of Panama City. This one is among several in
this area of Santana, slated for
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.