The ‘Gyambo’ “Bottom of the Well” Experience

By

Dr. Ricardo Millett

Introduction

The following essay was inspired by a poem written during a ‘racial healing workshop’ my colleagues and I managed in Mississippi some years ago. The poem came to me from experiences that marked my growing up years in Gamboa, Canal Zone. These experiences promised an intense conversation with a group of ‘multi-ethnic/racial’ Mississippians committed to building bridges to reduce the historic mistrust and unease that divided the communities where they resided. In an attempt to facilitate open conversation about race among Black, Native American and White Mississippians on such a deeply troubling topic, we called on each participant, including the facilitators, to answer the question: “Where are you from?”. This simple icebreaker provided space for each of us to briefly reflect on experiences, philosophies and beliefs that guided our life decisions and behaviors. The intensity of the setting, its purpose, and yearning of the participants gathered in a “circle of trust”, prompted me to provide an authentic platform for healing and bridging.

My answer to this reflective question, ‘Where are you from?’:

I am from my mother’s dream for my becoming,

And from my father’s anger

Of his dreams denied

I am from my Godfather’s pride

And his character and principles applied

From my grandmother’s faith in Jesus

And from my Grandfather’s abuses

I am from the yesterdays …

Yearning to give birth to the todays, tomorrows

And a better world yet to come…

I was startled by my own poetic expression. I had never before tried to put into words my growing up experiences in ‘Gyambo, Canal Zone’ and how they anchored my approach to a career in social policy research and program management. Soon thereafter, I was asked to contribute a chapter in a book entitled ‘Indigenous Pathways into Social Research’ (edited by Donna Mertens, Fiona Cram and Bagele Chilisa). This invitation was very timely as it provided me with an opportunity to flesh out the poem in a narrative of how the days in an area as racially segregated as the Panama Canal Zone influenced my social policy research methods and practices.

I hope my ‘Gyambo community’ finds this essay one of many efforts to acknowledge and pay tribute to our ability not only to survive, but to thrive and build a better future for ourselves and all of those ‘faces at the bottom of the well’ throughout the world. Equally important, I hope that it inspires you to share your own ‘story’ with us on this ‘Gyambo Reunion website’

E S S A Y

FROM WEST-INDIAN DESCENDENT TO SILVER TOWN DEPENDENT

I am a person of West-Indian/African descent, born and raised in the Republic of Panama, more specifically in Gamboa, Panama Canal Zone. My grandparents migrated from Antigua and Jamaica like thousands of other Caribbean Blacks attracted by the serene song of economic opportunities on the Panama Canal project. Their hope was to work hard for a few years and return to their West Indian homeland, purchase land, construct a home, and create a life more comfortable than any of their family had experienced since the early days of plantation farming. The Panama Canal Zone experience, however, not only ruined hopes for a successful return, but took many more Afro-Caribbean lives as a consequence of tropical diseases, construction explosives, and the reckless disregard of their humanity sanctioned by the most overtly racist government in nineteenth-century Latin America. This history would shape my dedication to providing policies and programs that would lead to ‘society betterment’.

People of African descent are aware that they live in a society where the opportunity to access resources, assets, wealth, and status grows more unequal. They fare less well than others in any index of quality of life regardless of the country—United States, Panama, Brazil, Jamaica, or any in the Western World. People of dark skin face systemic forces that limit their capacity to achieve as well as others in their communities and society-at-large.

I am one of the “faces at the “bottom of society’s well” as described by Derrick Bell (1992). Bell’s examination of racism and the victories that can be realized in the struggle to fight it, reflects my own experiences growing up in Panama as a citizen of Afro-Caribbean heritage and a resident of the Panama Canal Zone, and subsequently a citizen of the United States of America. It is an experience that threatens our right to society’s benefits, opportunities, wealth, and status. Bell describes this experience in the opening proposition that frames Faces at the Bottom of the Well:

“Black People will never gain full equality in this country. Even those herculean efforts we hail as successful will produce no more than ‘temporary peaks of progress’, short-lived victories that slide into irrelevance as racial patterns adapt its ways that maintain white dominance. This is a hard to accept fact that all history verifies. We acknowledge it, not as a sign of submission, but as an act of ultimate defiance.” (1992, p. 12)

Where Am I From?

I am from my mother’s dream for my becoming,

And from my father’s anger

Of his dreams denied

Silver and Gold

The U.S. Panama Canal Zone was a living, breathing, social laboratory used to reinforce white supremacy. Labor, status, privilege, and wages were based completely on race.

The system used to pay workers exemplified the gross systemic inequities between whites and blacks. American laborers’ (primarily Caucasians) salaries were paid in gold certificates and non-Americans (primarily people of African descent imported from the Caribbean) were paid in silver certificates. Over time, gold and silver became euphemisms to distinguish segregated life in the Canal Zone.

Caucasian workers enjoyed ‘Gold Standard’ privileges. Such privileges afforded the best life had to offer on the Canal Zone. Houses for the American gold workers were often located in the hills or other elevated areas where cool breezes provided comfort from the often oppressive tropical heat. Segregated gold sections of the commissary showcased prime grocery products. A Caucasian police force enforced strict separation of gold and silver residents, protecting their Caucasian brethren and keeping the silver workers ‘in their place’.

West Indian laborers were recruited from the Caribbean Islands, most of them skilled artisans. They were paid the lowest wages, lived in the worst housing, and were given the most dangerous jobs. In short, they were expendable. They died at over ten times the rate of gold, due to exposure to unsanitary conditions, lack of access to medical care, errant dynamite explosions, and landslides. The probability of an early death during canal construction, then, was highly correlated with race.

Gamboa, a small town of less than a thousand people on the banks of the canal and Panama’s lush tropical forest, was the home of the Dredging Division. This division worked to widen the narrow pathways (particularly the ‘Culebra Cut’) between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. I spent the first nineteen years of my life in Santa Cruz, the Silver Rate residential section of Gamboa. Unlike, most Canal Zone townships, Gamboa housed both American and non-American silver laborers. This exception was soon ‘corrected’ as sometime in the mid-1950s the Canal Government responded to the Gold Raters to differentiate their living spaces from that of the Silver Raters. Many of us woke up one morning to find out we were now living in Santa Cruz, not Gamboa. The residential line, Parallel as we dubbed it, became more solid as ever dividing the white and black sections of the town. The Gold Raters could not live sharing any residential commonality with Silver Raters. This separation became even more critical to Gold Raters as the civil rights struggle heralded in the threat of ‘Brown versus the School Board’ Supreme Court desegregation decision. While we already had separate housing, strict residential lines, separate school buildings, separate curriculum, and separate everything in our living amenities, it became prudent to safeguard against any possibility of succumbing to the ‘integration’ threat of the Supreme Court. Thus, the Canal Zone Government made the ‘strategic decision’ to legally separate the township not only by the traditional Gold and Silver labor personnel rationale but also by a newly added a rationale that presumably honored “Silver Rater’s Latin American Spanish speaking culture. Silver Rate workers were not English-speaking Americans, but Spanish-speaking Latin Americans and required a curriculum aligned with their cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Overnight, Santa Cruz (and all Silver Towns in the Canal Zone) was now designated part of the Canal Zone’s ‘Latin American School system’ requiring students to be taught in their ‘native language’, Spanish. The Gold Raters American School System would continue to teach in their native language ‘English’.

The Gold and Silver Canal Zone segregated system consequently added another legal layer of protection from any need to consider ‘equality’ in education, living quarters, wages or anything else among its employees. The Gamboa Gold Standard resident workers continued to live in quiet comfort along the hillsides while the Santa Cruz silver workers continued to live under the relentless gaze of their “superiors” from above.

A Face from the Bottom of the Well

Like many other faces at the bottom of the well, I am adept at applying what Richard Wright (1957) called a “frog perspective.” It is a strong metaphor, as the frog is born a tadpole at the bottom of the pond. It later surfaces as a frog. It experiences life through both perspectives in order to survive. Wright uses the frog analogy to describe people of African descent’s sense of inferiority when forced into subservient roles. This psyche remains with me, and I believe, with everyone I grew up with in the silver townships of the Canal Zone.

My grandmother, parents, godfather, brothers, sisters, and teachers—in fact, the entire black community in the Canal Zone—also had an influence on the principles that guided my development. Each life revealed the psychological impact of racism and compelled me to break the chain that legitimated and sustained our collective place as people deemed “less than”.

Family lore has it that my paternal grandfather migrated from Antigua, West Indies, to Panama. Like thousands of Caribbean males, he responded to the call of work and opportunity during the canal construction. He found temporary work unloading baggage on tourist ships. One day while working, he was accused of looking at a white woman as she disembarked. He was immediately fired. Despondent, unemployed, and disconnected in a foreign country, he eventually died destitute.

My maternal grandfather fared a little better because he was a carpenter and managed to set up shop repairing horse carriages in Panama City. He avoided the harsher treatment of black males on the Canal Zone but did not avoid the demeaning reality of competing for work as a black worker in the Latino Panamanian society where he was just another chombo (the Central American equivalent of “nigger”).

Widowed at a young age, my maternal grandmother was forced to become the “bread winner”. As she recounted to us many times, she decided to do all that she could to take care of her three children. She took a job in the famous ‘Ancon Laundry’ “hand washing and ironing clothes for “the white man,” as she would remind us of her struggle to survive and keep her dignity intact when her husband passed. Granny earned enough to pay the rent for one room in a tenement building for her and three children. She delighted us with stories of her engagement, marriage, and all-too-brief life with her beloved husband. The stories spoke of his strong moral character, dedication, and determination to make a way for their children in Panama.

As a child, my younger sisters and I spent weekends with Granny in her one-room apartment in Panama City. It was during these times that we were exposed to her strict discipline and high expectations for us. As youngsters, we looked forward to these weekend excursions to Granny’s apartment, primarily as opportunities to play with the other kids in the building when we were not being charged to sit still and listen to her legendary lessons. One such lesson was “The white man can throw you down in the gutter to work for a living, but you don’t have to live there with him.” Granny created a family philosophy that did not allow the harsh realities of life to excuse abandoning one’s family commitments and responsibilities. Another lesson she often stressed to us was that wages didn’t define one’s self-respect and dignity—these were things you earned through your actions and words. The greatest lesson she taught her children and grandchildren was the importance of education. Her philosophy was that no “…one could take away what goes into your brain”.

Joe Stone, my godfather, left me with the most enduring life lesson about pride and self-respect. He chose to unofficially adopt me since he had no children of his own. At 6 feet tall and 250 pounds, he was a legend in Panama. He represented the Republic of Panama in the Olympics and other international sporting events as a weight lifter and wrestler. Joe Stone was also a gifted scholar, high school graduate, voracious reader and had a great command of the English language. (Not speaking “good English” was considered a sign of Panamanian/West-Indian “ignorance.”)

I spent many weekends in Panama City visiting Joe Stone and my aunt, his common-law wife. At night, I often overheard him complaining to my aunt about the indignities he suffered on his job. Joe Stone’s skills and reputation had landed him an unusually well-paying job on the U.S. Naval base in Amador, Panama Canal Zone. As a warehouse supervisor, he reported to a white officer intent on keeping him “in his place.” Over time, Joe’s sense of dignity and self-respect was ground down by his boss’s constant denigration and abuse. One night, I heard him confess to my aunt that he couldn’t take it anymore and would rather walk away from his financial security than suffer another day of abuse. This was a pivotal decision for Joe. It left him without a job and subsequently resulted in a downward spiral to alcoholism and premature death.

I continued to love and respect Joe Stone as I grew up. No one was more proud of my accomplishments. Despite being ultimately defeated by the racial injustices impacting Blacks, he personified the dignity and respect that too many others were forced to trade for survival. He has been a constant reminder of the consequences people at the bottom of the well faced when challenging systemic racism.

My earliest memories of being a victim of this system surfaced as a child. To supplement my father’s wages, my mother worked as a domestic for Caucasian families in the segregated Gamboa hills. I loved going to work with her. I particularly enjoyed the cookies and sandwiches the Caucasian ladies gave me. One day as we walked down the hill to our segregated quarters, I asked my mother why the Caucasian people lived in better houses, had better clothes, ate better food, and had nicer things than we did.

My mother tried to shield us from the negative effects of segregation and strived to create an environment where we wouldn’t feel “less than.” My penetrating questions shocked and upset her. She never reconciled the inequality she faced on a daily basis, let alone figured out how to explain them to a small child. I can remember the anguish on her face when she attempted to respond to my questions. As in other aspects of her life, she depended on prayer and faith in God to provide answers and relief for what appeared to be His will.

I must have filed the memory of Joe Stone’s life and the privileged lives of the people living on the hills at the very surface of my consciousness because it has never left me. It formed the foundation of my will to prove the white man wrong. Neither science nor God justified our relegation to the ranks of the least intelligent, deserving, capable or productive. From my mother’s perspective, the only viable pathway to success was to get her children safely out of the Panama Canal Zone to greater opportunities in the United States. By the sheer force of her determination, the tides of fortune fell on me and I was able to follow the lead of my two older brothers to the “Land” (we called the United States the “land of escape and opportunities”). Moreover, I received the scholarship to attend university there—an opportunity that I would have been forced to pass up, due to my family’s financial constraints. My fortune was truly extraordinary.

Where Am I From?

I am from my Godfather’s pride

And his character and principles applied

This experience intensified my personal and professional commitment to making a difference… to act on my evolving consciousness and social activism.

Where Am I From?

From my grandmother’s faith in Jesus

And from my Grandfather’s abuses

Conclusion

I have embraced people of African descent in the United States, Panama, and worldwide as my ‘community’. My professional motivation is to capture the authentic voices of this ‘community’. As I tried to suggest throughout this essay, my orientation to social policy research and management has been significantly influenced by my “Gyambo Canal Zone experiences”. It was a race-based system that justified me as inferior to whites and less deserving of equal opportunities and privileges. However, it offers me a way to recalibrate the manner in which social issues and policies are seen, by giving priority to the first stage of research. I am convinced that this focus is critically important if we are to leverage strategies to help reverse our widening social and economic inequities. Too often the consequences of not paying attention to this focus result in missed opportunities and inappropriate outcomes that does not effectively address the inequalities we, ‘the faces at the bottom of the well’, know all too well and struggle with…every day.

.

Where Am I From?

I am from the yesterdays …

Yearning to give birth to the todays, tomorrows

And a world yet to come.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Emy

    Kudos to a well presented sentiment and evaluation of the system that existed in Gamboa.

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