Will Panama Ever Change?

The Panamanian cédula, or personal identification card,
has undergone quite a transformation. Above is the cédula-librito
or booklet type which many of my ancestors, Westindian functionaries,
were instrumental in registering. Below is the current version of our cédula
complete with electronic bar coded information on the back.
Both images are thanks to the Tribunal Electoral.


I will admit that Spanish School had succeeded in doing one thing; it had made me more Spanish than Westindian. In those days of primary school the teachers reminded Westindian students at every turn that they should speak Spanish and not English and we all started to do just that; even to the point of denying our cultural heritage as English speaking people.

Of course I was happy that I had been born a Panamanian, although I had never seen my birth certificate and in those days cedulación was not a priority on the official government’s list of assurances for their citizens. Much less, even, for us Westindians. Many Westindian Panamanians, especially the ones born on the Canal Zone, were still running around “stateless” with no “papers” like passports, cédulas or any other type of official I.D. on them, thanks to the 1941 Constitution’s Prohibited Immigrant legislation.

Some lucky Canal Zone (Westindian) families who had connections and the knowledge and means to do it had their children’s papers legalized by having a lawyer take their Canal Zone birth certificates and file them in Registro Civil and they were granted a Panamanian birth certificate in this manner.

Actually, I recently discovered that the children born on the Canal Zone were issued some kind of ambiguous birth document that could not pass for a national identification document since in the place where it says “nationality” it only says “negro.” My own grandmother, in fact, had retained her Jamaican passport and status as a “British Subject;” otherwise she would have had difficulty traveling.

By this time my Grandaunt had passed away just as both my grandfathers, all members of the working Silver Roll. Both my grandmothers, however, had survived. Fanny, whom I knew very well and my beloved Naní in Colon, who knew me as a small child were surprisingly resilient and had survived the Silver Roll days.

With Naní I had a renewed closeness upon the death of my grandfather Seymour Green for whom we shared a great love ever since I could remember. I was living in a Panama that marked the gradual passing of my grandparents who were still British citizens.

My parents, aunts and uncles, on the other hand, all seemed to be in a quandary, being marginalized both as Westindians and Panamanians alike. But, I still had childlike expectations that my Panama- the country of my birth- would change upon acknowledging the likes of me.

I was positive that, given my sophistication and adaptability in skillfully learning both languages, I could show them. The problem was that I had had very little opportunity to demonstrate just how much I knew. In fact, I was sure that I would make it to the University of Panama someday, where ever that university was.

For me, the sixth grade star student, my experiences in Spanish school were becoming something that I longed to put behind me and forget. I looked forward to finishing my school ordeal and leave home as soon as possible and get on with my life.

In fact, life for the son of pioneer Silver Men would reveal a Panama with the classic atmosphere of a boarder town. The frontier city atmosphere that prevailed gave you the feeling that despite the presence of the Panama Canal and all its wonders, my country would always remain far removed from everything modern that was happening all over the world- backwards and stuck in toxic traditions.

The year 1950 had rolled around and was coming to its end. For all adolescent boys or girls it meant that they had arrived at a milestone together as persons of the same age group. We had also come to realize that there were no extreme differences between us even for the Silver Roll experience. We would remain as Black Panama like our counterparts on the American continent, as Black as the Black Canal Zone. “That fact should begin to unite us,” I thought. “But what keeps us together?” I asked myself when we would meet not only at the labor pool lines on the White Canal Zone but at Church and at the Night ‘o Fun’s held on the Black Canal Zone.

In fact, most adolescents slipped into a state of depression as they reached the dream age of fifteen, an age they had always looked forward to all the days of their childhood. Fifteen was the age of wonder when most of them would be seeking employment and for the boys, eligibility to attend dances at the Silver Clubhouse or other places in Panama City.

But, in actuality, things would not turn out that way. The teens during this time began discovering that there were no jobs for them on the Canal Zone or anywhere else in Panama. They were rejected from all directions and it became evident for all of us that there were very few ways available of generating any income at all.

Even in the smallest ways life was becoming an embarrassment for budding young adults like us. Even something so mundane as to purchase a new pair of trousers- real slacks so I could get out of wearing those infantile short pants- was becoming a challenge to deal with. I even hesitated to ask my grandmother for money to purchase these small necessary items that still defined me as a small child.

Fifteen years of age and I was feeling trapped in the bench at school. I found out, however, that all over Panama and the City of Colon Westindian youths my age were abandoning school all together by the age of sixteen.

This story continues.

19 responses to “Will Panama Ever Change?

  1. I do not believe that Panama as other Latin American countries which carry some of the most backward traditions of the Spaniands will ever change.
    Latin America biggest curse and disgrace is its Spanish heritage.
    West Indians in Panama made a big mistake believing that simply learning Spanish, assimilating and abandoning their traditions would be enough and then everything, as Bob Marley sings, " will be all right".

    Just remember, becoming like the Spaniards, is all a throwback to Spanish colonization and tantamount to adding a yoke to one's neck.

    How far has Latin American countries have gone since independence?, and I refuse to put all the blame on the US.
    The truth is, since the gringos know very well the weakness of Latin Americans , its one of the very reasons why they have put their boots on Latin American necks and then continued to hold a lasso on them .

    Today, West Indians here living in the States and many others plainly look down on latinos.

    A world with no proper identity has no where going and those who emulate and follow that same path are just as well doomed.

    Saludos,
    Ana

  2. I just dont know what to say about that comment.

  3. I couldn’t have said it better myself Ana. Just like Roberto, I also was faced with the same challenge of being a “CHOMBO”in primary school. That title, even today makes me grit my teeth, but to return home as a member of the armed forces (US Air Force) to see and feel the different treatment still holds a bitter taste in my mouth. I still don’t feel that I am ready to relocate to Panama due to the constant racism that still exists today.

  4. I just want to thank you all for at least dealing with the emotions that this article produced in you as descendants of the Silver People of Panama. However, the article was and is a tool, and not just a tool but the only devise we have at this juncture in history of telling the story of how it was for us during a period in our history.

    To Mr. Barnett I can only plead for some patience with yourself as you learn more about the “wonderful legacy” our Silver People have left us as inheritance. It is up to us not to back away but to take action in some way wherever we meet racism and classism in this world. Panama as a country is the place that made history and culture to change for the better for all people of the world. So, I am hoping that all people in the world keep reading my account of life as part of the “Silver People of Panama.”

    By the way Don Alberto we all should be very proud of your father “Lobo Barnett” as we have a lot of fans inquiring about other facets of his life story.
    RR

  5. Richard E.Buery

    R.R. I have been following your writings when possible, and have identified withe some of it. we have some mutal friends. Tito, Zeke, ALbert Bryan and others. Attended Abel Bavo (The college) sang in the Coro . Regarding comments by Ana even though what was said, strikes a cord. We are truly empowered by this, since it prepares us to face the inequities, and we can can use the experience to our advantage. Knowing both languages helps us to navigate through life.
    Rich

  6. Ralph Beckles

    Roberto, These posts by you and Ana are very informative. Some Barbadian workers who were recruited to work on the canal, jeered the white planters on whose plantations they used to work, vowing to never return to Barbados. However those who returned to Barbados mostly used their earnings to buy land, start a small business, especially a grocery shop. Some sent their children, especially boys, to secondary schools. these graduates became the nucleus of a new, educated black middle class . Their children and grand children are now politicians, teachers and professors, civil servants, doctors, lawyers, accountants, bankers and other black professionals. My own grandfather, though he didn’t return to Barbados, sent home “panama money” to purchase a plot of land and build a chattel house. It is unfortunate that there was not a greater effort made to forge a link between the descendants of West Indian workers of the Panama canal and railroad projects and their West Indian counterparts. Such a link would have been, in my opinion, mutually beneficial.
    Ralph Beckles

  7. Ralph Beckles,

    Good to see you here and thanks for opening another thread from this article. The subject of the Barbadians’ enormous influence and the unfortunate trend they started here on the Isthmus is discussed in some detail in our article, The Mutual Aid Societies, a Regrettable Disunity. You might also read A Wretched Cargo on our Heritage page for a deeper look into the Barbadians’ experience as repatriates back to Barbados.

    Keep reading and thank you for the feedback as a descendant of our Barbadian ancestors.

  8. I agree with Mr. Beckles,” that it was unfortunate that there was never an effort made to forge a link between the descendants of West Indian workers of the Panama canal and the railroad projects and their West Indian counterparts.”
    My response:
    Life continues, and as an optimist and a realist, I certainly do not think that it is too late for this. It is never too late for building or restoring bridges.

  9. Ana, it seems to me that you write with bitterness. Remember that life is a two way street and that the bad experiences you may have had in your life are not unique nor one sided. I also lived in Panama, I am not of West Indian descent but lived in a silver roll community. I was discriminated, excluded and also felt as an outsider. But I don’t blame the West Indian culture as you do the Spanish one. All of us have evolved and we must look forward, forget the bad experiences and contibute with our actions to forge a better world.

    Peace.

  10. PJ Lorca, I am not bitter at all, but a realist, and as a firm believer in God, extremely optimistic of the future.
    And stop stereotyping Afro Panamanians.I grew up in a stable loving family.
    I had a very beautiful life growing up in Rainbow City , Canal Zone, Colon, and the Republic of Panama.
    I love Panama , Latin America and the entire American continent.

    I cannot say I felt discriminated, not in the Canal Zone nor in Panama; and I studied at Colegio Abel Bravo and I went straight up to the University of Panama, then continued my graduate studies here in the US.
    I was very much sheltered by my family who protected me from the the woes of that period.
    We also must recognize that the Spanish culture is inherently backward.

    We have a history to look at and the slow social development taking place throughout Latin America vis a vis other regions to use as a rubric and measurement in terms of the backwardness of the region.

    There is a wide world out there growing and waiting for no one in particular and everyone in general.
    I believe West Indian Panamanians should forge communication and cultural exchanges with people around the world, especially with West Indians and Africans.
    And thank God I have evolved ;and most importantly, that I recognize and honor my most valued citizenship, world citizen, the one I lovingly share with my fellow brothers and sisters around this fabulous world.
    Saludos.

  11. Dear Ana, please explain the following:

    “And stop stereotyping Afro Panamanians” I believe that I addressed my note to you and I was also very clear when I stated that I placed no blame on any culture. So how, where and when did I stereotype Afro Panamanians?

    You also indicate that “We also must recognize that the Spanish culture is inherently backward”. I am really interested to know what do you mean by that, so please be more specific. Do you mean the Spanish literature, arts, architecture, history, socioeconomic policies?? Have you studied, worked or lived in Spain or any other Latin American coutry other than Panama? Have you visited Panama recently or is your assessment on the Spanish culture based on your early experiencies in Panama or with Latin American immigrants in the US?

  12. I rarely get involved in dialogues regarding issues as sensitive as the comparisons or feuding amongst and between Afro-Panamanians. But this time I would like to firstly address the sensitivity we all have some times of declaring “I place no blame on any culture.!” Now here we are in the 21st Century still declaring that we are not to blame for not even uniting to fight back at the European colonizers whose language we use to bicker and war against each other, internally and externally both in the Spanish colonial and amongst the Westindians.
    We as “Afro-Panamanians” are inherently backwards because we have not, even at the University level, fought enough for the inclusion of our culture and history in the so-called “excellent educational system” we are spoon fed from the point of view of an enemy of our people, culture and history. They in the early part of world history have hunted people like us down and enslaved our forefathers, hung them for sport and entertainment and have us squabbling amongst ourselves for their love and understanding. We, on the other hand, are ready to feud and kill each other over the most trivial of the differences. This is our century to start showing solidarity and inclusion and to make our country worth our ¡Viva Panama!

  13. Roberto, after talking to many of my professional compatriots living abroad,I think a good many Afro Panamanians have decided that it is much better to live abroad than in Panama. I have learned to respect their decisions.
    And as for the Afro Panamanians who grew up in the Canal Zone, their parents fed them the idea that living abroad, or in the United States, a land with more opportunities ,was much better for them, than a life in Panama.
    And frankly, as for me,living abroad has given me the opportunity to grow and have solidarity with myriads of people.
    I for one love Panama, but do not only see myself as a Panamanian . We are more than the land we were born in.The world is my home.

    ” We, on the other hand, are ready to feud and kill each other over the most trivial of the differences. -”

    Some of us were never even there to feud and kill over trivial things.

    And that feuding and killing as background in a region where practically everyone is fighting for survival, is not only an Afro Panamanian , or a black way.
    Mestizos are fighting, and white Panamanians are fighting, Colombians, and other ethnic Latinos in Panama are fighting; and even white Americans are killing each other by the way, right there in Panama .

    That is the Panamanian way, or should I say the Latin American way, or the North American way.
    I think we need to stop generalizing and respect that some Afro Panamanians may want to live abroad and return home periodically to do things there and also keep homes in both places.
    The same way the colonizers understood that living abroad was better for them, some of us feel the same way too.
    I have always believed that Panama has been a transient place for some of us, but time will tell.
    Saludos.

  14. JP Lorca, Let me ask you a question: Are you Panamanian?
    I do not believe you are . But I will give you the benefit of the doubt and leave it at that.

    I have noticed there are many Americans living in Panama, pretending to be Panamanians who love to get on the net to pick trouble, bringing their ignorance to a land already beset with many problems; they also believe they are authority on Panama, simply because the US built a canal and controlled a small region over there once.
    But I do not blame them, I blame Panamanians in Panama for allowing that nonsense.

    First let us make it very clear here that Latin America is not Spain. Thank God, there is hope for Latin America.
    There is one dreadful thing to be colonized,and the other most dreadful thing is to be colonized by brutes.

    No, you know pretty well I am not talking about any literature, music and dance, architecture and stately buildings, nor about the seemingly powerless Latin Americans in the United States, who many conservative Americans would love to kick out, and who also had to run from their countries just like many Afro Panamanians.I know many Latinos are living en las nubes and cannot see that.

    I am talking about the legacy of governance the Spaniards have left throughout Latin America, that has taken root, and has become our national political culture.
    Corruption, lack of accountability, and a culture run by a powerful elite class, mostly Spanish and European descendants who practice injustice and who believe governing the country is a right and an entitlement, and to hell with the country’s economic growth and its social development .
    What has taken place in the region is a continuation and emulation of the acts of the Conquistadores during the post independence and modern days of these countries’ history.
    Not talking about it, ignoring it, and pretending that this political way of life would just go away or disappear one day if some of us return is silly. We need to address this grave problem.
    I prefer not to live in my native country if corruption and foolishness reign. And I am entitled to my opinion; and also to choose where I want to live, because I am free and have choices.

    By the way, I will never forget that I am from Latin America. I still speak fluent and beautiful Spanish because it is the language of where I’m from, and I will never abandon my traditions and the love of my people.

    But I recognize that the region has not grown much since independence .
    And growth is not putting up skyscrapers and building highways cutting up indigenous areas, while children go to bed hungry in different regions of the country. I believe the people there deserve much better than what they are getting .

  15. This will be my last visit to your website so I hope that my two points will be published.

    Ana, what you have just brilliantly described, is a worldwide problem and not an exclusive trait of what you labeled as “Spanish culture”. It happens in Asia, Africa, Europe and yes, also in the U.S. Just look at your backdook where U.S. politicias receive untold millions funneled to them by a legalized corruption system called political action committees. This system assures that Congress votes the way that those who provide the money want it to. Typically in other countries, money goes under the table to support people doing the work; but in the U.S., the bribe money goes directly to the seat of power. There are countless of corporate, military, government and private injustice and corruption acts that are constantly happening wherever you live.

    No tomes como una afrenta personal o un acto de agresion el que alguien te cuestione o no este de acuerdo con tus ideas. I asked you my previous two questions in order to learn more deeply, to stage a exchange of ideas. For that I was accused of getting on the net to pick trouble. Allow for dissent and don’t label it as agression.

    Peace.

  16. I must leave you with the following information:

    List of countries by Human Development Index, source:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_Human_Development_Index
    The UN report covers 185 member states of the United Nations. The Human Development Index (HDI) is a comparative measure of life expectancy, literacy, education, standards of living, and quality of life for countries worldwide. It is a standard means of measuring well-being, especially child welfare. Panama is ranked among the list of countries with “very high human development”, number 59 o 185 and is number 5 in Latin America.

    Crime Index by Country for 2013. Source:
    http://www.numbeo.com/crime/rankings_by_country.jsp

    The index consists of two measures:
    Crime Index is an estimation of overall level of crime in a given city or a country. Crime Levels up to 50 are reasonable, and crime index levels more than 100 are too high.
    Panama has a Crime Index of 48.46, the U.S. Has an index of 53.44

    Safety index is, on the other way, quite opposite of crime index. If the city has a high safety index, it is considered very safe. The higher the better:
    Panama has a safety index of 51.54, the U.S. Index is 46.56

    Happy Plantet index. Source:
    http://www.happyplanetindex.org/data/
    The new HPI results show the extent to which 151 countries across the globe produce long, happy and sustainable lives for the people that live in them. The overall index scores rank countries based on their efficiency, how many long and happy lives each produces per unit of environmental output. The higher the better
    Panama is ranked number number 7 in the world with an index of 57.8. Of the top 10 countries listed, 7 are from Latin America. The U.S. has an index of 37.3 and is ranked 105 in the world.

    The World’s Healthiest Places to Live, source:
    http://internationalliving.com/2010/05/worlds-healthiest-places-to-live-2010/

    Optimism and purpose, a low stress level, a natural diet and an active lifestyle…experts say those factors are three times as important as your genetic makeup when it comes to enjoying a long and healthy life. Luckily, it’s easy to embrace those elements when you’re living in a place where they come naturally. The top picks for the world’s healthiest places to live are:

    Panama is ranked number 2.

    The World’s Top Retirement Havens in 2013, source:
    http://internationalliving.com/2012/12/the-worlds-top-retirement-havens-in-2013/

    Panama is ranked number 2

    Live long and prosper.

  17. Hi PJ Lorca,

    Thanks a lot for the informative links you have left us; I really appreciate the time and effort you put into this.

    I have a few differences with these types of global rankings mainly because I live here in Panama and see the “real” reality behind these figures. Level of happiness as perceived by most people in Panama is a very charged question. Depends on who you ask and also if they include any kind of spiritual gauge in their answer because this is an important criteria. Panamanians are now and will be having to deal with issues like corruption (in society as well as government) which definitely affects their level of happiness. Glaring and rampant corruption has never been more evident in our society as now. This human factor has also made an impact on levels of crime which are extremely high for such a small country. If people are so happy here, then why so much crime – violent crime- and the homicides are getting even crueler and more brutal- gangland style?

    As far as retirement havens are concerned, people on the lookout for retirement havens do study Panama before taking that big leap as the infrastructure is not necessarily ideal for older people. We live in a much more fast paced Panama (Panama City especially), more hostile to those who are not quick with their reflexes and much more expensive.
    Don’t get me wrong, Panama has come a fairly long way in some aspects, but it has a lot more to go in the way of quality of life.

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