Speak Spanish!

Image thanks to thoughtfulindia.com

Image thanks to thoughtfulindia.com

We West Indian Panamanians are remarkable survivors and pretty soon I was socializing freely with the rest of the youth at Abel Bravo giving the school that singular air of Panamanian-ness.  Only in Panama could you find this mixture of people all living and trying to study harmoniously under one roof. That is, until racism would start to rear its ugly head.

Nothing, it seemed, could dampen my new found joy at discovering this haven of a school where we Westindians could be ourselves and speak our Panamanian style English- what the Spanish called Wari-Wari- freely. I felt secure in that I had come prepared with what I had learned about my Panamanian-ness in primary school and in The National Institute. I was eager to preserve my essence, my integrity, as a creature called a Panamanian Westindian that two generations of people from the West Indies had struggled so long to maintain to blend in with their new found home, Panama.

I continued to ask myself how we would describe that air of joy mixed with frustration that we had all experienced without coming across as whiners to our future generations. Adaptability was our signature and it was our most enduring feature. My contemporaries as well as myself had developed unique abilities at listening and imitating. I especially relished the subtle nuances in our Chombo language not only between our English and Panamanian Spanish but between our distinct West Indian English and French expressions. Our unique language had a definite charm which enabled me to enjoy our natural knack to be able to switch from fluent Afro-Antillean English to Panamanian Spanish with natural ease and blend with the other Latino students.

The school corridors were filled with this enchantment much as when you walk down the city streets in areas like Calidonia today and pick up snatches of the language of the people of Kuna Ayala or the Guaymi Indians who speak freely without fear. Our transformed Chombo English was here to stay it seemed to me as part of Panamanian folklore which didn’t exist anywhere else in the Caribbean, or the world for that matter, but here on the Isthmus of Panama. I took pride in recognizing our ability to detect a black guy or girl from any of the other Caribbean islands and even the unique Bocas del Toro twang from those of Panama and Colon.

We had so many unique ways in which the English language could be spoken that we were able to distinguish the Bocatoreño Chombo from the Westindians from the other countries like Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Belize and Guyana. These were the unique nuances, the wonderful differences that I was encountering in my Colon experience among its people, and these were precisely the things that seemed to be outraging the teachers in those days, especially the Spanish teachers with their seething antagonism and their provocative attitude when they would label us as thugs- “maleantes”- solely because we had that ease of expression in both languages and a unique style to go with it. “Habla Español!” became a more frequent and embittered mandate thrown at the Westindian students by the Spanish teachers.

I noticed that we, the West Indian students, were in the majority in my third year class and we tried to band together in solidarity so as not to succumb to the racism that prevailed. The same joy that flowed from their poetic Afro-Antillean expressions filled our school and home environment and lit up our internal sense of freedom. There was almost a prevailing staccato rhythm of syncopated phrases like – “Hey, Wha ‘happin! See you at cuaya practice lei’tah!”

Only occasionally would you hear a complaint from some black guy in that mixed Spanish with English just as the Indians did, “The u’man say to me, Speak Spanish! I don’ know wha the Rass she talkin bout! I get pure ‘cuatro’ to Rass in Spanish! So wha’ di rass she talking bout, ah?”

The infectious laughter constantly filled the hallways as the thunder of the alarm bell announced the return to our next class. These were the types of things that reminded me that we were in a regular school in Panama with the singular difference that you could hear the Chombo in the atmosphere. Without fully realizing it we embodied the dynamics of the constant struggle to maintain that singular Chombo folklore among us, the young embattled Afro-Hispanic students.

This story continues.

7 responses to “Speak Spanish!

  1. Did you ever get an answer on this? I’m wonder the same thing.

  2. I love it! “wha’ di rass” 🙂 Can you give us the etymology of that word? It may not turn out to be as interesting as Chivas but I bet it’ll be just as unique and entertaining. Great series of articles as always.

    BTW this is my vision for this Blog. Someone is going to pick a story of two from this Blog, create a screenplay, crowd-source it on a site like Kickstarter.com, make a movie and pay the Reids big bucks for all this hard work. Again, I am so glad you are documenting our Westindian history. I am learning about my own family’s history from reading these articles. It’s been a conversation starter on many occasions.

    • Melody,

      Good to see you again! Thanks for the input about our blogs giving you and your family a lot to converse about and to get to know your own heritage.

      The screenplay idea sounds good. I’ve heard about kickstarter.com. Wish you were here in Panama for an upcoming memorial ceremony in recognition of our West Indian forefathers and historic patrimony. It is sponsored by the British Embassy here in Panama and the unveiling of a special memorial plaque will take place on July 17, 2014 at the Miraflores Visitor’s Center at 9:00 AM. We would have included you on our list of guests.

  3. I went to school for a while in the Rep. of Panama, before returning to Paraiso SR. JR. High. I remember the Spanish teachers that told us, who spoke English, that this is Panama and we had to speak Spanish. Now today the best jobs require English, spoken,written and understood. Those teachers sure did short change the students who could not speak English.

  4. Some of these stories you guys are telling really hits me.I used to literally fight with some of my Spanish friends for calling us “Chombo,but then I always said to them yes I am a Chombo but I speak more Spanish and English than you all.I was always very proud of my West Indian Heritage in those days and still am up to today.I have noticed on my frequent trips to Panama,that this generation of today are not interested in speaking English,even though their last names are Williams,Robinson,Johnson etc.I don’t know whats the problem with that,but when they apply for jobs English is a requirement,so you tell me.
    I enjoy reading these stories about us on this web site and I am glad mr Roberto Reid came up with this idea,brilliant.Blessings.

  5. Melodico,
    Good to see you here!! Yes, I went through the same things growing up in Calidonia as you have been reading and this is one of the reasons why I started this blog. Our West Indian contribution to Panama in language, culture, food, music and church, is being all but forgotten in our Panama. But, that is why some of us- just a few- are here to make sure it is not forgotten but exalted and respected.


  6. Alan D. Davis

    Great article again. I think the west indian contribution to our Panama culture is embraced more and more today. It is always great to hear the stories from different perspectives, areas, and times in Panama.