By Lydia M. Reid
Over the past year after opening this website we’ve received scores of requests from our readers for information leading to the whereabouts of their long lost uncles, grandfathers, brothers, cousins, etc, – people who came to Panama in search of a better life through employment on the construction of the Panama Canal. Their requests usually ended, however, in “…and then they just disappeared off the face of the earth.”
Most requests came from relatives of the “Silver” men and women, the former workers on the Panama Canal from diverse Caribbean nations. One day, however, we received a charming and rather unusual request from a lady in Spain, a Marian Viguera. Not only was it written in Spanish, in contrast to our usual solicitations, but, she earnestly thought we might have some way of orienting her in her investigation. Although she could not read English she understood that our website was about the men who worked on the building of the Panama Canal and she was asking us for more information pointing to her great grandfather’s steps when he left Italy to go work in Panama.
She was the great granddaughter of Giacomo Toante, an Italian citizen who, upon discharge from the Italian Army (1911), headed for what she so aptly called the “El Dorado” of Panama. She wanted to gather any information about his work records while in Panama but had little or no clues from this period of her great grandfather’s life. Apparently, she, as some of us, was inspired by the many stories and recollections of her grandmother, María Angeles, or, Angelita, as she was affectionately called by all who knew her. Angelita and her two brothers were all born to Giacomo and his Spanish wife, Concha Navajas Lahidalga in Panama whom he met and married in the Episcopal Mission in the Panama Canal Zone.
WWI and the penurious economic conditions in Western Europe were largely responsible for sending millions of immigrants to the Americas and Panama was especially appealing to thousands of Italians like Giacomo whose homeland, northern Italy, was undergoing grave economic problems and political and civil unrest.
“Hence, hunger,” she said, “in the villages was abundant. Bread was expensive and Italy was forced to import it and the principle source of nutrition was corn (polenta)…only the Señores (the aristocracy) could eat meat. Given this situation it was not surprising that a child whose mother can no longer take charge of him winds up in the Turin orphanage.” These were the beginnings of Giacomo Toante’s difficult life in a devastated, war torn and famine ridden Italy during the late 1800’s. The conditions in Europe were strikingly similar to the impoverished conditions in the Caribbean Basin during the early 1900’s.
We included his name in our list of Silver forefathers as all men coming from Spain, Italy, Portugal, Turkey etc, were recruited for the Silver Roll once they were hired for the construction work, and submitted them to our sources for investigation. Among these sources is NARA (the National Archives and Records Administration) in Washington D.C.
We were surprised to receive an important response several months later among which we found a marriage certificate for Giacomo and Concha. We’d found some trace of her great grandparents as well as my grandfather, Joshua Austin Reid!
Our friend in Spain was overjoyed at the news and her answer to us was filled with gratitude and a note to check the website that she had set up for her great grandfather and great grandmother now that she could complete it. We’ve provided the link to this beautiful site here, Familia Toante, which you may read and enjoy.
What impressed us the most is the supreme importance of “family roots” to so many people in the world and of the continuance of the memory of their ancestors, however humble and seemingly rootless their beginnings. We were touched by the introduction on her home page which we have translated for you:
“When motherhood changes you, when the way in which your children are born and raised is so vital to their development it is important to look back to understand from whence we came in order not to forget it in the future.
All my life this has been a family history told by my grandmother, which I never tired of hearing.”
What began as a quest to find pieces of our past has ended up uniting our lives and desires as the descendants of The Silver People with descendants all over the world.