As a unique race of people the rescue of the Panamanian Westindian Cultural Heritage must include the recognition of the Afro-Hispanic cultural heritage. This link to our cultural past goes as far back as 9th century Spain and points to the enriching part of our American Caribbean experience, making us a distinct people, even amongst our brotherhood of West Indian nations. The people of our planet need to learn about us who have been excluded from an important part of the history of the Americas, Europe, and Asia. They need to learn about the bravery and perseverance of our forefathers the Silver Men of Panama. Their heroic deeds and resilience in surviving in a region of Central America at a time in history which spelled certain death for many people like them, made even those who hated us sit up and take notice.
At the time of its inauguration in 1914 people from all over the world converged on the “Great Ditch.” Separated by race and national origin, the event rocked the world. But, when the job was finally concluded it would be our grandfathers and great-grandfathers who would stand there and witness the seas unite and the passage of the merchant ships far into the 20th century. Those efforts would have been cause of rejoicing for any group of people, however, for us, the descendants of the Silver People it has come down to us as a duty to conserve the heritage which our West Indian ancestors have left us.
Our hope is to maintain the focus on what is truly important, just as our forefathers and mothers did when they strove with their labor and intellect to accomplish the monumental task of construction and operation. Our prime concern at this urgent moment is to preserve and memorialize the important contribution of our people, and their substantial and historic role in the building and effective operation of this great international waterway which became a God given gift to all of humanity. Our current effort centers on the historic Segregated Silver People Cemeteries located on the banks of the Panama Canal and their declaration as a Historic Heritage to Humanity.
In actuality we have found three cemeteries that total more than a century and a half of history on the Isthmus of Central America located primarily on the shores of the world famous Panama Canal, in what was formerly known as the Panama Canal Zone. The Mount Hope or “Monkey Hill” Cemetery, which is today’s Cementerio de Monte Esperanza in Colon has been documented by reputable historians to have been founded between 1849 and 1914. The “French Era” Cemetery located at Paraiso was the burial ground for the original French period, 1880-1889. Finally, the Segregated Corozal Canal Zone Cemetery dates from 1914 to our present day. The Corozal Cemetery, in particular, remains as a vivid reminder of the system of racial segregation practiced officially on the American Panama Canal Zone.
The people of the segregated Black Canal Zone came to include most of us, regardless of where in the segregated black community we found ourselves at the time in history, whether on or off the Zone. The unique lifestyle and culture that we directly shaped in our country of Panama were and continue to be the tangible evidence we have as a people. They are today a vivid reminder, as we visit the inadequately maintained “Silver Roll” section of the burial ground adjacent to the smaller and neatly kept and conserved American Battlement Cemetery. They have become reminders of the overriding “facts of life” as it was on the American Canal Zone, reminders that today remain hidden from the international community. Community awareness on the subject of the incalculable contribution of the black Silver Roll employees remains just as it was a century ago, totally absent.
So has it been historically for those of our ethnicity. We are a people hidden from the history books and unrecognized in the sphere of human cultural development in the region of the Caribbean and Central America. We are hoping that when an unaware international community becomes aware of this resounding travesty of justice it will join us in our outrage and push for steps to set things aright. The cultural value to humanity of these sites will invariably become a glaring reality, and with the assistance of the world community and our diligence we will be able to secure the perpetual care we seek for those historic sites.
The recognition we are seeking will afford us, as descendants, a lasting memorial and the preservation of our culture, not only for us but for the whole of humanity to enjoy. This important step will usher in a much needed change of attitude and a hope to see the sites properly and deferentially maintained. These cultural monuments to humanity will not only be pleasing to the eye but will become proud icons to our Westindian culture and to its crucial participation in the development of world history and maritime expansion. The historic involvement of Panama and the United States with our people, our forefathers, left an exceptional legacy for the good and peaceful development of all of humanity.
To the question of, “Why perpetual care?” we unreservedly answer by citing various reasons and historic proof of our presence in colonial Panama offered by more than one Panamanian historian. These historic cemetery sites have been suffering the hard knocks of unbridled urban and industrial encroachment. The pressure of current population growth has been growing in the reverted areas of the Canal, and the resting places of our ancestors are now at the mercy of a people who have been historically hostile to our forefathers.
In addition, if history serves us well, the abundance of discretionary funds within the Westindian community has always been a rare commodity, let alone funds to continue the upkeep of the tombs of our beloved ancestors. Also, as in the past, the pattern of economic development in the community of black Westindian people has proven that, for the younger generation entering the work force, their wages have been kept at the entry level scale and still continue to be a stumbling block to the elderly workers who are retiring. Throughout our history, social and economic prejudices have devastated the Black Westindian community of Panama for more than a century and have hampered our economic well being.
The exclusionary political policies on both sides of the demarcation fences that defined the country of Panama during the historic times before and after the “old American Canal Zone” today continue to make their presence known in the psyche of surviving generations of the black Westindian community.
The old prejudices and attitudes remain, even today, prejudices that continue to view us as “foreigners” “English-speaking blacks from the Caribbean” and an “undesirable” people who never really blended in to the Spanish speaking population. Of course, as we proved throughout our history as Panamanian citizens, we were all but these things. We came with great strength and gifts and talents aplenty and we became a unique people, an Afro-Hispanic people.
Although those unwritten signals still remain to plague the senses and hamper a more aggressive outcry that would demand that proper care be given to these historic sites we, with the same determination as our forefathers, are committed to rescue and preserve the Silver People Cemeteries of Panama.