Images thanks to Mr. Oswald Baptiste,Editor of the Rainbow City H.S. Newsletter
Initial relationships between neighbors were strained as the people learned to live within communal oases that were inadequate for the sudden influx of new tenants that were populating the cities. During the first years the new Westindian arrivals would become reclusive in the cities even though they were Panamanians.
They felt more foreign, these new arrivals, than the Black Westindian neighbors of Colon and Panama cities, people who had been living in the same tenements since they were built back during the construction years, and who had taken part in the sanitation of the cities.
This first generation Westindians were accustomed to living alongside other foreigners from all parts of Asia, Europe and Latin-American. They also, unfortunately, adapted to harsh labor relations often tolerating cruel and domineering bosses whose exigencies threatened to change their own nature. So that with some “quiet dereliction” of family duties, most Westindian men and women of the times treasured holding on to their employment to the detriment of everything else. Employment, it would seem, became paramount in their list of cares, and in most cases they structured their lives around an often degrading labor relationship. Family life then became for its members a series of reunions that, in most cases, were bereft of Christian values.
For the members of the Westindian community funerals became an important part of their social life. With death and a sense of transience all around them the burial grounds became a familiar meeting ground where they listened to eulogies and reunited later to catch up on gossip, family and friends. I will go into further detail about the “Silver” cemeteries and the social life that emerged around the Silver people, however, in later posts.
We can safely say that during the greater part of the 20th century, however, the Black Westindian community in Panama could be still considered the largest of any of the foreign communities present at any time in the country. The era would meet them living in the same republic and yet in stark contrast with the mostly rural and invisible Black Spanish speaking community, still mostly an agricultural class of people and still showing great timidity regarding venturing into the growing urban centers.
Nevertheless, instead of dwelling on the politics of the Canal Zone or the country that hosted it, the Westindians centered their attentions on Clubhouse activities, Commissary shopping, family picnics and imitating the colored lifestyle of the U.S., involving regular and numerous meetings at the Lodges or other quasi Secret Societies so common in the segregated lifestyle of Blacks in the United States.
Soon, as they gained a real presence in the urban centers they began to develop their own social gatherings and what could be termed local cultural nuances. The newly celebrated “Carnivals” (carnavales) yearly filled the streets of the cities with costumed personages who attracted the Westindian youths who delighted in joining in the street merriment. In fact, their participation gave the festivities their own style and color introducing unique musical rhythms as well as an inimitable Caribbean flavor.
Thus for the Barrio Westindians, who with their newly arriving interiorano (farmers) neighbors from the central provinces of a still backward country, their cultural contribution would provide some kind of culture for the locals and the tourist. It was during these times also that Westindians would become acquainted with Panamanian folk traditions and even intermarry with people of the interior, starting to mix family ties and become more Panamanian.
Their mutual interest in sports, however, such as the games of Baseball Soccer and Boxing, would give rise to tournaments and meets between neighborhoods. Even the Blacks on the Canal Zone would meet and get involved with each other.
In the years to come the youth of this generation and beyond would seek to teach each other the rudiments of sports and games at an Olympic level, which would eventually become a positive change in their lives. The cities and neighborhoods would change for the better as the youths would identify with “their” Barrio. Low income Barrios such as the popular ones like Calidonia, Chorrillo, San Miguel and Marañon would inevitably become known for their unique Westindian cultural flavor which would later become an integral part of local traditions.
These are the times that I would also call the beginnings of a notable affluence in the style of the Black Westindian Panamanian society; an era in which the Westindian community was viewed as rich and resourceful- up and coming. The years between 1924 and 1934 for me would mark another benchmark for the emerging Westindian youth, the first generation Panamanian Westindian citizens.
This story continues.