Don Pedro N. Rhodes

"Don" Pedro N. Rhodes, well known Colon attorney and tireless champion for the Westindian people of Panama. Image was taken from The Panama Tribune, on the occasion of his fifty third birthday.

“Don” Pedro N. Rhodes,
well known Colon attorney and
tireless champion for the Westindian
people of Panama. Image was taken
from The Panama Tribune, on the occasion of his fifty third birthday.

Pedro N. Rhodes, distinguished Panamanian lawyer and well known Atlantic side politician was born in the City of Colon June 8, 1894. His early schooling at the age of six began at Christ Church School with S. T. Bailey as teacher. His elementary education completed, Mr. Rhodes attended St. Joseph College from where he was graduated with honors.

With the ambition and determination of becoming a lawyer Don Pedro Rhodes took a correspondence course in law from one of the leading law schools in the United States. He also studied law under the tutorship of Alejandro Rodriguez Camarena who was at one time attorney general of the Nation. In 1925 he applied for and obtained a license to practice before the Supreme Court of Panama, and is considered one of the most outstanding and influential lawyers in the Republic.

Unselfishly undertaking and winning many fights for the “under-dog,” Don Pedro Rhodes championed the cause of West Indians and their offspring.

The Prohibited Immigrant Clause- the battle only begins.

On Thursday October 31,1940, despite the vehement protest letters of Pedro N. Rhodes and George W. Westerman and the petitions of several deputies and hundreds of members of Westindian labor and civic organizations, Article 12 of the proposed draft of the new Constitution was passed by a vote of 26 to 5 (with one blank) in the National Assembly. The opposition to this piece of legislation which would, in effect, create a racial barrier, where formerly none existed, to deprive those persons who already possessed Panamanian citizenship of the privilege came from a scant five legislators: Alfredo Alemán, Pablo Othon, Juan Galindo, J. M. Varela and Simon Vega.

Speaking for the Administration Foreign Secretary de Roux categorically denied that the “Prohibited Immigrant” clauses were inspired by racial antagonism, but that these persons had “proven” that they were inassimilable, and that the persons of this “restricted group” – that is, non-Spanish speaking “Negroes, Hindus, Chinese, and natives of Asia Minor and North Africa, were not of the stock which was desired to make up the national entity…and that Panama had the undisputed right to choose the racial stock in the new impulse which is being given to national unity.”

The Foreign Secretary, in fact, was supported in his arguments by the Secretary of Government and Justice, Ricardo de la Guardia, who reiterated that the clauses were not based on racial discrimination but for economic and social reasons; he said that Westindians presented a problem for Panama’s demographics due to their “fecundity.” He also made some pretty offensive and outrageous assertions that Westindians had “not made any contributions to Panama” except for their habit of bringing contraband from the Canal Zone into Panama.

In Deputy Othon’s stirring opposing argument he pointed to his own mixed Jamaican/Chinese parentage as proof that the group, which the Constitution sought to deprive of citizenship, was, in fact, assimilable. The response from some Assembly members was that he was a “brilliant exception to the general rule.” In substantiating his argument the legislator from Darien Province further presented copies of the constitutions of Mexico, Cuba and Colombia to show that none of the other Latin American countries had established barriers to citizenship on the basis of color or race. Othon also cited other prominent members from his province who were descended from the group the Constitution sought to disenfranchise.

Deputy Varela argued that nothing would be gained by depriving those persons who already enjoyed citizenship, but that, perhaps if they could be sent out of the country, this would provide a solution, but that since this could not be done, they would remain in the country harboring resentment and hatred because of their lack of status.

The heated debate even produced accusations from some sectors that some Deputies owed their seats to support from the members of this group of “undesirable persons,” bringing wails of outrage and protest from Deputies Leignadier and Anguizola who flatly stated that had never sought nor did they want the votes of the Antillean group.

The final vote on Clause 12 passed on its second reading and the memorial sent to the National Assembly signed by over 500 citizens of Westindian parentage was mentioned but was not read in its entirety. They could not get over their disappointment and fear for their own, as well as their children’s, future status in a country that had just conspired to disenfranchise them and pulled it off.

Pedro Rhodes and George Westerman would continue their determined battle to restore the citizenship status to their fellow Antillean brothers for the next seven years until in 1947, when Panama was reminded that it had signed a U.N. charter right after WW II that established that none of their member states could pass or maintain laws that prohibited or revoked the right to citizenship on the basis of race, color or national origin of their parents.

These two tireless advocates for their people’s rights presented the plight of the Panamanian born Westindians before the General Assembly of the U.N. in a stirring presentation authored by Pedro N. Rhodes and Panama was, subsequently, forced to back off on the enforcement of the “prohibited immigrants” clauses, thus paving the way for the present Constitution which was passed in 1972and a little more liberal attitude towards their Westindian citizenry.

The “Fathers of the Republic,” however, have never apologized to the Westindian citizens for these past outrages and attempts to disenfranchise them. In future posts we will be amplifying on Don Pedro N. Rhodes and what became of this remarkable man.

This story continues.

13 responses to “Don Pedro N. Rhodes

  1. Amazing how today we hear the same last names when you talking about current politics in Panama. The same ruling families!! Democracy or oligarchy?

  2. This may seem unrelated, but the events of January 9, 1964 was what divided the Silver People of Zone and those in the Republic of Panama. Of course, some of us were related and others closely related by marriage within our West Indian heritage. But if you were in the Zone like me, many simply accepted this second class non-alliance to either country as protection and comfort from the strident racism in Panama.
    I remember watching from my bedroom window in Camp Coiner as the flames burned in Colon. I was sad and scared. I also remembered the stories of my father trying to get my chosen James Gordon Webster as my name and could not having to settle for a Hispanic name at the cedula office. I tell people I am Panamanian but not Hispanic which causes a lot of consternation among latinos here in the USA since I am seen as a USA sellout.

    But my Zone West Indian friends have an equal disdain for my position that Panama and those martyred on that faithful day that began the change in the course of American colonialism were on the correct and moral path. In 1974, I gave an interview as a foreign student to the college paper and unequivocally stated Panama owned the Canal not the USA. I have relatives and friends who find that stance apalling to this day. Too bad.

    I look at the conflicts in other lands where the ‘minority’ is cornered and stripped of citizenship and commercial rights, namely the Middle East, and I say to them: fight on! God and justice are on your side.

  3. Ocho-Gritos,

    I hear you! As to being divided, we the descendants of the Silver People know how to remain divided. But as to being Latino or having Hispanic names forced on our parents, the tide is turning, as Hispanics parents are seeking to have English names placed on their children.

    However, one fact remains and that is that we “Silver People are unique” and this is the basis for my writings and research into our history and culture.

    As you continue to read you will find out later on in future posts that my story bears some similarity to your story regarding “Spanish name.”

    But, as far as Latinos in the US are concerned with their continual labelling and name calling, they have a history that I will get to in my experiences as I watched and heard them act and take sides with the same sell-out attitude with the racists of the good old USA of the KKK. Yes, because most of them might have discovered that they have African and Indigenous blood in their “royal blood line.”

    To you my brother I salute with a hearty “We reach!”


  4. Anita Cumberbatch

    Although I grew up in the Canal Zone I have always felt very much a Panamanian. I used to be a die hard nationalist until recently. I have concluded that it is much better to be a citizen of the world than to be a provincial one.But I am still proud of being Panamanian and to have lived in the Canal Zone.

    I believe because our status in the Canal Zone was really uncertain in terms of years, (many of us knew that the Canal Zone lifestyle was coming to a fast end)many Black Zonians like their White counterparts were apprehensive and had become very bitter.

    In my house I often would get into serious discussions with my parents. They were born during the twenties and I have always felt they resented that their citizenship was denied and questioned.Ironically my parents never had any interest in leaving Panama or even visiting the U.S..To the end they resulted to be die hard Panamanians.

    I came of age during the so called revolutionary period and felt that the U.S. presence in Panama was an insult to our country’s sovereignty.I participated in marches and was very much involved.
    I am not impressed with what Panama is becoming today.For the past few years Panama has been inviting investors from all across the globe to live and do business there.In a few years Panama will be like the average Latin American country where the children of foreign born whites will accentuate their power and take over.

    To kick the gringos out and then to be dominated by another set of people whose interests lie outside of the country is dumb and it leaves Panama back to square one.

    I am not very impressed with Latin Americans in the States or abroad.
    I blame latinos for not fighting hard enough to effect real social, political and economic change at home in Latin America.

    Anita Cumberbatch

  5. Pablo Othon was my Grandfather =)

  6. To Pablo Othon's grandson,

    Glad you stopped by and left a note. Your grandfather was quite outspoken and courageous during that historical moment. He must have led a very eventful life as a legislator in Panama during such trying times for the Panamanian Westindian people.

    Would have liked to know more about him and his work.


  7. Thomas Graham Watson

    This is a very interesting article. My mother Carmen Graham of Colon was a friend and a great fan of Dr. Pedro Rhodes. Pedro was my godfather and was a regular visitor and mentor who encouraged education as a means towards success and independence and his legacy lives on.

    Having said that, I’ve never understood, even as a youngster, why Panamanians with a strong Black Canal Zone heritage never connected with their true personal power concerning being Black and Panamanian even in the absence of acceptance by Whites and Mestizos in the country of our birth. It concerns me even today to have people in my own extended family who bought into the soverign argument regarding culture and ownership of the canal who didn’t understand that sovereignty without a stake by those who helped build the 8th wonder of the world into the future of the country would be deleterious to our minority community meaning that acceptance, preservation and promulgation of Silver People Culture should have abeen a specific part of the fabric of the claiming and realization of sovereignty in the specific case of the Panama Canal. As an example, Silver People embraced Spanish as part of their yeild to integration into the fabric of the country to the exclusion of teaching their children English and in return they were not fully integrated into Panama. Fact is, today descendants of Silver People are still faced with blatant racism from Government and private entities all over the Country. I have personally experienced this ambiguity in a number of business and entertainment venues in Panama on visits back to the country from the United States.

    The paper makes a great case for Silver People and others of a similar background who are immigrants to the United States and other parts of the world to unite under a common cause regarding the annomalies in our country and teach our fellow citizens the value of unity around the ballot. Take Colon for example, I’m still puzzled why a city like Colon filled with former Silver People, Black Zonians and their descendants can’t seem to win a political majority so that they can be the driver’s of their own destiny.
    I can’t understand why Colonenses tolerate the daily import of workers from other parts of the country to work in the Colon Free Zone while there is ramant unemployment and the resultant daily crime statistic resident in the city. I can’t understand why Panama City is seen worldwide as the number one desirable place to retire while Colon is listed in the same publications that promote Panama City as a place to avoid.

    Obviously, racism is part of the problem and as history has proven time and again in nations worldwide, solutions only come when people unite. In the case of Panama we the descendants of the Silver People of Colon in particular have an unprecedented opportunity to make a difference, however, we need to get involved. We need to run for office “and win” in Colon, we need to lobby the Government aggressively as a minority and continuously remind current and subsequent executive teams long after the current president leaves office that without our forefathers Panama would be just another Central American Country living on the American dole.

    • Thomas,
      At last we hear from someone close to Don Pedro Rhodes! We were beginning to think that this great hero of the Silver People of Panama had died completely forgotten by us the descendants.

      Your “Comment, paper” is timely and we just want to use this occasion to post a reminder here that our prayer of a lifetime has passed the test of time and place, the place being the same National Assembly that castigated The Silver People and their progeny in 1941 as Undesired Citizens.

      Still, as I prepare my delivery for today’s meeting of the Permanent Committee on Education, Culture and Sports, as a veteran lobbyist I feel the weight of time as a humbling source that bids us all to thank our God for our country of Panama. Also, I see a brighter future for us all as Panamanian citizens despite occurrences of our present times and I feel that urge to invite the Silver Community to UNITE in the way that would make our forefathers proud.

      • Pamela Archibold

        Sir, please feel free to contact me my father Lester, was the grand son of Pedro Rhodes.

        • Hello Mrs. Archibold,
          We are delighted to see you on our pages reading about your great grandfather. We will be sending you a private e-mail.

    • One of the peculiarity of some blacks and other groups throughout Latin America is the tendency to feel that somehow black can disappear or simply become invisible.
      Black Colonenses have no one else to blame but themselves for the decline of Colon.
      We need to accept also that the majority of Colon’s people are either in the States or living in other parts of Panama. A poorer set of Colonenses(not their fault) are living there now, few of them really related to the group that lived there during its heyday.
      I get the impression that some in Panama, middle class black too, believe that black is synonym with poverty.
      I am always amazed when I hear some of the black Panamanian middle class living outside of Colon disparaging this once vibrant city.
      There are Panamanians abroad who are doing things to help Colon’s children. I would advise any conscientious Panamanian associated some way or the other with the city of Colon, to join an organization or start one to help the children of Colon because they need our help.
      The mestizos who make up the majority are also peculiar in fooling themselves that their Indian ancestry was rubbed out, and incapable of showing ;and this is the main part here, throughout Latin America most mestizos naively believe that mestizaje and white is one and the same.

      Now the Panamanian elites with their master plan are pushing for white foreigners to move to Panama and and live so they do not have to feel like a a minority in their own land.
      Everyone now wants to pretend that there are no indigenous and people of color living there. And this includes the majority mestizos whom I have included in the people of color group and who are just plain clueless about everything .
      Ten or twenty years from now, Panama’s land is going to be taken or stolen from the Panamanian people and today Panamanians are just too happy silly to have white faces in their midst.
      Who invited Christopher Columbus to show up in the heart of the Americas during this period? The first time he was not invited, but this time, parece que Sí. ¿Quienes fueron los bobos?

  8. Pamela Archibold

    This is my father maternal grand father (Olga T. Rhodes de White), such an honor to see this article.

  9. I’m the biological grandson of Pedro N Rhodes, so proud to hear of all these political n social triumphs of my grandfather. I’ve been away for quite sometime because of my military duties.

    The Colon that I came from is so different today n I guess with the passing of time everything n everyone changes. I’ve resided in the South for the past 35 years but diligently watch the news from Panama daily> My children are well saturated with their west indian heritage. My wife, an Irish American, cooks most of my Panamanian meals n we celebrate our national culture. My grandfather used to tell me never worry about how green another man’s grass was, worry about fertilizing my side.
    O patria tan pequeña de ti jamas te olvidare, mi cuna natal.

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