The story, or rather, the account, you are about to read was written by Daniel Webster, better known on the web as Ocho Gritos, posted on Facebook on 6 September on our Afro Heritage of Panama (Facebook) Group. With his permission we’ve decided to share it with you, our readers, to preserve some of the memories of the Silver People of the Black Zone. ***
The other day, I wrote on Facebook about getting a hair cut with a razor blade, and a young man commented he had never heard of this. I recognized his family but also realized he would be too young to know about this cultural aspect of black Zonian life. I grew up in Rainbow City what today is Ciudad Arco Iris. Mr. Brooms was our family barber going back generations.
My grandfather, even though in all of his photos he is bald, went to Mr. Brooms as well as my father. Because back then ALL adults were referred to as Mr. or Mrs. or Miss, I have no idea of any of the first names of the adults of my youth in Rainbow City. My first recollection of my hair cuts is being put on the wooden plank over the barber chair. I still remember struggling not to go. I hate hair cuts and hated how Mr. Brooms cut hair. His shop was in the new rebuilt center that housed the clinic, post office, movie theater and clubhouse. Today his haircuts would be considered great, but back then people were starting to grow their hair out and went I got to school down the covered way to the elementary school, I endured ridicule.
We moved to Gamboa. The area of Santa Cruz where the non-Americans lived was not the idyllic world of Rainbow City. We called the place Gamboa but I have told the official name is Santa Cruz (Holy Cross?). It was a wild place, by not only my eyes but even some of the people that lived there took pride in the libertine nature of the community. It was segregated from White-American Gamboa by thin street. But on a Saturday morning like this I would get my hair cut not by the barber in the barber at the center housing the clubhouse, library and theater but under a basement by a barber with razor blade and comb!
The person who turned me on to this shall remain nameless, but when he found out my father had given me a quarter to go get my haircut he took me to this barber. He cut hair in the building where Mr. French and family lived. Jose French and his brother would listen to jazz and salsa where the whole town could hear their music. The barber, who I met again in Bradenton, Florida, explained that if I bought a box of Wilkinson Sword blades my haircut was free.
When we met in Florida years later, he admitted being terrified of cutting Mr. Webster’s son’s hair. I still remember his nervous hands, but he gave me a styling cut. My father I am sure found out, and if he did he never said, but it was important for him that I look dignified. The haircut was a nickel. The barber used a scissors to trim the top but would fade the side with the razor pressed against the comb.
Gamboa was a place you had to be cool or get beat up. Actually, you could get beat up just for being Mr. Webster’s son or because some joker wanted to fight.
It was a place where loud R&B, Salsa and Calypso music blared out of the teen club called 77 Sunset Strip named after the television show. The music sometimes played until after midnight. The local ‘maleantes’ smoked ganja and gambled openly. They would mix with the contrabandists who smuggled commissary goods into Panama. I loved Saturday mornings in Gamboa, because I got up at 7am go to clubhouse and get fresh bread for mother and then was off running with my friends until evening. The haircut sometimes was the height of the day. There was a basketball court by the fruit market and guys played ball from 9am to 9pm nonstop. I did a bit but my adventure was to go up in the jungle, and many times help with bringing back palm trees for a nite ‘o fun party. We were off to Paraiso and back to an idyllic Silver community life.
After reading what I wrote, I want to clarify for the younger people who did not grow up in the Canal Zone or those who are new to this history of Silver People. Gamboa is now a resort and even though back then there was a lot of shenanigans as I mentioned, it was also a place of hard working people. Rainbow City unlike Gamboa was not on the shores of the Canal, so you did not see the men going to work everyday. I used to sit up and look out my window from our place on MacFarlane Parkway in Gamboa and see the silhouettes of the men coming from work especially after midnight.
I remember Mr. Bowen and Mr. Amantine (not even in my sleep would I dare utter these men’s first names) because they were so tall as they made their way home. Sometimes they would stop at the basement across the street with other workers for minute or two. I saw all these men as super men made of iron like the Hercules crane that sat at the entrance of the work area behind the commissary.
They were invincible in my eyes, but I remember a day when a pall came over the town: there was rumor someone had died on a tug that was out to sea. Many names were bandied around causing grief to many, and in the end it was Mr. Salazar. There are few bigger heroes in my mind than the workers of the Panama Canal. actually there no bigger heroes.
So please view the post for just a stroll down memory lane, and not a slight to the wonderful people of the town now seen by tourists for its exotic beauty. Back then the beauty was the people.