Chombo!

This is a typical board building tenement
that still exists in the poorer “Barrio” neighborhoods
of Panama City. This one is among several in
this area of Santana, slated for
demolition soon.

It was not until the decade that began with the year of 1940 in which an event such as the devastating fire that would virtually destroy the Atlantic coast city of Colon, that I would awake to who I really was in the world into which I had been born.

The conflagration that left thousands of people homeless had also prompted the racially hardened U.S. Canal Zone to show some empathy for the Silver Roll community they were responsible for creating; a community of people who in those years had mostly existed while living in areas under the jurisdiction of the Panamanian government.

Recalling those years of my childhood, however, even I had come to recognize the American Canal Zone as a foreboding place, as a place for my young aunts and me to take leisurely walks but an area to generally to avoid if possible. A long walk from our home on Third Street and Melendez Avenue to the Clubhouse, movie theatre and Commissary Store where the Black people congregated, it, nevertheless, remained a place that you only went to for a precise reason.

Still too young to be in school I was my mother’s young sisters’ little charge and they, as well as my grandfather Seymour lavished much attention on me. My first haircut, in fact, is impressed upon me as clearly as if it had happened yesterday. Papá and I entered a Japanese barbershop somewhere near Front Street in Colon. It was a shop owned by some Japanese brothers and the barber who assisted in my first rite of passage- my first haircut- was as gentle and patient as he could be until I was duly trimmed. He handed me a remarkable toy, a colorful contraption made of different colored wooden balls all arranged in rows that could be slid back and forth. Little did I know that the wonderful gift was a small Abacus.

At that time I did not know what to do with such a thing, and I think I pestered my young my aunts mercilessly in the hopes that they might know how to play with it. It eventually broke from so much handling and for a long time I lamented the fact that the Japanese barbers had not taken some time to show me the first step in counting with the ancient Asian calculator. All this fussing and attention from my beloved Colon family, however, was to end with our transfer to the City of Panama to live with both my young parents who were caught up in their own problems and frustrations. It would also bring into our lives a new feeling of isolation.

The series of events that I’ve already described in our different reality outlining the flight of many Zone families to Panama’s barrios of the two main cities led to some subtle and not-so-subtle reactions on the part of Black Westindian Panamanians. One phenomenon that few of us will talk about is how our parents used isolation as a way of fighting back. Since the children of parents who had been survivors and pioneers of the construction of the Canal were suddenly under attack primarily from the Panamanian government and the elite classes who’d begun sending out signals that Blacks were unwanted, young parents of the new generation of kids growing up in the Barrios would often sequester their children home and forbid them from intermingling with the “Paña” children, the Spanish kids.

Panamanian Westindians born and raised in the Barrio neighborhoods of the cities, who had been living in the old spirit of cooperation with their neighbors, were now met with their newly settled Panameño neighbors who appeared to arrive to dislodge them. Many Westindian neighbors, in a sincere effort to maintain the peace, isolated themselves, some knowing fully well that they had no papers to show their citizenship or legal entry into the country. Nevertheless, as lies and cruel stereotypes about an unprotected people got circulated by the press and political opportunists, the Panama Tribune would find it necessary to publish rebuttals to the fabricated lies about the Westindian lifestyle.

A word they had never heard before to describe them as Westindians, of Jamaican birth particularly, began to be heard everywhere it seemed- “Chombo.” It was a word that would serve as the gringo appellative -Nigger- used to describe the colored races of the United States. This term not only had the immediate effect of causing offence towards the person of color but became a trigger for many arguments and fights among especially the younger people.

Its origin has been disputed but according to some it has been traced to the mispronunciation of the word “jump boy” by the Spanish Panamanians. The jump boys were, supposedly, the petty thieves that kept the Zone Police busy at times as they were quite deft at jumping over fences and escaping their clutches. One famous “jump boy” was the legendary Peter Williams, the Robin Hood of the very poor amongst the Westindians.

The mood in many neighborhoods or Barrios changed from one of respectful cooperation to a more antagonistic one. The blacks who had once embodied the thriving nerve centers of the large cities and had served as the only welcoming committee for the mostly impoverished newcomers from the Panamanian countryside, now felt safer in their isolation in the tenement buildings. During this period the increasing episodes of harassment had the effect of making the Westindian people fear the people arriving from the interior of the country.

Ironically, and this I will take up in a future post, the same “Chombo” that would invite a volley of punches from a young adolescent, would become an almost welcome term of endearment once the hordes of Westindian Panamanians started their migrations up north to New York City a decade and half later. The same term that in their youth had caused so much hurt and feelings of fury then became a more identifying term between the newly arrived Panamanian Westindians to the Big Apple. What’s more, in its cultural evolution, the Spanish people of Panama have also turned Chombo into a term of endearment, even naming some of their children Chombo.

This story continues.

12 Responses to Chombo!

  1. My first hair cut was by Mr.Brooms at the barbershop in Rainbow City (now Arco Iris) when the renovated theater and clubhouse were opened. He like my father and grandfather were of the old stock Jamaican; my way or the highway. I hated going to Mr. Brooms because his hair cuts left me being teased at school the following Monday for being ‘pelao’, the term of endearment for boy and peeled.

    When it comes to terms of endearment I am not one to allow Chombo as such. I have too many awful memories given my age of when it was used as a term of derision. I was not a well behaved boy, and my parents took me out of the Canal Zone schools and put me in the Instituto Justo Arosema or IJA. I was sent to the campus at Casino, and did not speak any Spanish let alone understand what Chombo meant.

    I still remember my second day at class in Biology. The teacher stated there was an awful smell in the area where I sat. I struggled to understand the rapid fire Spanish but it was clear he wanted me isolated. The entire class got up and left me sitting alone because of my ‘smell’. Luckily, I was transferred to the Paitilla campus shortly aftewards.

    To its credit IJA made great strides to welcome West Indian students. I was there when a black woman of West Indian descent was chosen queen; 1970(?). Even with that blacks that were non-colonial were looked down upon. I had only a few friends. Blacks who were descendant of slaves brought to Panama were called ‘colonial’, and in the racial/cultural hiearchy they were above us and the indigenous.

    Panamanians have a way of making the significant insignificant, and while I have problems with the word chombo, it seems to have become part of everyday speech. It does not surprise me that one of the most popular singers in the world is from the Isthmus and uses the stage ‘Nigga’ worldwide but DJ FLEX in the USA.

    It leads me to ask about reviewing a topic previously and briefly mentioned. After reading your blog for some time, I have come to realize that without the Chombo contribution Panama may have ceased to exist as an independent republic. The topic is the thousands that died mercilessly along Culebra cut. Consider that at the time the NYC subway system was being built under the city. No fatalies were recorded. The workers were mostly European immigrants. Contrast this with the black West Indian martyrs being blasted by dynamite along the Canal route that to this day have not been given their heroic due.

    A point worth considering that if this loss of life was to the poor indigenous population of the young republic there would have been a rebellion. And in all likelihood, the USA would have brought Colombian back into the picture and re-negotiated Panama’s independence back into a province. Those West Indian workers with their preserverance may have indirectly held back the USA from moving to Nicaragua or re-considering Colombian sovereignty over the Panama.

    Given the deaths of so many, I am not ready or willing to reliquish my aversion to ‘chombo’. Like blacks in the USA who among themselves use the ‘n’ word, another West Indian saying it “maybe” ok, but anyone else runs the danger in my presence of a difficult interaction.

  2. Anita Cumberbatch

    I agree with anonymous over the word “chombo”.I cannot see it as a term of endearment.

    I don’t remember ever being called by that word after I left the isolation or what I consider the “sheltered Canal Zone life”.I finished up my schooling at Colegio Abel Bravo, and I believe my air of aloofness(I practically walked with my nose up in the air) made many think twice before referring to me in those terms.

    My people used to look down on Spanish speaking Panamanians and I still have to check myself because I have a tendency to become impatient with inefficiency, something Latin Americans are famous for.

    But I am very aware of the word “chombo”.
    I will be the first to say, and I hope no one is offended, that because of the Canal and the West Indians contributions, Panama is not one those backwaters Central American or even Latin American countries.

    Frankly,I am not too impressed with Panama’s or Latin American politics. These nations have been independent for too long, and I have not seen any change.They also need to stop blaming the US for their inefficiency, lack of vision and inability to abandon their medieval mentality and get out of the colonial period.

    As conservative as Americans are, the United States of America is a nation that has undergone profound changes. This is one of the reasons many of us prefer living abroad and not in Panama- a Latin American country that does not know where it is heading.

    Regarding the Panamanian singer who use the name “NIGGA” in Panama and another name abroad. It is thus a sign of ignorance and I am not surprised; many Panamanians, especially from the interior, are unaware of how the outside world is.

    Are the people of Chiriqui and Los Santos still calling out for independence or secession?
    Dios mio!

    Saludos,
    Anita Cumberbatch

  3. Anita Cumberbatch

    I watched with sadness the video of the floodings in the Ngobe Bugle area.
    Rivers do not overflow overnight.The authorities if they have any sense should have known the heavy rains would have contributed to the river running above its “cauce”.
    The people in the area close to the river should have been relocated to higher grounds.

    Forcing the Ngobe Bugle people to climb on the trees for protection was crmininal.We know it rains a lot in Panama, but what about the weather forecasters? Didn’t they predict heavy rains?

    Typical Panamanian authorities,living under a rock, to sleep on this matter, and leave it up to fate, as if the lives of the Ngobe Bugle people aren’t important.

    Well, I guess I just had to vent on this one.

    Saludos,
    Anita Cumberbatch

  4. Anonymous,

    Thank you very much for your very pertinent comments. Please keep reading and you will note that most of all in things that touched our sentiments at heart are things that make us proud to be Westindian Panamanians. People who would never turn our backs on Panama or on our own brand of “Panameñismo.”

    Thank you again for joining us here at the The Silver People Heritage Foundation in recognizing the “CHOMBO” contribution to the Panama we so much love and have been left by our Glorious forefathers, the Silver People of the Panama Black Canal Zone.

    You are always welcome to your perspective on our “Unique” Panamanian history and cultural/racial experiences.
    You make our work worthwhile.

    “¡Que viva Panama!”

  5. To Anita Cumberbatch,

    Just a note of thanks to you for your comments. In addition, you have been more than a contributor and a fellow Abelbravista Class of 1953-57.

    As we tell our story here at The Silver People Chronicle you will come to realize what a wonderful family you had to assist you in growing up and which you refer to as just “My people” in your most welcome comments.
    I take pains in pointing that out because of how they have assisted you in growing into the person that you are today. Subsequent stories will reveal the reasons of my agonizing pains to make us all and the world see what a unique and special people we the Silver People are in the history of the peoples of the World.

    Please remember that many young Westindians before your time had attended Primary School and the Colegio Abel Bravo Secondary school and could not finish no matter what the circumstances were at the time in history.

    However, the profound changes that have been seen in recent USA activities were also paved with contributions by unsung Panamanian Westindians. Many West Indians have made up the Slums and Harlems all over the U.S. and have given even their lives in uprisings, things that we had not have to do in our beloved Panama.

    Yes, we are unique because of our forefathers, The Silver People’s contributions to making Panama what it is today. We are hoping that we become more than vehement in saving the resting places of our Silver People, slated to be dug up in 2009, on the old banks of the Panama Canal.

    ¡Con todo somos primeramente Panameños!

  6. As an afro latino panamaniam I took it upon myself to educate those white, spanish or black countrymen who use that Chombo word. That thing cariñosamente is wrong, using that
    word is offensive to our race and likewise those from the interior taught me not to use the word Cholo.

  7. To Anonynous:
    Concerning the word CHOMBO,we of the Silver People Heritage Foundation are hoping that the new windows to the world, opened by the Internet, can give people's journalism the will to aide in re-educating all people.

    As such the Silver People Chronicle and our "muy Castellanizado" Rapsodia Antillana will make a difference. Our readers come not to read the same old, tired journalism of the moneyed class sweeping the prevaling evils of racism and classism under the rug, as if they never existed.

    We have a histoic duty not to follow the regular media, and it's old ways of decreeing like european royalty, who have forgotten historic events such as that we as a people even had existed after the Panama Canal was finished.

    In recording the very feelings of our people we must tell the real story and not act as though people like us CHOMBOS had no feelings, and that thus we should not even be brave enough to record their faults.

    As CHOLOS or CHOMBOS which we have been called in history, our stories remind us of times we hope to keep alive and also times of history we hope would never ever happen again. We as world citizens are as much impacted by negative events at home and abroad. Such news of the "jewish holocaust," which disregarded humanity, and other events such as Wars, which still prevail.

    We are hoping that the "dropping of the Atomic Bomb" or other events which hurt the Soul and Spirit of all humanity, will ever happen again. But they did and will.

    We mention the above just as we mention the word CHOMBO, words that in our history marked a long history of verbal agression. Just as wars and other types of agression are shamefully coming back to be part of every day occurances, we hope to mention them as a way to fight them.

    Saludos
    RR

  8. Me refiero principalmente a la foto de la calle 15 oeste Santana. Lateral a ella está la calle E y mas arriba la 14. Alli nací y viví hasta los 15 años. Me trajo muy bonitos recuerdos de mi infancia. Gracias por subir está joya del recuerdo, lo que compartimos este tipo de vivienda sabran , a que me refiero. Los tiempos han cambiado el area y el dificil aceptarlo. solo nos que recordarla, tal como era.
    Éxitos y bendiciones.

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  11. Pingback: Western Privilege and Anti-black Racism in Panama | Racialicious - the intersection of race and pop culture

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