The Silver and Gold Roll on the Panama Canal Zone


Image: A Pay Car in Colon on payday for “Silver Workers 1910.

The appellative “Silver” comes from the Gold and Silver Roll system implemented by the American administrators of the Canal Zone in 1904 and enforced by the American government from the very beginning of what is historically known as the American Construction Era of the Panama Canal Zone which spanned the years 1904-1914.

The Gold and Silver Roll system, the imported version of “Jim Crow,” or the racially segregated system of the United States, became the foundation for Panama Canal Zone society and economy until it was phased out in the 1960′s.

Since the days of the building of the railroad and during the French period, the system was adopted from the railroad’s policy of different payrolls and the separation of the races soon became an implanted phenomenon. By the time the second large wave of West Indians arrived in the first decade of the turn of the twentieth century, the separation of the races was a practiced and established institution.

The Gold and Silver Roll system in the Panama Canal Zone was more than just a pay system designed to maintain a more privileged class of white semi-skilled and skilled workers happy with their stay in Panama. The Gold Roll, paid in American gold dollars, reflecting a much higher pay scale than in the U.S., at first was comprised of chiefly white American employees brought in from the United States mainland.

The Gold Roll enjoyed all of the privileges and amenities that the system had to offer. They enjoyed, of course, much higher pay, better and more spacious housing facilities for families, excellent and well equipped schools for their children, better nutrition, better health care, almost free entertainment and recreational facilities and a generally better quality of life. Their (the Gold Roll) comfort and satisfaction were central factors in most decisions made by the Canal administrators.

Other benefits that became very important “draws” in the recruitment process were sick leave and “home” leave, a privilege that included paid return passage back to their home state for a holiday while their job was preserved for them on the Zone. Although some blacks and other non-American members of the Gold roll were entitled to the “privileges” of this special group of people, they were, nevertheless placed at a lower pay scale and denied certain benefits, particularly, sick and home leave.

For the Silver Roll, whether they were West Indian or Black American citizens, however, every aspect of their lives would be segregated and generally inferior in quality to that offered to the members of the favored Gold roll workers. The separate housing areas then would become small cities that were also kept apart. Thus, all these rules and policies started becoming a reality as soon as the army of West Indian Blacks had given their all to secure and clean most of the area, making Panama fit for human habitation.

For the brave and stalwart black workers who had been the pioneers and the backbone of all the rugged preparations of the Canal construction before this new era of demarcation of the class structure began, the drastic changes that soon followed would make theirs a totally depressing experience. Soon they would see their expectations for any professional advancement stymied.

In 1908, after President William Howard Taft directed an executive order to apply the “nationality test” or restriction to all hiring on the Canal Zone, the pressure was on in the Zone to stop hiring any blacks as engineers on the rail road. By 1909 the once plentiful skilled Jamaican workers and U.S. Blacks who had been acting as “engineers of any kind, yard masters, hostlers, boat pilots, machinists, carpenters, wiremen,”* division engineers and even postal clerks, were barred from such positions in the future.

Despite objections from even the white department heads who valued their very competent and skilled black workers, the massive demotions in the thousands began. Of this period it has been said, “It was one of the most vicious episodes in canal history, remembered and resented deeply by the West Indians for years afterwards.”

Thus, the foundation for the Silver and Gold Roll system was established and, despite the many stumbling blocks it placed in the way of the “Silver People,” they managed to enjoy periods of prosperity and growth and, at the same time, give rise to a new culture, history and literature in their new home, the Republic of Panama.

The full workforce in the last year of construction (1914) numbered about 45,000 to 50,000, which nearly equaled the combined populations of Colon and Panama City. But, the total number of white North Americans was only about 6,000, of whom roughly 2,500 were women and children. Of the remaining 44,000 workers, easily 80% were of West Indian descent and members of the “Silver Roll.”

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29 responses to “The Silver and Gold Roll on the Panama Canal Zone

  1. “Growing up in Rainbow City (formerly Silver City given the racial make up) and the subdivision of Camp Coiner, racism was not that apparent for a child since the world around you is all you know. My world was all black. – sanjuanletran

    Thank you so much for this comment. My world growing up was all white. I have felt badly for all my adult life for not having realized the racism inherent in the Canal Zone for the most part, and then only dimly. That was just the way it was. I feel somewhat absolved from that guilt with the knowledge that you, and perhaps many others, felt the same way, even from the opposite community. We were all segregated, and to a great extent, sadly, we still are. We are all the less for that, being robbed of the enrichment of deeply knowing each other and our histories and realizing that we are superficially more alike than not. At a deeper level there is still resistance to understanding that all humans are alike. At an even deeper level lies the understanding that everything on Earth is made from the very same cosmic dust, so you might say that humans are really no different than rocks. This, I think, at this time is the overarching principle for humans to understand. As we, collectively rape, pillage and plunder the Earth, we are doing it to ourselves. We are killing the Earth, and in doing so, killing ourselves. We are, after all, One.

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    • Aurora, good to see you here and enjoying the trip back to some childhood memories.

      We were all segregated, and to a great extent, sadly, we still are. We are all the less for that, being robbed of the enrichment of deeply knowing each other and our histories and realizing that we are superficially more alike than not.

      So true. This is one of the worst features of any system like this one that forced separation of the races- it kept both sides pauperized.

      Thanks for stopping by and leaving your impressions.

      Roberto

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  2. We have published the following memory from one of our friends and followers on on our Afro Heritage of Panama Facebook page, Daniel Webster, as it is a priceless recollection of what it was like to live in the segregated Canal Zone. Thank you Daniel!

    “I have mentioned here on Facebook about the legal segregation that existed in the Canal Zone of my youth. It was an era that was ending when I became an older teenager but had not ended when I left for the USA. We were divided between Silver (capitalized to represent both race and political subdivision) for blacks, then only non-American born blacks, and Gold for whites, then only American born. But I was regarded as Silver through and through.

    Growing up in Rainbow City (formerly Silver City given the racial make up) and the subdivision of Camp Coiner, racism was not that apparent for a child since the world around you is all you know. My world was all black. We would go to the Coco Solo commissary or visit Margarita club house but it did not matter. I had a big world to conquer. We would go to Mount Hope Cemetery and hunt birds with our ‘biombos’ or sling shots. My friends would roam free and wild through the Atlantic side of the Zone. ‘Catching’ crab was the weekend expedition a boy lived to accomplish. Armed with wire coat hangers we would stick these down crab holes and bring them back. Unlike today, I would live to play on the weekends. Saturdays were adventures in the wilderness of Gatun or the lower hillside area below Margarita.

    Then we moved to Gamboa. My pastoral youthful sprees were over. Gamboa was blatantly segregated. A street through the middle of town kept blacks and whites apart. There was two of everything. Silver or black Gamboa was called Santa Cruz. We called it Gamboa. I believe Santa Cruz was a settlement up the Canal and given to Silver Gamboa to avoid talk of racism. It made me realize the world was not the paradise I experienced in Rainbow City. Black Gamboa was a rough and tumble place. The clubhouse would play music so loud everybody and everyone knew the latest hits in English and Spanish. Maleantes openly smoked ganja and played dice defiant of the law. The commissary, which still stands to this day, was just de-segregated when we moved there, but seeing the separate fountains jarred me.

    Gamboa was as much fun in a mischievous way as it was disconcerting. Saturdays for ‘nite ‘o fun’ we would go up in the jungle about town to get palms to cover up the area of the dancing. The movie theater on our end of the town was loud and raucous especially if a Western was playing. Kids stomped loudly and cursed openly with each punch thrown. Being the principal’s son, you had to learn to fight or stay indoors. I learned to fight, because back then bullying was not a crime. I started to believe it was a way of life for Gamboans. I got beat up. I beat people up. Daily I was confronted with, “your father whooped me” and was ready. My father did whoop a lot of kids including incorrigible me. Gamboa was the home of the Hercules crane, a noir colored hunk of iron and steel that stood above the Canal. It represented the town very well as a symbol.”

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  3. Pingback: Western Privilege and Anti-black Racism in Panama | Racialicious - the intersection of race and pop culture

  4. Hi there,i will like to say that these are amazing stories of the folks that live
    during a great era.i myself was born in Gorgas Hospital and raise in Gamboa.living in the canal zone was a blessing my dad and i,we still share these amazing stories.I remember when i swam in the canal like it was my private swing pool,run and play in the jungle fishing was my hobbie,but i also remember segregation,the children of the panama canal workers had different schools even the Panamanians in panama city didn’t like us because they said that we weren’t Panamanians that we were Zonian.So I never left Gamboa and if went to the city in panama,i only spoke spanish.these stories i tell my children now of how amazing it was growing up in Gamboa in the old canal zone.

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  5. culturismo sin tonterias

    Hi there! Someone in my Myspace group shared this site with
    us so I came to look it over. I’m definitely loving the information. I’m bookmarking and will be tweeting this to my followers! Wonderful blog and excellent design.

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  6. Astevia Lopez Morsut

    Your article is very interesting. I know about the silver and gold roll, because of my father. We are Panamanians, my father was born in Chupampa, Herrera. As a young man, without education he was a truck driver in the CZ and he was a silver roll worker…. Not only did he get descriminated by the gold roll people but also by the blacks, because they spoke English, and could understand the Americans, where as the Panamanians couldn`t, they felt superior that the Panamanians. So, the Panamanians like my father got descriminated by the “Americans” and the “Blacks” I remember all the stories,,,, he used to tell us…. I will never forget!!! Thank you. A. Lopez

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  7. I remember sitting on the steps at the old boyscout building adjacent to the Catholic church next to the high school shop in Silver City watching the buses go by. Subsequently growing up to have first communion at the same church, then moving to the colored brick rainbow city building. During those times, remembering the the lawn care taker as we called them “grass cutterman” kept Rainbow City landscape as its utmost beauty., also to include the maintenance of the so highly appreciated swimming pool and the little league baseball park.

    My Dad with the civic council was a member and a team leader for the Park/Youth recreational activity in which we had a team called Bowen’s Braves. We actively played other teams hence traveled to play against the Canal Zone little league teams from the Pacific side, Pedro Miguel/Paraiso to include Curundu. Those were fantastic days.

    We also loved the rainy season to get our blue back crabs for dinner, n all the other produce food, e.g. mango, guava, almond, star apple, sowersop, papaya, pear (avocado), also the beautiful parakeet birds, etc.

    Skating/bicycle riding was one of our favorite pass times, playing top, marble, baseball card game, ping-pong, cricket n baseball, dodge ball, hopscotch with the girls, volley n basketball.

    We had our own local music band called the Mystics, Sylvertone, Lyrics comprised of musicians from Rainbow City n Colon. We had great times playing at the gymnasium and teen club located at the swimming pool.

    Christmas time was special, cake baking, etc was smelling all over the place, ham, turkey, etc. n caroling from house to house. Oh yes, we enjoyed Rainbow City, Canal Zone.

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    • Wonderful memories! This is one of our greatest motivations to keep up the history and restore respect to the culture of the Silver People. Our people and community left an indelible mark for the better on Panama’s legacy to the world.

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    • Edward M. Rogers

      My fondest memories was Christmas time, my mother would be baking her famous friut cakes and ham for Christmas eve, also last but not lest, a room has to be painted. So it is not Christmas unless I smell Jamacain fruit cake and oil base paint.

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    • Edward M. Rogers

      I also remember the smell of oil paint, mother always said one need to have something new.

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  8. Edward M. Rogers

    Hello

    I am a new member or would like to be a member of your society. I would like to thank you and your wife for the invaluable history that I have learned in the past few hours, I am a “Zonian” , my father and Grandfather worked for the PanCanal company, both my father and grandfather have passed on, and I made a promise to my father to retain and continue the Westindian culture alive for my generation. I am very happy to have found your website and foundation, I can use this as a tool to pass on our culture to my generation and my children.

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    • Mr. Rogers,

      Thank you for contacting us and for giving us the encouraging feedback after reading our pages. You are the kind of descendant that we need with motivation and enthusiasm to continue this massive work we have started. We are practically tackling this alone as we have had many well wishers and descendants who look to us to help them in their ancestor search but few persons actually help by way of commitment to contributing technical knowledge and economic resources. Few people realize that in Panama we are also lobbying to pass a Bill we have submitted for ratification to declare the “Black Canal Zone” or the Silver Canal Zone and the Silver Cemeteries National Cultural and Historic Patrimony.

      Please, do not lose your enthusiasm and support us in whatever way you can. You can contact us via Skype at my Skype contact: copticmonk.

      We wish you prosperity and health for the New Year.

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  9. I have aquire a 10k gold pin that was issue in 1908 from the development of the Panama Canal. It is a smaller than a USA penny pin, blue and gold in color and mark 10k at the back.
    Can any ony tell me what I got here ? I will apperciate any info.I can provide a more detail description if needed.

    Singh

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  10. Dear Mrs. Robinson,

    That memorable visit with your father has obviously stayed with you throughout your life and it is also part of our valuable heritage here on the Canal Zone.

    Please do not forget us in your prayers and thank you for your visit and your lovely comment.

    C. Roberto A. Reid

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  11. Joanne Steiner Robinson

    My Father, Jerome E. Steiner, was the Paymaster
    on that paycar in thr photo. I went with him one
    time when he traveled on the paycar, out from Balboa. It was extremely exciting for me. Sincerely,
    Joanne Steiner Robinson

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  12. Thank you so much for your “right on target” thoughts about our deeply rooted culture.

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  13. As far as I can remember, when I was growing up in Rainbow City, people in the Canal Zone always appeared overly concerned about relations between Panama and the United United States.

    I don’t remember how old I was when I heard the word ” treaty” or” treaties” for the first time.I believed it was even whispered. But I knew right away that it was a word concerning Panama and the United States, and especially those of us who lived in the Canal Zone.
    And from that time it seemed to me that the descendants of the builders of the Panama Canal who lived in the Canal Zone and who identified ourselves as Panamanians were always concerned about the “new treaties”.

    Although I was just a little girl,I remembered clearly when Marco Aurelio Robles ran for president in Panama. There was a nice jingle that he promoted himself with on tv, and I used to run around our house singing it:
    “Robles, el Presidente va, Robles, el Presidente va. Robles,el presidente, el presidente,…”

    Clueless as to Panamanian politics, because I was a mere child, I liked Robles just because of the catchy song. I was very happy when he won.I knew that Marco A. Robles was my president.

    But as a child growing up, I noticed that it always seemed that the identity and patriotism of Panamanians living in the Canal Zone was always questioned or assumed not strong enough.The belief that some people are more patriotic than others because of their place of residence, history or whatever, is always irritating.

    Often I would encounter my parents with our neighbors talking about how they felt things were going to manifest within the Panama /U.S. negotiations.The descendants of the builders of the Panama Canal who resided in the Canal Zone understood that Zone authorities had no great intentions regarding our future within the Canal context.

    As the years went by, Panama was under military rule, and although insecurity still lingered ;I think many of us, like everyone else got used to some of the changes during that period, and accepted the idea that a new treaty was imminent.

    The devastating 1989 US invasion, propelled Panama unto civilian rule.The timely turnover of the canal and the former Canal Zone was a tremendous success.

    But even before the signing of the new treaties, and especially after, a large majority of Panamanians who lived along the great waterway left Panama to reside in the United States.

    As the mighty Gatun, Miraflores and Pedro Miguel Locks and the grand Panama Canal , our roots in Panama are too firmly grounded to be uprooted. We owe it to our forefathers to remind the living that our ancestors helped build this monumental waterway.

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    • Yeah anita, but you were not panameña, you were just invaders in a country that did not belong to you, so don´t have to miss nothing, thnaks god you go home and live us alone!

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      • First of all, let me just start out by saying that we normally DO NOT publish offensive comments like this one Rui has posted on our blog. We only deigned to post it to show the very low literacy level of these people who have no knowledge of their own history, the history of our country and do not have the most minimal knowledge of their language nor any other. Secondly, Rui, you are just WRONG by calling the Westindians invaders of Panama since the first immigrants and their children born in our country became the backbone of the Canal Zone and the country of Panama- the modern country Panamanian people enjoy today. Also, you are just, as may well be expected by your attitude, poco caballero- not at all a gentleman- and you probably have been told that many times.

        Anita- we apologize for this “person’s” poorly worded scribbling but we wanted to make it an example.

        Lydia M. Reid

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      • Rui just woke up and became wise overnight. He just found out that we are all “invaders” and sojourners on this planet. I was born in Rainbow City Canal Zone,Panamanian by birth, but the citizenship I value the most is “world citizen.”

        All of that clamoring for ownership of the Panama Canal and Panamanians are now begging the gringos to return with their money to help develop Panama. Rui,when the children of the present day invaders (gringos,Arabs,Europeans, tout le monde) grow up,they will send you back to your campiña, for not having the guts and confidence to build your own country.

        It is likely Rui is one of those Panamanians with Indian features or dark skinned(mestizo) who have never left Panama. Lacking a proper identity, he does not even know who he is descended from. It is ok to sit under a mango tree in panama and fool oneself saying Spain is the madre patria. I will suggest Rui you go to Spain and see how the Spaniards see you.

        One last thing, Rui, without the West Indians, no Canal. What would Panama be without the canal, without no important natural resources, not having the ability to make or produce anything and with fools like Rui.

        Anita

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      • Anita,
        please excuse Rui’s awful comment — do not generalize and think that all panamanians are like that. yet, please do NOT generalize and call him “one of those Panamanians with Indian features or dark skinned(mestizo) who have never left Panama”. that is just downright racist. do not judge people on their skin color or their physical features. and yes, Rui may have not left Panama, but do you think he (assuming he were a “mestizo” as you call him) would ever have the means to leave the country? Your latest comment was very offending to some Panamanians such as me. Yes, maybe he didn’t leave the country, but is it his fault? and is it our fault that we were colonized by Spain, stripped off our resources, and reduced to minimal power? aren’t all humans equal? then WHY are you calling all Panamanians “not having the ability to make or produce anything and with fools like Rui”? Shall I quote all the famous Panamanian writers and poets that have earned worldwide respect? And yes, maybe Panama would not have been as important or as powerful if the north-americans had not built the Canal, but is it our fault? is it our fault that we don’t have a lot of resources? To me, you are speaking from a completely racist and obnoxious point of view and treating us Panamanians as a lesser race. In true honesty, I am quite annoyed that you would treat us as lesser beings and think yourself on top of the social pyramid, being as educated and cultivated as you are.

        John

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      • John,

        I’ll let Anita post her own reply to your comment in her own time but right now I wanted to respond.

        Thanks for your point of view as we try to make sense of attitudes that were generated a long time ago by, in my opinion, the colonizing powers who did a good job of “dividing and conquering.” Yes, you are right about generalizations, especially racial ones and we hoped with this site, The Silver People Heritage that the world, including Panamanians such as yourself, could understand the truth of what happened in our country’s history and which still seems to affect us today.

        Through learning about these facts about the despicable Silver and Gold Roll System more people’s attitudes could change and we might avoid allowing these types of violations to peoples’ humanity to happen. I don’t really think that any one of us can afford to consider ourselves on “top of the social pyramid” if we continue to harbor erroneous sentiments of superiority based on one’s racial identity.

        If anything, I believe that we in Latin America are a perfect example of what racial mixing could be- a beautiful enriching experience- something that our European colonizers seemed to be mortally afraid of. We are far from it, however, and even in Panama today we see too much of the ugly racism against especially darker skinned people much to their detriment. Racial attitudes have changed little but with forums like this one we hope to be a catalyst to change this.

        Panama does have a lot of resources, its people, its natural resources of water, sun and environmental beauty and it is time that we respect ourselves for what we can produce now. The Westindians have been a great part of Panama’s human resources. Also, remember that the wonderful “writers and poets” of Panama, as you said, are only now being recognized and the emerging new ones are just recently being discovered and promoted to the younger generations. For many decades if the writer did not come from the upper social classes he/she was just not recognized; class has been just as much a barrier as race.

        Again, thank you John for posting your feelings. We hope that, with bringing out our literature and history, there will be less occasion for offense in this world and hence, less war.

        Lydia Reid

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  14. Anita,
    Your splendid article has brought me up to date on a period after my times of adolecense in which we who grew up then, did not and could not participate in that type of Carnaval spirit. This vote of thanks is from one repentant who joined the Exodus.

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  15. Two cars with my relatives from Panama City rolled up and parked in our garage, and in front of our house one “Sunday Carnavalito”. There staggering to get out were my mom’s cousin Violeta, her husband, their five children, and my great grand aunt Edna and her husband.

    They were all decked out in attractive looking outfits, the men wore guayabera shirts and large Carnaval looking straw hats on their heads. The women were dressed to kill.

    Every “Carnavalito”, Black Panamanians and many others who lived on the other side of the isthmus, traveled to the city of Colon to participate in the revelry. Spreeing as they called it. After all, no one in their right mind would miss “Colon Carnavalito”.

    As my relatives entered our house speaking loudly they repeated the regular greetings of folks who don’t see one another that often.They would then engage in a ritual of hugging and pinching us little children, their bodies smelling of sweet perfume and heavy cologne. I always pondered on the fact that as serious as my relatives were, they certainly knew how to have fun.

    Carnaval is a four day celebration that begins on Saturday and ends the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. In Colon, the Carnaval rules were broken, because Carnavalito was celebrated the Sunday after Ash Wednesday. On that day, many Panamanians traveled to the city of Colon to celebrate what many considered the largest festivity ever. Colon a small city of only sixteen streets with a long park that runs in its center would come alive for this celebration.

    As my relatives dropped some of their bags and head off to the city, my parents would take us to see and enjoy the Carnaval. My parents were never too fond of Carnaval, sometimes we never attended.But whenever our relatives showed up, they took us. I guess not to be considered” aguafiestas”.

    Colon was notorious for its fabulous comparsas(entire blocks of singers and dancers) who sang and danced along the avenues in matched outfits, beating drums and anything that made noise. Sometimes the comparsas composed songs that became hits.

    Brasileros, Campesinos and many more groups would dance along Bolivar Avenue straight to Central Avenue. The streets of Colon were usually jam packed with Rainbow crowd, Colon folks and Panama city visitors. Many tourists also watched the revelry.

    Topper or “Tapa”, dancing Indian along with “Norma the man”, were two institutions during Carnavalito, with the little children running behind them. Diablos with their whips and the boys with many pants on accepting the whippings from the Diablitos.
    Loud music in the air, the pulsating rhythmic sounds of drums and the participants in the comparsas swaying back and forth to a music that seemed capable of waking up even the dead.

    There were queens from the many communities that made up the city of Colon, including the Canal Zone( both Black and White).

    The Brasileros, always my favorite because of the samba beat, would lose their style and grace to the Campesinos, who came out dressed as peasants with real machetes and sugar canes in their hands. The people of Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and the upper streets near the sea all joined together block after block singing and dancing in such a way that those Carnavals became memorable.
    ” Ese nombre Campesino, nunca, nunca morira”. The Campesinos won me over for good. I became an eternal “Campesino fan”.

    After the revelry, Colon remained pack with everyone just walking around, eating, talking and sitting in the park looking at the lovely view of folks all dressed up in glamorous looking clothing .

    It always took a long while for the city of Colon to calm down after Carnavalito. As everyone grew tired and went to their homes reminiscing of the good time, and saying that “this was one of best Carnavalito ever”; the city of Colon smiled, knowing that it was host to one of the greatest shows on earth.

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  16. Rolando,

    It is that Love that you perceive that caused me to major in Black Studies in college. I was a National Institute student 1952 then transferred to Colon- Abel Bravo- until 1956. By 1958 I had been in the Service U.S.

    Glad to have you reading, thanks for the comment.

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  17. I started out by looking for ‘Panama’ on Utube. Found a comment about engineer Goethals being a racist (probably the norm at the time). Trying to find out more about him, put in ‘silver and gold’ in Google, and voila!. I love the little country I was born in, even though spent most of my life in the U.S. (Instituto Nacional 1958: throwing rocks during student riots..! (beautiful…!))

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