This photo of a street in Calidonia
about 1940 was taken just before the Americans
with their crews of Westindian men paved
it. Image thanks to Afropanavisions.com
Once I went to live with my paternal grandmother I gradually started becoming acquainted with the popular barrios of the city due to my direct involvement with her penchant for gambling. Amongst the many games of chance on her list of favorites there was one she referred to as “Susú,” and the officially sanctioned “Loteria” or, in her Westindian lexicon “Latry.” By the time I reached sixth grade I would have gotten to know all the barrios where Westindians lived in the City of Panama just doing the rounds for my grandmother since her involvements in these strange convolutions of the games of chance were extensive and intricate.
At first, the nearby barrios were part of my regular route as I would stop by mostly Westindian ladies handing over or picking up packages announcing myself simply by saying “My grandmother sent me.” That phrase would get me known by almost all of her coworkers at the Ancon Laundry. I became widely known to the point where there wouldn’t be an occasion on my trips through the nearby area of San Miguel in Wachipali in which someone would not look through their shuttered window or door to say, “Oh its you, Mrs. Reid’s grandson,” or “I know you; I’m going to call Miss. Reid right now!”
Whether they called her or not, it was enough for me to leave the game of marbles or whatever I was doing with the groups of Spanish boys I’d meet up with along the way and take off to safer ground hoping that my Mamí would never hear about my customary street fighting escapades that I would invariably get mixed up in.
Those were times that saw the end of an era, times that saw streets being paved by groups of Westindian men led by white American men and when Westindians referred to those structures as “board buildings.” The structures surrounded entire blocks of a city and you could walk for miles just crossing streets and ducking through previously unknown alleys of large yards as short cuts to get to a destination or two in the same place. I will talk about the more better known yards in later posts.
You could also walk from within the city to the outskirts to save a nickle on the bus and still not get wet if it rained since you were covered all the way by a multitude of balconies, eaves and the trees that lined many streets. It was also a time of dread and excitement for me to wander into the territories of the known bully boys carrying sums of money, money for the Susú or lottery numbers my grandmother had set aside, and venture into the up-scale Bella Vista neighborhood to pick up and/or deliver laundry. At the time I was also helping my grandmother with her laundry business to augment her meager retirement which, by the time I reached sixth grade, she was receiving from her days in the Ancon Laundry.
Those were the days when you could enter a building and smell the mingled aromas of cooking and tell the difference between Spanish and Westindian dishes. Even today the old spirit of some of the neighborhoods still bears witness to the presence of those black Silver People in most of the old Barrio neighborhoods of a Capital City still seeking to forget their contributions as a way to “modernize” the lifestyle.
In these times most of the old Westindian residents have been forced out of the urban areas their forefathers were so prominent and instrumental in founding. The ghost of the Westindians of the past can almost be heard lamenting the fact that they had remained invisible trying to be good citizens while they were abused. Even their morality had been questioned in an attempt to sully their good citizenship.
However, times have changed and money, somehow, seems to rule as a requirement in the organization and cohesion of a strong community. At any rate, the instincts of migration were stronger and like a species of human being in danger of extinction they opted happily to fly out. It was as if flying alone in an antediluvian vehicle would make the passage to freedom safer.
This story continues.