the borders on the Canal Zone in Panama. For that is what the American Canal Zone came to mean to many of us, tension, and Panama would seem a strange place in which to live as we would be confronted with derision daily.
For those trapped on the Panama Canal Zone it would feel like a place that that “perpetuity clause,” which we will discuss later, had locked in forever.
This story continues.