A Different Reality

This was how Central Avenue looked in 1940. Image thanks to our friends at czimages.com

This is an image of how Calidonia looked in 1940. Thanks to our friends at Afro-panavision.

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 ShopsChinitos– 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.

7 responses to “A Different Reality

  1. I certainly do love your posts every time.

    As always, thanks

  2. Anita Cumberbatch

    Life in the Black Canal Zone had many restrictions. Zone laws prohibited families from bringing their relatives to reside with them.The foolish commissary card and many hindrances that were part of our lives and not of White Zonians.

    The Pan Canal Company’s white bosses were some of the worst specimens on God’s green earth.

    Many Black Panamanian men had serious run ins with them. I had an uncle who out of frustration, punched one of those white men and lost his Pan Canal job. My father’s family had a small business and they had to spend money through their nose to avoid my uncle from going to Gamboa.

    My uncle never worked for Panama Canal again. He moved to Panama City, worked there and raised his family.Black men just going to work looking nice and clean with their well prepared lunch used to be the envy of the white workers. Just remember, many of the White Zonians were Southeners and the Canal Zone laws were based from the state of Louisiana.

    I had a young bright cousin, a third generationer who had a good job with the Electrical Division. The white employees resented him and they concocted a scheme that he robbed something. He could have lost his job or even sent to jail. But his relatives especially his aunt on his father side were not easy foks.

    I heard the day the case was held at Gamboa court, one aunt sat at the back of the room,and kept the door opened while the poor judge fell asleep.

    When the “confused” judge woke up, he simply dismissed the case.
    The entire Canal Zone and Panama have seen stories.If the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans could speak, what they wouldn’t say.
    Anita Cumberbatch

  3. For my sake, I hope there is a statute of limitation on contrabanding goods from the Canal Zone to the Republic of Panama. In every town I lived starting in Camp Coiner, on the Atlantic side,to Gamboa and Pedro Miguel goods moved to my family and friends who had no or lost their priviledges. Gamboa was difficult since it was so far away, and getting intercepted before reaching the ‘border’ was always a risk. But it was easy since it was so far away most of the investigators did not come over to the Santa Cruz side after the commissary closed. I know you and others have your adventures and escapades in this surreptitious and prevalent re-distribution of resources. I write tongue in cheek these days but back then, especially now reading your blog, it had serious consequences if caught. I don’t remember the Panamanian authorities taking these exchanges too seriously.

    On a more serious note I remember visiting a classmate in Rio Abajo whose family had been ‘exiled’ and did everything I could to hold back my tears at their change of status. Seldom did I leave the Zone empty handed. I plead guilty to pushing against the segregation and separation the removing of families caused. My cousins and aunts, all of sudden, were foreigners yet we were all Black and West Indian in lands where were not welcome, but we preservered.

    I wear my Panamanian heritage with much pride given it was earned not granted; the same for the Zonian in me. I feel priviledged to be of Jamaican descent and so blessed.

  4. I remember well my first job on the Canal Zone. It was in the Port Engineer’s office just outside Balboa. It was a post high school internship (of sorts) just above the waterway leading to La Boca and the close by dry docks. It was tense atmosphere where the non-white and white workers clashed openly. I use the word workers somewhat loosely since I never saw anyone white actually do physical work until I emigrated to the USA.

    One day walking home, the engineer in charge of the office stopped to give me a ride to the gate. I had been warned about where to sit in the car but it was so obtuse I got confused and sat in the wrong seat. As I ran up to the car, I opened the back door and got in since the gate was only a few minutes away. He hit the brakes and stared at me in the rear view mirror. I got out and sat in the front seat. Blacks were not supposed to sit in the backseat of white man’s car since it would seem the white man was the chauffer. I decided then when I was done working there to not pursue a career in the Zone.

    Today the whole thing seems stupidly funny. I work with two other West Indians who were raised in the ‘republic’ and I am always surprised at their look back. They see us Zonians as spoiled and entitled. I plead guilty and we always have a good laugh about how people from the same West Indian culture see the past differently coming from the same place.

    My first time actually seeing a white person work was in college I heard banging outside my dorm room. In those days, dorms were not coed, and hearing a woman’s voice peaked my interest. I peeked out the door, to see a white woman emptying the garbage. I shut the door in total shock; looked again. She saw my startled face and gave me glare for staring. I stared in disbelief at the obvious knowing going back to the Zone was out of the question.

  5. To Our dear Readers,

    We cannot thank enough for your most important contributions and comments to our articles.

    To Anita:
    The saga of Gamboa Prison used to threaten Westindian families has not been fully told. The funds from meagre earnings put up to fight unjust cases is just another chapter in our heritage that the world need to know.
    Thanks again for the memories!!

    To our friend Anonymous,

    We can not see “contrabanding” with the same lenses as others did and still do. All our acts of survaval are indeed valid exept murder inless it is in self defence. Still today we are in a Panama that is still in denial about redistribution of resources.

    They in the Panamanian government are still jumping in rage whenever they see colored people, which most of the country is made up of, with any show of wealth which to me only the first show of economic releaf.

    Stay tuned to our articles on how we aided destitute house maids and servants who had become too ill to work and had been turned out to die like dogs. But the Black Canal Zone Heritage is our and we must fight for it becaus some think and act as though we have no par in the new Canal.

    To Ocho-Gritos:

    I agree wholeheartedly with you on how white Gold Roll employees had deceived the people of the United States claiming to have built the Panama Canal. I’m still open to to the testimony or news that someone, somewhere might have seen white men working at hard labor in the history of the Canal Excavation.

    Also, the mistaken views of Barrio raised Westindians just as the assumptions of Black Zonians need straightening out. That is why we at “The Silver People Chronicle,” after the first clear look at the “Ebony and Ivory” story of the Panama Canal Zone History insist, more than ever, that we have to make our true story known to the world.

    The Editor.

  6. I am a white Zonian and I never knew any West Indians, but I am fascinated with The Silver People Chronicle and the history I have learned therein. I envy the sense of community described, as it seems closer than any I have experienced. I never felt like I really fit in either with the Zonians or the Panamenos. I don’t feel like I fit here in the States, either. So I feel more like a citizen of the world rather than of a specific place.

    I’d love to see a recipe of West Indian food in each issue! I remember in one issue’s comments that Anita Cumberbatch mentioned a delicious soup. Is there a West Indian cookbook?

    I don’t think it was all that easy to have relatives come and live in the white quarters, though. But you have to know that contraband took place from them too, and that whole white families were “shipped out” from time-to-time because of an infraction committed by one member. They kept a pretty tight leash on us too.

    I didn’t know that the CZ laws were based on those of Louisiana. That explains a lot to me.

    Thank you, and keep up the good work!

  7. Aurora,

    I think I understand your feelings of not fitting in anywhere. In fact, not only the Zone but the entire country of Panama could make you feel that way at times because the air here is similar to that of a border town where transience and impermanence is very palpable. A shame though, that the segregation kind of helped to keep us apart as we would have battled to stay here in Panama and make our own paradise.

    We are still in the development stages of several publications we want to bring out and a real Panamanian Westindian type cookbook is on the drawing board. In the meantime we will include every now and then a recipe…promise.:-)))