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The Silver People Chronicle

This is the story of the West Indian people of Panama.

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Friday, July 29, 2016

Escaping Segregation in Death


This image represents the grand celebration
of light that is observed in Presov, Slovakia.
This is how we all should celebrate All Soul’s Day
in the Americas in memory of our beloved
ancestors who worked to leave us the best of all
possible worlds. Image is from: www.iarelative.com

I learned a great deal from Miss Polly and her experiences, especially about death and dying. Since my grandmother’s retirement my Aunt Berenice had lost her first (and only) child and no one talked about the infant or my two deceased uncles Eric and Vicente or where they were buried, much less go visit the graves of these young men who had long ago become part of that Black Canal Zone. I used to watch how the Black Westindian people buried their dead and congregated during the funeral for any and all spiritual gifts from any kind of church or organization that might have presided.

It made me sad, however, to pass by the Silver Personnel Office on the Canal Zone and see mostly Blacks standing in long lines. Standing there quietly “like beggars,” I would say to myself. Then the doubly depressing thought would haunt me about someday having to seek employment on the Canal Zone. Suddenly I would realize that I was more Spanish Speaking than the Westindian descendant of my grandfathers and I started to feel ashamed at the thought of abandoning the dead I remembered in life.

Memories of my dead grandaunt, Ethel, my Colon grandmother’s sister, whom I always loved and who lived close by where I grew up in Calidonia next to San Miguel Hill, also came to me. She would always live within me as my “Panama” Aunt Ethel, and her daughter, my cousin Viola (Vai). For a long time they had been my mother’s only living relatives living in Panama since they had all arrived in the early 1900’s.

This also triggered my memory of my recently deceased grandfather Seymour Green, whose funeral I had sadly and almost reluctantly attended in Colon. His had been an especially painful event for me to attend and I almost “lost it” on that cold, rainy afternoon in which they planted him in the ground. He had died at the ripe young age of 65.

From Panama to Colon I had traveled and attended funerals of one family member or the other, those hardworking Black Westindians who had passed away, generally at an early age, after a life of working on that Canal Zone; those same immigrants who had traveled on the longest trip of their life at the turn of the 20th century just to arrive in Panama and work themselves to death on the Canal Zone. It seemed to me that death for my people was the “great escape” from hard labor and a life of segregation.

Except for seeing Miss Polly’s body at the Santo Tomas Hospital Morgue, I only fleetingly remembered visiting the Canal Zone Silver Roll cemeteries. I knew even less about the regular or municipal cemeteries in Panama.

“To be dug up!” I had heard my grandmother, Fanny Elizabeth, say to herself, referring to Panamanian burial grounds where, until just a few months ago, I discovered that my beloved grandfather, Joshua, had been buried. “Dug up and disappeared,” she would muse fatalistically and I recalled that in that same year of 1950 my Aunt Marie, Fanny’s second oldest daughter, announced that she had purchased a burial plot at the Jardin de Paz Cemetery, somewhere in the growing Panama City suburbs to secure a burial plot that would insure her and her family against being disturbed after their bones were laid to rest for the final time.

This brings me back to the circumstances surrounding Polly’s death which, in a significant way, I was intimately involved.

Just when Miss Polly’s health seemed to rally that summer after I invested a lot of my precious vacation time nursing her she began seeking out churches to go to. I, myself, took her to check out Mother Lindo’s Beji-Nite Church in San Francisco a couple of times and she was absolutely delighted with what she experienced. Especially the going into trance, the speaking in tongues and spiritual singing was right up her alley.

Many times while I would be nursing Miss Polly, massaging her legs and knees which seemed to bring her great relief from the constant pain she suffered in her limbs, she would bless me so many times I was sure I was going to heaven on Polly’s word alone. Anyhow, this seemed to spark her vitality back up and, momentarily released from pain, she would be ready to go out and visit one of her favorite churches again. This time she went out by herself to visit the Catholic Church in Santana.

* We invite you to visit our dear ancestors at the links below and leave virtual flower offerings. Take a few moments and show our Silver People that they are departed but not “gone and forgotten.”

Ethel Francis, Seymour Green, Fanny Elizabeth Reid, Berenice (Reid) Charles, Erick J. Reid.

This story continues.

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About Roberto Reid,

Roberto Reid is a historian, writer and poet and descendant of the Silver People of Panama, the original West Indian people who came to Panama over 150 years ago to build the Panama Railroad and the Panama Canal.

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