The West Indian Culture of Colon

I attended the debut of "Carmen Jones," starring Dorothey Dandridge and Harry Belafonte for the first time in Colon in 1954. Image.

I attended the debut of “Carmen Jones,” starring Dorothey Dandridge and Harry Belafonte for the first time in Colon in 1954. Image.

Just as my stepfather was doing at that time, most of my classmates’ parents were working on the Canal Zone. In fact, the American Canal Zone was never far from their lives or from any geographical point in the city of Colon. The Silver Roll Clubhouse, for instance, was that small piece of cultural space that served as a soda fountain, cafe and as a multiservice center offering spaces to members to conduct their club meetings.

It also served as a movie theater where the youth of the Silver Roll gathered on both sides of the wall that separated the American Canal Zone from the rest of Colon to reconnect and enjoy a movie. It premiered the latest movies out of Hollywood and was always crowded with young black people.

On most premiere nights everyone awaited eagerly to see the latest pictures from the states and we enjoyed a unique environment in which all of us young Westindians gathered wearing our new outfits, dresses or what have you and stayed to socialize before and after watching the movie. The Silver Clubhouse was one of the very few recreational facilities available for young West Indians of Colon. We were truly a unique group in our ethnicity in Colon as the majority of us Westindians were the children of the original Silver Roll workers.

I was, in fact, beginning to trace my West Indian Panamanian ancestry to the different townships that had, at one time, sprung up all over Colon’s neighboring districts; areas like Cristobal, Gatun, Puerto Pilón, Cativá, Buena Vista, Chagres and many more. Many of the townships had originally been work camps set up for the silver roll (and gold roll) workers to be close to their jobs as we have explained in our series of articles about the Silver Roll townships.

Even during those years of the 1950’s the same houses that had served the silver roll workers during construction times had become family rooms/ living quarters and become the areas to check into with my new friends to find out what was happening in Colon. But, our familiar Silver Clubhouse was where young black boys and girls flocked to buy fast food and the best ice cream in all Panama. Unlike in later years, none of us black teenagers at the time (1954) were required to show identity cards to prove our right to the “privileges” that allowed you access to all services in the Canal Zone.

No one was ever really denied services in the commissary, for example, or in the clubhouse, because there was a presumption that all the black youth belonged to the Silver Roll. The same held for the inhabitants of Colon since the majority of the Black people were somehow connected to the Canal Zone in Colon.  Since these places were really the only spots in all Colon where we could meet I, as part of the herd of Afro-Antillean youth, regularly found myself migrating over to these centers instinctively attracted to the other youngsters particularly on those special nights set aside for them. For the latest in American films and for the hottest fashion trends that came from Panama City and United States All you had to do was to congregate around the Silver Clubhouse.

This was the province of Colon for me. It was a geography and a topic that would come to bore many of us in due time. But,I was glad at that time to extract some joy even if only for a few hours out of the hum drumness of life’s routine. They were the times of youthful dreams and we were highly impressionable as we were hungry for any kind of stimuli. Life in Colon was truly a multicultural odyssey and for a very hispanized kid like me from Panama City it was a world of excitement where I was learning more about the idiosyncrasies of my own West Indian culture as well as the other cultures living in Colon.

This story continues.

13 responses to “The West Indian Culture of Colon

  1. Just a question: did you have any chance of meeting/befriending American (Caucasian) kids your age? I know things were quite different in the 1950’s in regards to race relations, but I’m just curious about your experiences. Sometimes it seems difficult for me to believe that not long before my time (1970’s-1980’s), young people (both black and white) weren’t able to enjoy such interactions. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences with us!

  2. Mr. Leonard;
    Thank you very much for this question, because I have a rare and very fond memory I will be very happy to share with our readers here.

    I was caught up with my youngest aunt on the paternal side while we waited in line outside the Silver Personnel Office in Ancon, on or about 1944, as she looked for employment. By then I was about eight years old and still not enrolled in any school. Suddenly she said to me, “You wait for me here!” while she hurriedly headed for the door and entered one of the offices.

    So here I was still obediently holding her place for her for quite some time, when out of no where a white woman got behind me and stood there with her small daughter for some time. I guess the child was about a couple of years younger than I was. The line of people moved forward faster, so suddenly the lady said to the child, “You stay with him” and she darted into the office. So we started to play a silly game of what I called “heringonza,” a game with made up words that sounded like nonsense words.

    We were having so much fun that we forgot the people around us. I felt as if I was playing with one of my little cousins, entertaining her so to speak, for quite a while when my aunt re-appeared and, supprised, asked, “What are you doing with that girl!” I tried to explain but she was so freaked out with fear that I just said to the child, “I got to go “nonekeertorington!” The child burst out laughing and said to me “Goodbye mericorringorin!” We both laughed as my bewildered aunt and me walked away. All the way home my Aunt could not find anything to talk about but the little white girl.

    This was probably the only positive contact I ever had with a white kid from the Zone.

  3. Judy Weaver

    What a beautiful account Roberto Reid! Thank you for posting here. I grew up in Gatun/Mount Hope/Colon area in the fifties and experienced the culture from a different angle. As proud as I am of the history of this area, I am sickened by the inhumane treatment of good people during the construction and development of the Canal. Your anecdote is a beautiful reminder of the innocent and lovely people who lived there, survived, and continue to do so. Thank you for posting.

    • Thanks for sharing your memories Judy. I wanted to focus on your words “innocent and lovely people who lived there, survived and continue to do so.” This was the greatest harm that was forced on a people whom even the Canal Zone administrators admitted were basically hard working, peace loving and law abiding. Not long into the 1960’s and from then on a very malicious campaign to criminalize the West Indians on both sides of the Canal Zone was stepped up, especially the West Indian Panamanian youth. Many young people fled to the United States often against their better wishes just to avoid “getting into trouble. ” This was experienced by both boys and girls and it added to their displacement and statelessness as a people. In our upcoming posts we will reveal how this was done in a systematic way.

      Again, thank you Judy, for another look back at was once a lovely people.

  4. Thanks for sharing that annectote, Mr. Reid.
    I have one more question for you: what was the tone of your aunt’s comments in regards to the little white girl? Were they based on fear or were they an expression of simple amazement?
    I’m currently working on a novel, the main topic of which addresses the “taboo” of interracial relationships between men and women –a theme that often (and sadly) tarnishes the innocense of friendships in childhood, as your case clearly demonstrates.
    Your answer will definitely help me get a better picture of how the “taboo” has evolved in the last 50 years or so.
    Again, thank you very much for your excellent initiative.

    Gabriel Leonard

    • Mr. Leonard,
      Funny you should ask about my Aunt’s tone since it was what first impressed me when she finally walked out of the waiting room upon seeing me with the white child. The fear or amazement in her voice, almost instantly became apparent. I, on the other hand, became annoyed because I had been tired of waiting all that time and yes, feared that someone would find us loudly discussing the fear of white people. Another of my fears was one of leaving the little defenseless child alone there. But that fear or concern dissipated as we walked away as I could only conjecture that the child would soon be united with her mother, since the crowds of people had dispersed upon our departure. None of my family really ever talked to us children and never really talked about their feelings about anything. She wasn’t alone in this fearful mysticism that West Indians perceived around white people.

      Regarding your question about the “taboo” of interracial relationships between men and women, I would say that whole situation has evolved quite a bit as here in Panama I see many more marriages and unions between men and women of African descent and men and women of white or metizo descent quite often. Today their marriages and baptisms of their children come out published in the local papers in full color photographs with no raising of eyebrows or shaking of heads as it once used to be in the past in the times of my youth.

  5. John P. Riley

    I was born in Silver City and the Clubhouse played a prominent part of my life. The price of a movie was 15 cents and with the change you could buy a candy bar or a comic book. If I chose a comic book and put in my back pocket, I would be sought after by my friends the following days.

    American movies served as a propaganda machine portraying every thing American as superior to all others. This was especially true with what we called Cowboy Movies or Westerns. Tom Mix or Roy Rogers were cool, unflappable straight shooters whereas their opponents were bumbling, mustachioed, wide brim sombrero wearing bandits.
    While working at the Coco Solo Naval Air Station, I came down with a skin condition (pityriasis rosea) and went on sick leave for a few days. During my time off I tuned in to a radio station in Colon and won first prize in a contest. The prize was a week of free passes to a movie theatre in Colon.
    This gave me my first chance to see a foreign film. The Spanish Westerns had macho, guitar playing cowboys who could sing and do everything as well as the American cowboys.

    • Mr. Riley,

      Good to see you here again. I am very curious to know what the contest was all about that you won first prize?

  6. I served in the US Military in the canal zone from 1976-79. I worked in an office in which black and white Panamanians worked along side each other. they were all college educated and were bilingual but there was always a undercurrent of resentment by the black that they were being treated differently. I sometimes observed some of the treatment that seemed unfair. Some of the blacks however seemed to have a chip on their shoulder and felt that they were always being treated unfairly when in my opinion they were not. I am myself a African American and would like to return to Panama for a visit and see the great changes that have occurred since I was there,

    • My esteemed Abraham Richardson:
      Thank you so much for visiting our web site and leaving a comment. The only correction we would like to make note of is the line: “Some of the blacks however seemed to have a chip on their shoulder and felt that they were always being treated unfairly, when in my opinion they were not.”
      Sir, we have ventured into publishing these stories on the Internet because we are students and graduates of North American or United States culture and history since 1965 and served your country behind the “Cotton Curtain” for most of my tour and it was no walk on the beach for me or the other Black G.I.’s. So, I have, over the years, begun studying the culture and history of the Westindian People of Panama which most of our compatriots did not and do not know. So I ask only for your understanding of the plight our people suffered from the periods much before the time you got to meet them, and be fair not only to them but also to your black people in the US. American blacks most certainly have never even heard of the International Conventions governing human rights the USA and even Panama have signed and continue to violate with impunity.

  7. I also was born and raised in the Panama Canal Zone, Rainbow City, Canal Zone, which makes me to be an original zonian extract from the good days, I will call it. They would be nothing like this again, not even a dream…Wow and I must stop here, because the way it was would never, ever be the same…My parents was: George and Marie Mayers…And my brothers: George Jr., Rudolph, Victor and Roberto: and now we have all continued the legacy through the grand-childrens: 7 grand-children and great-grands: 6 and still counting…God’s Good All-the-time…Oh I love Him so much… Amen, Amen…

  8. Alberto Barnett

    Good morning my brother Roberto. I am very pleased to see that you decided to continue with the history of the Silver Roll, and the people whose lives it affected. Since I started my blog, (continuous black education ), I was amazed of the amount of individuals from Panama and the Caribbean that was unaware of the truth and the struggle of the black people in this region. Continue doing what you are doing and together, maybe we will be able to wake them up. Let me leave you with this thought.

    • Alberto,
      Really good to see you here. As the saying goes, I “take a lickin but keep on tickin.” I still have a lot about our people to share with the world. You mentioned your blog. Could we get a link if you have it so that we can read too. It is always good to get feedback from our subscribers.