West Indian woman cake vendor
selling her wares in San Felipe. Notice the small price list
under the screen mesh that protects her offerings.
Thanks to www.czimages.com
As time went by the privileged white American citizens of the Canal Zone would become dependent on Black West Indians and, in general, Black American workers and others who came to their rescue as coolie labor much before the area had reached such advanced stages of colonization in the country of Panama. Employment would become so abundant that a youngster of 15 years had only to decide not to attend school any more and just seek out gangs of men at work. That minor would, then, only need to approach whomever was the foreman saying, “Need any workers, boss?” And he would be instantly hired on the spot.
Employment was even easier to obtain for younger Black women who were wives and/or daughters mainly of Westindian workingmen and other black families not living in the black townships in the Zone. It was natural that news of new employment reaching the islands in the Caribbean brought constant arrivals of large groups of women. Some rumors, however, were started implying that the black women were arriving to be prostitutes for the Black working men. As we would soon discover, nothing could be further from the truth of the matter since it was generally known throughout the Westindian community that the customary practices of Westindian men did not include hiring prostitutes or visiting brothels.
We may say that these years would earmark economic prosperity for the resident blacks and their families in the West Indies as more money began circulating out of the canal construction works. Despite being employed, however, we must remember that the black workers, in particular, were really just skimming the ceiling of real poverty. Those living in the poorer sections called barrios in the coastal cities of Panama and Colon, however, naturally considered themselves fortunate for just being employed. These were the times we could call the beginnings of what henceforth would be known as the Panamanian Westindian community.
As we will later see, all would not always be camaraderie amongst the Westindians, as might be expected in a large group of people coming out of the depths of poverty. Jealousies and general rivalries arising from the increased competition for jobs would set one group against another group. Sometimes the rivalries would extend even to the point of blacks making comparisons about the size of their different island homes they had originated from.
Even as a child I can remember listening to Westindian Calypso renditions that reflected these rivalries. It must have been around the year of 1939 that I heard a tune that had as a refrain, “Small Island, go back were you come from! You came in a fishing boat and now you think you own the moat. So, Small Island go back were you really come from!” Little did I know that those rivalries came from many years prior, the years between 1907 and 1914.
These rivalries, however, which never came to cause any real physical or emotional stress amongst the Westindians workers or the Westindian community, would come to be looked upon as a nuisance more than as a theme of real competitiveness, nothing that ever caused any serious conflict between the different groups of West Indian people.
This story continues.