in the heart of Colon about 1909. Most of the
individuals walking around are Black Westindian
men who either they or their forefathers were
instrumental in building this important railway.
Image: from From the Canal Zone– Panama by Thomas Graham Grier,
With the North American celebration of Thanksgiving approaching, a celebration which our Westindian community cherished and participated in with joyous expression here and in the states, it behooves me to memorialize their memory as residents and solid law abiding members of the cities within the growing Panamanian barrios.
Panama had been a Spanish city since the mid 1500’s until the first large groups of Westindians arrived from Jamaica to be the driving force in building the Panama Railroad for the Americans. By the beginning of the decade of 1950’s it marked more than 400 years that the sound of the English language had not been heard to dominate any part of the region; except, that is, within the Westindian community.
The Westindians by then were more than just the initial band of Jamaicans and the colored community still had some of its founding residents still alive and well and living within its precincts. Such was the case with my maternal and paternal grandmothers of the immigrant generation who remained ensconced in their respective terminal cities- Panama City and Colon.
It was also true that those same survivors- my grandparents and their children, the first generation Westindian Panamanians- lived in the cities they helped to build up and who persisted in racial and classicist harassment that often delivered the clear message to them all to “just disappear.”
At any rate, the younger generation of the Silver Roll people like me were still holding on to their dual heritage as Westindian and Spanish residents and neighbors who were not at all afraid to stand up for their birthright. In fact, I often felt like my right to exhibit my bilingual and bi-cultural identity was consistently being challenged. My English surname, however, and the color of my skin eliminated any confusion on my part in claiming my rightful place as a native son of the Panama I so loved.
Many first generation parents, in fact, decided to name their children with Spanish sounding names while keeping their English surnames. From this generation we get the scores of children named Rogelio, Gerardo, Roberto, Cirilo, Alberto, Camilo, Carlos, Armando, Anita, Berenice, Carmela, Eugenia, etc., instead of the straight out English first names. Many parents were also trying to help their children cope with the generalized xenophobia and persecution by at least giving them a name they could proudly use in school and in their public life. Many, however, were making a statement that they and their children now belonged to a sovereign nation as full fledged citizens with all the rights and privileges inherent in its citizenry.
Even by that time, however, I had my set ideas about keeping my name intact as Cobert Reid, Jr. and that the name had real meaning and that one day it would be recognized in the annals of my founding fathers whether they were Black, White or Native Indian in a country which had decided to reject them all in large part. This would change a short while later, however, as I approached my eighteenth birthday.
Although I had no knowledge of public libraries or places where I could escape to do some studying and writing, I secretly began writing my story in the form of memoirs some times fighting back the feelings of shame that I had no way of corroborating my assumptions and my simple observations from just living within our urban world which we had been instrumental in building.
Getting more deeply acquainted with the Westindian community that I had inherited from my grandparents I was thankful for the experience. Even confrontations with some of the neighborhood “patriots”- Spanish kids who were ready to fight off the “invading” Westindians- provided me with an opportunity to focus on my observations of my black community in the same manner that I had done since before I began attending Spanish school.
My time had come to demonstrate- if only to myself at first- that the Westindian community had members with intelligence and good moral standing. My story, I thought, would one day be told with the help of God as I looked forward to graduation from some University…somewhere.
This story will continue.