The Not-So-Free Zone

Unlike today, racism was really never talked about in our social circles, although it was an evil that was always at the center of our collective frustration as black Panamanian youth. The political and commercial bourgeoisie of the times, with their marginalizing power, maintained a stressful undercurrent of damaging rumors that had always beset particularly the City of Colon filling the media and the social climate with derogatory epithets like “Chombo City”  etc., especially with regards to the West Indian blacks; this was in addition to referring to Panamanian West Indians always as the “foreigners.”

If memory served me correctly, by 1954 Colon’s West Indian community numbered at about 27,000 souls, totalling more than 50% of the city’s population. We were a clear majority then. The Colon Free Zone, formally created by official decree No. 18 of June 7, 1948, was just celebrating its 6th birthday of actual operation. Its initial purpose was as an area to allow merchants to exploit the competitive advantages of the country as a transit hub for world trade, an enclave for import and export activity.

In its emerging state as a commercial entity, it did not yet occupy a significant place within the Caribbean regional trade community. And yet, for most of us young Westindians, this new shopping/commercial area had already developed a reputation for denying us employment and we were all convinced that it was because we were native residents of the City of Colon. Today they would call it red lining.

Our future seemed a sad one at this juncture of Colon’s history. By contrast, our level of expectations was always buoyant with hope amongst my classmates both in Colon as it had been in the National Institute. It seemed to me that here too in Colon we were living in a teenage dream world always colored with that youthful optimism. We lived with an all-embracing faith and when we gathered together we always put on the appearance of well-being. We were naïvely unaware that the times to come would become even more disheartening.

As time passed, however, I became aware that my actions were being well observed and that people who I had been meeting, both adolescents and adults, had been observing me with a level of respect which required that I continue my climb up the “ladder of success,” as they apparently saw me doing. During my daily walks to school during those first months I strove to appear always a shy and studious young man.

To compensate, however,  for an  inexplicable foreboding that followed me around- a feeling of impending doom that had never left me since early childhood- I decided to isolate myself even more. Using shyness as a shield to confuse any mal intentioned alliances that might derail my progress, I tried to stay to myself and to my small circle of friends until I could make arrangements for a more stable in life.

The strategy seemed to be working perfectly and I was able to keep up this rhythm which scholars maintain until they bear fruit in a completed literary work or, as in my case, excellent grades at the end of the semester. I had been home alone with the doors closed most of the time making it appear as if no one was home, praying that the rest of my family would delay in returning home so as to give me time to study.

The fact that I knew no one in the building and, given my shyness, was working to my advantage. Immersed in my studies, I was focused on finishing one of subjects, when I heard an insistent knock at the door.

This story continues.

One response to “The Not-So-Free Zone

  1. Racism is racism regardless of the source or origin, because if you add the economic factor and/or empowerment you will have internal squabbles given the crumbs the mighty toss out. A true re-education of equality needs to happen. And it is not happening here in the USA quite as much as Panama. It was pointed out when Martin Luther King gave his “I have a dream” speech Black unemployment in the USA was 11% compared with 14% when Barack Obama gave a speech on the 50th anniversary.