As I stood on the corner wondering who those white men were and what they were doing in my neighborhood, my sister found me and asked, “Juni, what are you looking at?” Before I could even answer my sister’s question I felt a blow to the head from something or someone coming out of the glaring evening sun. I knew it was my father because I could hear him saying, “Why are you letting those people take your picture?!! You get inside the house!” all the while following his admonitions with repeated blows to the head.
That evening I was summarily strapped for something I knew nothing about, and, for that matter had no control over at the ripe age of six years. The white men with the cameras had gotten the pictures they were after anyway and had left. It was, however, part of the abuse I would suffer and something I would never really understand. My father would continue abusing me for years to come, but the why’s on my part would remain to haunt me. Some of my suspicions of what was going on in those times would surface sooner than later for me since, as it usually panned out, I was frequently the only witness to my parents’ constant squabbles.
On one occasion I had overheard my mother say out loud, “Why do you have to be so different? If the other guys have to use a uniform you have to use it too!” Apparently my father had been left with the choice of a downgrade at work, or, rather, having to settle for a job as some officer’s chauffer or no job at all; this, after having been shop boss for years at the Army Corp of Engineers and done a commendable job. She then stormed out of the room irritated leaving my father inside scowling like a child who had lost his favorite toy to bigger and meaner kids. These incidences in which I was caught up, however, were directly related to what was going against the Westindian people.
This and similar incidences would remain a mystery to me most of my adult life until the reasons began revealing themselves when I took up my own research upon entering university. As a writer I would attempt to answer some of the baffling questions surrounding my father and me as I probed into the life of my people the Panamanian Westindians of the former United States Panama Canal Zone.
Historical accounts, in fact, would reveal that my father, who, like many man, had been working on that Canal Zone since his seventeenth birthday and had worked himself up from helper to supervisor before W.W.II began, would run head on into the post war period of declining Silver payroll. Since 1932 my father, as a young Westindian wage earner, would find himself still doing what Westindian men called “scuffling,” trying to scratch out an existence- forever starting over again, as if his experience and excellent work record mattered nothing to anyone.
Since the days of his youth when he had witnessed his parents’ flight off the Canal Zone to move into a cramped one-room “War Zone” building apartment in San Miguel he was seeing the same drama played out in his own life. Here it was 1943 and he was married and still living in a one-room which he had had to make his home with two children, after having buried one.
This story continues.