Susú, the System of the Poor

The original and historical main branch of El Banco Nacional of Panama. It remains a prime example of the art deco architectural style.

Although times had changed and the barrios were becoming more populated and in need of goods and services, some institutions just could or would not keep up. Such was the case with the banks and it looks like we’re seeing it all over again today. At this time in the Panama of the Silver barrios there were no banks available for the ladies on my Susú route.

Sure there was the Banco Nacional, the government sponsored bank with its modern art deco facade, that claimed to have its doors open to the poor to bring their “chen-chen” (little change) to save in their vaults, but the reality was that banks were pretty much the preview of the rich and the oligarchy. The poor were not welcome or encouraged to enter these modern day fiscal temples. I would pass by the entrance of the Banco Nacional in Santana, in fact, on a daily basis as I would make my way home from school and not give a second thought to entering.

In the meantime, my grandmother would be able not only to maintain her home of five including grandchildren whose parents had abandoned them, but maintain a semblance of well being by keeping up her “system” investing in the Susú and in her undying faith in the lottery.

Now, the structure of Susú, variously known as other things in the Caribbean, was known in the Spanish language as “Sociedad,” and it enabled my grandmother to accomplish many things, not the least of which was going on a long cherished trip back to Jamaica. After winning the “premio mayor” (the jackpot) with one of her favorite numbers, numbers I customarily went and bought for her, she was able to pack her bags and return to her native Jamaica, the land she had not seen since setting foot on the Black Canal Zone in Panama back in the year 1911.

This is why it seemed to me that I was the “key man” in this “informal mode of banking” done in neighborhoods not only in Panama but in many parts of the world, including the Caribbean. Anywhere people wanted to save a relatively large sum of money, the system offered by the Susú was there to accommodate without too many requirements, applications, going to bank, tellers etc. It entailed a great deal of trust and absolute honesty on the part of the people, usually women, who managed it.

My grandmother, in fact, had been one of those picked to manage a system that was age old and well known throughout the Caribbean. This important arrangement was known as “hands” in Trinidad and Tobago, “boxhand” in Guyana, “pardners” in Jamaica and Susú in Grenada. Its operation was relatively simple as it involved the rotation of members at the end of each pay off period. If the “investment” from each member was say, $100, and there were 30 members, then at the end of every rotation (monthly, perhaps) the person whose turn it was on the rotation was paid $3,000 in a lump sum. The pay offs were always forthcoming and I never heard of a violation of the trust the women had in each other.

One fact really amazed me, however, and that was that my grandmother, as I mentioned before, knew next to no Spanish at all, and yet she was able to keep up this elaborate system with other ladies who knew only Spanish. The majority of the members, however, were Westindian.

“Juni!, Juñia!, Juneeeeee!” I would hear her shouting many a time that I had been trying to concentrate on some reading or writing where she could not find me. “Yes Mamí,” I would then respond before her calling became desperate, bracing myself to go out into the streets thinking all the while to myself, “She really don’t know what I have to do sometimes to get there and back home safely.”

Then the orders would come. “You look in my purse,” she would say. “I have a package for you to take to Miss Pearly. You hurry up and come right back for I want you to eat and then go somewhere for me before it get too late.”

Then I would be off and running like one of those Inca or Aztec messengers, praying that I wouldn’t be intercepted by a current boxing rival who wanted to continue a fracas we had left unresolved. By then I was an unwitting participant in this rather involved scheme of things who would eventually see the changes that were ushered in thanks to these “informal” systems set up by poor people; changes that inevitably improved the mode of living of the poorer and middle class residents of the urban centers into the new “Barriadas.”

A good example of this was when my only married aunt, Marie, who probably participated in grandmother’s Susú, bought a plot of land in the far flung district of Rio Abajo on the outskirts of the city. Rio Abajo was nothing but bush at the time and yet, even then, it was becoming a vital area to the Panamanian Westindian Silver community. This area was where, again, as in olden times, the Black Canal Zone people would become the pioneers, the colonizers and residents- the trend setters.

Rio Abajo as well as other areas would become new territories for the moneyed elite class in Panama to follow the Silver Roll Westindian money. Rio Abajo and the right hand side of the dividing line of Central Avenue, always known as Parque Lefevre, would become areas for the elite moneyed class to keep consolidating and adding to their riches as they purchased land for extraordinarily cheap prices. They would then turn around and make such deals prohibitive for the remnant of the Silver People yearning to see an adequate lump sum that would make them homeowners rather than eternal renters.

And yet, the times were not ripe for the hordes of poverty stricken Panamanians from the northwest part of the country to move into the overcrowded urban areas. The mid 1950’s of the 20th century had not marked the calendar as yet, as the La Boca Ferry on the Canal Zone still separated the people of the interior of the country from their urban counterparts in the Barrio neighborhoods surrounding the Panama Canal.

This story will continue.

2 responses to “Susú, the System of the Poor

  1. Anita Cumberbatch

    The lodges were also very instrumental in allowing West Indian men in Panama the ability to maintain funds for burial for themselves and their wives.
    My grandfathers were all lodge men.

    When my maternal grandfather died, my mother got his lodge book and presented it to the Lodge. She received a savings that my grandfather had.

    With my paternal grandfather, it was the same. When he died, my Dad's youngest sister received what Mr. Cumberbatch had saved.

    The dues or funds were all allocated in the lodge books.

    And you know how West Indian people are good at keeping track of their money, orderly, all documented, so no one could "tief" them.
    Lodges were more than just a mere secret organization for West Indians in Panama, they represented avenues for securing life insurance in an insecure and hostile environment.

    Anita Cumberbatch

  2. Anita,

    This comment is fascinating. In the first 6 decades of the Silver People's history in Panama there was a very definite sense of solidarity evidenced by their lodge activities.

    A case in point is the cemeteries that our ancestors are buried in. The Sections of each cemetery are ordered chronologically so that you can just about tell what decade you are looking at when you scan the vast cemetery panorama. Between the early years 1915 to the 1940's the grave monuments are, oftentimes, spectacular, elaborate almost ostentatious.

    You get the impression that these people must have had a lot of money to spend on such fancy monuments for their departed loved ones. But, from your testimony, their ability to provide a beautiful burial for their dead was, in large part, due to their lodge burial benefits which afforded them the money to spend at such trying times.

    There are things I used to hear about the practices and traditions of the lodges when I was a kid that left a great impression on me. I heard that the lodge brothers, upon the death of a member brother, would pick his body up from his casket- all decked out in burial clothes- and "walk" him down the streets of his neighborhood, usually at night, before he was taken to the cemetery for burial.

    They did this linked arm in arm with the deceased man as if he were still alive.

    Another practice was to blow a horn for the deceased man at every street corner to sound the call to every one in the community that this person was being given his last farewell.

    You brought back some memories Anita.