No One Spoke to Us

The Panama Tribune masthead

For me becoming literate would come during those times of feeling really isolated as a child, as I have mentioned in previous posts. It was also during these moments in my life that I’d lie in bed in the early mornings intently listening to the neighbors’ boys, all Panamanian Westindian, above our little room on Mariano Arosemena Street leave for their Canal Zone Silver School wishing I were one of them. We had known this particular family since arriving in Panama from the home of our grandparents in the City of Colon after the fire of 1940 which destroyed most of the Atlantic coast city.

It would be much later in my life and into my career as a college graduate and professional life that I would really become aware that these were the times that Sydney Young, founder and editor of the Panama Tribune, the Westindian weekly newspaper, had spoken of in his tangles with the Panamanian elite class almost from the founding of his newspaper in 1928. It was probably on behalf of children like me that he and his collaborators took on the entire Panamanian elite media machinery which had used the Westindian workers as pawns in their quest to acquire the great giveaways started in the year of 1902.

Neglected black Westindian children of the generations before us had suffered the same isolation while they virtually raised themselves. Most of them whether living on the American Black Canal Zone or in the coastal cities at either ends of the great waterway, would not have access to any schooling at all so that, by the time they neared adolescence, being around age 15 years, they were already seeking employment.

Life as a small child for me, the older of two siblings, was no comparison to the lives of Westindian Panamanian children of larger families with from 7 to 10 children. It appeared to me that smaller families such as mine were at a disadvantage since the demands of barrio life were such that kids were better off within the protection of a large family.

Also, without the benefit and protection inherent in attending one of the Westindian English Schools we, in our small family circle, felt really insecure and isolated as we were kept locked up behind closed doors most of the day since my mother was not up to the responsibility of keeping us enrolled in school. Also, added to the feelings of vulnerability when our parents were absent made me feel alone and useless as well. Useless since, as a child who obviously could not go out and “earn my keep” because of my age, my young father’s insensitive talk around the house would and eventually did lead to abuse arising from male frustration with the general changing labor situation.

These were the times in which no one ever spoke to us children, as if we weren’t around and the feelings of this man-child was learn from the knowledgeable, but learn fast, and be quick to demonstrate it. However, for a long time no one “knowledgeable” was ever available so pretty soon I was teaching myself to do many things- like reading.

This story continues.

4 responses to “No One Spoke to Us

  1. Your entry today brings a smile to my face for two reasons; even though you speak of the isolation of being from a 'small' family and living on the PACIFIC side.

    By today's numbers my family is considered large, but with only 5 children we were a small family compared to other West Indians in Canal Zone. When we moved from Camp Coiner to Santa Cruz I found out how small. On MacFarlane Parkway you had two families with 13 kids a piece! There was one family with 25! It may have been a myth but I stopped counting at 15 kids when I got in a fight with one of the brothers. Keep in mind that no provision was made for these large families to accommodate these extreme numbers of human beings until Santa Cruz was almost a ghost town. When visiting some of my friends I wondered where did all these people sleep in just two rooms. The only reason it worked is some of the older siblings had to move out at starting their own families.

    Santa Cruz was a rough place, and some of the boys (and girls too) picked fights because they knew their siblings would come to their rescue. But you could not back down or be forever picked on. The day I decided to fight back was with one of the clan with close to 25. It did not matter since the kid whooped me by himself, but it got others to stop seeing me as easy pickings.

    The other reason for smiling comes with a bit of tear; one of joy. I had the fortune of growing up on the Atlantic side and that meant listening to HOG radio. When I hear the R&B hits these days of the 1950's and 1960's I remember listening to HOG in Camp Coiner. You must do a blog on that radio station, it gave many English speakers sanity in a Spanish world.

  2. Anita Cumberbatch

    I recall also that there were many large families in Rainbow City. My family consisted of five children, and we did not consider that as large because we had neighbors with many more children.

    One always had to be very careful with kids who had many siblings.Folks in the Canal Zone were very territorial and they often held grudges for a long time.

    But as the older ones in the community graduated from Rainbow City High School, many went away to the States. Some got married early and moved to either the city of Colon or the Pacific side.

    One thing I always noticed that younger couples with small children never moved into Rainbow City, so practically people around my age or maybe three to four years younger are the last set of people born and raised in the Black Canal Zone.

    I loved reading the Panama Tribune.Panama has never had good Spanish newspapers, but the English ones were very good.The Panama Tribune had an excellent layout and the articles were well written. I regret not keeping any of them for keepsake.

    My father would come home from work with the newspaper and then he would give it to me. In the beginning I used to take it from him, so he and I made an arrangement that he would read it first, then I second. Later, I don’t know, maybe I appeared too eager, but I always ended up reading the paper before my father.

    It would be nice to resurrect “The Panama Tribune”.

    Anita Cumberbatch

  3. To Ocho Gritos,

    I was especially careful when confronted with a pack of sisters from a large family- they were the most fearsome protectors of their siblings. But, to challenge them for any reason even if they were unfair was asking for it from the rest of the tribe.


    The Panama Tribune was great journalism for its time. We will feature in upcoming posts their ad sections to show all the different kinds of West Indian businesses there were at one time.

  4. william Donadio

    To all:
    One thing was living in the Canal Zone, member of a small or large westindian family. And another thing was living in that place, of a family of European origin, (Gatun and Camp Bierd, 1928 to 1938.
    I not only had to cope with the kids of a few families from the Antilles, but I also had to confront the kids of some of the US families, who made my life feel like I was in no mans land. So you see, you guys were not too bad off after all.
    William Donadío