The Terror of the Silver Roll

Bust of Aminta Melendez in Colon.

Aminta Melendez and her father Don Porfirio Melendez.

Image on top : Bust of Doña Aminta Melendez that
sits in Colon’s Parque de la Avenida Central.

: Aminta Melendez
and her father, Porfirio Melendez, circa 1904
Bottom: My sister Aminta and me about 1942.

After the notorious Colon fire of 1940, the Green family would return to a normal life with the appearance of the first buds of their second generation in the persons of my sister and me, Cobert Junior, or Juni for short, having been named after my father. My sister, Aminta, who was one year younger, had been named by my mother after Aminta Melendez, daughter and notable personage (although under mentioned) in the short revolutionary history of the City of Colon.

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.

13 responses to “The Terror of the Silver Roll

  1. You bring to my mind something I muse about but never actually discuss with anyone then or now, and that is whites were invisible to us West Indians; especially those living in insular towns like Paraiso or Rainbow City. I mean insular in the non-geographic sense for Rainbow but for Paraiso and Pedro Miguel, buried in the center of Zone, encounters with whites were isolated to none. It was quite awakening for me when my family moved to Gamboa (only to find out we moved to Santa Cruz upon arrival) to find it completely divided. The Gamboa Commissary had just been ‘de-segregated’ but the two fountains and stairwells were evidence of a segregated place. There were two clubhouses and movie theaters. Santa Cruz, in jest these days I call it Holy Cross, was the Silver equivalent of Gamboa; or local rate as some Americans say to this day. Even with this proximity, whites remained foreign to me until I emigrated to the USA. This entry reminded me of the unspoken fear pervasive throughout our Zonian life, since encounters were negative in nature. I lived in Minnesota for many years, so this fear dissipated shortly after reaching the USA. Despite the segregation and isolation, my years in Panama, Colon and the Zone remain the most memorable and joyful. All Zonians, though truly inexplicable to others, regard this special place as the best place to experience childhood.

  2. I am leaving you another comment on the ‘gumshoe’ in the commissaries throughout the Zone. I know you had a previous entry about this but their job was to prevent goods bought in the commissary from being transported to the Republic of Panama. The commissary cards were meant to prevent this contraband, but since we all had relatives outside the Zone, sharing the card and contrabanding was morally obligatory. There were, however, several professional contrabandists that stood outside or esconced themselves throughout the community and the ‘gumshoes’ kept hot on their trail. I helped both, but only occasionally the professionals for fun and adventure. Thanksgiving, was another story; it seems every year I was the selected family mule to help those in Colon, Chilibre or Calidonia. I never considered this stealing since it was all paid for by my parents’ hard earned dollars. I never believed my relatives in the Republic any less than me and deserved whatever their dollars could afford. You never bought two of anything and careful not to buy big bulk packages of meat. Once home or at the vehicle, and I am slow moving individual, one had to be deft and swift since if the gumshoe was suspicious he could be coming by. Neighbors never ‘squealed’ on each other but I am sure those with many mouths to feed just on the Zone may have felt their commissary cards were too limited compared to my family’s and could have pointed the finger. Speaking of this, at my advanced age it still remains my way of being against the dual segregation in both Panama and from the USA. The heat and humidity beating down on me carrying those bags (no we did not have cars for this– you walked to the commissary)are still an object of pride for me.

  3. Kyle and Svet Keeton

    Strange how in my childhood we had the same basic image of the Black people. When we walked to town and crossed the railroad tracks it seemed that you never saw the black people except for curtains moving in the window as they watched you pass by.

    I always wanted to see the black kids but it was forbidden.

    Seems that sometimes the two races stayed apart to keep issues from getting out of hand.

    The only Black people I was allowed to associate with was the very old Black men that usually begged at the store front or Black nanny's that cooked and cleaned house.

    The Black children and White children did not mix in school or public.

    Your posts bring back memories that were long buried and almost forgotten.

    Do you still have the school bus? I remember those type of cars and trucks.


    Kyle & Svet

  4. The Missing Us...

    I have a feeling my comment will be long. I’m framing my Black-American point of view on racial and ethnic discrimination and the things I historically know about Panama from reading and researching. My Tia in Panama and other Panamanians I’ve talked to always say that racism doesn’t exist and they attribute the concept to a “chip” on one’s shoulders. I find that many Black immigrants to the States have at least that problem with US-born Blacks–that they always think everything is about race. I don’t know much about racism in Panama today but is it possible that the invisibility of whites by West Indian Blacks has lead to the invisibility of racism or ethnic discrimination? I hope that doesn’t seem audacious to say. When I was there last year, I don’t think I saw any inter-personal racism, but I did notice that my family was the only Black Panamanian family at the resort. The majority of families were White Panamanians. So even though, no one mistreated me or anything like that–it seems there would be a racial inequality that’s linked to class just because of the proportion of Black Panamanian families vs. White Panamanian families. And most of the workers seemed to be mestizo.

    I guess I’d like to know if you think there is residual racism left against Blacks or Blacks of West Indian descent in Panama? How does that tie in with the racial or ethnic discrimination of other groups like the indigenous people? And do you think the reason women and men like your aren’t weren’t widely acknowledged could be due to racism?


  5. To Violeta,

    There is certainly residual racism present in all the Blacks of the Americas. The ones that I identify as Afro-Hispanic Blacks are just now realizing the extent of racism against Negritude that even they had assisted in contributing to.

    My times and experiences are somewhat more removed from your times, however, I can safely say that even U.S. Black Afro-Americans have that “provincial mentality” amongst them when it comes to accepting even others of the Negro race that are not American born.

    These are things that I have noticed in my perspective of racism and classicism in Panama and the whole of Latin America. The USA has been followed in my estimation and has proven so in my research as setting the tone for cultural practices. So that, if we forget the past all those evils will return to haunt us for more generations than we want to admit.


  6. To Ocho Gritos,

    I guess we are creatures of our times and it seems that I experienced the same thing whether you lived as a child on or off the Canal Zone. One thing is certain that we, as Black Westindian Panamanians all love our little “dutty” (dirty) Panama (as my Aunt would always say) and look back on growing up in this “children’s paradise” with great fondness. Look for my upcoming posts on my U.S. experiences- I think they will strike a chord with you.

    To Anonymous,

    Thanks for sharing about the gum shoe experience. I think we, who experienced the commissary days, can write a book about it and how those early “company stores” were the first big supermarkets. There are more funny anecdotes coming about my commissary exploits.

    Dear Kyle and Svet,

    I am sure that kids would have enjoyed just being kids! That the evil of racialism and classicism was there to vilify human beings so that there’d be no thought of humanity to buffer such evils that make the world so violent is something for us to ponder and learn from today. The question of belief in a God of “loving kindness” for many people is very hard to fathom because of living in such a selfish and violent world.

    We all have been taught not to think and that, as kids, we had better be seen and not heard. So that they always never speak to us and after such with time we grow missing out on the beauty of childhood.


  7. Anita Cumberbatch

    Roberto y Lydia:
    I agree with Ocho Gritos. I saw White Zonians as a foreign people.Often they would shop at Rainbow Commissary and some were even very rude, jumping the line, believing they had a sense of entitlement.

    Some times they would run into some real “rantantan” Rainbow people woho would put them in their place. But often we ignored them, because one thing I don’t think we ever saw them as anything else but foreign. They were a people who could be easily ignored because we were both from different worlds.

    I believe both groups(Black and White Zonians) had a cordial agreement to ignore each other.We were two different people.

    My oldest sister at the age of 25was in an accident.She later recuperated. But she was in Gorgas hospital for a long time. One morning, my father and I took the Panama Canal Railroad and went over to the Pacific side, to visit my sister.(Gorgas) In the hospital, while my father talked with the doctor, I became emotional and my Dad sent me away to the visiting room.

    There seated was a middle aged White female Zonian. As I walked into the room I remembered feeling funny. I did not want to cry in front of this strange White Zonian. But the pain of my sister’s accident, was too much and I could not control myself.

    I remembered feeling the middle aged woman’s eyes on me. Then she asked what was the problem. I told her sobbing what had happened.I was a very young and innocent twenty year old. The woman began to console me and she even told me she was going to pray for my sister.

    Roberto and Lydia, I was shocked. I did not believe that White Zonians used to pray.I wiped my tears and I remembered feeling consoled.She and I engaged in a long conversation. She told me her husband had broken his leg.

    I had walked into the waiting room yearning for my mom and this strange woman had eased my “dolor”.

    In the Canal Zone, and even in Panama many of the people were complete strangers.Even today Latin Panamanians know nothing about West Indian Panamanians.

    I remembered Black Zonians used to look down on the Spanish people across the entire Republic.

    Some of the Black Zonians had a superiority complex and could be proud and arrogant.I know there were a few of the Black Zonians who looked down on the White Zonians too.

    I do believe that Panama and the Canal Zone had a strong effect on many of us who resided there. The result of this effect has materialized positively later on.

    Cordiales Saludos,
    Anita Cumberbatch

    • Anita Cumberbatch you might be related to me. My mom is Panamanian and her maiden name is Cumberbatch.

  8. Anita,

    As you know, we always appreciate your comments, and, again, we urge you as writers to another to start writing your memoirs.

    Maybe the Lord would bless us and we will all be able to publish, someday. Have faith!:-)))

  9. Jaime Martinez

    Mr. Reid,

    My name is Jaime Martinez, and I stumbled across your "The Terror of the Silver Roll" last night. It was very interesting, I look forward to reading the rest. I was actually searching for information on Panamanian Independence and the Melendez family when I found your blog.

    I am the great-great-great-grandson of Porfiro Melendez and great-great nephew of Aminta Melendez. My great-great grandfather was Charles Ternes DeReuter, a fireman during the Colon fire and the son-in-law to Porfirio.

    My family had some internal fighting that led to my grandmother, mother and uncle leaving Panama in the late 1940's winding up in Virginia. I had heard the stories growing up of the exploits of my ancestors, but with the family situation, information was very scant on our history and I eventually gave up trying.

    When my youngest son had a school project about family history that sparked a renewed interest in my family heritage.

    I have had a difficult time trying to find any information (especially in English) other than my mother's memory. I want to take my family to Panama and show my children their family heritage, but as of right now, I would be flying blind.

    Reading your blog, you have far more information on my family than I do, I was hoping you could point me in the right direction. Any help at all, would be greatly appreciated.

    Thanks in advance,

  10. Hi Juni,

    I am a direct descendant of Aminta Melendez and I wanted to address something in your article. I do not mean to question you as I see you are a historian, however that being said. Our family records show Aminta traveled to Panama at the age of 15 not almost 18 to deliver the letter “secret messages” to Revolutionary Junta’s counterpart in Panama City where the main players were located. The messages she carried was the secret letter penned by her father requesting that the American military intervene in preventing the Colombian army from invading Panama. I’m still working at putting together the facts of our family tree but as you know this will take time.

    I thank you for having taken the time to write about this! Any other information you can provide me associated to Melendez family history is incredibly appreciated!

    • MC,

      We’re truly happy to see you here and know that you are doing genealogical research into your family history. This is one of the best legacies we can leave our descendants! We thank you for clarifying Aminta Melendez’s age at the moment of her brave mission- it is even more impressive since she was so very young. As you have probably discovered in checking our link to our source of the information- an archival newspaper article- they are the ones who stated her age as being 18. It takes someone digging into primary sources like you to note the facts.

      Thank you,

      C. Roberto A. Reid

  11. Richard E.Buery

    I often played and walked the length of Central Ave. in Colon and in the center of each block there was a statue, such as the one mentioned. We were never instructed regarding those represented, and that was a shortcoming, since some of our history is thereby represented.