As narrated in an interview
by Cecil V. Reynolds S.
Dr Carlos “Cubena” Guillermo Wilson was born on April 1st 1941. He was the eldest of six children born to Henrieta Wilson “viuda” (widow) de Warner. His mother had been orphaned at age two and was taken to the doorway entrance of theHotel Internacional, on Cinco de Mayo Square where the hotel manager, Mr. Carlos Guillermo Magnulty, picked up the infant and took her to the home of James Douglin (Papa James as he was affectionately known to all) of Barbados and Lena McZeno (known as Nenen, which in Jamaica means Godmother) and she was godmother of many.
This Westindian couple never had children of their own but they raised more than twelve orphans. For Dr. Wilson they were always his grandparents. Papa James immigrated to the Isthmus of Panama during the time of the construction of the canal and was also a painter; he, in fact, had a contract to paint the Toledano family business. Nenen sold Westindian style food (fried fish, souse and fried cassava) to help her husband. They were very poor.
They were members of a lodge founded by Antillean immigrants in the neighborhood of Guachapali (near what today is known as the Afro-Antillean Museum), they were God fearing and they believed in doing good. Papa James and Nenen would always impress upon the many children they raised in their home that education was the answer, the key to progress and the way out of poverty.
The nickname “Cubena” is a Hispanized form of the word “kwabena” which means Tuesday in the Asante culture of Ghana, Africa, which was the day on which Carlos was born. Cubena completed his primary education in the Gil Colunje School which is close to the Legislative Palace, finishing with second place honors in the entire school. He attended The National Institute in Panama City until he completed his fifth year.
When Cubena was ten years of age Papa James died and in order to help maintain his numerous siblings he turned to selling newspapers from that moment on, rising at 5: 00 a.m. each morning. He started his route in the Miraflores Locks, moving on to the U.S. military base in Curundu (near what was then known as the Canal Zone). At the time newspapers cost .05 cents; the printers were paid .03 cents, the distributor received .01 cent and young Cubena was paid .01 cent. In a good month he earned up to $ 20.00 but one might imagine the amount of newspapers he had to sell to earn that amount of money. Cubena also shined shoes and sold lottery tickets, all towards helping to maintain his family after Papa James died. At this time they also had to move to El Marañon.
Cubena’s mother, Henrieta, also instilled in him the habit of dedicating himself to his studies and of reading and also of attending church at Saint Vincent Catholic Church where he was very active as a Sacristan, sang in the chorus and participated in the activities of the parish. Although his principle desire was to pursue his studies in the field of medicine, never having forgetting the advice of Papa James and Nenen, that education was the key to escaping poverty, he was uncertain as to how he would do it.
With his mother backing him, he availed himself of an opportunity to study to become a priest and spoke with Father Bernard Schimmel about his interest and the he assured him that he would be his advisor. Upon completion of his fifth year at the National Institute and with Father Schimmel’s support Cubena registered for three months at Saint Vincent College to study English.
At age eighteen, his grandmother Nenen died due to complications of cataract surgery at Santo Tomas Hospital. With the help of Father Bernard, who made all the arrangements, he enrolled in the Catholic Seminary of La Societas Verbi Divini (The Divine Word) in Mississippi in 1959, later transferring to Boston, Massachusetts in the United States. He studied there for five years where he was exposed to multiple languages (Latin, Greek, French, German and Italian), but first he had to finish High School. His French teacher was Monsignor Carlos Ambrosio Lewis, SVD,
In 1964 he obtained his first university degree but when he was supposed to join the other seminarians to prepare to take their vows, he decided not to continue his studies in the seminary.
Carlos then traveled to New York where he worked in a mannequin factory, but soon decided to write a letter to Rome to the head of the missionaries of Las Societas Divini to see how they could help him in completing his university studies. To his surprise he received a call from Father Joseph Francis, SVD, secondary boys school principal at Verbum Dei Secondary School in Los Angeles, California, offering him work as a French, English and History teacher.
During the period that Cubena was living in the United States there were all sorts of racial unrest resulting in the opening up of different opportunities to obtain employment and receive fellowships for the people of African descent. Cubena availed himself of all these opportunities.
At Verbum Dei School he taught French and Spanish, worked as a janitor and also assisted the secretary of the school. While maneuvering this trio of jobs he continued his university studies at the Jesuit’s, Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, where completed his bachelor’s degree. He subsequently received a scholarship to study at the University of California in the Los Angeles (UCLA), where he obtained his Master’s in Spanish in 1970. He received a second scholarship, which he employed in obtaining his doctorate in Spanish and Portuguese, graduating in 1975 from the UCLA. During this time he worked his way through school by also picking tomatoes in the field. The title of his doctoral thesis was “Contemporary Aspects of Panamanian Narrative Prose.” He continued as a professor at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles from 1971 to 1991.
In 1979 Cubena married a Panamanian woman originally from Penonomé and had two children the oldest of which was an honor student at UCLA later graduating from the Harvard University School of Medicine. Today he is a doctor at the Stanford University Hospital, Palo Alto, California. His younger son presently studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara and works for a prestigious bank in San Diego, California. Their father admits that it was not easy transmitting the same motivation to study and get ahead as Papa James and Nenen had done with him, but he is grateful that his sons did follow the counsel and commitment of their Antillean ancestors.
His eagerness for writing comes from his Latin American literature professor, John Crow at UCLA who said: “everyone has a story to tell, but the larger story is not written yet.” We have listed some of Cubena’s major works has written: “Pensamientos del Negro Cubena” which includes 51 poems examining a variety of topics including: slavery, love, racial consciousness and sociopolitical protest. In his “Cuentos del Negro Cubena,” follows the daily life and experience with discrimination and deprivation which the people of African descent in panama have endured. “Chombo” goes beyond fiction by examining the life of the Westindians and their descendants during and after the construction of the Panama Canal.
“Los Nietos de Felicidad Dolores” (The Grandchildren of Felicidad Dolores) is a novel about the people of African origin during slavery and up until 1990. The book shows how the so-called black Antilleans and the Colonial Blacks (those brought here from the Colonial and slavery periods) were pitted one against the other. At the end of the book the author concludes that both groups have the same source: Africa and that the most important thing is that the people of African origin must fight to stay Sodinu which is not an African term but read in reverse in Spanish means “United.”
Apart from his literary work, Cubena has contributed with important articles to educational journals and is also one of the founders of the “Afro-Hispanic Review” magazine and is a contributor and contributing editor to the publication of “The Afro-Latin/America Research Association (PALARA). For a complete list of his literary works click here.
In 1991 Cubena was invited to give a few lectures at the San Diego State University in California and, as result, was offered employment as a professor beginning January of 1992 until his retirement in 2006 to which he voluntarily agreed since he was suffering failing health. Medical analysis revealed Professor Wilson had a brain tumor and he underwent surgery the result of which, unfortunately, was a paralysis of his left side. He continues to undergo therapy for this condition.
Cubena has traveled to Mexico, Argentina, Uruguay, Jamaica, Colombia, Spain, France, Italy, Germany, England, Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and to Africa’s Ivory Coast.
His counsel to today’s youth is that “education is the key to success and you must work with great impetus regardless of the obstacles and hardships, because the rewards will come later. Here in panama Dr. George Lionel Washington Westerman Spalding was my mentor when I noted how he wrote about the achievements of the descendants of the Westindian Canal Zone workers who came here with nothing and raised many children and grandchildren who later distinguished themselves through education and an admirable commitment to improving themselves and their society. You can also do it.” Cubena adds that “we should be proud of our race, but at the same time we should be positive and productive from the earliest period of childhood.”
translated from the original Spanish by Lydia M. Reid