sits in Colon’s Parque de la Avenida Central.
Middle: Aminta Melendez
and her father, Porfirio Melendez, circa 1904
Bottom: My sister Aminta and me about 1942.
Aminta Melendez (1886-1979) had been a key player in the independence of the Republic of Panama in the 1903 revolution which prompted the separation of the Department of Panama from Colombia. In 1903 Aminta was going to turn 18 years of age, when her father, Porfirio Melendez (Chief of the Revolutionary Junta in Colon), at a supremely dangerous moment in Panama’s history, sent her to Panama on an important mission.
Traveling by herself on a cargo train from Colon to Panama, she carried with her a secret letter penned by her father requesting that the American military intervene in preventing the Colombian army from invading Panama and seizing control, a request that was granted. Aminta accomplished her single and most important mission without flinching, having managed to avoid rousing suspicion. Thereafter, however, she would become an almost forgotten figure in the annals of Panama’s history.
Little Aminta and I resumed our places again amongst what was one of the first Silver Roll families to become habituated to life and the dual identity they had in the country of Panama. Attached as our people were to the United States Canal Zone, in my perception, even as late as the year in which I first wrote the story of my family in Colon, that my people seemed to be unaware that both countries, the United States and Panama, acted as though we were cast offs, superfluous, a group of people only to be noticed as long as we were useful.
In the meantime, those first years of life with our maternal grandparents would be a first stage in my awakening. It would be what I would come to identify as the moment of the awakening of my Soul or Spirit, and it all had occurred to give me a brief taste of urban life in the interior of the country of Panama.
For me, Cobert, Jr., the historian, however, the time of my sojourn in Colon occurred at a moment in Panama’s experience when it was just emerging from the throes of Spanish colonialism, and now began to feel the heel of North Americanism. Those years between 1930 and 1940 were the years in which the powerful United States regarded its growing population of Westindian Blacks as mere pawns to be utilized, exploited actually, in the world political games of domination and mega planning.
They were moments in which the Silver People needed to remain as invisible as possible. We had been the most visible Blacks in the country due to our having been forced to live under the Panamanian government jurisdiction on the other side of the fenced portions of the U.S. Canal Zone. Nevertheless, we sang the same tunes and celebrated the same American holidays as the Blacks on the Black Canal Zone.
I remembered as I wrote down my childhood fears that, “On all the occasions I visited the Silver Clubhouse I felt terror at ever meeting the bad ‘gumshoe’ my aunts were always talking about face to face. In fact, every time my young aunts or my grandfather mentioned ‘the white man,’ I never did actually see one at the Silver Commissary that I could have mistaken for a ‘gumshoe.’ It would be many years later that I would understand that the ‘gumshoe’ was the house or store detective employed or engaged in detecting lawbreakers or in getting information on the Silver employees.
Come to think of it, every time we had to pass white people’s homes on our way back from the Zone and I’d notice kids’ toys thrown about all over their lawns, I never did see any white kids. There was this great mystique surrounding white people which soon became a ghostly presence for me- a presence to be feared although they couldn’t be seen.
That was eventually brought home to me. That some of those white children’s toys would make it to the paved areas of the walkways we had to cross was inevitable. So, one day as my Aunt Minnie and I were making our way back home from an errand, I picked up a little toy bus made of lead; it was a really nice miniature replica of an American type school bus. It was right in my path along the walkway so I picked it up to examine it enjoying the heaviness of the feel of it in my small hand.
My aunt Minnie, however, who noticed what I’d done, tugged at me so brusquely that I said, “They don’t want it!” half complaining. She answered sharply, “Shut up and come on!” and we hurriedly continued on home. All the way home I was absolutely intrigued by the little toy school bus and was conscious that, apart from the abacus that a Japanese barber in Colon had given me as a reward for my first haircut, I had no toys. That small lead school bus had become the second toy that I ever owned in my whole life and it took up all my attention. The whole incident, however, had impressed me with the general reaction of panic and fear from my aunt, and most Silver People, in any matter related to ‘white people.’”
This story continues.