The Life of Panama’s Adolescents in 1950

In this photo we see the Westindian old timers
on the Silver Roll Relief and Disability
lines in the Zone in order to pick up their $25 a month
pension check. Image thanks to

The decade of the 1950’s would become historic times- an epoch that particularly Panamanian historians would be reticent to tread upon, especially touching the subject of our people. They were times when the whole machinery of governments would see in an undefined populace such as the Panamanian Westindians fair game for unleashing its harshest sting, especially the disdain of their ruling class. In a country such as Panama, bounded by no less than five borders, its people still sought to define itself.

The times, in fact, were ripe for all Westindian adolescent boys and girls to be coming of “employment age” and they were faced with the inevitable- their turning to an American Canal Zone that had essentially abandoned them as a ready source of labor.

For the colored community the only thing that thrived, it seemed, were feelings of discouragement, dejection and the frightening prospect of economic insolvency as adults. We adolescents then reaching the age of employment would find very few ways or no way at all to be useful or be able to generate any income whatsoever. In addition, there was the understandable shame that we felt at finding ourselves powerless to emotionally care for and feed ourselves. Feelings of isolation ran rampant among us and the harsh “every man for himself” rule of our dog-eat-dog world became our backdrop.

We had watched closely as the generation of our race that preceded us were still mostly employed on the Canal Zone and some even able to support themselves. The decade of the ‘50’s, however, opened ominously with a staggering 5,000 jobless rate in the City of Colon alone.

In Panama City a blatant reminder of the painful situation Westindians were experiencing was the fact that Santo Tomas Hospital was being sorely taxed by the scores of jobless Westindians from the Canal Zone going to their facility for treatment since they no longer had any “privileges” in Gorgas Hospital or any of the other Canal Zone health clinics. Santo Tomas administrators even proposed the requirement of some kind of special tax to the central government to cover their increased costs.

For the pre- or young adolescent kids who were still too young to leave home and apparently too old to be acting like young children, the mood in many homes was sour. Often in a non-verbal manner these children were pressured into going out and becoming wage earners as soon as they finished primary school. This dismal mood in our homes, in fact, would prevail even up and until the decade of the sixties having made us witness the beginning of a massive exodus to the “glorious” North.

Even as accustomed as the black community had become to the American Canal Zone, to its so-called privileges and even to the Jim Crow Silver/Gold Roll system, it would soon experience these years as the worst years for Westindian youth.

The struggles of the 1940’s to define our respectful place in Panamanian society through trying to head off a reprehensible Constitution that labeled our people as “undesirable aliens” would be followed in the 1950’s by the struggle to define and affirm our rights as workers on the Canal Zone. The activities of the CIO began a trend in Panama that, again, marked the Westindians as trail blazers.

The long awaited Pension and Relief Bill went to Congress backed by the CIO. Through passage of this Bill several important changes for the suffering disabled and retired workers would improve the quality of life in at least a minimal way. The increased payments of $25 per month to Canal Zone retirees to $50 per month on average would be an acceptable start. It would also extend limited medical privileges to the disabled and retired Westindian workers.

This, even, by our standards, would amount to a paltry increase but many of the old timers who had been crying out for consideration of their dire and impoverished circumstances in Panama saw it as a positive step. Also, in November of that year, through Harry S. Truman’s Executive Order #10176 suspended the “hated amendment,” the McCarran Amendment.

This assured thousands of “local-raters” (Silver Roll) of their jobs for at least another year and marked the first major victory for Local 900- CIO which had been officially recognized on the Canal Zone in July 1950. After much struggle for recognition and acceptance on the Canal Zone, since labor unions were banned from the Zone, Local 900-CIO was finally recognized, with Edward Gaskin at its head as President.

The Westindians, as an integral part of labor organization on the Canal Zone, also became the targets of the communist hunting obsession that was sweeping the mainland as well. In May of that year the Panamanian government passed an anti-communist bill.

This story continues.

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