As we approach the month of February, set aside in North America as Black Studies month, it is a perfect time to reflect on a character from the now very popular novel in Panama by Joaquín Beleño, Gamboa Road Gang, or Los Forzados de Gamboa.
We covered the basis and main character of this extraordinary novel in our article describing The Panama Canal Zone Police but, we were only recently updated on the life of the central character, Ata. Ata was based on a real man, a young black West Indian man whose greatest mistake, according to Jesús Simmons, the journalist who interviewed him recently, was to fall in love with a white American girl. This man was Lester Leon Greaves.
Lester was accused of raping a young white American, Anabelle, who lived in the Canal Zone and paid dearly with time in the penitentiary at Gamboa for having involved himself with a white woman during the height of Jim Crow in the United States when it was unthinkable for a black man to even imagine himself in love with a white woman. We have to remember that the Canal Zone was governed as if it were another state of the United States with its unique American judicial system complete with circuit judges and trial lawyers who were required to be members of a bar of sorts, a listing, permitting them to practice in Panama.
In fact, “The Panama Canal Act of 1912 (37 Stat. 560) established the Panama Canal Zone as a permanent organization that assumed governmental functions. This act firmly established the federal courts in the Panama Canal Zone into three circuit courts: First Judicial Circuit (Balboa); Second Judicial Circuit (Empire, Gargona, Ancon); and Third Judicial Circuit (Cristobal). The three circuit courts each had three courts: the criminal court, the civil court, and the probate court. The judges for these courts were not federal judges but were appointed and approved by the Panama Canal Commission. The dates for the series of records for the criminal, civil, and probate courts vary.” You can read all about the organization of the court system on the Canal Zone here in an article by Robert Ellis.
Back to Lester. This remarkable 88-year-old man today lives in the district of San Miguelito with his son and daughter-in-law on 19th Street in Veranillo. Yes, he is still alive after having served 15 years, nine months, 13 days and 6 hours in jail of a 50 year sentence. His mind is still clear and he remembers everything that he experienced in Gamboa, but he and his family prefer not to touch on the subject. “Read Gamboa Road Gang by Joaquin Beleño;that’s my story,” is all he says to anyone who approaches him about his story. President John F. Kennedy, he insists, is the person who granted him his freedom.
“They call me a legend,” he says wistfully, not wanting to sound bitter, “but people have only made empty promises to me and then forget about me.” His terrible experience with the Canal Zone officials had a dramatic effect on his life. Today he is a survivor but his quality of life is quite poor as not only his youth and health were robbed from him but his ability to hold on to his few possessions. He has no teeth, is confined to a wheelchair and uses disposable diapers. If that weren’t bad enough, the house he shares with his son and his son’s family is rented. Simmons writes that Mr. Greaves doesn’t care to recall all of his sufferings in the penitentiary and all the injustices he witnessed. All he wants is to recover a piece of land that he owned which, today, is occupied by some people who do farming on the property.
Lester is definitely a legend, but few people who live on his street know that he was sentenced to 50 years hard time for having fallen in love with a white woman. The only person who continually visits him to check in on him is Nimia Beleño, daughter of the writer of Gamboa Road Gang.