By sixth grade my Spanish School experience led me to conclude that our teachers wanted us more Spanish than Westindian. So unique were we,
however, that being ourselves made us quite different; at least that is what I thought.
Although my Panama would never be the Panama of the turn of the 20th century during which it was reputed to be a filthy, dirty, hostile and disease ridden tropical pest hole, we lived in a land that grew the same way we were growing into urbanized persons, civilized people accustomed to travel by train and a consolidation of city and country never before possible. And, it was all made possible by the work of my ancestors from the West Indies.
The low income barrios where we were living and continue to live had been the welcoming places for the unemployed and the deported Westindians. Those people who had been expelled from the Canal Zone and who traveled from the West Indies came and kept coming, along with panamanians from the countryside. It seemed then as though they were always here, and now they lived in the cities and had clean, potable water, flush toilets, a few stores to shop in, some owned homes and raised Spanish speaking children.
Why, it had been that way ever since I could remember and my grandparents acted like it had been so since the times the Canal authorities had discovered that they would have no Canal or Canal Zone without them the Westindians to sanitize and refine the environment near the “Big Ditch” construction works, were their women could come to become queens.
Throughout the two urban sprawls at each end of the Canal it would be so and would continue to rival any major modernized urban center in the United States, if not in the modern world at the time. We black Silver People, men and women and even children had really done it again for America. We all met the challenge entrusted to us by God who brought us here with dreams of freedom to live, work and prosper.
Eagerly, we as children tried to be good and happy people as our parents labored meeting every challenge despite the racial biases. Such notions as hard work, the lottery, the chance man and even the Susú were the cause of much joy on many a Sunday morning. We, the Westindians, strove to make a happy world of the land we had inherited while staying alive.
On many occasions I witnessed people coming from Jamaica to spend time in Panama until they got settled or went back bearing good news. My Mamí and even grandmother Naní in the Atlantic side managed to send home to Jamaica enough to help out and feed family and friends from their meager earnings as washer women. “Come to Panama, we will help you!” they seemed to be saying through their actions and demeanor, a message that became part of a Calypso tune that went “I’m a Proud Westindian!” and which expressed our joy as we sang along.
The history of the Panamanian Diaspora had for me won the right to be considered the best amongst all laborers, the best and strongest and cleverest, with the greatest staying power amongst all the souls who showed up from every poor corner of the world. We even beat out the struggling laborers from somewhere in Spain whom historians have said were recruited to challenge the Westindians. The Gringos even paid them double the wages on the Silver Roll that they paid Westindian blacks as an incentive to stay and work, even so back they returned home.
It all seemed like some kind of sporting event to the Gold Roll Canal Administration and Engineers, just an enormous crap game, who saw in their experimentation another way to find that “The Great White Hope.” But no one was like the Westindian black man for hard labor and perseverance in or out of the Big Ditch on that Canal Zone. The Panamanian climate tripped up the bosses’ attempts at every turn and dominated the labor games. On the Canal Zone it was clear the black Westindian claim to mastery would go down in history. However, for the remnant of these mighty men and women, those exploits would never reach the pages of any American history book or Panamanian history book anywere for that matter.
Few old timers know this or recall it or remembered that even the Hindus or coolies untouchables, as they were called then, were pitted against us in the early days, as competitors for the proud label of who really built the Panama Canal reached its pitch after 1914. As we today know, however, even the Hindus could not lay claim to that honor.
The periods following all the benchmark wars would reach the Panamanian Westindians, their juniors and inheritors who could write, reach a cultural crossroads with few who could chronicle and publish these momentous accomplishments. They would, instead, pledge allegiance to the liberators in American history, to Lincoln and Washington, and not even Simon Bolivar since not even he wanted to be the liberator of black Westindians in my Spanish School.
Even the labor movements in Panama and the United States would never mention the black laborers’ struggles on the Canal Zone or anywhere else in the region of Central America. In fact, I would always remember, like a lion cub, how in the fourth grade at Pedro J. Sosa elementary school my teacher had quickly read my essay on that fateful day, an essay about my Liberator, Simon Bolivar, and had ripped it to shreds.
I remembered how anger flared from her countenance as I sat before her waiting, just as the whole class had done, for her to grade my first and only written work that day that other eyes wouldnever see.
Shocked I watched as she flew out of her seat, tearing up the small blue notebook she had just read, it had been the one she herself had handed out especially for such an eventful assignment. It would be the day she had always dreamed of, a day in which she would to choose one of her protégés from the best in her class- a special essay written in Spanish to display to important visiting authorities.
In fact, I hadn’t even chosen the topic; she had chosen the subject of a Liberator assuming, I guess, that we would write about some Yankee Liberator. She had never even touched the topic of Simon Bolivar but had assigned us to write on a Liberator as she handed out the blue booklets.
I remember how I had patiently waited my turn, but since the R’s were almost at the end of the waiting queue of kids I simply held out. That impacting incident would haunt me and at the same time remind me that I was a descendant of the Silver Men and Women of the Panama Canal Zone and it would be my lot to suffer along with them the volleys of rejection that awaited us no matter how good we were.
I swore that I would never tire of telling the same story to every person that would sit long enough to listen. No one seemed to care then, however, about me or about that little neighborhood school in the Westindian barrio of Calidonia in Panama City. So, that part of our history went unwritten for many years- until now.
This story continues.