Surcie bush in its natural setting.
Also known as Balsamina in Panama and
Cundeamor in the rest of the Caribbean.
Image thanks to our dear friends at
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I had arrived at a point where I was becoming ever more aware of the relationships and commitments I was immersed in as a child and the milieu in which I lived. My experiences with my immediate family and the make-up of the community regarding my person, however, still appeared confusing to me.
As a budding adolescent I was about to finish primary school and my newly discovered virtues of patience and the ability to display emotions of well being, even if only on the surface, had fostered a much more analytical character on my part. Reflecting on life as I knew it required much caution towards both my family and the community I lived in.
There was one thing certain about my desire to disconnect from such surroundings as soon as I could and that was that I would need to find someone in whom I could trust in order to achieve it. Memories of events that had occurred to me in the past so far were always vivid and negative reminders that trust was a very rare gift. So, I expended more of my mental energy fighting negativity than filing away the few lessons in mathematics I thought might serve me for a lifetime.
In sorting things out I focused on an event that occurred to me outside of school life that, much later in life as I leafed through the historic pages of the Panama Tribune, would become vital in clearing up many issues and putting together puzzle pieces as a researcher of The Silver People.
It happened to be a time when the political climate had reached a high point of adversity for the Westindian community in general. The Panameñismo (literally, Panamanianism) of the then President Arnulfo Arias, had so affected the social climate of our country, with its marked “ethnic cleansing” attitude, that the whole colored community of Calidonia seemed to feel the stress. The incident which I’m about to relate only brought home to me the kind of anxiety my parents, their siblings and my grandparents had lived under in the past as Westindian children of the barrios.
The financial hardships that many of the Westindians had endured since the late 1920’s seemed to be still present for the offspring of The Silver People of Panama and the glaring economic necessity that forced small children to remain home on their own locked up in one room apartments more or less sequestered until their parents returned home from working on the American Canal Zone was very widespread.
For me that school year of 1946-47 would become quite memorable as the year in which I would never try to do something so foolish/innocent as to come home for my lunch break, something that any child would think of doing, until I had the scare of my life.
In those days the school day spanned the hours of 8 a.m.to 4 p.m. Sometimes students were let out just before noon for their midday break to return at 1:p.m. to attend classes until 4:p.m.. This, by the way, is not done in Panama’s public schools today as the school day is broken up into two separate shifts for students to attend either morning or afternoon shift, thus making the school day much shorter.
On this particular day I was in my usual (well, almost usual) bubbly mood and I had made it home to search for something to snack on. Since my grandmother had not retired yet and both my aunts and my father were all out of the house working on the nearby Canal Zone, I was home on my own. Alone in an empty two-room apartment I found myself searching for something to eat but found not a morsel. In fact, I searched the ice-box which I had dutifully kept supplied with small blocks of ice from the ice-plant some three city blocks away but I couldn’t find anything in there either, not even a slice of bread. For a moment I thought of frying up some “bakes” to have with some bush tea, but, again, I had no luck as my search for some flour to mix with a little salt and water proved fruitless. The strong aromatic flavor of Surcie bush sweetened with lots of sugar and a bit of milk would not be enough to hold back my grumbling stomach.
Getting hungrier by the minute I sought relief at the back window of the apartment which gave me a view of “P” Street below and Ancon Hill on the American Canal Zone. Observing Ancon Hill I often felt that I could just reach out and touch it especially when I looked through my grandfather’s binoculars, one of the few cherished possessions I had inherited from a grandfather I had never known except in my grandmother’s reminiscences. Suddenly, I thought of my grandmother sitting contemplative at her place of work at the Ancon Laundry refusing to go out with the rest of the ladies for lunch since she also had absolutely nothing to eat.
This story continues.