The Importance of Lineage and Ancestry

Our ancestors have left behind for us all their
love and dedication and years of struggle in Panama,
as can be seen in this touching inscription on a mother’s tomb
in Corozal Cemetery in Panama.

One of the facets of African derived religion that I have found missing from the Panamanian Westindian Beji-Nites as opposed to the Hispanic brand of African religions in the Americas has been that of the inclusion of our African ancestors in their ceremonies. It was when I became involved with a Latino Spiritual Center (Centro Espiritual) that I would become aware of the importance of having our African ancestors revealed during the ceremonies.

Researchers on the topic concur on how important it is to have the family lineage of their African ancestors revealed to them and it is an important aspect emphasized by church organizers of all African derived religion. It is an almost absolute given, in fact, that during the ceremonies the revelation, at a key moment, would come to all associated families.

Before discovering this important aspect I had started to study anything related to Central Africa and its religions, praying that ancestors in my family would be revealed to me through some of the tribes I had chosen beforehand. Since then, I have discovered that this one fascinating component of our religious expression, the concept that the whole family of the believer should choose “one or more of seven or eight different native African tribes or nations” is missing from our Panamanian experience. With these corresponding deities or ancestors to pay homage to during the worship ceremonies the believer would be ready to identify with his ancestors.

It is my recommendation that for us who have never considered our ancestry, either more recent or remote ancestors, that the church organizers have at their disposal a committee of researchers with interested younger associates who show or have expertise in the field of genealogy with a serious interest in African or Black Studies. It would then be up to another church committee to take care of listings and archiving families and their deceased members, and also to recruit as many members and regular people in the community as possible to work on visiting and guarding of the cemeteries where members and associates are buried.

We of The Silver People Heritage Foundation are currently involved in a mission of safeguarding in Panama, the historic and ancient cemeteries all located on the banks of the Panama Canal. With this article we are using the occasion to call for your prayers and assistance in helping us to do this most important work as much for our ancestors as for ourselves. It is with some trepidation that I mention the above realizing that I have been directed to seek your prayers while we are on this our mission of making community.

We have found that, since starting out on this mission, once more in the history of our Mother Land of Panama we the holders of the Westindian Panamanian Silver Heritage have felt as abandoned as our ancestors were in their time. The words “dead and gone” that I had heard during my childhood rings like a dagger piercing my heart just to think of its dire consequences. Although I still feel fortunate that I was here in Panama to stand in the rain and witness the turn over of the Panama Canal and Canal Zone, I cannot help but feel the weight of witnessing the degeneration of those abandoned sites of our beloved Silver People of Panama – abandoned shortly before the reversion ceremonies.

We were not entirely pleased to hear from the municipal governmental official who is in charge of all cemeteries in Panama that one day all of those ancient tombs would be dug up since we are not interested as a people in our dead. Since that very day we have stood up and begun diligently trying to do all the writing possible to persons in organizations that may be helpful in saving the memory of all our ancestors.

So, we plod along with sorrow mixed with hope and we plead with all our friends for prayer to lift up our hearts and minds to the most Holy of Holies to help us in this endeavor. I am a great believer in the power of “Mind over money” if Mind is God and Money is a false God. We must not despair about time and circumstance hindering our prayerful progress because, as I’ve stated before, we can make community anywhere we are in the world.

This has reminded of my childhood days when I would sit outside the door of the Beji-Nite churches just contented to look inside those store-front places of worship. I would eventually also consider it a gift from God that permitted me to enjoy the meetings at the Centro Espiritual where I was reminded of my childhood explorations into the world of Spirit. These ceremonies that I attended had a special focus on the deceased who were not at all viewed as having simply disappeared, never to have a link with their living descendants again. These rituals were in line with what the Afro-Cuban ceremonies called a “Bembé” and were quite uplifting in instilling in me the hope that none of us “ is dead and gone”- ever.

We the traditionalists amongst our people must encourage family gatherings that include ceremonies in our churches and homes that promote all who bless us with their presence to “make community.” We hope that our prayers always do good to all who make it possible for us to make church as our Beji-Nite churches did long ago.

I encourage all those who are not too versed in using the Internet to learn their way around it somehow. It is very important that we use modern technological advancements to keep this window open. It is a window that in my childhood I had seen and dreamed of, like a child who wanted to be nearer to God.

One must remember that I grew up in times when we never had seen a telephone or a television set. So please stay in touch with each other and encourage each other in all that is good for our African descent people and nation.

This story will continue.

5 responses to “The Importance of Lineage and Ancestry

  1. Very interesting!
    What is the relationship between the English speaking African descendants of West Indians and the Spanish speaking descendants of Africans in Panama today?
    Also, Do you think emigration of Panamanians from both distinct heritages to the US, has produced a new kind of Panamanian identity?

    Thanks, you can leave your reply on my blog:

    -Aaron Adler

  2. Aaron,

    In answer to your question on my blog:

    "What is the relationship between the English speaking African descendants of West Indians and the Spanish speaking descendants of Africans in Panama today?
    Also, Do you think emigration of Panamanians from both distinct heritages to the US, has produced a new kind of Panamanian identity?"

    I will answer your last question first. Emigration has its impact, however I don't think that it has produced a new kind of Panamanian identity. NYC has its Latino Black Caribbean community which does not hide its efforts at making those distinctions.

    Panamanians in Panama do make the distinctions, but meeting in racist New York has forced a coming together. In recent years we have seen closer ties between the English speaking Westindians and their their Spanish speaking Black counterparts.

    One has to only visit the cultural City of Colon on "Black Ethnicity Day" to experience the coming together of both groups of Blacks in Panama and you can appreciate what has happened.

    In partial answer to your second query, I worry a great deal for the present descendants of Westindian Panamanians born and raised in the U.S. They have a big challenge in holding on to some kind of identifying link with Panama since these children and young people are forever "thrown together" with Black or Afro-Americans, only to be rejected by them when they discover their "cross the water" roots. Many of these children have visited our site looking for their ancestry and some kind of cultural backing to form those ties that they have lost in the U.S..

    C. Roberto A. Reid

  3. In the province of Colon, "negros coloniales and "negros antillanos "have always intermarried.

    Whereas in the past, the majority of colonial blacks resided up the coast(costa arriba y costa abajo is their ancestral homeland) and many still do today ,the majority of "los antillanos" lived in the city of Colon.

    As time went by negros coloniales moved to the city of Colon and right there many unions between the two groups were formed.
    Part of the reason that many blacks in Colon do not speak much English is due to the intermingling of the two groups.

    My nieces share the two backgrounds, they speak a little English and love to vacation en "la costa". They also love to dance congo and cumbia.
    We never danced Congo when we were growing up; in our days, the children of West Indians used to look down at the congo traditions. Some still do up to today.
    Whenever I go home, I make sure I take my nieces to Portobelo and we drive way up la costa.
    I consider all that area my ancestral home .

    Somos orgullosamente una raza, dos etnias. (We are proudly one race, two ethinicities)

    And this is why Los Negros de Colón come out in full regalia to celebrate Black Ethnicity Day.

    Roberto, The onus is on black Panamanians living in the States to leave their children a strong cultural legacy so that future generations living here can say proudly: "We are descendants of Panamanians whose forefathers from the West Indies went to Panama to build the Panama Canal.

    No podra de ser de otro modo, si no, el mar contará nuestra historia.(It cannot be any other way, if not, the ocean will have to tell our story)

    Un cordial saludo,

  4. I left this out:
    The majority of Panamanians of West Indian descent, especially those who resided on the former Canal Zone are now living abroad in the United States, the very reason why today few "Colonenses" speak English.
    Some of us over here are planning on correcting this problem muy pronto.

  5. Anita,

    Who better to update us completely on Colonenses than you, Anita. Thank you for painting us a clearer picture of the transformation of Colón. The fact that Historic Colón Center- "The Casco Viejo" of Colon- has also been included in World Monuments Fund's Watch List for 2010 is very significant since this site symbolises the Westindian presence and contribution to the Republic of Panama.