The Afterlives of Migration in Panama and its Diaspora

This post is part of our online roundtable on Kaysha Corinealdi’s Panama in Black.

Panama, Panama City – November 4, 2017 : Musical band celebrating national dates (Shutterstock/ScarletRE)

In the last decades of the nineteenth century, tens of thousands of migrants from British Caribbean islands like Jamaica and Barbados poured into Panama to work on the American-controlled canal project. In the aftermath of British emancipation in the Caribbean, the adult children of the formerly enslaved often found depressing wages and scarcity of good farming land to purchase. Drawn to job opportunities around the Caribbean and Central America, they departed their island homes in waves. Many of them hopped from one country to another. By the time the Americans had wrestled control over the canal project from the Colombians and Panamanians in 1904, Afro-Caribbean migrants made up the bulk of the workforce. Some of their contingents worked as blacksmiths, carpenters, machinists, or even as teachers and police. But the vast majority of their lot was “pick and shovel.” They carried on the arduous and dangerous excavation work of cutting and digging into rock and laying down railway tracks to build the canal infrastructure. Afro-Caribbean canal workers not only risked or lost their lives but also received inferior pay and benefits in comparison to American workers. Since they were employees on the silver rather than gold roll, Afro-Caribbean canal workers lived in crowded, substandard housing, expensive, poor-quality food, and their children attended racially segregated schools. These conditions triggered Afro-Caribbean workers to organize labor strikes to fight for better compensation. But it also fortified them as a community eager to denounce and fight against racism and racial discrimination, joining transnational black solidarity movements like Marcus Garvey’s UNIA. By the time the canal was completed in 1914 or even later during the global depression of the 1930s, thousands of Afro-Caribbean laborers, many quite thrifty, departed Panama with silver dollars for home or greener pastures in neighboring places in Central America, the Caribbean, and even Harlem. Yet, thousands of them remained and had families. It’s this latter group in which Panama in Black tells their stories.

This thoughtfully written book moves beyond the histories of the silver men as presented in a highly abridged form in the opening and casts its gaze on the experiences of Afro-Caribbean Panamanians, the children of British Caribbean migrants who either were raised or born in Panama (p.29). This generation experienced an extended period of near statelessness after their parents learned that they could neither confer British colonial citizenship to their children nor did their children’s births in the U.S.-controlled Canal Zone make them American citizens. As Kaysha Corinealdi deftly shows us, the afterlives of migration can be precarious. Afro-Caribbean Panamanians coming to age in the 1940s to 1960s increasingly navigated anti-Black exclusionist policies seeking to deny them Panamanian citizenship or restrict their mobility within and beyond the isthmus.

Unlike other histories of Afro-Caribbean migration to Central America, Corinealdi firmly situates her study in direct engagement with histories of race and racial thinking in Latin (or what she calls Iberian) America. In doing so, she offers unfamiliar readers a window into the anti-Black and xenophobic sentiment within the Panamanian variant of mestizaje narrative that purports race mixture equals racial harmony. It proves helpful in understanding the growing rise of anti-Black foreign sentiment in the first half of the twentieth century by white Panamanian officials who envisioned Panama as neither a Black or Caribbean nation. In the 1920s, Panamanians enacted legislation that barred entry by people from Asia, the Middle East, and the non-Spanish-speaking Caribbean. They also moved away from birthright citizenship requiring children born to foreign parents to supply proof of assimilation at their twenty-first birthdate. Such steps were being taken elsewhere. Corinealdi’s book complements the works of Jorge Giovannetti-Torres, Lara Putnam, or Glenn Chambers, to name only a few, who have shown how the xenophobic and anti-Black policies of Caribbean and Central American states occurred in the aftermath of the global depression and slumps in export profits. In Panama in Black, however, Corinealdi recovers how Afro-Caribbean Panamanians worked to insert themselves into Panama in ways that affirmed Black humanity and racial pride within localized contexts.

What is most striking about Panama in Black is Corinealdi’s ability to recast familiar figures into new light, such as The Panama Tribune’s founder and editor Sidney Young, while introducing lesser-known figures like Amy Denniston or Las Servidoras.

Young was Jamaican-born and educated but emigrated with his parents to the Canal Zone in his youth. After a brief stint working for canal authorities, Young worked for several newspapers before establishing The Panama Tribune in 1928. He devoted the newspaper to “his race” which included not only Afro-Caribbean Panamanians but black people worldwide. The Panama Tribune circulated widely. While most subscribers were in Panama, others resided in Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala, the United States, and Jamaica (Corinealdi, 35). It included much about the local community happenings and national events. There were also reports about black people elsewhere in the Caribbean and United States. It regularly featured the UNIA even years after Garvey was its helmsman. As Corinealdi notes, Young also was engaged in helping Afro-Caribbean Panamanians identify and seize opportunities on the isthmus. He encouraged those eligible to vote in national elections to support candidates favorable to their community. Other readings of Young also cast him as a staunch Black internationalist, but deeply engaged in the Anglophone circum-Caribbean.

Even more insightful than Corinealdi’s portrayal of Young is her attention to highlighting the critical interventions of Afro-Caribbean Panamanians who worked tirelessly on behalf of their community. One clear example is Amy Denniston, the editor of the Women’s section of The Panama Tribune. She advocated for Afro-Caribbean Panamanians to obtain a good education, even if that meant attending the Spanish-speaking public schools offered by the Panamanian government. Some readers took this message to heart. Within two decades, there were bilingual Afro-Caribbean Panamanians like Canal Zone Colored Schools (CZCS) educator Robert Beecher.  In 1954, he was in charge of the summer institute, given only a few months to teach Spanish to his non-bilingual Afro-Caribbean Panamanian instructors after Canal authorities announced the conversion of CZCS to Latin American schools in the following academic year. Educators were to teach the Panamanian curriculum in Spanish. These teachers served as community heroes as they worked to prepare their youth for taking up an essential component of the mantle of Panamanian citizenship: the ability to speak and write the Spanish language. Corinealdi’s coverage of Afro-Caribbean Panamanian educators joins a growing number of scholars examining the history of Black educators as intellectual interlocutors for their communities.

Yet they were not alone. In Panama in Black, Corinealdi opens a window into the same community and period that writer Paule Marshall used as a setting for both her autobiographical and fictional works. Corinealdi persuasively argues how Afro-Caribbean Panamanians formed diasporic communities in U.S. cities such as Brooklyn and Los Angeles that reflected their Panamanian and African diasporic identities. Her study concludes with Corinealdi following a group of Afro-Caribbean Panamanian women to Brooklyn in the 1950s and 1960s, where they form a part of a vibrant yet diverse Black community. As Brooklyn transplants, these women entrepreneurs and professionals formed a female-only organization to raise funds to provide scholarships to Panamanian students in the United States. As Corinealdi points out, their organization reflected their distinct histories of Anglophone Caribbean mutual aid societies that sought to uplift their community. While the women conducted their meetings in English, they decided on a Spanish name for the group Las Servidoras. They also continued to engage in a wider Caribbean immigrant as well as Black American communities with a clear example Las Servidoras celebrating the group’s tenth anniversary by becoming lifelong members of the Brooklyn chapter of the NAACP. Corinealdi’s coverage of this group shows how Afro-Caribbean Panamanian women traversed multiple identities of Black, Caribbean, and Latin American in mid-twentieth century Brooklyn. More importantly, she links Latin America via Panama to the growing body of literature on Black internationalism, offering a model for future studies.

With such an engaging study, it is hard to express any quibbles with the book. And yet, I have just one. In striving to situate Afro-Caribbean Panamanians into the national history of Panama and a wider transnational Black American history, Corinealdi does not directly leverage as much studies about similar British Caribbean communities in Central America and the greater Caribbean who faced similar anxiety over nationality and citizenship during and after the 1930s. I kept wondering how Afro-Caribbean Panamanians’ relationship with the U.S. in the Canal Zone shaped nationality and belonging in ways distinct from their second-generation British Caribbean counterparts in the region. What makes the Afro-Caribbean Panamanian example distinct in their response to anti-Black xenophobic policies from that of their nearby counterparts in a place like Costa Rica, Cuba, or Honduras?

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Sharika D. Crawford

Sharika D. Crawford (@SharikaCrawfo17) is a Professor of history at the United States Naval Academy. Her scholarship has centered on African-descended peoples in Latin America and the circum-Caribbean. She is the author of The Last Turtlemen of the Caribbean: Waterscapes of Labor, Conservation, and Boundary Making (University of North Carolina Press, 2020). In 2021, her book received an honorable mention from the Elsa Goveia Book Prize Committee of the Association of Caribbean Historians. Her scholarly interests now focus on historical moments when African-descended peoples formed solidarities and communities. Currently, she is working on an article manuscript examining a group of Black American expats to Ghana during the Kwame Nkrumah era (1951-1966).

Comments on “The Afterlives of Migration in Panama and its Diaspora

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    Is there an actual link to the online roundtable? I’ve clicked on every link in the roundtable post and there isn’t a registration link.

    Is this open to the public?

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      Hello! Authors in this roundtable contributed essays that Black Perspectives will release every day from May 29–June 2, 2023. You can find each essay as they are released here.

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