Some Champions Emerge

Above is a glimpse of the November 3, 1940
article in the Panama Tribune that describes
the passage of “Prohibited Immigrants” clause in the
New Constitution of 1941 despite the
protests of the WI community.

Most of my family’s behavior during those historic times was probably directly related to the Silver Men’s work environment. The Silver Labor movement in the year 1940 had not really gotten off the ground to organize and show a real strong united front after some 36 years of invested labor when my family was just trying to settle in their new home, Panama City.

Yet, my young parents were acting out their roles as though they were American movie stars in a period of time in which they were threatened with expulsion from the country. During that tumultuous time in the history of the Silver Roll labor force, as I’ve said before, my father Cobert was the proud owner of an automobile; I guess this gave him a more visible sense of status amongst the Westindians. The car, at that time, was an attention getter even amongst the Silver employees, although they were comprised of working men with families that scrambled just to keep food on the dinner table.

A January 23rd, 1940, Panama American announcement read, “Canal to Hire Silver Men- Third Set of Locks.” The article impressed me immediately and brought me back to a similar situation here in Panama recently in a referendum in which I joined the youth of Panama in their aspiration for new opportunities of employment in finally building the Third Set of Locks. The referendum was really asking for public approval through a vote to allocate funds and initiate construction of the Third Set of Locks on the Canal– a project which has been on the drawing boards for at least eight decades.

Anyway, back then, after having settled back down to family life together with their two saddened children our family felt situated in a rather convenient, if not exactly comfortable, place in the Calidonia Barrio. Everything was close by, within walking distance, and even the Zone was a stone’s throw away. The automobile that had brought us from Colon, although quite a jewel to behold, remained parked on the street in front of our small room all the time and did not become the vehicle of happy family outings as one might expect. My father did, however, continue experiencing some unexpected changes for the worse at work.

By October 27th of that year, The Panama Tribunewas announcing that their lawyer, LicenciadoPedro Rhodes, had formulated a “petition to (the) Assembly for West Indians- For them not to revoke Citizenship.” The clause in question, if you recall our past post, would follow the dictates of the new Panamanian Constitution of 1941 that would come to signify the rejection of Panamanian children such as Aminta and me, and even my aunts and uncles from the first generation, who had all been born Panamanian citizens. In the meantime, the Westindian community would remain passive and quietly expectant to see some changes.

Everyone, however, watched while the lone warriors and intellectuals, Rhodes, Westerman and Young, took on the elite racist class of Panamanian society and the golden American citizens of the Canal Zone. The Panama Tribune from its perch on Avenida Peru in Panama City continued to publish articles for years and keep the Westindian community abreast of the very important events that would seriously affect their lives. This champion of the Westindian community, armed only with moral fortitude and the spiritual commitment to serve and inform its particularly vulnerable readers, would eventually prevail over classism and racism.

For most of the Silver laborers at this juncture in history there were few champions on the Black Canal Zone. There were, however, some strong personalities who, in their own quiet way continued to make attempts at bringing better labor conditions to the Westindian laborer.

In the barrios of the cities the rest of families remained peaceful citizens getting along with their lot in the neighborhoods. They were generally beset by the collective belief that they would be no better off fighting an intransigent Canal Administration to take cognizance of their plight. Actually, though, they had seen no improvement economically since the old days of the digs in 1904.

In our next post we will fill in a little background on the quiet but assertive personality of Pedro Rhodes, an astute and extremely skillful lawyer who so fearlessly served his people. We had to comb the yellowed pages of The Panama Tribune to find information and some images of this determined and very forgotten man and we are happy to be able to bring him out into the spotlight for our readers.

This story continues.

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