Learning From Observing

Even today the “Silver Cemetery” at Corozal remains segregated.
In the foreground is the Silver side of the cemetery, in the background,
divided by the cyclone fencing, is the American “Gold” Roll cemetery.
The radio shows of the times made me into the individual that I am today. The abuse of my person by my relatives had come so early in my life and continued for so long after that I made every attempt to avoid them as much as I could. I often retreated into the world of radio personalities and shows to try to forget the periodic pummel-lings I would receive. Our neighbors and the people from the neighborhood around me also became my source of solace. 

Even the plumber that came from time to time to fix some part of the heavily used common wet areas of the building would encourage me to hang around so that in the end I would have some knowledge of his trade. Every time he came he had some magic trick to peak my interest and he would do it over and over to keep me interested enjoying himself until, at last, he’d finish the job.

At any rate, writing had already become my interest and I would not find out how much I had learned to read and write until years later as I attempted to write assays or compositions as they called it in Spanish School. The isolation imposed on us had apparently done me some good, especially when my mother would sink into deeper depression as time would pass during my childhood experiences.

Although she was a dressmaker, as Westindians called that trade, my mother forbade me from even trying to learn anything about it in her presence. Evidently she was worried about my sexual identity since she would often tell me, “I don’t want you sewing, that’s for Maricón!” Never mind that I could have become an excellent tailor and draw a decent living from that vocation to support myself.

I would find the same attitude in my father Cobert who owned an automobile when very few Westindian men owned such an item. “Come with me,” he would order and I would accompany him quite docilely on his many excursions around the city and countryside and visits to his friends. However, he never did offer to teach me to drive even when he was forced, after his demotion, to become a chauffeur for a US Army Colonel on the Panama Canal Zone, a position he apparently disdained after having been the boss in one of the most efficiently run shops in the Engineering Division.

In fact, this became a pattern with all my paternal uncles as well, the attitude that they would refuse to teach me anything useful that they had any knowledge of, like how to get a job on the Canal Zone. Whether it was a conscious thing on their part or no, I could not say, but I noticed it readily enough from my very infancy. Other than the art of womanising, which I call pimping, the company of my Uncle Pinky, the uncle who I would most interact with, would turn rather abusive in that he would start to take advantage of me by making me work for him and not compensating me with even a small monetary encouragement during all the times that I would live with his mother and sisters.

It evolved for me into a kind of instinctive development of my deep inner self. Reading the signs of what I call an ingrained miserly personality would keep me from becoming totally dishonest and resort to stealing and assorted skulduggery as a way of getting back at them all.

“Who had been their father?” I would often ask myself. “What kind of man is this who had mistreated his children so much that they, in turn, would come to abuse and neglect their own children?” The years would pass without me finding the answer to these profound questions about my paternal grandfather. It seemed to me that it was as though those people, his offspring, wanted to forget him as soon as possible. It would not be until many years later that they would speak freely about those times in the life of their father and even a little before he suddenly passed away. Where he is buried is a mystery to me even until this very day.

I do remember them talking about bouts of anger and rage in my grandfather – their father. It seemed like he would experience bouts of frustration that would at times surface when he’d experience, for instance, having to remain at home recuperating from work injuries. Those to me were frustrated reactions to his plight regarding his hurt self esteem. Over twenty years of hard labor on that Canal Zone would not be enough for that Silver Man. Neither would it be enough, as it turned out, for any one of his descendants except for me, one of his second generation, who would experience the brunt of child abuse and neglect and still go on to receive a college education.

In my estimation of The Silver People of the first generation Black Canal Zone whose behavior I did have an opportunity to observe, I would find an alienated people who would manifest their frustrations and fears in demonstrative, quarrelsome, often abusive ways- strange and angry animals, in my opinion; creatures only known to exist in the far flung Australian continent known as “Tasmanian Devils,” whose very nature is one of aggression and irritability.

It may have seemed an unkind comparison but, as one of the targets of their anger, I began to really ponder and dread the day that I would have to follow them to their resting places at the segregated Silver Cemeteries on the banks of the Panama Canal or in Brooklyn, New York.

This story continues.

4 responses to “Learning From Observing

  1. Not all West Indian or Silver men were phyisically abusive in their punishments. I know there were exceptions, but my father was not. He was known for his brutality. He was a school principal and much like his father dispensed corporal punishment mercilessly. We called them lashings; but I like the African American term whoopings since it gives you the actual act more precisely.
    I believe the severity of the lashings and punishments fell to that one boy labelled as a miscreant. You like me were the chosen one. The physical pain is gone but the mental part lives with me a half of a century later. Many of my friends remember my punishment at the Santa Cruz Elementary School when I could be heard throughout the town. Many feared my father and to this day upon greeting me remind me of their lashing at school and wonder why. I don’t use my last name for the specific reason.
    On his deathbed, he tried to explain. We were friends by then. My love for him never waned even at the height of fearing him as I would a hungry wolf. His anger was inherited given his father was more severe. I decided it stopped with me. I never touched my children.
    My father was wonderful and generous man; a side many never saw. I saw both sides of him, and got the most punishment. I was a difficult child. He was a pillar of the Silver community. I miss him. I don’t miss the public humiliation and pain he used to mold me.
    If you can find a photo of Mount Hope. It is our legacy there and is in neglect. A fund drive throughout the USA (we live in more than Brooklyn) would help immensely.

  2. Ocho Gritos,

    I’m glad you were able to befriend your father eventually, I, unfortunately never could with mine and not because I didn’t try to get closer to him. Of course, your father was a teacher and a school principal- that might have made a difference.

    The Silver Cemeteries, in fact, are part of our mission on our Heritage web site. I hope you are following it up.


  3. Anita Cumberbatch

    I did not see what many would refer to as abusive treatment when I was coming up.But most of the parents in Rainbow City were in the majority very strict.

    I think many were afraid of messing up.It was very much part of the insecurity that was part of our existence in Panama and the Canal Zone.The place was always seen as temporary. Maybe Panama was also seen as temporary and this is why many of us left to reside abroad.

    My father was strict and very fair.Dad, I believe like most Panamanian fathers of West Indian descent favored his daughters over his sons.I saw my eldest sister as perfect, I don’t remembered my parents ever scolding her.

    One thing, my Dad rarely showed his feelings, and he did not like emotionalism ; actually this is a West Indian thing.I got away with showing my feelings, I think because I am the youngest child. I am the only one of five children who is emotional.My father also did not like loud talking and boisterous behavior.I cannot stand it either.
    I understood my father pretty well, and there were moments that we did not even have to speak. We could communicate with our eyes.
    I am sure that my father loved us dearly.
    My father is deceased now, but I always feel his protection.I still miss him.As long as I live,I will always miss him. My father was as lovely and beautiful as Gatun Locks.

    Many parents had a curfew for their children in Rainbow City.In Rainbow,we used to tease one another a lot about this, and make jokes about who was “tapao”(shut in).

    My father was the type of Dad who would come looking for you if you were not home on time.
    I think many Zone Dads did that, and it presented an embarrasssing situation so often that children obeyed not to be humilliated.

    Rainbow was a very small place and folks worried a lot about what “the Jones'” would say.

    In schools, we all received beatings. I remembered getting the belt many times at school for things I never did.
    The West Indians of that period sense of discipline sometimes was just too much.But I have no qualms with none of the elders in my community when I was coming up.They were not perfect, but as a whole I did not see terrible behavior, only very human situations.

    Anita Cumberbatch

  4. Anita,
    Greeetings. Sure love your report on your childhood on the black Canal Zone. Many people never touch the subject. That is the reason why I make every attempt to report on Westindian life in the Barrios of the cities of Panama.

    This is wonderful how we can compare our experiences about our people who founded these areas and about occurrences during different generations.