Susú and the Old Silver Barrios

Calidonia 1940

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

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.

4 responses to “Susú and the Old Silver Barrios

  1. Anita Cumberbatch

    In the city of Colon, throughout its sixteen streets, one could enjoy a symphony of aromas orchestrated by some of the finest cooks of good West Indian and "negro colonial" dishes.

    I also had the honor of savoring this grand experience when walking in Rainbow City, especially on Sundays.

    In Rainbow, Ms Moody sold chance and most people bought from her.
    I remember buying chance from her for my father.
    My father, a "Latry man" was good with numbers and could do numerical tricks in an old "cuaderno" (notebook) to come up with the playing number.

    My Dad would also attribute numbers to particular dreams so he often asked us to tell him our dreams.
    Chance and Lottery are part of the national folklore of many Panamanians.

    Yes, a flood of black Panamanians went upstream or up North to the United States;and I am very disappointed seeing how the vibrant city of Colon has descended into a sad shadow of what it was.
    I am also angry at how many Panamanians in Panama city and elsewhere are telling tourists not to ever venture there, thus stifling Colon's economic artery.

    But I have hope that the city of Colon, the capital of my beloved province, like the phoenix, will rise from the ashes and live.

    Un cordial saludo,
    Anita Cumberbatch

  2. Anita,

    Nothing is like it used to be as when Colon was a "tasita de oro"- a golden cup. Everywhere in Panama is a shadow of what it used to be in the country of Panama and I would like everyone to know that. Colon is a very dangerous place thanks to governmental neglect and general abandonment of its people but, Panama City, by no means lags behind in the danger that awaits both citizens and tourists.

    Everyday we awake to the headline that two, three, five bodies have been found lying in the streets full of gunshot wounds or bound and gag and executed. The traffic accidents, or should I call them vehicular homicides, just add even more fatalities everyday. It is a virtual blood bath. Colon can in no way be singled out amidst these horrible statistics.

    This is the reason why we are here praying to make our country a better place. One has to use your God given energies to make one's birthright count for something good. That is why we are writing about a period in history in which the Westindians played such a key role in making Panama so great a place to visit and live in. They were then unjustly singled out for persecution and virtually run out of the country. With them went the air of safety, obligation to service and honesty, and the work ethic.

    This is also the reason why we are writing the history of this period in which we, the Westindians, really were an asset to the country of Panama.

    We are asking everyone to pray with us and to contribute in any way they can to rescue the "intangible heritage" that is under threat of extinction.


  3. Dolores Garay

    Westindians also play an important role in the development of bilingual education in Panamá. They were the first to teach English in the Sunday schools of Calidonia, Rio Abajo and other Westindian communities in Panama and Colon. They raised the Panamanians interest in learning their language to have better job opportunities.