The Caribbean Diaspora in Panama

A popular area of migration for people of West Indian descent during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was Panama because many jobs became available due to the construction of the Panama Canal.  The profound joblessness throughout the Caribbean pushed many West Indians to move to Panama and seek jobs as canal workers.

Melva Lowe de Goodin’s De/From Barbados a/to Panama illustrates a group of Barbadians migrating to Panama hoping for the “American Dream” of sorts but on arrival realizing the difficulty in not only assimilating into Panamanian culture but also achieving the economic promises they thought Panama offered.   The character Samuel highlights his reasons for coming to Panama saying “we came to Panama to look for a better life.  They (his friends) never lived long enough to see their dreams come true.  Today I thank God that I have lived long enough to pay the passage for my mother and my brothers and sister to come from Barbados to live with me here in Panama….From now on we only going to think about making it here in Panama.  No use dreaming about going back to Barbados.  We are living in Panama now…We have to make a good life here for all our children.  Too many of our people are dying in this land.  We have to make sure that their sacrifice will not be in vain” (Lowe De Goodin, Pg 55).

In the above quote, expressed is the interest in Barbadians to move to Panama looking for a better life but Samuel notes the many issues that come with this migration.  Firstly, “many of our people are dying” says Samuel, which indicates the dangerousness of the work on the Panama Canal.  Everyday, one was risking their life working on the Canal and certainly adjusting and assimilating to this kind of dangerousness is very difficult.  Not just the risk is dangerous but constantly losing or being scared of losing one’s friends and family members to the canal is also very nerve-wracking.  Disease in the jungles of Panama was prone as well.  Malaria to a range of all other diseases often plagued the workers.  Living around and experiencing this kind of sickness definitely made it difficult for West Indian’s to acclimate to the Panamanian culture.  Samuel, with his friends, also talks about moving back to Barbados because he is tired of the difficult lifestyle in Panama.

Just the fact that Caribbean people had to leave Barbados to find work leaves a negative imprint on memory.  In The Art of Memory In Panamanian West Indian Discourse: Melva Lowe De Goodin’s De/From Barbados a/to Panama, Professor Nwankwo states “ it is, therefore, impossible to separate the identities of people from the region called the Caribbean from their experiences of displacement, migration, and exile or those of their ancestors” (Nwankwo, Pg. 4).  People like Samuel will always have to live with their displacement and migration as part of their identity, which somewhat disconnects them from Panama and halts the assimilation process.  This is vividly witnessed in the grandparents of Patricia Lewis.  Patricia Lewis, in her Voices From Our America interview, remembers her grandparents constantly talking about Barbados, its buildings, beauty, and wanting to go back.  This memory and nostalgia of one’s homeland not only remains with one for life as witnessed in Patricia Lewis’s grandparents but fosters a sense of longing disconnecting one from their new home.

What made it especially difficult for West Indian migrants to assimilate into Panamanian culture was the blatant racism and prejudices the West Indian migrant workers experienced while working on the Canal.  Not only did they get paid less than their white co-parts but also dealt with verbal abuse from co-workers.  The existence of racist tendencies toward Caribbean migrant workers is blatantly obvious and talked about in the interviews from the Voices of Our America.  From one script, Byron Dowman, a West Indian migrant and Panama Canal workers, says, “I used to have a little trouble because you know, “Blackie, Blackie”. As they look on me, “hey, hey chombo!” Chombo, and some times you in wrong mood and dying to ring they bell ding dong, ding dong, ding dong, but then I, about a year after, I presume [inaudible] doesn’t make, that, that doesn’t hurt you, them call you chombo bwoy you call dem panya bwoy” (Growing up with racism, Dowman).  Here, Caribbean workers are seen to having had to deal with verbal abuse on a daily basis by their Panamanian co-workers.  Verbal abuse on a daily basis definitely made it difficult for West Indian workers to assimilate to a new culture.  Luckily, Dowman mentioned that mostly the abuse was verbal and not physical as of course, these were all workers who needed each other to work and finish the canal.  Any type of violence would threaten the jobs of those being prejudice.

In the post The Horrors Of Panamanian Hospitals, speaker addresses the issue of injured workers and how if they were black, they were most likely not to get the proper medical attention.  Carlos Russell writes in “An Old Woman Remembers”  that “what use to hurt him most was how Yankees treat Black man…if Black man get hurt, him would have to lay there, and lay there, and lay there, till the end of day, when the medic come for him. Norman say that many a good man dead so. But if him was a white man, boy, you would see them run like jackrabbit for help” (Russell, Pg. 6).   Evident in this quote is not only an issue of racism but also one that threatens the lives of West Indians working in Panama,  It must have been extremely difficult knowing as well as experiencing the snubbing nature of the doctors and nurses while one is in extreme pain and on the brink of death.  This is not war but work and someone that is injured is supposed to be immediately cared for and taken to the hospital but only white people got this treatment. The blacks were left to wallow in pain until a medic came at the end of the day.  This must have been extremely disorienting for West Indians, especially one that is in terrible terrible pain and this type of treatment definitely made it hard for West Indians to assimilate to a culture that would not even care for them when they were injured on Panamanian land and while doing work to grow the country’s economy.

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