No Privacy But Lots of Kids

Top: Our one-room on Mariano Arosemena Street
is the one with the white arrow pointing to it.
Bottom: 29-47 Mariano Arosemena Street,
a typical renter’s building in Calidonia of the
early years.

The neighborhood at old 29-47 Mariano Arosemena Street seemed to remain quiescent for a while, as we the smallest of the Westindian kids growing up as Spanish speaking children thought that things would remain idyllic just for our sakes. In fact, it would be so as we started to take our place amongst the herd of kids who were not yet school aged and who stayed at home all day in the neighborhood.

We did have good friends and neighbors. Osiris, a young girl who lived in the room directly behind us with her aged mother, had a brother who was hardly home since he was a Panamanian policeman. There with them also lived a sister-in-law whom we all called Maye ever since we got to know them. Osiris, who was our age, would always be at our one room apartment playing mostly with my sister Aminta.

By then Aminta and I had also started finding places outside our home to stay away from the cramped one-room on the bottom floor of a building that really afforded us no privacy. It must have been the same for my young mother and all the rest of the women, but it was worse for my mother Rosa because of where our room was situated. Every time she decided to take a shower the whole neighborhood would know it since she would don her terrycloth bathrobe while holding a wooden parrilla (to stand on inside the shower stall) and sit in our room waiting until the communal shower was unoccupied. It was like living in a very small, crowded fish bowl.

I honestly felt, and still do, that my father never meant for us to remain living like we did for so long, but the renewed labor unrest had caught him and many Silver Roll employees in an economic squeeze and they were not able to receive the much needed raise in pay that was needed to move us into better housing. In any event, Cobert, my father, started looking for any opportunity he could to be absent from home, it seemed.

Long before he married my mother he had not only bought his automobile but he also purchased the most splendid 12 gage shotgun which he used to go hunting with his friends. His hunting partners were a colorful bunch but the one armed Mr. Hunt, who we always knew as “MochoHunt, was probably the one who inspired the most awe in me. He had lost his left forearm at some point and he was left with a stump that he could handle with remarkable dexterity. I would watch enthralled as he would nimbly handle his heavy guns with the stump of his left arm.

Many times my father would return from his impromptu hunting trips with a clutch of five or six dead birds that, in my opinion, he had taken out his frustration on. My father would come in with what he thought was a prize catch only to meet up with the indifference of my mother who outwardly ignored the poor dead animals.

I thought that he would have gotten the message that she wasn’t about to clean much less cook and serve any of those birds so filled with small brass shotgun pellets that it took him forever to extract them from their carcasses before they were suitable for consumption. After a while it didn’t surprise me that Cobert started coming home empty handed from these short hunting excursions into the nearby woods.

As I’ve mentioned before, Cobert had been employed since he was 15 years of age and caring for himself since his father’s death. His mother, one of the hardest workers at the immense Ancon Laundry on the Canal Zone, had co-signed for him to acquire the automobile we would see stationary outside our door every evening. At this time the mood in the cramped room we called home could ill afford another family member and yet it was around this time that I perceived we were about to be visited by another addition to our family. I wouldn’t know for sure since my parents didn’t really talk to us or explain anything that was going on in the family.

We were living somewhat worst off, it seemed, than our Panamanian Spanish neighbors who could never dream of working on the American Canal Zone at the time. On the other hand, the small (very small) community of Gold Roll employees continued to experience a lifestyle that would inadvertently turn even them into marginal men inversely speaking as were the Silver Roll men and women who “emotionally…(were) unable to identify with either of the two cultures…”

The people of the United States during this period would see a pay off in the unique labor situation that was unfolding in the history of a mean spirited Canal Zone during these war times; but, more about the labor movement in an upcoming series.

This story continues.

2 responses to “No Privacy But Lots of Kids

  1. There are times I wonder if my family moving to Santa Cruz was a curse or dream come through. Even though we lived there only 2 years, it is home in my collective of memories of the Zone.

    Rio Abajo had Parque Lefebre, Rainbow City had Camp Coiner and Paraiso had Pedro Miguel, but Santa Cruz had Gamboa; segregation you saw and felt everyday. The street dividing the towns is still there. I can still hear the creak and brush of the bamboo on the white side of the street when the wind would hit. It still gives me peace even though crossing that street was not allowed.

    It was really all Gamboa and to this day the people from there call the place Gamboa not Santa Cruz.

    It was a wild place. The smell of ganga from the maleantes permeated the underneath of the raised buildings; we called this area ‘de basement’. If you were not up to date on the latest, the ‘Teen’ club Route 66 blasted music so loud every resident heard it nightly between 6pm and 9pm.

    Many parents simply kept their children indoors except to attend school or a birthday party. Men playing dice or dominos were all about and some were not upstanding pesonas or legal to the Zone. Of course, every Friday or Saturday there was a ‘nite ‘o fun’ which was an all day event going up in the bush to cut the palm leaf to cover ‘de basement’ for the party.

    The enormous Hercules crane dominated the vista of The Canal by the newly desegregated commissary where black boys waited with their carretas to take groceries home for those who could not– mainly whites. There was lots of camaraderie,laughs and money to be made. That central area betwixt the towns was a metaphor for life in the area.

    Rod Carew and Mr French forged an alliance that would make Carew a Hall of Fame baseball player in this town where the Spanish kids played soccer and West Indians baseball and an assortment of games too strange to even categorize. Unlike other parts of the Silver Zone, Spanish could be heard frequently and constantly.

    Christmas for me is still hearing El Gran Combo wail about ‘el lechón’ either from a neighbor or Route 66. Gamboa was an isolated world unto itself but a wonderful place for restless boy.

  2. Ocho-Gritos,

    I don’t think anyone anywhere, either on the internet or in any library, will find a description of life in Silver Gamboa, or Santa Cruz, as you have written. I grew up in Panama and Colon and I wasn’t even aware that Santa Cruz existed. I sincerely thank you for these portraits of a unique life in a unique place.