The headlines and by-lines in the Panama Tribune
throughout the decade of the forties and leading into the 1950’s
However and whenever “change” would come I would perceive a sweeping change unfolding right before my very eyes during those crucial years of my adolescence. Suddenly, a powerful feeling had taken over my senses compelling me to escape my whole environment, probably just as my grandfathers had felt a little after what history described as “The Emancipation” from slavery.
The first inkling of things to come was that there were very few opportunities for me in the Panama I loved and I wasn’t alone in my feelings. The opportunities to make the decent living the older men so talked about had all but dried up. It started to spook all of us teenage boys ready to enter the workforce since no work spelled shame around the Westindian community.
Aside from the hard labor I had heard about on the cane fields of the islands, I was feeling more and more like my forefathers- always scheming to run away from home to find a better and more dignified way even if it meant living alone.
Although the Canal Zone was nearby, as heir to my forefathers before me, I was feeling tied- too tied- to my grandmother’s apron strings. I had, in fact, been doing everything possible to just be able to eat regular and I was beginning to find it much harder to keep it up. Everywhere I looked I noticed the other youths of my time were also barely able to feed themselves, relying solely on their parents’ meager income. Understandably, I was picking these unsettling perceptions up from my people.
The general languor caused by hard economic times during that year of my quickly approaching fifteenth birthday was hard to ignore. It seems that this desire that I had inherited from my Panamanian Westindian genes- the desire to work- was beginning to dominate my thoughts and I was feeling the pressure to think that I should be gainfully employed at that point in me life. It was evident in the newspapers, in fact, that the previous decade for my community had seen some of its worse moments in the history of all Westindian people in this respect.
The weekly newspaper The Panama Tribune was already reporting by the 8th of September 1946 that a large group of the original contracted Westindian workers had been herded on board a coastal boat for their repatriation trip back to Jamaica. The same newspaper even mentioned the name of the vessel, The Donna Hephizi. Almost a year later the same weekly was reporting lukewarmly that “Balboa Heights,” the seat of Canal Zone administrative authority, was “opposing alien ouster.” Although the news article had stated that “…they would take appropriate actions in defense of loyal Silver Workers,” nothing really happened.
To make matters worse instead of better, on the 27 of July 1947, the same office had issued a notice advising the “Increase in Rentals for Zone Silver Quarters,” to become effective on September 1st of that same year. As appropriate as the news might have appeared to the White Gold Roll Americans, the few Westindian Silver workers and their families who had been favored with the “privilege” of remaining in Black Canal Zone living quarters would have to tread lightly lest they too be forced to leave the treasured Silver housing in the Black Townships for rooms in the barrios of Calidonia.
I was already enjoying a modicum of relief from my father since he had gone, shipped out to sea as a merchant marine right out of the Panama Canal Zone. School, which was no joy at Pedro J. Sosa primary school, was a real drudge since all I seemed to do was dodge the teachers’ anger because of my writing abilities. I was hoping that these final days of my final year would bring an end to my battles with the teacher.
Moreover, my preoccupation with economic hard times would descend on me from time to time whenever I had to confront some bully kid somewhere in the crowded, low income Barrios. I repeatedly dreamed of the one-room I could have all to myself, if only I could get a job. I was tired of the crowded and downright uncomfortable living arrangement with three adult women in a two-room apartment, with me being the only male to serve them.
My grandmother was not a problem and neither was my Aunt Berenice, the cook and maid on the Canal Zone; it was my youngest aunt who could not see one day go by without harassing me. I considered my young Uncle Pinky for support if only I could come up with a way of paying for the room on my own. At one time Uncle Pinky had advanced me twenty dollars and I had purchased my very first “pants cut” and a pair of two-tone (black and white) brogan shoes that I would proudly wear.
It wasn’t as if I hadn’t worked hard for these “gifts.” I was always willing to help my uncle whenever he called upon me. I think my Uncle Pinky felt sorry for me, his eldest brother’s son, but had it had not been for me many a time he would have found himself alone, tackling one or the other big project he got himself into.
One day in school I caught a glimpse of Maestra Ana Sanchez at the doorway conversing with my teacher. Suddenly, she calls out commanding me in perfect English, “You come with me!”
This story continues.