Colon Province during the early years of the 1950’s would have comprehended about 4,868.4 sq km and had a population of about 170,000 people of which more than half remained on the left bank of the Canal of Panama, and of the population of the right bank of the Canal we hardly knew anything. The majority of the capital’s population, of course, was West Indian mostly linked to the Silver Roll. Although the City of Colon occupied less than one fifth of the entire area of the province of Colon, the Afro-Caribbean community had always been a huge component and marked the identity of its population.
As I’ve repeatedly said, my West Indian grandparents were instrumental in the founding of the City of Colon before and during the early works of what was called the French Panama Canal. By the time I ventured into Colon to continue my studies most of the adult members of the Afro-Caribbean community were employed by the U.S. Canal Zone and were linked to the services offered in the Zone.
In those months of March and April 1953, when I came to live in Colon, the economic picture had waned for the West Indian community. Compared to most employees of Gold Roll- white Americans-who were always very few in numbers and practically imperceptible in town, the West Indians were there for the improvement of life for white Americans. In those days many of them had begun moving back to the states now that things on the Canal Zone had started to slow down.
Many of the Silver Roll employees had already starting receiving the dreaded “RIF”- Reduction in Force certificates which meant that the ones who still had their jobs started to fear losing them. The times were extremely difficult for the entire population and the layoffs were even more disastrous for us young West Indians and hopes for employment opportunities seemed dim. To make things worse, there were rumors that very few of the ships in the U.S. naval fleet would be landing in Colon’s port area.
Compared to the years of relative plenty in the past when employment among young black boys was viewed as an inheritance, as a given fact that they wouldn’t even have to go looking very long, this new impoverishment was a stark contrast. I remembered that my grandmother Marcela was always glad to see the fleet of merchant ships since it meant that her laundry business would pick up considerably. She was one of hundreds of washerwomen who took in laundry to wash from the sailors and the workers who worked in the Gold and Silver Rolls who needed her service.
Washing laundry was also my grandmother Fanny’s “extra money” income in Panama City but my Naní in Colon had always depended on the kindness of the crews of the fishing fleets for her livelihood since, unlike Fanny who had been employed by the Ancon Laundry, Marcela would never receive government benefits. After the death of her husband, my grandfather Seymour, she would never be eligible for any of his pension benefits or any benefits of her own since she never worked in the Zone.
Colon Province had always been called the “forgotten province” by government officials, and the general Panamanian population. In those days and as was traditional the government of Panama was always centrally organized administratively and all of the services were located in the City of Panama. So, most citizens from the provinces had to make long trips to the capital to make any official transaction or to acquire documents including those from the Civil Registry as were birth certificates, death certificates, applications for employment with the government, etc.
Very few things could be done expeditiously in the province and the City of Colon in those days, but compared to other areas of the republic, it wasn’t far to travel to the center of economic and governmental activities which were remote to many people of the lower classes.
The City of Colon would remain forgotten and neglected by the central government even into the entrance into our new millenium the twenty-first century of our modern era. The impatient youth of Colon had to face a future that they would view immersed in institutional racism.
This story continues.