Date: Wed, 14 Jul 1999 22:29:16 -0500 (CDT)
SAMAAP recalls older generations, supports the younger one
By Eric Jackson, IPS, 14 July 1999
On June 25 at the Hotel Miramar Intercontinental the Afro-Antillean Museum of Panama Friends' Society (SAMAAP) gathered for their third annual Forum Against Racial Discrimination in Panama. The featured speakers dealt with historical topics, but the night began and ended in light of an ongoing student movement against racism.
In her opening remarks, society president Melva Lowe de Goodin disputed the notion that racism is an American import that doesn't much affect Panama. "We all know that when they ask for a photo with a job application, that's the first filter of discrimination," she said.
The evening's first featured speaker, Dr. Gil A. Sanchez, a pathologist and surgeon, spoke of the medical evidence of racial discrimination in the early Canal Zone years. See page 17 for a separate story on his talk.
The second presentation was by University of Panama public administration professor Luis Navas, who traced the evolution of Panama's citizenship laws and their relationship to US-Panamanian diplomacy. He pointed to the decade after the canal was finished as a key period for the Afro-Antillean community. In those times the US government was divided, with some conservative senators preferring the continued employment of West Indians over higher-priced Amercans and the US-based labor movement seeking to expel the blacks and reserve canal jobs for whites.
The Afro-Antillean labor and tenants movements of the early and mid-1920s were crushed and their leaders deported, Navas noted, and there followed a steady erosion of black people's position in Panamanian society.
It reached its nadir in the 1941 Constitution, which stripped Panamanians of West Indian, Asian or Middle Eastern ancestry of their citizenship, even if they were born and had lived all their lives here.
Navas pointed out that despite a weak bargaining position and occasionally fierce repression, the West Indian community and its institutions survived. He made particular mention of The Panama Tribune, the black-oriented English-language weekly that was published from the 1920s to the 1970s under the editorship of Sidney Young and then George Westerman, noting as well that one Marcus Garvey used to write for one of the paper's precursors as a young man. "We need to start rescuing our heroes," he concluded.
The last scheduled speaker was PCC lawyer Lourdes Haywood, who reviewed the history of West Indian women in Panama.
The first ships carrying canal workers from Barbados, she pointed out, didn't bring any women. However, Canal Zone authorities soon found that all-male communities had exaggerated social problems, and so allowed West Indians to immigrate. She said that the first women to arrive were from Martinique, and that their "sexy" French-influenced fashions and the Canal Zone authorities' justification for bringing them here led many critics to consider them as something akin to prostitutes. However, Haywood found old Canal Zone records that clearly indicated that most West Indian women who came to the isthmus during construction days married and formed strong families.
Skipping ahead to more recent times, Haywood analyzed the Panama Canal Commission's post-1979 anti-disrimination policies. She said that though it was not necessarily the preferred model, the commission modeled its policies against race and gender bias on US laws because Panama has no such legislation. Often, she said, the American definitions of who is of which race are inappropriate and even funny in light of Panamanian realities. The very dark-skinned attorney draw chuckles when she said "I might qualify as white-I don't fit into any of their other categories."
Haywood concluded that "we need laws to protect us against discrimination."
The crowd of about 200 people was mostly over 30, but a brief presentation by young Egbert Wetherborne, who is leading student protests at a number of Panama City bars and nightclubs that refuse admission to blacks, prompted the night's biggest applause. "There's a problem of discrimination in this society, and it's necessary to confront it," the student activist argued, adding that "we're not just concerned with admission to clubs-we're also especially aware of the the working world, like the banks that don't hire blacks." And this gathering of his elders are committed to backing his movement.
Death records show disparities, similarities
By Eric Jackson
At the June 25 anti-discrimination forum sponsored by the Afro-Antillean Museum of Panama Friends' Society (SAMAAP), noted Panamanian surgeon and pathologist Dr. Gil A. Sanchez spoke and fielded questions about his review of more than 4,000 Canal Zone autopsy reports from the canal construction years 1904 through 1914. He said that in several ways these records, along with contemporary Canal Zone death certificates for persons upon whom autopsies were not performed and medical history manuscripts, document that era's discrimination between Gold Roll (white US citizens) and Silver Roll (all other races and nationalities) employees.
In a lecture entitled "The men of ebony and the canal's construction: medicine at the turn of the century and how it cost the lives of Afro-Antillean workers," Sanchez said that the causes of death clearly showed that black workers got the most dangerous jobs. Even taking into account that the Silver Roll accounted for some five-sixths of the work force that built the canal, he said this is indicated by the presence of very few whites among those who died in accidental explosions, landslides and railroad accidents.
Sanchez noted that while the Canal Zone authorities usually did not perform autopsies when West Indian women died, the death certificates clearly show high rates of childbirthing deaths associated with the lack of obstetrical and gynecological care. "In the American canal construction era the quality of medical care that Americans and others received was very different," he added.
The pathologist called for further historical and medical research on the living conditions in black Canal Zone households, to learn the reason for their high tuberculosis rates. "Environmental factors in the homes of that time must have played a part, " he opined.
On the other hand, Dr. Sanchez noted that many infectious diseases were not so discriminatory. "White Canal Zone police officers died just the same as black ditchdiggers," he said. He did not reach any definite conclusions on the controversy about whether blacks tend to have more immunity to malaria and other tropical diseases than do whites, but said that the autopsy reports indicated that black cadavers had more parasites than white ones. "Despite the reputation, blacks were very susceptible to malaria," he said.
The physician draws certain social and political conclusions from his inquiry. He laments the way that the canal's history is taught in Panamanian public schools, the lack of recognition for the black majority of canal construction workers and the way that some writers only treat Afro-Antilleans only as victims, rather than as a community with all its joys, sorrows and complexities.
Most of all, Dr. Sanchez points to the sacrifices indicated in the medical record: "West Indians were 80 percent of the canal construction work force, and by their labor they earned a place in Panamanian society."