“Desidia” and the Silver Roll Cemeteries of Panama


The headline reads "Cementerio Corozal en la Desidia." Image thanks to TVN - on line.

The headline reads “Cementerio Corozal en la Desidia.” Image thanks to TVN – on line.

Desidia is a term often bantered about in Panama’s daily newspapers concerning the pitiful state of its noble national and historic monuments and parks- part of its physical cultural legacy or what the UNESCO refers to as its tangible cultural heritage. It has ugly connotations when referring to the Silver Roll Cemeteries of Panama. Its meaning runs the gamut of apathy, indolence, laziness, carelessness, slovenliness, every nuance that is opposed to the attitude of its original American founders and the West Indian caretakers put in service to tend the cemeteries. It describes the present state of the once magnificent symbols of our West Indian cultural heritage here in Panama. 

In my response to a recent article appearing in the Panama Cybernews Newsletter, I would like to focus on the very relevant question posed by its author, Frances Williams Yearwood:

So what about our people? Who do we hold responsible and accountable for the horrid and shameful deterioration of the burial site for our people? The U.S. Government? The Panamanian Government? The families? I suspect we all play a role.

Let me brief you all, my respected readers, on the course of my journey through the process of obtaining protection- real protection- for these sacred burial grounds: Corozal Cemetery in Panama City, and Mount Hope (Monte Esperanza) and Gatun Cemeteries in Colon. Our journey, my wife’s and mine, started long before the reversion of the Panama Canal in 1999, when Corozal especially was being “kept up” by the Americans. Upon reversion it came under the administration of the Municipal government of Panama City. Fast forward a few years into the 21st century and the derelict hand of Desidia started making itself felt in the way this monument to the thousands of Black West Indian workers who worked and died building the Panama Railroad and the Canal, was not being kept up.

The old parts of the Corozal Cemetery, the ancient sections of tombs where many of our original Silver Roll ancestors are buried were falling into cruel abandonment. What’s worse, on one of my visits with my family to my grandmother’s tomb, I was approached by several of the groundskeepers who asked me if I were investigating “what was going on in the cemetery.” I frequented the cemetery as I have a grandmother, Aunts, Uncles and family friends buried there. “Licenciado,” they asked, “are you here to investigate why they are digging up the graves of the old Señores and selling off the plots to others?” To say the least, I was flabbergasted at this revelation, but I pretended to be fully informed. One of the men continued saying, “ I saw with my own eyes just the other day how they dug up one of the very old tombs and dragged off a beautiful coffin made of pure bronze with the human remains still inside.” I made a mental note of this shocking disclosure and that was when my journey began to seek some kind of effective, official protection for my ancestors’ resting ground.

I started first by opening this website and two others to leave a virtual record of my ancestors’ brave exploits in building the Panama Railroad and the Panama Canal. This required a great deal of time spent in writing articles now called posts as these sites are termed “blogs,” a phrase new to me then but something I dove into to leave a free and open library of information for particularly the youth who are the adepts in the world of the Internet. In the years following 2007 I started contacting International organizations that might assist us in getting help with the restoration and ongoing maintenance of these “living monuments.” Although they are burial grounds they are still living entities as they are dynamic in nature, requiring care, beautification and, of course, people to visit them.

World Monuments Fund

One of the first international organizations to respond immediately was The World Monuments Fund in New York City.  We were invited by them to submit an RFA, a Request for Assistance, which took us months to prepare, wait for approval and signatures and finally submit. To our relief and surprise, our application was accepted and all three sites as well as the site of Colon Center (the heart of Colon’s Casco Viejo) were accepted and included in the World Monuments Fund 2010 Watch listing of the 100 Most Endangered cultural sites in the world. Here is the link for you to peruse. Read page 33 for our sites.

National Assembly
The step that followed was to research any laws on Panamanian books that covered “cemeteries.” I found none except one- LEY No. 19 de 21 de junio de 2000– a pact really between Panama’s government and the American Embassy to protect “Corozal American Cemetery,” that gated off section of Corozal Cemetery that looks like a picture post card image of a revered military heritage cemetery. Buried there are former military personnel and ACP (Isthmian Canal Commission in the old days) staff and their family members. We continue to call this The Gold Roll Corozal Cemetery. The other, larger, poorer looking side we continue to call the Corozal Silver Roll cemetery. This side of the cemetery is in no way covered by Ley No. 19 of 2000.

The next part of our journey would take us to Panama’s Parliament or National Assembly in which we hoped to lobby for a law that would effectively protect our cemeteries from environmental, social and political threats such as industrial and commercial encroachment. We arrived at our goal when in 2012 after the Bill or Proyecto de Ley 348 became Anteproyecto 151 and finally Ley 7 Declaring Corozal Silver Cemetery, Monte Esperanza (Mount Hope) and Gatun Cemeteries National Historic Patrimony, finally became a Law on March 13, 2012 (Gazeta Oficial No 26994). Our lobbying efforts in the National Assembly spanned the years 2009-2013, often involving sitting through hours of meetings and presenting our case to the Comisión Permanente de Educación, Cultura y Deportes. These meetings with the Comisión came after a series of meetings with the funcionarios in the Dirección Nacional de la Participación Ciudadana which helped in preparing the document for our Law to go to Commission. Once Law 7 was signed by the President of the Republic (then Ricardo Martinelli) and passed into Law, the “ownership” as such and administration came under the Instituto Nacional de Cultura, Dirección de Patrimonio Histórico– our next odyssey.

Dirección de Patrimonio Histórico

Our first meeting with the Architect who was assigned to our cemeteries got off to a rough start and we were treated rather shabbily conveying to us a message of indifference and annoyance that we would feel so committed about protecting our people’s cultural heritage by way of these burial grounds. “We know nothing about cemeteries or dealing with tombs or protecting them,” he told us and proceeded to command me to deliver to him and his office all the volumes of research and writings we did for passage of the Law. After this questionable meeting with the people of Patrimonio Histórico we were never again contacted – ignored I might add- until a year later when we were to meet with the Municipio of Panama City to witness the traspaso (transference) of command of Corozal Silver Cemetery from the City of Panama to the INAC, Dirección de Patrimonio Histórico. I never did receive the copy of the official certificate of the Traspaso which I was promised at the event held in the Municipio building.

The Ministry of Education
Our efforts to introduce a curriculum proposal for the inclusion of the history and culture of the West Indian/Panamanians into the Panamanian school system was the highlight of our activities in 2013. Although we were told that the proposal ( a 50 page curriculum outline covering Educación Media– middle school) we have yet to be responded to and, even after many attempts at retrieving the proposal, have been summarily ignored by the Dirección de Desarrollo Curricular of the Ministry.

The Now:

To date we have never received any communications from INAC or the Patrimonio Histórico. We attempted to set up meetings with the former Director but were flat out denied a meeting. Due to the general indifference of the West Indian/Panamanian community, especially here in Panama, and especially among its intelligentsia in the National University and other cultural groupings, I have decided to back off on all of these efforts just to preserve my health and that of my family. I am not so much tired as I am fed up with the kind of lukewarm to hostile response to all of our work from the West Indian community. My efforts have even met with resentment and criticism accusing me of having made matters worse since Corozal Cemetery is looking quite abandoned and truly sad. We mustn’t forget Mount Hope Cemetery which has, time and again, been raised from the four foot tall grass that would impede anyone from visiting the graves of their loved ones.

All I have to say is that my wife and I are just two people, we cannot do it all. My cousin, Lic Roberto Ornano, who died over a year ago was one of the few who hung in there with us and went to meetings with us even with his physical limitations. Outside of just a handful of friends and followers, we have not been able to count on much emotional, financial or political/institutional support.

Important Note: I must recall the heroic efforts of our friend Eric Jackson, owner/editor of The Panama News, who, together with a small band of citizen volunteers rescued the Gatun Cemetery in Colon from utter extinction, got it cleaned up and inspired the ACP to commit itself to keeping it guarded and minimally maintained. You can read about it here.

To sum up, the Desidia or the dereliction that is plainly visible in our Silver Cemeteries that rest upon the banks of the Panama Canal, save for Gatun Cemetery, is a testimony to our collective lack of unity and action. We at the Silver People Heritage Foundation have attempted- and succeeded- in bringing these vulnerable heritage burial grounds under institutional protection; but, more work needs to be done and by people- descendants and all who are impassioned by heritage work- who have the talent, energy and drive and wish to continue the solemn task at hand. I’m satisfied with what our small organization has done so far but it is time for the West Indian/Panamanian community both in Panama and abroad to set aside foolish rivalries, jealousies, selfishness and useless excuses and pick up the torch and set to the task of carrying out the restoration and preservation of our ancestors’ burial grounds and the dignifying of our truly significant contribution to Panamanian and World culture.

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4 responses to ““Desidia” and the Silver Roll Cemeteries of Panama

  1. A profound Thank You to Terrence, Anita and Louis. We are grateful for your expressions of solidarity and we are hoping that you will be able to connect with us to continue our efforts with the work ahead. We feel encouraged, in fact, that there are more people, like Frances Williams, coming forward with deep concern and a willingness to commit time, money and resources as we have done.

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  2. Roberto and Lydia: I want to thank you both for your great efforts and dedication in fighting this struggle to bring honor and respect to our ancestors and also to secure/protect their final resting place. In my reflection of our people in Panama, I sometimes see our history there with pride and tragedy. Our ancestors loved Panama and the majestic canal, but their descendants (many of us) were forced to emigrate because our beloved country, Panama has/had no future and opportunities for us. But Panama and the canal weren’t a tragedy to the West Indians, they represented sheer joy, love and pride. In honor of the indomitable spirit of our people, who gave so much,I am all for joining hands with you both, and with anyone interested in protecting/ preserving the resting place of our people, and also telling their remarkable story of love and dedication, to the four corners of this world.
    Saludos,
    Anita Cumberbatch

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  3. I begin my comments with a deeply felt gratitude to you, Roberto and your spouse, Lydia; in addition to others, who might have worked with you on this obviously grueling task. I can’t thank you enough for what you have done. In a simplified way, it seems like you took on a “deep sea” fishing expedition, facing a whale and armed with a spear. I admire your courage to endure, despite the “raging monsters” encountered. I’m truly appreciative of your dedicated efforts in defense of our cultural dignity, considering the significance of deserving honor to our loved ones entombed in these graveyards; as well as a respectful regard for us, descendants in this honorable heritage (regardless of whether or not we might have had remains of loved ones buried there).

    Personally, I believe it was by some divine intervention that Ms. Frances Williams-Yearwood turned a new page in our common history when she made the outcry for restoration. Clearly, it follows your earlier work. I’m not sure where it will lead us; but I believe it is still on our watch. You’ve done a great thing! I am regretful that you found the difficulties you described, even among our group. But I hope you will be gracious with those who added to your agony along the way, challenging as that might seem. I’m not sure what all the differences might be; but I’m more certain of about a “common ground” be it “hidden or obvious.”

    I’m open to continued discussions relevant to the work you courageously initiated. Thanks again in behalf of my family, relatives, and friends past, present, and yet to come!

    In solidarity, TL

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  4. Blessing to Roberto & Eric Jackson for their support of the “Silver People”, I was born in Santo Thomas Hospital but lived on the Canal Zone until I was 15 leaving in 1960, I thought the Panama Canal Company was pretty fair but as I got older realized that “Silver (Local) Rate” employees didn’t get fair treatment such as in pay & opportunity to raise to journeyman jobs until later years, like my father who was an electrician had a Panamanian helper who back prior to 1960 could not because a journeyman electrician. We have to remember that the “Silver Rate” people was the work force behind building the Panama Canal & were paid so poorly that many went to work hunger. On the positive side the “Silver People” did have good housing, schools, retirement & pay was decent compared to pay in Panama. My mother who worked in the payroll department paid many Silver Rate retirees once a month in cash & got to know many of them. GOD BLESS THE SILVER PEOPLE.
    For people that don’t know, during the construction of the Panama Canal U.S. citizens were paid in Gold, foreigners were paid in Silver, thus Silver Rate & Gold Rate, later know as U.S. & Local Rate employees.

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