I must have been about eleven years old when I first starting going to my French grandparents’ place for summer vacation over in the bush of Paraiso. Pa’riso bush, as we always knew it, was behind the railroad tracks going east from the town of Pa’riso. Grandfather and grandmother Julienne were not really my grandparents; they were my uncle’s in-laws, but they were very loving old people and were glad to host us for summer vacation with their own grandchildren. We became just like one of their own brood of grand kids and even called each other cousins.
The house they first lived in was a “bohio,” a Panama style thatched roof cabin made of wooden planks and small tree trunks. When my uncle married their daughter he decided he would take advantage of the closing of the town of Red Tank and secured a completely dismantled house of the many that were left of Red Tank.
We moved the house piece by piece in his little old Chevy truck to the site of the bohio and started to assemble it again. My grandfather Julienne was always busy in the bush tending to his yams and ground food garden. One day, when he came home tired from the day’s labors at his bush garden, he was met with the surprise that people had torn down his old cabin roof and yelled and screamed at my uncle, “Why you do this thing to me, Pinky!” He was truly upset and my grandmother and cousins had to hold him down and give him some water as well as reassure him that everything would be just fine.
After they calmed him down my uncle proceeded to explain that they would have a new house. Shortly thereafter the reassembled house from Red Tank started taking shape and soon my grandparents had a new home. We even painted the place and resettled the old folks and the place became our “summer camp.”
I soon became my grandmother Julienne’s errand boy going to the Pa’riso Commissary and back and forth to Panama City bringing and taking messages and/or stuff between both grandmothers. This is how I eventually discovered the old French Cemetery.
It happened after many trips across this seemingly overgrown and abandoned field over the hill from my grandparent’s place. Actually it was a short cut for me to get to the commissary. After a while I noticed, through the foot path that we kids made, that we were walking through some kind of very old burial ground. We began seeing small iron crosses and we would even sit and rest a spell feeling comfortable with our surroundings. One day we saw some black people attempting to clean the area especially around the crosses. This is when I knew that my suspicions were correct.
This was back in 1947. In 1994 it was “recovered.” The burial ground is the resting place of some of the first workers of the Panama Canal from the French Construction era (1880-1889), from mostly Martinique, Jamaica and St. Lucia. These people most probably were the West Indian workers who worked on the Pacific side. The photos we have provided is how it looks today but the old French Cemetery has not been pronounced a national monument and is not listed anywhere as a recognized historical monument site.
In tracing a lot of my people’s history I found that the French builders also buried many of their West Indian laborers in Monkey Hill or Mount Hope Cemetery on the Atlantic side of the Canal near the city of Colon.