A Westindian Story at Grandmother’s Feet

La Boca Ferry circ. 1947. Image thanks to CZimages.com

A cuartillo or “cuatí.” A cuartillo or a “cuatí” as the Westindians used to call it. It was a half of a Panamanian nickle (medio de un real de Balboa) which could buy you a portion of rice, flour, sugar etc., at the neighborhood Chinito.

At ten years of age everything I heard concerning the Westindians was of importance to me and was stored in my memory for the day in which I could put it all in a book. Or so I childishly and naively thought. However, I would have to await the advent of the technological age way into the dawning hours of our 21st century before these stories would ever get to be read in print, thanks to the Internet.

But, back then in 1946 I had the uncanny notion that I was living a special time in history and that, despite what occurred to me amongst my Westindian people, our time had not yet “come” to fruition but I should, nevertheless, be available to record it all.

There was, however, another historical event which was unfolding before my very eyes and that was the exodus of hordes of people moving into those areas of the city where we lived in the San Miguel barrio. They were coming, as I’ve repeatedly noted, from areas of the Interior across a Canal Zone they had only heard about, marveling at the brand new La Boca Ferry which they rode across the Panama Canal.

Before those times the people from the hinterlands of an almost deserted Panama would find their way to the city by bus, or any other means they could find. But now the ferry was available to them and once they found us and the urban space they needed they were unstoppable. Although they were from an interior that we’d only heard about since most of us had never visited any interior location beyond Colon, we did know that they were, for the most part, poverty stricken. They normally arrived to be hosted by the one family member that had already settled in some one-room apartment in Calidonia or Marañon. Then, the rest of their clan, and usually they were quite numerous, would follow.

Before coming to live with my aunts and grandmother we, as a small Westindian family, had been surrounded by Spanish speaking people and we had no idea that these same people were in the process of having thoughts about leaving agriculture as a way of life for good. All that seemed apparent to me was that it appeared like some kind of plague had set those people off and away into the cities, coming from those areas of the Central Provinces of our country in which there were no schools or running water.

I started remembering my old neighborhood playmates whom I would visit from time to time. Some I remembered came from parts of Los SantosProvince and were a strange mix to me even then. One family that did stand out from the rest was a family of Panamanian and Chinese mixture. One day they came in and took hold of all the rooms at the corner of Magnolia building.

A little later on they gradually opened a small shop from which they sold small amounts- a cuatí here, a real there- of things such as flour, rice, salt bread and the like to home-makers while we, the Westindian people, had the “privilege” and convenience of being able to go to the Silver Commissary on the Canal Zone to buy what we needed.

I was, in fact, learning a lot about all my Panamanian people and especially the Westindians at my Mamí’s feet on Friday’s. It was during this period, when she was still working full time every day of the week, that I first heard about the Great Marcus Garvey and of Dr. Fairweather who had his clinic right across the street from us. Dr. Fairweather, it seemed, was the only Westindian physician available to us and on several occasions my grandmother would have to recur to his office for emergency medical attention.

Although my grandmother had hospital privileges in Gorgas, I rarely, if ever, saw her making use of them. She was one of those old time Jamaican women who had a treasure trove of home remedies in her memory, and they usually worked like magic. When one of us was afflicted with something beyond her expertise, however, we would visit either Dr. Fairweather or Madame, the spiritual doctor.

Of Marcus Garvey I learned primarily from her reading out loud from the newspaper since she knew that I would be interested in such things. I would take my time and gently dry her tired feet and then start to treat her corns and bunions as if I was her personal podiatrist. I doubt very much if anyone had ever bothered to give her this kind of attention and her feet were beginning to show signs of the kind of punishment they were being subjected to in the work she was doing at the laundry, standing up for hours on end on hard cement floors ironing the Zone people’s clothing. She appeared to enjoy my care immensely, though, and I derived a great deal from her readings to me.

Although my first lessons about my Westindian people had started with my aunts on my mothers side of the family when they talked about English Schools and the Spanish Schools that seemed so far out of reach for them in Colon, it was at my paternal grandmother’s feet that I would learn about so many other things.

It was grandmother Fanny Elizabeth who taught me about the family dead, all of my deceased relatives who had passed on long before I was born or just after my arrival to our family; people like my Uncle Eric J., the student at The National Institute.

This story will continue.

5 responses to “A Westindian Story at Grandmother’s Feet

  1. Kyle and Svet Keeton

    Yea for the internet!Now I get to read your story.



  2. Dear Roberto,

    I am constantly enriched by your ongoing saga. Bien hecho!


  3. Pingback: Boca ferry | Authenticitali

  4. I do not know their exact names but there was an assistant whose name was “Tata” who kept the office of Dr. Fairweather immaculate and “Bebe” who was a lab assistant for Dr. Fairweather.

    • Pnt,
      Thank you so much for providing those missing pieces to the puzzle of our West Indian heritage in Panama, especially regarding important people like Dr. Fairweather. Thank you, thank you, thank you! These are the kinds of things we were praying to elicit from our readers, particularly our readers who lived our history.

      Roberto Reid