Running from Home and School

These types of tenements and
generally desolate residential areas
in New York City is what awaited most
Westindians who exodused out of Panama
beginning in the 1950’s.
The fact that a child had to endure six full years of emotions, mostly of the fight or flight nature, was enough to create a syndrome in any youngster. It was especially so for Black Westindian children in the Spanish schools which had turned into battle zones for conflicts encouraged mainly by the racist attitudes of the teachers. The school conflicts, however, would never be worse than the ones many children would be bringing from homes racked by racially harassed parents and family members.

My school experiences would make such a lasting impression on me that during my life journey I would witness the effects of the accumulated pressures of life on the Silver Roll in the lifestyle of the people from the Black Canal Zone and most of us who were linked to them somehow. The varied manifestations of this phenomenon would not only assume negative patterns in Panama but would follow them into the exodus to the North where age grade brothers and sisters would meet from all over the country of Panama.

The unsavory laboratory which New York City would become during this period, especially Brooklyn and the Bronx, would evolve from the maze of streets of one slum after another. The life awaiting them in their new found “promised land,” would eventually convert them into human wrecks completely addicted to alcohol and illegal narcotics. Their youth would turn to anything that would ease the pain of being born Black and trapped, falling into unstable patterns of life, ensnared by unstable relationships with no vision of a way out. Even the armed forces would become their perpetual enablers as many would enlist in the Service seeking “home,” safe haven and a modicum of stability.

At any rate, in Panama in the year of 1948, we were still children, just minors, looking for understanding and the nurturing spirit that all humans desperately seek to be able to thrive and do well as the family hunts for better and more prosperous days.

It was also the year that I was finally promoted to fifth grade at Escuela Pedro J. Sosa, but I could not shake the feeling of abandonment. I was supposed to be carrying my father’s name, and yet I didn’t feel a part of anyone or any place, especially since I had not seen hide nor hair of my mother for more than three years.

Although I had, by now, settled down to some kind of “home life,” my feelings of homelessness seemed to linger since being with my grandmother was oddly like being with no one at all- she was present but not present and she was certainly no protecting presence to me or my sister.

I secretly prayed that my aunts would be so caught up in their work that they would not come home to suddenly find themselves in the same house with the young slaves they seemed to hate. The fact was that both my sister and I felt like the slaves of the house since we were expected to do all the heavy chores in the home and not ever have our needs and feelings as children considered. Although I gladly did all my household chores, helped my grandmother with her laundry and Susú business and even did the cooking in the household, I never once received any praise or a word of encouragement.

School was only a temporary refuge from my frigid experience at home. In the fifth grade I came back to a classroom firmly believing that anything as terrible as what had occurred to me in the fourth grade with that wonderful example of the teaching profession, who furiously tore up my composition, could happen again; and that was too traumatic to anticipate.

I would say that this is when I consciously began planning my definite escape. At the first sign that manifested to me that I would be better off running away, I would take off. In my daydreams the peace of the bush surrounding the city of Panama sweetly beckoned me to a life in which I could have the freedom and mental stability to take care of myself and prosper, even if it meant going it alone living in a shack made with my own two hands.

The dream of achieving this state of perfect freedom from the emotional and physical abuse I was experiencing- I guess you could call that “home”- gradually grew more real and possible as I grew older and more skillful at fending for myself.

This story continues.

8 responses to “Running from Home and School

  1. Roberto :
    I think the migration of black Panamanians to the United States has to be placed within some type of historical context in terms of decades,or periods, etc..

    What I have noticed now, is that the Panamanian population in the States today is not doing very bad in terms of college education, home ownership and level of incomes.

    Yesterday, July 5th, we attended the memorial of one of our most gifted intellectual, Doctor George Priestley.
    Doctor George Priestley who was director of Latin American Studies at Queens College of the City University of NY, passed away last week.
    The Panamanian community in the States and at home has lost one of its finest sons.


  2. Alberto Barnett

    Hi Roberto,

    I do not agree with your comment of black Panamanians arriving to the United States, New York City in particular would become during this period, especially in Brooklyn and the Bronx, would evolve from the maze of streets of one slum after another. The life awaiting them in their new found “promised land,” would eventually convert them into human wrecks completely addicted to alcohol and illegal narcotics. I am speaking for myself and my associates that arrived in this country at an early age and prospered, took advantage of the education that was being offered and eventually went into the Military (US Air Force). But most of all, I had a very strong family network to guide and advise not only me, but my young friends as well. 8 out of 10 of us are still alive, comfortable and almost at retirement age.



  3. larepublicadeblackbottom

    Hi Mr Reid! I have a quick question since you mentioned NY. I was at the Schomburg Institute in NY looking through the George Westerman and Robert Beecher Papers. In one of those series I saw that a group of West Indian women gathered money for Panamanian WI students to go to school in the US, or to help them while they were here–I ran across a student, Robert Reid, but didn't know if it was just a coincidence. Was it you? I think it was in the 60s?

  4. Anita,
    "Migration of black Panamanians to be placed in some type of historical context…"

    As a student of sociology and history, I have not found that it has made any difference in what decade or period so far,for people of the coloured diaspora, or for even those of the poor European white communities to shield them from the terrible quality of life that New York Slums presents, event today for its citizens.

    As always I thank you profoundly for your comments.

  5. Alberto Barnnett,

    The part of your comment Which read "But I had a very strong family network," is the key! Such an element had been missing in my life and the life of many of our descendants. It has been a lack of just that "Strong family network" Is what I have been trying to portray in the story and also to chronicle.

    Then perhaps the "Curse," as my paternal grandmother always called it, would not follow our children throughout their generations and they would find in reading our life story that we did not have a walk at the beach in life.

    Also, that it does not have to be that alcohol and drugs are part of life we cherish as part of our "Spiritual charger upper" that would make us meet the vicissitudes of life. A strong family network would help shore up that "One Love," the kids talk so much about today.

    Thank you for your comment.


  6. Hi republica,

    To answer your question regarding the Westindian Women who have been helping Panamanian Westindian students to further their education in the US. Well the Roberto Reid you read about is not me. I just had wished I had known about them while I spent years seeking to go to college.

    Roberto "Bobby" Reid I have had the pleasure to meet recently is the Race horse jockey turned physician, I have always been mistaken with.

    Stay tuned and reading because we will be telling his life story that had always made me proud as a child, but now as an adult made me even more proud as a product of the Silver People of Panama.

    I am glad to see that you are visiting the Westerman Collection at the Schomburg Institute.


  7. Alberto A. James Jr

    Hello Roberto,

    A family member, recently shared your work with me and I am so grateful for the exposure, education,memory and history of our beloved Panama. My mother often would share story’s of growing up in Red Tank and La Boca, then ending up in Paraiso (Smart family). I recently was in Florida visiting her and I shared your work with her. What wonderful conversations ensued with her and my brother. I am also related to the Laing’s from Rainbow City. Yes, thanks I look forward to reading your work in the future.
    Muchas gracias, mi hermano.

  8. Alberto,

    It is comments and reactions such as yours that really motivate us to continue with our work. We have received several accounts from our readers telling how they shared the information they picked up from our pages with their parents or other family members who actually were born and grew up in the Silver Townships such as Red Tank and they opened up new stories.

    The old folks, the seniors, have much history to tell and many good and wonderful, as well as sad, memories to relate. Many have shared things that they haven’t even thought about for over 5 or 6 decades!! They share the same gratitude with us since these conversations about their common past and background have brought them a little closer together.

    We encourage you to record the memories of the older folks, if not in writing, in an audio recording as they will become very important to us all as these beloved people go to join the ancestors. We need these “testimonies” to this life and these places that were a beautiful community and a reminder of what our Silver People Heritage in the Black Canal Zone has left for the world as a legacy.

    Again, thank you for your comment and please keep up with and support our progress as we go before the National Assembly of Panama to declare our Silver Cemeteries as National Cultural and Historic Patrimony.