For someone like me, who experienced life as a Black Canal Zone Silver child and also a black Panamanian child, I can safely say that the insight I gathered from what it was like to be a Silver laborer came from my brief experience with my maternal grandfather, Seymour Green.
But, the bulk of my experience as one of the Silver children would also be acquired from my early childhood experiences in living with my parents. Throughout that process of growing up, we who were Panamanian born of Westindian parentage, members of the second (and often third) generation would, even before we were ready to seek employment on the “golden” Canal Zone, meet a constant attitude of rejection.
This revelation, in fact, was born out after conducting my own personal research. I discovered that the day and month of my birth the Panama American newspaper dated 17 April of 1936 carried a story regarding so-called rumors about the “Canal Zone Young People” which were utterly denied by the Canal Zone Governor. The byline read:
“Zone Governor takes Exception to Stories on Panama Canal Learnerships. Denies Ban on Employment of Zone Children. Service Bureau Does not oppose Employment of C.Z. ‘Young People.’” The story goes on to say, “Takes exception to stories published in the Panama American with regards to opposition by some officials to employment of Second and Third generation Canal Zone Children,’ -Taken in a statement issued by the office of the Governor on Thursday.”
Whatever truth there was to this story the facts were that the Canal Zone kids seeking work were, in the majority of cases, from the Black Canal Zone and those like myself whose families had been forced to move to and live in the poor barrios of the urban areas of a still very young country that was unable to provide work for its own population of workers, were no longer welcomed on the Zone or even treated as if we had a cultural heritage there as descendants of laborers that the American government had once encouraged to come to the country. In the years following my birth, however, waves of people were still coming from within and beyond the borders of Panama seeking, somehow, to gain employment from the Canal Authority.
In those years Westindian laborers and their families were increasingly coming to settle in the country under the government of Panama. The children who had been born during the inauguration of the Canal, most of them born in the urbanized portions of the country like Panama City and Colon and the areas on the Canal Zone reserved for Silver Roll workers and their families, had now come of age and had their own children. Most of the blacks were now residing in the lower economic barrios surrounding the fenced off areas of the Panama Canal Zone.
This very large group of black people was now coming to reside under Panamanian laws and customs and their children were being born in Santo Tomas General Hospital founded to serve the poor people of Panama and not Gorgas Hospital. The birth of these children within Panama’s infrastructure, in fact, had come on the heels of another recent round of labor unrest and sweeping moves to “whiten” the Canal Zone.
Many black families were consciously being driven from their Canal Zone housing either through employment “downsizing,” or through subtle and not-so-subtle maneuvers on the part of Canal Zone authorities to evict them from their quarters. There were the notorious housing spies who, if at one time they served the practical and benign purpose of maintaining the living quarters orderly and minimally liveable, now served to pit one neighbor against the other and keep the entire Black Zone population in constant dread of being expelled. Often, an unsubstantiated accusation against a neighbor of having housed a visiting relative or friend for a short while would be enough cause for the entire family to be summarily evicted with their children and belongings out of the Zone.
Added to the employment downsizing, the tense living situation in Zone housing, and rent increases in Zone housing, there was also the general harassment on the job which had only been continued and intensified since the days of our immigrant grandfathers. All of these factors during this period would explain the movement of vast numbers of Westindians coming to live in large buildings constructed of wooden slabs with corrugated zinc roofing- buildings very much like the one my parents settled us into by the middle of 1940.
Their flight from the Black Canal Zone, equipped with the world’s most modern shopping Commissaries, as modern as the supermarkets we have today, would mean sudden adaptation to what was available or unavailable in Panama. During this period, in fact, we would see the proliferation of Chinese Shops– Chinitos– which we would learn to appreciate even until the country’s entrance into the 21st century.
Thus, as more and more Black Westindian families were now having to cope without their accustomed Canal Zone “privileges” and were now reliant upon the meager public health and educational resources of a country still struggling to become a respected and recognized republic, the psychological strains and tensions on these families would begin taken a serious toll on the second and third generation.
This story will continue.