The Fourth of July, Christmas, Crown Pilot Crackers and the Commissaries-An American Lifestyle Unfolds in Panama

In 1996 Nabisco dropped the cracker
and then revived it in 1997 in the face of a
concerted campaign from consumers.

A real Westindian 4th of July “Picnic”
in the community
of Gorgona (earlY photo)
courtesy of

By the 1930’s and 40’s the US Interoceanic Canal Commission (ICC) would, once again in history and with the able assistance of Black Westindian labor, effectively transform the bankrupt economy of the U.S.A. into the booming advertising centered economy that would eventually emerge during the 1950’s and 1960’s; and they would achieve this from an obscure corner of the world called Panama.

The large, well known super market emporiums that later became the chains food distributors in the U.S.A. and even the countries under U.S. hegemony paled, at least in the beginning, in comparison to the Commissaries on the Panama Canal Zone of the 1930’s and 40’s. In Panama, believe it or not, was where the first American style super markets saw their beginnings and experienced their test runs.

For the Silver Roll workers there were three main “Silver” Commissaries. The Curundu Silver Commissary which stood right outside the west crossing of the entrance to the Canal Zone from Panama City proper. It, indeed, was one of the largest and most well stocked of them all. The second largest was the “Silver” Commissary at Paraiso, one of the oldest and most well known of the “Silver” Roll settlements. The township of Paraiso was very much like most of the Silver settlements, as we’ve seen in former posts. It was built on former swamp ground which used to be a temporary Black workers’ camp ground designed that way to be near the field works during the construction era.

The departments within the Commissaries were well planned on the inside of the store, just as reported by some of my aunts who were employed as check out cashiers at the Gold Roll Commissaries. I can vividly remember, in fact, when I went to visit, the well stocked shelves of canned meats, Campbell Soups, Aunt Jemima Pancake boxes, cereals, Crown Pilot Crackers, Royal Crown Soda, Coca Cola, Cracker Jacks, and Gold Dust Twins Detergent, packed in an orange colored box with the silhouette of two black children sitting side by side imprinted on the face of the boxes. It was in the commissaries where I had my first taste of American brand name products that many folks came to enjoy and trust. I can trace my preference for Crown Pilot Crackers to accompany a hearty bowl of Westindian style soup to the well stocked shelves of the Silver Commissaries.

The toy section of the Commissary was where the latest in toys were displayed, such as a hand held two wheeled foot pumped contraption- a scooter– that did not cease to be popular among the Westindian kids in the neighborhoods of Panama. The scooters of those days, however, were well built and durable with strong wheels that were perfect for gliding down San Miguel Hill in our neighborhood in Calidonia.

Christmas and New Year were days of ample celebration in most Black workers’ home and would become a tradition that even I would not let die as I reached the age of adolescence when toys and gifts were not supposed to be important. Our homes had to be decorated for Christmas and there should always be a tall Christmas Tree with all the trimmings and lights adorning one corner of the living room.

The town of Red Tank, however, which was approximately three kilometres away from “Silver” Paraiso, would distinguish itself for its beautiful decorations at Christmas time. In fact, Red Tank, in its heyday, made the list of places to visit during the quiet nights of the Christmas holiday season for its welcoming and lavish displays of lights, tinsel and nativity scenes that became a feast for the eyes. The “Silver” Canal Zone, in fact, went all out during Christmas and New Years in spreading the spirit of cheer and celebration. It would have rivaled any American town.

The next holiday to be celebrated by Westindians was the Fourth of July, although in all the times of growing up in Panama I never witnessed American white people from the states celebrating our (Panamanian) Third of November. We, the Panamanians, however, did, since the earliest of times celebrate the 4th of July as if it was one of our own holidays. This holiday was a purely American holiday but the Black Westindians would celebrate “Picnic,” as we often referred to this family day off, as if it had been theirs.

This story continues.

7 responses to “The Fourth of July, Christmas, Crown Pilot Crackers and the Commissaries-An American Lifestyle Unfolds in Panama

  1. Anita Cumberbatch

    The Canal Zone Commissaries and the Clubhouses opened up our palates to American brand goods.

    I remember as a child, I could hardly eat any Panamanian brand product. Let us face it, at that time American goods were of a higher quality.

    It is recently that Panamanian homegrown companies have improved in their standards and quality of goods.Colon folks would flock to Rainbow City to get their groceries. You know how a nice meal prepared with the right ingredients is so important to Colon folks.And during that time the Canal Zone Commissaries had the good stuff.
    At Rainbow City Clubhouse we could buy some of the nicest pastries,especially the Zone cookies.The taste of the ice cream was never duplicated.

    I think it was in London once that I tasted ice cream similar to the one we used to buy in the Canal Zone.

    I hope I am not offending any diehard Panamanian nationalists. But the truth is the truth.

    This is where one aspect of the lifestyles between black West Indian Panamanians and mestizo Panamanians, especially from the interior differed.

    I remembered while studying at the University of Panama, some students(I don’t like Halloween, but I won’t waste muy energy fighting against its celebration) decided to celebrate Halloween, and they were met with great resistance by a few.

    In Rainbow City, we celebrated Fourth of July and Memorial Day as ours, along with every major Panamanian holidays.

    I was speaking with a Panamanian friend of mine who lives over here and we concluded that growing up in the shadow of the Panama Canal have fostered in many of us a spirit similar to the ships that transit this great waterway.We are not rigid people, but a very flexible set of individuals who are very much capable of dealing with changes.



  2. Kyle & Svet Keeton

    This is a good article! 🙂

    “Crown Pilot Crackers to accompany a hearty bowl of Westindian style.”

    I know about the crackers but what ingredients make up Westindian soup?


  3. Anita Cumberbatch

    The pastries,sticky buns, cookies,pies, cakes and even the ice creams sold at the Commissaries and Clubhouses on the Canal Zone were all made by Panamanians of West Indians descent.

    One of the biggest dilemma with our people is that after the Canal Zone life folded ,I don’t know what happened to all of the bakers, movers and shakers.I am referring to all those black Panamanians who made life on the Canal Zone possible and pleasant for all those white Americans with their burdensome sense of entitlement.

    Another problem is that too many of us emigrated to the United States.I know that Panama has too many issues and the mestizo world can be daunting if not utter insanity.But Our people were the main protagonists in the story of the Panama Canal, and we should have had taken over the authorship of our own story after the ownership was transferred to the Panamanian authorities.


  4. Hi Kyle and Svet,

    Well, West Indian Style soup is more than soup. In fact, many friends have told me that it is more like stew or, guacho, as it is called in Panama. It is a pretty rich offering, full of vegetable and flavor. You’ve given me an idea to put together a culinary slide show since so many people like this soup.:-)) I’m making myself hungry.:-))

  5. Anita,

    I agree with you fully. The West Indians on the Canal Zone as well as in the cities enriched the country enormously with their many talents and skills. It is my belief, however, that it was a consciously contrived plan to separate the Westindians from their heritage here in Panama by emigrating to the U.S.. It was done through political as well as diplomat pressure. I will get into all the aspects of that movement in later posts.

  6. I agree with most of what Anita Cumberbatch states with one great exception. I immigrated to the USA in 1974, and I find this culture and its people far more daunting and utter insanity than the ‘mestizo’ culture in Panama. About a third of my Paraiso High graduating class stayed home and none regret it. Many became the pilots and engineers with the transfer. I wish I had done the same. I am an American citizen but still have much difficulty adapting to the inflexibility when compared to Panamanians. As a Spanish speaking black man I am always caught in the middle of some of the dumbest arguments between latinos and blacks. I went to school in Panama and understand some of the racism there; a lot of it was directed at me. In the end, we all got along; something I have yet to see here.