The above images, all borrowed from wikipedia
symbolized my Canal Zone experience at the ages of three and four.
While I’m on the subject of the Commissaries, while they are still quite fresh, my memories of these unique shopping establishments stir very pleasant feelings within me, even today. Just shopping in the Panama Canal Zone Commissaries, perhaps some of the largest stores that anyone had ever seen before anywhere in the American hemisphere, made one feel rich and “privileged.”
I remember, as a small boy, being dragged by my young, adolescent aunts who would urge me to walk faster on the way home as I savored a sweet, large (gigantic by today’s standards) “Baby Ruth” candy bar which they’d bought me at the commissary.
My reminiscences of those days are as sweet and heavenly as memories could get for a three-year-old kid who would later have a totally different perhaps more intimidated view of the Canal Zone “experience.” In my innocence, however, my early shopping excursions to the Commissary/Company Store in the Zone were pleasant treks into the realm of “The Zone”- a world that was a frequent topic of conversation for the adults and children in my life.
What’s more, the various political factions and elected Panamanian governments of the time (1930’s-1940’s) had occasion to complain, however, and complain they did to the U.S. government Canal Authorities claiming that it was an unfair commercial advantage taken by the Americans against the Panamanian merchants, who because of the large numbers of employees who worked for them and shopped at the well stocked Canal Zone Commissary Stores, had secured for themselves a captive clientele.
At any rate, the Westindian Blacks, having reached the status of “preferred serfs,” displayed this sense of having “arrived” in that the Silver Commissaries almost reflected the “separate but equal” status the Blacks in the U.S.A. had so much battled for throughout the 20th century. Silver Commissary stores were located where Black people with certain “privileges” could readily have access to them. The first Silver Commissary that I can recall was the one near the Silver Employee complex right outside the city of Colon where I was living with my grand parents and their daughters.
“You remember everything!” my young aunts would tell me. Even today my surviving aunts never cease to be amazed when I gently confront them with some of the things that I remember at the tender age of three or four. However, the things which have become imprinted in my memory, things that never changed for me as a baby boy, are indelible and were reserved for the chronicler of the Silver People of Panama. Little did I know that my keen ability to “remember” the older people of our clan and their experiences would be converted into the raw material for a unique oral history.
The Commissary in Colon, at the time, was stocked with a bewildering variety of dried goods as well as food- a variety that was awe inspiring to the average adult let alone a tiny boy. There was all manner of clothing, some hardware, books and magazines, post cards and candy- that luxurious offering of sweets and chocolate goodies that could not be equaled except by the Americans. Nothing in my young eyes could get me moving faster than the idea of walking away from the Commissary with an almost foot long Baby Ruth, or an Almond Joy, or a Hershey Bar. From there my aunts would often have me tag along to enjoy a movie at the Clubhouse where I could catch snippets of American culture in the images of Popeye the Sailor, Betty Boop and Felix the Cat and some exciting movies like “Black Cats.” These simple but treasured moments were enough for me to arrive home tired but satisfied and impressed with these images of a life and time gone by.
The Silver Commissary at Cristobal, one of the Black settlements on the Atlantic side of the Great Waterway was, basically, my introduction to one of the first institutions on the Canal Zone and would serve me greatly even after the great fire of 1940 in Colon which destroyed much of the city of Colon and caused my family to settle in the City Panama.
We will continue in later articles describing some of the events which impacted our lives as we, the first and second generation Westindians, joined the strange mix that would emerge as a totally different part of the Panamanian population. Like it or not, we, the Westindian Blacks, would eventually be called upon by Providence to become an integral part of the affluent American Society.
This story continues.