The Political Aggressions of the 30’s

La Boca Ferry circ. 1947. Image thanks to

Image thanks to

During the trying years in which my Uncle Eric was struggling to get ahead in school, epithets once never known nor used in the neighborhoods of the new urbanized cities to depict Black Westindians such as Chombo, Yumaco, Meco and other denigrating terms would suddenly appear in local editorials in the news media.

The early thirties ushered in a period in which the frustrated and impoverished Latino people from the countryside were used as pawns to do what some renegade politicians could not get the elite class to do. They entered the cities by busloads crossing the brand new La Boca Ferry to bolster the new political “ideals” which turned out to be little more than an imitation of the fascist German ideological movement.

It was a period of time just before the start of World War II in which residents of the barrios of Panama found themselves retrogressing culturally into a less civilized and intolerant communal environment as new ways to harass their once peaceful Westindian neighbors emerged to disturb the public harmony. With the new and more incisive verbal armament gained from the elite class in their bid for power, it seemed as though they’d found a fresh supply of insult to hurl at their once peace loving black neighbors. The added stress that the Westindian families were now experiencing on the Panamanian side of the fence made life chaotic and challenging to say the least.

New neighbors from beyond Panama’s borders were also entering the country and their prime concern was to escape tyranny from their own countries. These families came from Nicaragua, Salvador, Italy, Greece and other South American countries such as Chile and Argentina, in a time when most other countries of our hemisphere were just rising out of the ashes of European colonialism to meet their own versions of tyranny. The Hispanic Catholic Church would be the welcoming source for these new white foreigners. The Church established parochial schools and opened their doors as private educational entities to welcome the arriving clutch of white children, transforming them, almost overnight, into the new elite class.

For any Westindian youth to enter Spanish secondary school at that time in Panama was a major achievement indeed for the circumstances surrounding Westindian relations with the Latino elite was one of the factors that had kept most Westindian youth from being educated. Indeed most Black boys of employable age were not considering entering school but going out to seek some kind of employment, a fact that most English Schools jumped on to better train their students for the work force.

Teacher Thomas’ English School in the city of Panama, at this juncture in history of Panamanian education, became a welcome haven for Black English speaking children who in their majority would be afraid to attend Panamanian public education due to the prevalent air of aggression. In fact, many Panamanians who lived during the time will admit that many of the government functionaries who worked in the fledgling Panamanian ministries and government offices as clerks, secretaries, and auxiliary personnel were Westindians who, more often than not, had been trained in the English Schools.

They were not only excellent office workers who were fluent in English and Spanish, but were adaptable to a working environment, and were punctual, honest and open to instruction.

This story continues.

4 responses to “The Political Aggressions of the 30’s

  1. Kyle and Svet Keeton

    We are reading! 🙂

    We are waiting! 🙂

    We are happy! 🙂

    Kyle & Svet

  2. it was with much sadness I read recently that among the West Indian families in Panama English is hardly heard… I went to the Instituto Justo Arosema (IJA) and struggled to learn the Spanish which I now command with dexterity and keeps me employed in the USA but the pressure to speak Spanish only was intense in the 1970s in the Panamanian schools it is understanding that a generation later English is gone from our heritage
    it would be nice for not only a school but a cultural center combining not only the language but the culture
    I find it interesting here in the USA people from other latin countries to be ‘hip’ speak Spanish like West Indian Panamanians to have an accent like the reggeseros!!! what a world we live in considering that a 20 years ago my accented Spanish was seen as uneducated by my classmates but now a sign of being hip

  3. Anita Cumberbatch

    Ocho Gritos:
    Check out

    I finished my schooling in Colegio Abel Bravo, and while I was fluent in Spanish, I spoke it as a second language. I was also pressured to command it very fast.

    Panamanian nationalisn during the so called revolutionary period had at its core the foolish rejection of the English language.Everything North American or close to it was deemed as a suspect or wrong.And the West Indian families during that period who lived inside the Republic(not in the Canal Zone) did their best to survive.

    I remember many parents in Colon speaking in English and their children responding in Spanish. Of course the conservatives(nothing related to North American conservatives) and the very proper ones didn’t go for that “merecumbe” and demanded that their children responded in English.

    Today Panama is suffering the consequences(few Panamanians speak English). I believe it was part of the reasons many of us emigrated to the United States.Panama became a foolish place to live.Just imagine if English had been accepted and recognized as a second language by many Panamaninas.

    When I attended Abel Bravo, a classmate -Rosa Sanchez, born in Chiriqui whose family had moved to Colon became fluent in English because of an old Jamaican woman who lived on the same building with her.
    Rosa told us that everyday the old woman spoke to her in English.Rosa said in the beginning she would only nod out of respect but soon noticed she understood and could communicate with the old woman.That is the Colon I am proud of.

    Today Panama’s educational system “está por el suelo”.The excellence that was the cornerstone of our educational system is no longer there. My sister showed me some of her daughter’s lessons in her notebook.

    Today many of the teachers in Panama are not well trained. Some of the English teachers don’t even know the language well to teach it.It is the dumb result of hating a language that has no fault at all.


  4. To Ocho Gritos and Anita Cumberbach,

    Thank you for those comments. Our experiences seem to be the same. I remember talking to some of my old primary school Spanish friends who straight way admitted that the knowledge of the English that landed them jobs later on in life in government and elsewhere they learned by going to the excellent neighborhood English Schools with the old Jamaican and Barbadian schoolmasters. They remember old Teacher Phillips, for example, as fondly as I and many other Westindian kids remembered.

    As for the issue of WI children responding to their parents in Spanish, there were many of us who grew up speaking Spanish in school and the neighborhood, but speaking English at home and amongst ourselves. No one really had to urge us to do this.

    C. Roberto A. Reid