The Westindian Panamanian Roots- Recalling My Grandfathers

Casino and Hotel Venetto

There is a building boom going on in
Panama and they can thank my
pioneering grandparents, The Silver People,
for it. Top photo is just one example of the
mushrooming new skyscrapers, banks,
shopping malls, hotels, casinos etc., that are
going up faster than anyone can keep track.
Bottom photo is a view of the new and changing
Panama City skyline as seen from the walls
of the French Embassy in old San Felipe (Casco Viejo).

I’ll never tire of saying it but I’ve always believed that we Westindian Panamanians are a very unique people. Of such strong mettle we the
Silver Men, the Panamanian Westindian, have evolved.

In the case of my paternal grandparents history would reveal that by the time his fiancée, Fanny McKenly, was reunited with him in the year of 1911, Mr. Joshua Austin Reid, my grandfather, had proven to be one of the lucky ones to have even survived the rush to dig the “big ditch.” However, twenty three years of backbreaking labor had not served him or his beloved Panamanian born children very well. He had succumbed to years of constant laboring first working under the digs with unrelenting, ear-splitting noise emanating from high powered machinery and dangerous explosions.

The hot two or more mile deep pits had presented major challenges to a seasoned tradesman and for several long years he’d witnessed horrific accidents involving friends and coworkers. This, to say the least, stressful environment coupled with the imminent danger from natural landslides during and after the construction period had transformed him and his team members into experts at searching for countless numbers of injured and “disappeared” black men.

By the same token, Silver Men like Seymour Green, my maternal grandfather, a skilled blacksmith, would continue to labor long after Joshua Reid had passed on in 1929 and by the time his first grandson and heir had been born in 1936 he would have been employed for twenty six years receiving almost the same wages when he finally died in 1953. Some thirty nine years after he’d first started laboring on the Panama Canal he would die without medical privileges to help treat the illness that killed him, which was probably work-related.

By the time I saw my grandfather, Seymour Green, alive again on that fateful visit in 1944, some four years after we’d been separated from our family in Colon, I would have a slightly different perspective. For a small child it represented a lifetime but much had occurred that I was not yet completely capable of understanding about being a Silver laborer on the Panama Canal Zone; it was a time of significant changes that we, his grandchildren, would ultimately see. In fact, on our visit to see my mother and little brother in Colon, destiny would have it that I would not actually see my grandfather for too long that entire day; something I lament even today. More than just a casual family visit it came to represent for me a reconnection with my “Westindianness,” and with the kind of cultural legacy we Westindian Panamanians had been responsible for leaving in our country.

That day and for many years afterwards I remembered how grandfather would dress me up in a brand new sailor suit, with new white shoes when I was little and take me out to show me off to his co-workers, neighbors and friends. When he’d include Aminta in our jaunts she would also be well dressed, carefully groomed and the pride of any grandparent. He was relaying the message to me and to the world that we the Westindians, the “Chombos,” had arrived, and that they not only clung to but worked hard for the hope that we the second generation would see much better times, an even greater sign of progress.

This might have explained the violent incident in the park that day since, after all, we the children of the former foreign workers, were looking good, presenting an image of advancement and money to follow our every step, although in actually this was not to be so.

The fact was that we the Silver people, our grandfathers and mothers and parents had transformed Panama, a country that in today’s parlance would not be considered user friendly- a hot, filthy, dangerous, disease ridden and culturally and economically backwards nation- into a progressive, modern, bi-lingual nation with a new and marvelous resource to propel the country into the technological future- The Panama Canal.

This new and forward looking idea of how the Panamanian Westindian figured into the culture, history and economy of Panama was behind Teacher Osborne’s curriculum guide for shaping the new minds out of servitude and into a better and more expanded, and professional sense of a service economy, which is how Panama views itself today. Way ahead of his time, his precepts extolled the ideals behind the work ethic, duty to Customer Service, and Client Satisfaction. These precepts are being heralded throughout Panama today as the goals we should be striving for since they are sorely lacking in our supposed service economy- an economy in which the Westindians are no longer a significant presence.

This story will continue.

5 responses to “The Westindian Panamanian Roots- Recalling My Grandfathers

  1. Ocho-Gritos

    When I first my former father in law, who at 90 is clinging to life consequence of broken hip from being moved around with the flooding in Fargo, North Dakota, I told him I understood about Black Russians. I had done research while in college in Minnesota regarding this ethnic minority. I told him how I understood being German and Russian at the same time but being from one place. His parents were Black Russians. He was born in the USA so my explanation seemed distant. It was not until recently did I realize how much the term ‘ethnic minority’ applied to me. I was trying to explain coming from a hispanic country and being anglo. The best example I could give were the ‘English’ soldiers who fought in the American Revolutionary War because they were actually German POW’s. I have given up, especially now that Westindian Panamanians are so common and hardly a minority in the central cities. As I meet expats of all colors and etnicities here in the USA I am always surprised at how much we have in common. As I explained to a friend about our little 3 de noviembre celebration in this region: it was like being a roomful of myself.

  2. Jose McKail Marquez

    Are we referring to the same country when you picture Panama as progressive, cultural, non-filthy, and non dangerous. I wish you would visit Colon and the Mount Hope Cemetery to get an idea that you are right in many ways, but WRONG in many other ways.

  3. Mr. McKail Marquez,

    We always welcome comments like yours to keep us focused on many issues that have yet to be aired about the Silver People of Panama. In all fairness to us, however, I think you need to read further and discover more of what we have uncovered in Mount Hope Cemetery etc.. Check out this link:
    The Polemic History of the Silver Cemeteries in Panama

  4. Angelo Riddell

    I enjoyed this. I am looking for information on my Grandfather, Stanley Riddell, who was a high ranking member. I would post a picture of him divested but am not sure how to go about it. If you have any information, please respond.

    Angelo Riddell

    • Mr. Riddell,

      We would be happy to receive a picture of your grandfather, Stanley Riddell. We will send you a confirmation e-mail and you can respond by loading the photo up to Yahoo mail, or have someone show you how to do it, and send it along with a short description of his life and work. Thank you for stopping by and leaving your comment. We will be in contact.