Voices From Our AmericaBiographies
Browse all biographies below, organized alphabetically by last name. Click the first letter of the last name below to jump to that section.
Anonymous PTY#1 was born in the San Felipe neighborhood of Panama City, where she grew up influenced as much by her Jamaican parents as by a close community of neighbors and friends. Because of her piano teacher mother, Anonymous PTY# 1 also grew up in a home filled with music, and she still prefers to listen to music from that time, especially boleros. After attending La Escuela de Peru and La Escuela de Argentina, she worked for eight years as a secretary and translator in a federal office, and later worked for a Warner Brothers film distribution company. Now a widow, Anonymous PTY# 1 was married for fifty-three years to a man from Santa Fe, Veraguas. Although proud of her Afro-Antillean background and the English influences that she received from her parents, she feels quite connected to the community in which she grew up, and considers herself very Panamanian.
Yolanda Anderson was born in Panama in 1942 to a seamstress and accountant. Much of her family came to Panama to work on the Panama Canal, and she grew up in a cosmopolitan area that was steeped in segregation. Clear delineations were made in both geography and in the lives of blacks and whites; in fact, trespassing into areas reserved for whites was a crime punishable by imprisonment. Since then, Yolanda has watched Panama grow and change over the years, and she has become a success in her own right. Despite the trials she faced while growing up, Yolanda is an English professor who now teaches teachers. She is divorced, and has five children (four girls and one boy) who have all grown up to be successful engineers and economists. Yolanda enjoys the study of culture and words, continues to teach, and hopes to positively impact the lives of those around her.
Alfonso Alvarado was born in 1935. He loves music, especially salsa, music from the 1940s, and romantic music. Today he listens a lot of classical music (Bach, Mozart, Beethoven) as well as Latin music, which he likes to sing. Needless to say, music is very important to him, and the diversity of music he enjoys is the result of his multicultural identity. Alfonso considers himself the product of the mixing of all the races. One of his grandfathers was from Spain, and the other one from England, but both of his parents were born in Panama. Alfonso speaks both Spanish and English fluently. Today he works as an English teacher. He has two daughters and many grandchildren. He sees himself as a very spiritual person.
Leonardo Renato Aulder
Leonardo Renato Aulder was born in Hospital Santo Tomás in the Río Abajo area of Panama City in 1961. Having grown up with both parents working in the Canal Zone, Leonardo describes his early years as a completely American childhood. Not even realizing that he was Panamanian, Leonardo grew up speaking English, playing American football (among other sports), and listening to American music. In fact, it was not until he transferred from a private school taught by British nuns to the public Escuela de Panama that he learned to speak Spanish. Originally hoping to be a dancer, Leonardo got involved in music as a member of a group that choreographed dances and rapped about political issues, later selling his first popular song on cassette tapes before officially recording and releasing it in 1985. With his initial success came several sponsorships and the chance to record more music, including the song “La chica de los ojos café,” which was a hit across Latin America. While many of Leonardo’s musical influences come from R&B, he gives credit to the veterans of reggaeton, recognizing the work they did and the discrimination they suffered so that younger generations could enjoy success within the genre.
Simon Balid was born in Almirante in 1943 and moved to Boca in 1951. His father is a well-known Jewish immigrant who taught him the Jewish religion and traditional cuisine from Israel, while his mother is Catholic and is originally from Colombia. Because of this, Mr. Balid considers himself a “mestizo”, and is proud of his mixed heritage, which includes Chinese, black, and Jewish descendents. He has been married for 18 years and has 2 children and 3 grandchildren. However, although he loves his children, he does not know them very well because his family moved to Panama City while he stayed in Boca taking care of his business. Mr. Balid loves the food from Boca, and believes that Bocas has the best cuisine in Panama. He also enjoys listening to local orchestras, guracha, and calypso music, and believes that people from Panama have a unique way of thinking and that there is no racial prejudice from the people who were born there; instead they try to integrate everyone into the community.
Jamel Barranco was born in 1979 and grew up in the poorer neighborhood of Rio Bajo, where he still lives today. Since he was six years old, he and his sister lived with a neighbor. Jamel cites his ancestry as being predominantly Panamanian, though he does note that some of his ancestors did come to Panama from the Caribbean, especially from Jamaica. Jamel considers himself one hundred percent black and uses the terms “blackness” and “African” to describe his cultural roots. He is unmarried and works as an agent for a call center for his main source of income, but prefers his job as an MC, where he is able to express his devotion to reggae music and its many Latin American and Caribbean manifestations. Jamel is also a presenter on a television reggae program and works as an editor and translator for reggae web pages and newspapers, translating them from English to Spanish.
Reggie Boyce was born in Colón in 1939 and is a well-known musician in the area. Since his parents were divorced when he was a child, Reggie credits his mother for most of his upbringing, but says that his father, a trumpet player, was a force in his life and his first source of inspiration. As a young child Reggie became a part of the Salvation Army church band, and went on to play as a teenager in some of the most prestigious cabarets in the area. As an adult, he played the trumpet with his band in cities like New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia. Reggie has also shared his talent in another way by teaching music for a number of years. He currently enjoys playing music and spending time with his companion and his five children.
Gloria Brathwaite was born in 1941 in Panama to parents who were born in Panama as well. Her father was of Jamaican descent. Gloria is very proud of her African heritage and insists on referring to Africa as her homeland. She calls the West Indies nothing more than a stop along the way. Gloria is very adamant about her views on race and insists that as a race, Africans should be proud and not indulge in a mentality of disgrace. She also insists on the importance of superior education as a way to counteract racism. Gloria pursued her own studies through the second year of professional school, where she studied to be a nurse. Gloria is married, but has no children.
Ivonne Brown was born in 1969 in Panama where her parents were also born, though she believes they have ties to Barbados. Ivonne also believes her grandmother has connections to France, especially since she spoke French at home. The youngest of three children, Ivonne grew up in a strict household, but was provided a good education and was a popular and social girl. After graduating from secondary school she went on to complete almost all of her course work at the university level in Communications. Ivonne now works as a photographer and is married to a Panamanian man who is also of West Indian descent. Together, Ivonne and her husband have one son. Though he does not speak English, Ivonne knows such knowledge is important and would like him to someday learn it.
Victor Brown was born in Panama City and is of West Indian heritage. As a child he lived in Canastota with his parents. He grew up with a love for music due to his father’s influence and the music that was constantly played at high volume in his home. He later lived in Cativa with his grandparents and remembers this being a time of learning and achievement because his Spanish teachers had high expectations and were very severe. From ages eleven to nineteen, Victor lived in Brooklyn in the United States. There, he lowered his expectations for himself in school to what he perceived to be the lowered expectations of his environment. When he turned nineteen, however, he came back to Panama and earned a college degree. For a while, Victor worked for at Florida State University where he met his wife who was a student at the time.
Windsor Burke was born in 1927 in Panama, near the Costa Rican border, to a mother of Jamaican descent. From the time he was seven months old, Windsor was raised by his aunt. He began school in Spanish, but soon switched to a private West Indian school. He then took correspondence courses in accounting and worked with the Army. Windsor has had several businesses over the years and, for a time, even worked in Colón on the canal. He has been married twice; his first wife was of West Indian descent, while his second wife is Latina. He has one son with his first wife, who now lives in the United States and is an American citizen, and four more children with his current spouse. Windsor is very proud of his West Indian heritage, which he considers an honor. He believes that West Indians live up to certain standards and are known for an elevated style, respect and distinction, and correct language.
Jose Balmeceda was born in Colón in 1933 to parents who were from Nicaragua and Colón. His grandfather was from Martinique. Mr. Balmaceda credits teacher Hector Connor, a Jamaican born and prominent educator in Colón, and his Colegio Modelo Dumbar, for his very strong basic education in English and later on Spanish. He also studied at the Abel Bravo High School, and completed partial architectural studies at the University of Panama, which allowed him to work as an Engineering Technician with the U. S. Army during their stay in Panama. He retired as such with 32 years of service. As a young child, he was always drawn to his own rich Caribbean musical heritage, but as a young adult, he began to sing American tunes and then Spanish with his guitar trio for 52 years. Mr. Balmaceda also performs for religious purposes; serving in the church choir and singing at weddings, funerals, and other ceremonies. Since 2000, he has been with the Bishop’s choir in Panama City. He is also working on a history of his native Colón, a predominantly-West Indian province in Panama. According to him, most of what is known about the area is all bad, but there are good, honest, and talented people who live there. Mr. Balmaceda has eight children: five in Colón, one in Panama City, and two others.
Haydee Beckles is a second generation Panamanian; both of her parents were born in Panama, in La Boca, though her maternal and paternal grandparents were from Barbados. Though she lived in New York for a short time as a child, she and her mother became sick of the cold and moved back to Panama. Since then she has travelled the world, but continues to return to her beloved homeland. Haydee’s career as a poet has sent her to a number of places: Holland, Brazil, France, Costa Rica, South Africa, Nicaragua, the United States, Romania, England, Canada, and Mexico, to name a few. She enjoys her travels, though she does note that not many people abroad know much about Panama. Haydee does not define herself as either black or white, but instead defines herself by the language she speaks: Spanish. She is not married and does not have any children, but does have several nieces and nephews who she loves dearly.
Donald Brathwaite was born in Panama. He does not know where his parents came from, but does know that his father came to Panama of his own volition and was a tailor. His mother was his father’s second wife. Donald grew up in Colón and went to the music conservatory for two years after he finished secondary school. He is very immersed in the musical culture of the Canal Zone and has sung in many groups and choruses. Though he never sang professionally, he did spend two years working as a singer in California. Donald calls himself a professional educator. As such, he is proud to be black and identifies with African culture. Donald is married, but has no children.
Gloria Branch was born in 1944 in Panama City, but her mother’s and father’s families are from Jamaica and Barbados (respectively). Gloria grew up in Panama City, and as a long-term resident she has witnessed much of her country’s social and cultural changes firsthand. As a young girl, she watched her own parents struggle against xenophobia from Latino Panamanians; as an adolescent she marched with Afro-Antillean students from the International Institute of Panama who in protest for equal rights; and today she currently works with several activist organizations, including AYUDE (a group she founded in an effort to unite those working for more West Indian rights), and SAMAAP, an organization founded to protect and maintain the Museo Afro-Antillano de Panama. Gloria is passionate about teaching black youth the importance of strong morals and values, strong families, and a belief in God. Educated at the University of Panama, she currently works as an accountant.
Lilian Brown was born in 1949 and grew up in Bocas del Toro. Her paternal grandfather was from Germany and her paternal grandmother was from Jamaica. Lilian grew up to become an educator, but is today retired from her profession, and is now an activist in an organization of elderly people who are concerned about the preservation and celebration of Jamaican heritage. Although Lilian has never visited Jamaica, she wishes to go in the near future, since she believes that it would help her re-gain her roots and better understand her own cultural identity. Lilian loves to dance calypso, salsa, and merengue, and makes traditional dresses. She has three children.
Francisco Buckley was born in 1940 in the Canal Zone. He is a descendent of Jamaican grandparents who moved to Panama to work on the Panama Canal and railroad. His father and mother were both born in Panama; his father was a canal worker, and his mother was an employee at the commissary. His first language was English but, like many who assimilated in that area, he began speaking Spanish, which is inherent in that region. In Francisco’s youth, he struggled with an English/Spanish American/Panamanian identity conflict, which may have never been fully resolved. Francisco began playing music when he was child and, despite opposition from his family, he was determined to be a musician and went on to play with some of the best bands in the area. He eventually formed his own band and continues to pursue his passion. Francisco now has a wife and a son, and he speaks of life with excitement and anticipation about the future, hoping to inspire those who will follow after him.
Pauline Bushell was born in 1941 in Panama and has deep roots in the Caribbean: her paternal grandfather was from Trinidad, her paternal grandmother was from Barbados, her maternal grandmother was from Jamaica, and one of Pauline’s maternal uncles was Lord Cobra, an extremely popular calypso singer and bandleader. Though she has spent most of her life working in the baker’s shop she inherited from her mother, music has always been important to her; she is a song leader at church and has even appeared on several recordings. Pauline is proud to be a black and believes that the Negro race is something special in the world. She has six children, twenty-eight grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren.
Gwendolyn Campbell was born and raised in Panama. Her parents were both Barbadians who migrated to Panama during the construction of the canal, but it was not until later in her life that she had the opportunity to travel to Barbados. Gwendolyn’s first husband was from Jamaica and she met him in the Canal Zone. They later separated and she met and married Mr. Campbell, who was also from Jamaica. Now a widow, Gwendolyn has two daughters, one of whom works as a missionary, and although they speak both Spanish and English, her grandchildren mostly speak Spanish and are hesitant to use English. One of Gwendolyn’s hopes for the younger generations of her community is that Spanish-speaking Panamanians and English-speaking Panamanians of West Indian descent learn to integrate and live together.
Grace Maynard Clark
Grace Maynard Clark was born in Rio Abajo (in the Canal Zone) in 1946. She was raised by her grandmother, and grew up with and aunt and uncle who were close to her in age. Clark’s grandmother, who was from Costa Rica, was a progressive woman; she instilled in Grace the value of education, even though at the time women were expected to do little more than get married and have children. As a result, Grace was very intelligent, and advanced quickly in school. At the University of Panama, she studied math and physics, and ultimately became a teacher in both subjects. Now married with two grown children, Clark has retired from teaching, but she now owns a pineapple farm, and has dreams of dabbling in politics and journalism. “I will be heard” insists Clark, who is outraged by the living conditions of many blacks living in Panama. Clark is very proud of her Black Costa Rican and Jamaican heritages, and says: “I am black. Proud to be black. Love to be black. Would not want to be anything else.”
Victor Cobham was born in Colón. His grandparents were, on his father’s side, from Barbados and St. Lucia; on his mother’s side, they were from Martinica. Both of his grandfathers came to Panama to work on the Canal. As a child he was punished at school for speaking English, and was forced to speak only Spanish. He also learned to play the piano as a young boy. Victor loves music, especially instrumental music. He sees himself as a true Panamanian, but thinks that this identity is disappearing in younger generations due to the impact of globalization. Victor, however, believes that it is important to maintain the Panamanian traditions. Today he is divorced and has five children and five grandchildren.
Holbein Cornejo was born in Panama in 1976 to a father who was a folkloric musician and a mother who worked in a government office. Holbein does not know very much about his grandparents, but he does know that his paternal grandmother is of West Indian descent. Holbein lived in several communities throughout Panama as a child, and even though his life was hard at times, he considers his childhood an important foundation for his work ethic and his love for music. Holbein works with a managerial company that represents musical artists both in Panama and on an international scale. One of only a few promoters who have introduced Panama to reggae (both in English and in Spanish), Holbein has remained on the cutting edge of promoting reggae, roots, colcha, and other related musical styles in Panama. He believes that such music helps his community, since reggae teaches autonomy, tranquility, clarity, and justice. Holbein is married and has two children.
Nedelka Campbell was born in Panama City. Though Nedelka is most fluent in Spanish, the environment she grew up in required her to understand English, a skill that has proved to be one her greatest assets in Panama’s current job market. She has a degree in Marketing and is a certified public accountant. Nedelka is also a “retired” model who has been featured in many African and Afro-Panamanian cultural publications. She has also traveled throughout Europe, where she learned about other cultures, but also became more aware of her role in the global community. She considers herself to be one of Panama’s many unofficial cultural ambassadors. Nedelka currently collaborates with the talent and modeling agency, “Tal Como Soy” [“Just as I Am”], a local initiative created to nurture and promote unique talents and natural beauty of all shades, shapes, sizes, and ages, with special emphasis on the Afro-Panamanian community.
Joheta Clark was born in 1984 and is a native Panamanian. She grew up loving to dance and sing, and has never lost her passion for dance. She now uses this passion to reach out and minister to young boys and girls. In addition to being Panamanian, Joheta has a rich cultural background, with ancestors from Jamaica, Barbados, and Nicaragua. She has combined her experience among Spanish-speaking people in Panama with her parents’ English language to make herself marketable in the business world. Joheta studied international studies and received a college degree in 2001.
Cleveland Knox Page Cooper
Cleveland Knox Page Cooper was born in 1982 in Hospital San Fernando in Panama City. Raised in a middle-class neighborhood, Cleveland grew up with his sisters and cousins. Completely inseparable from the younger of his two sisters, Lilia, Cleveland started school at the age of 3 so that he did not have to be at home without her. While as a child he went through several phases, hoping at different times to be a fireman, a basketball player, and a rock star, Cleveland eventually became an Audiovisual Producer after earning a degree in Advertising and Marketing with a specialization in Digital Production. Coming from ancestors of French, Jewish, Indian, Jamaican, and Ethiopian heritage, Cleveland does not limit his identity to the titles of Panamanian or Afro-Antillean, but rather considers his identity in broader terms, taking into account the many origins that influence his background.
Rodolfo A. Desuze Ballestero was born in 1956 on Bocas del Toro. He had a great childhood and has fond memories of the Sunday gatherings with the family and the way they all used to dress for church. His father was a soldier and was very strict, but Mr. Desuze believes his dad had a good influence on him He has a degree in International cuisine and bakery from Colombia, and he loves the “islena cuisine” (cuisine from the island), especially rice and peas, and stew. He tries very hard to keep the customs from Isla de Colón and he believes that foreign influence is slowly eradicating the culture there. Mr. Desuze is married, does not smoke, but he loves to dance to salsa, reggae, and disco music. He also loves to educate children, and considers himself as an Afrocaribeo.
"Lord" Byron Dowman
“Lord” Byron Dowman was born in Panama in 1931 and, although he grew up in several different sections of the city, both his parents were from Jamaica and brought their culture and musical heritage with them from the West Indies. In fact, ever since he first started to play the ukulele at a very young age, Byron’s greatest passion has always been making music. He has sung with the Mighty Sparrow and loves music from every genre: from church hymns to calypso to Nat King Cole. Though he considers himself of West Indian descent and sees the term “West Indian” as inoffensive, Byron does feel that part of the racial problems that arise in Panama are due to racial designations and epithets. Byron has been married but is now a widower, and he has six children.
Alejandro Duncan was born in Colón. Growing up, his father was a musician who played a variety of music styles, including calypso, and it was he who inspired Alejandro to become a musician as well. Alejandro attended a school set up through the Salvation Army, and eventually became a music professor. He is bilingual, speaking both English and Spanish, and is married to a West Indian woman who has given him two children. Beyond his family, Alejandro continues to touch the lives of those around him through both his teachings and his music, and his legacy continues through his daughter, who is a saxophone player.
Nicolas Dosman was born in Bocas Del Toro in 1927, but spent his childhood in Changuinola, where he attended school up to the fifth grade. After spending some years away from Bocas, Dosman returned, determined to start a radio station in the region. He faced significant discrimination from local officials who were reluctant to support him, and from competitors who tried to put him out of business. Nevertheless, Dosman stayed, and is still running his self-built radio station to this day. Mr. Dosman now lives with his wife, and they have five children, some who live in the States, while others have made successful lives in Panama. They all graduated from the Instituto National in Panama and he is very proud of them, saying that they “never failed” him. Despite the fact that Dosman stopped attending school at an early age, he has taken many correspondence courses throughout his life, including electrician and radio technological courses from the United States. His dedication to lifelong education is the basis for his message to Panama’s youth: “Education is the key to the world.”
Idania Dowman was born in 1967 and grew up in a communal home. After attending an elementary school with excellent teachers, Idania would go on to the Universidad Nacional. After her fourth year of nursing school, however, she would change careers to earn a diploma in International Service. Happily single, Idania is the mother of one daughter, Mia, and she actively participates in both her parish and in her community. With one set of grandparents from Bocas del Toro and another set of grandparents of Indio-Colombian descent, Idania considers herself to be something between black and Latina, and she believes that all of Panama’s diverse cultures need to be preserved. Idania also feels that Panama’s younger generations need to be themselves without feeling the need to imitate what they see around them, and she recognizes the responsibility of older generations in bringing about a change.
Harry Edwards was born in 1933 in Almirante in the Bocas del Toro province of Panama; and while his mother’s side of the family was Panamanian, Harry’s father was from Saint Kitts. The youngest of three brothers, Harry grew up playing a lot of ball and getting into fights because he did not get along well with everyone. Nevertheless, what he remembers most about his school days are the hours after school spent playing with other children. Harry worked as a foreman on the docks and married three times throughout his life. His current wife is also of West Indian descent and they have several children and grandchildren.
Nelson Edwards was born on 1946 in Colón. The majority of Edwards’ family originated from the West Indies with one grandparent being a white German who his grandmother worked for during World War I. Edwards’ life was greatly influenced by American culture given that his father worked for the United States Government and he heard the music of legends like Ella Fitzgerald’s voice resounding in his home as he grew up. Father Edwards studied hard and found the roots in his church to be a strong influence in his life. He was raised Roman Catholic but later found his calling in the Episcopalian Church. Though some call him a priest, and some call him a pastor, he is known to most as Father Edwards. He works in the church and heads committees while balancing commitments to his wife and two children. Father Edwards is a complex individual with strong beliefs and a conviction rooted in Christian values.
Abraham and Victoria Forcheney
Abraham and Victoria Forcheney have shared a life together for many years. Both are from Cativa. They raised a family with three boys and two girls. Victoria says she has never had a problem with Abraham. The two continue to share aspects of their life together including a love for God and their children.
Victoria Forcheney was born in 1926. Early in life, she was taught to read and write by her mother. She later attended school to the 3rd grade, learning the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic. She recalls growing up on a farm with a father that pressed the family to work on the farm above all else, but Victoria’s pleasure when she was younger was listening to Congo music and attending carnivals. Her pain, however, came from the rejection of West Indian people, who thought her lacking in loyalty even though her ancestry was the same as theirs. Victoria has done mostly domestic work on the base with American soldiers. Her passion in life is for God, whose word she says hits her hard and who overwhelms her with His love. Victoria realizes how blessed she is to be active at her age and credits God with this feat.
Jair Fussa was born in Panama City in 1973. He grew up with his mother and grandmother in a poor neighborhood and now lives in a neighborhood called Villa Catalina. Jair has been a fan of reggae from a very early age and is an active participant of the Panama Group, which is a group that promotes local reggae. He has completed two years of studies at the State University and currently enjoys working as a professional DJ. Today, Jair is married and has one son.
Abraham Forcheney was born in 1928. His father, who was an alcoholic, alienated his family, but his absence has motivated Abraham to not imbibe. For the benefit of her family, his mother left his father and later married his stepfather, who raised him. Abraham played baseball for many years and says that he was good, but he never had a passion for the game like that of many of his teammates. Nevertheless, Abraham still set out to make a career as a baseball player until one fateful day, when he believes that God spoke to him. On that day, Abraham chose to let go of baseball and all he had in connection with it. Today he does not regret that decision, believing he has had a longer and a better life as a result of it.
Veronica Forte was born in 1970 in the Marañón area of Calidonia, Panama City. One of six children, she often moved from one part of the city to another, finally settling in Mano de Piedra. Among Veronica’s most treasured childhood memories are her school days, which she spent playing marbles and hide-and-seek with the boys and helping her teachers in the classroom. One teacher in particular, her first English teacher in elementary school, influenced her a great deal, and inspired her to become an English professor herself. Now teaching at the University of Panama, Veronica tries to help her students in much the same way that her elementary school teacher helped her, while at the same time conveying to them the importance of Afro-Antillean culture and history. Veronica is of Jamaican and Barbadian descent and believes that in order for racism to be eliminated, people must understand where Afro-Antilleans come from and what they have contributed to Panamanian society.
Leslie George was born in 1941. Though he never says specifically where his parents are from, he considers himself part of the African West Indian community in Panama. Leslie’s father was a singer, and his uncle, Victor Boa, was a pianist, arranger, and dance band director who gained international fame. Leslie grew up in several of the poorer districts in the city, moving frequently because of money problems and the pressure of his parents’ having a large family (seven children) on a limited budget. A retired musician, Leslie considers himself to be a scientist and a musicologist. Not only does he have a degree in musicology, he has been a teacher and college professor, and attended seminars and done research on ethnomusicology. Leslie is also an artist in his own right, serving as a choral and band director and a member of a calypso band. Leslie has been married twice; his second wife is also of African West Indian descent and works as a nurse. He has one daughter from his second marriage who works in a chemistry lab.
Melva Lowe de Goodin was born in 1945, and after an extensive education in the United States and years spent living in the U.S., Africa, and elsewhere, she returned to Panama and founded several important community organizations, such as the Panama chapter of TESOL (Organization of Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages), and SAMAAP, an organization dedicated to community education about Afro-Panamanians’ rich heritage, and to saving the Afro-Antillano Museum of Panama. Melva’s message to the youth is simple: “language empowers the people who speak it.” She also encourages young people to speak out against injustice and for human rights. A professor, playwright, community leader and role model, Melva Lowe de Goodin is an example of the joys of a life dedicated to social change. She is married and has a grown son who lives in Florida.
Born to a Jamaican father and Colombian mother in Bocas Del Toro in 1916, Edmundo Gobern has lived a life filled with adversity as well as achievement. Although he was forced to leave school to work at the age of fourteen when his father, a local pharmacist, died, Gobern was determined to get an education. After working a variety of jobs, including lavatory manager, mortician, and messenger, Gobern finally got a chance to follow in his father’s footsteps, working as a pharmacist during World War II. Gobern’s pharmacy work was first-rate even though he was never formerly trained, and the body of certificates, plaques, and other awards that take up a full wall at Gobern’s house—not to mention his numerous children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren—are testaments to the successful life of a “self-made man.”
Cecil Haynes was born in Gatún in the Canal Zone in 1913 to parents who immigrated to Panama from Barbados; his father came first to find work, and then his mother came one year later. The Haynes family was very large; it eventually grew to include six children, and from a young age, Cecil was very helpful—he would often catch fish for his mother to cook and feed the family. At the age of fourteen, he decided that he wanted to get a job, so he went out into the Canal Zone to find work, and was hired as an office boy. By the time Haynes retired as an inventory management specialist after working for more than seventy-one years on the Canal, he was recognized as one of the most famous Canal workers; he has received many awards, and has met several international leaders. When asked about the racism and discrimination West Indian Canal workers faced, Haynes says that it was very hard, but it is important not to focus on those hardships alone, but to celebrate the hard work that many Afro-Antillanos put into the Canal. It is something to be proud of. Cecil Haynes still lives in Panama with his wife, Margarita, and they have been married for sixty-three years.
Aziel Henry was born in 1928 in Panama. His parents were both from Jamaica, though they came to Panama at different times and for different reasons. Aziel’s father died when he was only six or seven years old. Aziel had very little schooling, only completing the fourth grade in English. He tried to attend school in Spanish, but had a hard time learning the language and did not remain in a Spanish school for long. At twelve, Aziel started working full time. He has held many jobs, mostly working for the United Fruit Company in one capacity or another. He has also been a construction worker, a janitor, and a business owner, and has worked in a hospital and at a commissary. Aziel’s wife is Nicaraguan and his children and grandchildren all speak both English and Spanish. Aziel calls himself a simple man, who gives a hand when and where he can. He also believes that we are all God’s children, regardless of race or ancestry, and should all be treated equally.
Elsie Hayot was born in the City of Panama to parents who were also Panamanian. Her father worked for the Panama Canal Commission and her mother was a housewife. Elsie attended school taught in English and then later in Spanish as result of the changes in Canal leadership. She adjusted well to the changes, and recalls being taught at Teacher Reid School with fondness because she had wonderful teachers. Elsie was greatly inspired by her teachers as she grew up to be an educator herself. At a young age, her love of teaching began as she taught Sunday School. She went on to teach several generations of children and has so many great memories from teaching that she cannot choose a favorite. In addition to teaching, Elsie has been a wife and a mother. She has three children who have all been successful at school and in life.
Raul Houlstan was born in Bocas del Toro, Panama in 1952. Although most of his family is also from Panama, his background does contain a mixture of several cultures; his paternal grandmother was from Jamaica, his paternal grandfather was from Cuba, and his step-father was Chinese. Raoul can also trace his Panamanian heritage back to be founders of Bocas, the Browns. Raul trained to be a teacher and received his law degree in 1979. He later earned a graduate degree in Latin American Studies at the Political Science Department at UNAM in Mexico City. While living in Mexico he met his wife, a native of Holland, and together they have two children. Raul has been a teacher, a defense counselor, a cultural attaché in Brussels, Belgium, and has also published poetry under the name Urá del Drago. He now works as a litigator and promoter of popular culture in Bocas, and he is active in many community organizations. Raul calls himself Afro-Antillano—a black West Indian—but does not ask others to see him as such. He says, “me siento bien en mi piel, pero no es mi bandera. Yo soy un hombre universal” [I feel good in my skin, but it is not my banner. I am a universal man].
Clifford Ingram was born in 1936. He grew up in Bocas del Toro and made lifetime friends during his childhood. Clifford was taught under Teacher Reid, which he recalls as a unique experience and appreciates the English school he attended. He worked many years but is now retired. Clifford is married and has children and grandchildren living in the United States. He enjoys bolero and reggae music, telling stories about his life, and has many wonderful things to share.
Patricia Isidore was born in Panama, and her father aided in the Panama Canal construction at the very young age of nine. Patricia herself was a high achiever in school (thanks in part to the use of the Royal Reader) and she ultimately went on to get her Master’s degree in Education. Patricia enjoys a life with her husband and daughter. She is bilingual and also enjoys the rich languages of other cultures. God and the Triumphant Restoration Church are how she is inspired and finds happiness. While she has been treated as different by those of her same race, she has overcome any obstacles resulting from it. Patricia’s life has been both ordinary and extraordinary in that she is the girl next door who grew up, went to school, and has a family; yet, intriguingly, the girl next door lives hundreds of miles away.
Roberto Kelly was born in Bocas Del Toro, Panama in 1961, and lived there until he finished his secondary education and left for Costa Rica for theological study. Now living back in his native country and working as a security guard, Kelly is also a bishop in the Spiritual Baptist church, a denomination that is close to his heart because he identifies it as a rich and important part of his Afro-West Indian heritage. Roberto feels that maintaining a close relationship with God is important because salvation is the key to success in life. According to him, it is extremely important for Afro-Antillanos to preserve their unique heritage through their religious practices, food, music, and other things related to their culture. He identifies West Indian Panamanians as hardworking and resourceful, despite the fact that they are often deprived of opportunities to succeed. Kelly is married and has three children who he has taught to speak English and who he is trying to raise according to his strong beliefs.
Mahogany Kinell was born in Río Abajo. She grew up among friends and neighbors from a great mix of backgrounds and cultures. After graduating from high school, Mahogany moved to Madrid where she earned a Master’s degree in Commerce and Marketing and where she also met her husband, Andreas. Upon moving to Switzerland with her husband, she found that her ability to speak both English and Spanish gave her a great advantage when it came to finding a job in the business world, and this is one reason that she feels very fortunate to have grown up surrounded by Afro-Antillean culture. In 2006 Mahogany founded the magazine Revista Caoba, an online publication directed towards Spanish speakers of African descent and a space that is visited by readers from all over the world. Still living in Switzerland, Mahogany continues to develop the magazine and is proud to have created something that has united so many people.
Even though her relatives moved to Panama from Jamaica for reasons independent of the building of the canal, Silvia Keene was born in 1940 in New Providence, Panama, a small town given to the West Indian community that stayed in Panama after working on the canal. The granddaughter of Jamaicans with Scottish heritage on both sides, Silvia had a happy childhood and grew up with the privileges and pressures of being the daughter of the community’s judge. When her step-father died and her mother took over as judge, Silvia began helping out on her family’s rice farm, but still enjoyed a normal childhood and adolescence playing softball and going to school. Silvia considers herself both black and Hispanic and believes that it is important for people to recognize and be proud that they are black.
Edgar King was born in 1939 to parents who were Barbadian-Panamanian. Growing up in the Canal Zone neighborhood of Paraíso, King was drawn to music early in life, even in church. After training a group of friends to harmonize in 1956, he formed a group called the Skytones, who sang at local functions for several years during the 1960s. As a musician, King asserts that he saw little racism in the rich artistic community of his native Panama, but he is nevertheless sure that it exists. Edgar has been married to his current wife for twelve years, has three children from a previous marriage, and continues to work as a singer. He believes that the most important thing the world’s youth needs in today’s society is a respect for old values: honesty, integrity, and reverence for one’s elders.
Esteban Lan was born in Colón in 1946 and grew up in a Spanish family with parents from the Coast. Despite his Spanish upbringing, Esteban had to speak English, which was the predominant language in the area where he was raised. In spite of this, however, some people in his family only speak Spanish, including many of his siblings and grandchildren. When he grew up, he married his wife, who bore four children. Esteban later became the owner of a radio station, and today he emphasizes hard work and demonstrates what is possible when you pursue your dreams.
Manuel Lasso was born in Colón. A product of Jamaican, Panamanian, and Colombian descent, Manuel enjoyed a normal childhood going to school, playing basketball and chess, and demonstrating from a young age his affinity for education. Manuel always enjoyed studying and continues to challenge himself as the teacher of technicians and high school students at the Instituto Profesional y Técnico. His wife is also from Colón and the two of them met at the University of Panama. The older of their two sons is studying maritime engineering and is already working in the field, and their younger son is a student of commerce. Manuel participates in the folkloric traditions of the Panamanian Congos and considers calypso music to be an important aspect of Afro-Antillean culture.
Maizee Lennan was born in 1929 in Panama City. Her mother was from Jamaica and her father from British Grenada. Maizee lived in a culturally-diverse neighborhood, but one wherein West Indians still formed a close-knit community. Lennan remembers the fun activities she did with her father and siblings—like hiking and visiting the beach—but remembers that nearly every day of the year (even during summer vacation) was devoted to education. Indeed, even though many West Indians were unable to finish even secondary school, they maintained high hopes for the education of their children, and they never lost sight of its importance. “My father never gave up on his education,” says Maizee.
Olga Lindo was born in 1923 in Panama. Her parents were from Barbados and never learned to speak Spanish, though they remained in Panama for the rest of their lives. Olga went to an English school that used textbooks from the United States up until the 8th grade; and then went to public school, which was taught in Spanish. Because she did not know Spanish at the time, she had to restart school at a 3rd grade level; nevertheless, she completed her second year in college and made her living as a primary school teacher. Olga is widowed and has one daughter, who lives in Florida. Her grandchildren, who were born in the United States, only speak English. Olga spoke both English and Spanish and considers herself proud to be a black woman and a Panamanian.
Wilhemina Brown Lane & Carolyn Lane Sorenson
Wilhemina Brown Lane and Carolyn Lane Sorenson are a mother and daughter who were both born in Panama and later immigrated to the United States; but beyond this their lives are quite different. Wilhemina, who was born in 1918 to parents of Jamaican origin, says that she is 100% Panamanian. Carolyn, who was born in 1940 and left for the U.S. as a young girl, describes herself as a “Panamerican.” Carolyn is now a retiree from a long career in the airlines, and her most recent trip to Panama was a very special homecoming for both her and her mother. For Carolyn, it was an opportunity to see all of the people she remembers from her childhood; and, for Wilhemina, it was a chance to return to her beloved Spanish language, which she speaks quite fluently, even at ninety-one years old. Although she is not as fluent in the language, Carolyn admires her mother’s bilingualism, and hopes that the world’s youth can learn the importance of learning and understanding other languages and cultures: “If you can’t understand people’s language,” she says, “you are cut off from them.”
Dr. Hedley Lennan
Dr. Hedley Lennan was born in Panama in 1922 to parents of Jamaican origin. After spending a few years in schools in La Boca, Lennan traveled to Jamaica and then to Dallas, Texas to complete his studies. According to him, living outside Panama greatly changed his ethnic identity. “I look at myself as being black,” says Lennan, “because to Americans, Panamanian or whatever is still black.” As a doctor, however, Hedley admits that he is treated differently because of his profession—as soon as people learn of it, they often treat him better than they did before. All in all, though, Dr. Lennan has enjoyed his life in the several places he’s lived: Panama, Jamaica, and the US. He is married to Maizee Lennan, and they have two children. Dr. Lennan’s message to the world’s youth is the same one he tells everyone: “It’s never too late to seek a new world to push up.”
Patricia Lewis grew up in Panama, but her heritage is rooted in both Panama and Barbados. Even though her mother died when she was only a year old, she credits her grandmother for raising her around a large family and many neighbors in a closely-knit community. Patricia went to school in Caledonia, where she had many great Latin teachers. One Easter Sunday, she met her husband, and with him, she has three children: two sons and a daughter. Patricia has a love for music, food, and church.
Nixia Livingston was born on Bocas Island and raised in Bastimento, where she attended school and played sports like football, baseball, and her favorite sport: basketball. Although she was a fan of reggae music growing up, she is now a member of her church’s chorus, and cites her spirituality and her belief in God as the one thing that got her through her mother’s recent death. Still living in the area in which she was raised, Nixia heads a youth dance group that performs African dances around Bocas and Bastimento; this is one of her greatest passions in life. According to her, West Indian or “black” Panamanians must not lose their culture; the older generations must set an example for the youth about how to preserve their heritage. Nixia is now married and the mother of two children who are bilingual.
Despite the many tragedies in her life—her mother’s dying in childbirth; her grandmother’s death only a few years later; and her husband’s passing after only five years of marriage—Dorothy Martin‘s credo is simple, but profound: “Peace and Love—Paz y Amor.” Martin, who works extensively with the Episcopalian Church Women’s Group, and who raised three daughters in her husband’s absence, has lived a life of peace, love, hard work, and community dedication. As a fifty-seven year-old native of the Canal Zone (where she was born in 1930), she is also proud of her Jamaican, Barbadian, and Panamanian heritages. “West Indian is my roots,” says Martin, who refuses to leave Panama even though much of her family and friends have immigrated to the United States. “I’ve visited the States, but I love [it] here,” she says.
Felicia Morgan was born in the Canal Zone in 1951, and grew up around strong independent women who were able to balance both work and family. Her grandmother owned a laundry business that afforded her the opportunity to buy a house, while her mother was a successful accountant. They both had husbands who worked in the Canal Zone. Felicia is divorced, but has two children who attended college and are now starting their own families. She has a great appreciation of music, family, work, and school, which she believes to be connected to her West Indian heritage. Some of her greatest heroes are her teachers, who inspired her with their enthusiasm for teaching.
Emelinda Mitchell was born in 1910. Her grandfather was from Jamaica and her mother was from Providence. Emelinda studied English in school, where she completed the fifth grade, but she knows very little Spanish. Emelinda did not work, but instead stayed home to take care of her seven children. Three of those children now live in the United States and, because her husband was from Colombia, her children speak both Spanish and English. Emelinda is a very religious woman who is active in the Methodist Church, and her message to the youth of her country is simple: behave yourself and always listen to your parents.
Andora Myrie was born in 1916 in Colón, Panama to parents who were from Jamaica and Barbados respectively. Andora’s husband was also from Jamaica, and together they had three children, all boys. Two of her sons now live in the United States and both have three children each. Like her, Andora’s boys grew up in the Canal Zone where they first attended the English school, and then finished at a Spanish speaking school in Panama City. Andora saw herself first and foremost as honest, cheerful, loyal, and just. She considered these virtues as part of her West Indian heritage, for they encapsulate what she and her whole generation were taught as children.
Moses Neblett was born in 1963. His parents are Panamanians of West Indian descent. He has completed three years of University studies, and is today a successful businessman who owns two restaurants. Moses is currently married and has three daughters. His wife is also Afro-Caribbean. Even though, he says he know little about the West Indian culture of his ancestors, he is proud of his origins, and would like to learn more. He proudly defines himself as Afro-Caribbean-Panamanian.
Earl Newland was born in Colón in 1924, and is a West Indian Panamanian of African descent who spent a great portion of his life fighting for the rights of the powerless. Despite tragedies in his own life (like the drowning death of his son in 1970), Newland has always dedicated himself to others who need his help. He has visited the sick in area hospitals, worked to educate at-risk West Indian youth, and fought for civilian employees’ rights in the US Army. As a poet, community leader, and unapologetic “militant,” Newland has been a messenger as well as an advocate for many minority groups.
Cleveland Nelson was born in Guabito, Panama in 1938 and was raised in a two-parent home with five brothers and two sisters. Cleveland recalls his mother being the head of the household, and she was the parent he most cherished while growing up and wanted to spend most of his time with. As Cleveland grew older, he became fascinated with the United States; so, after swearing on a Bible to return to Panama someday, he received a Visa and moved to Los Angeles, California. At this point Cleveland had only a 6th grade education, but he found a way to continue his education and ultimately received a diploma as a junior accountant. He made strides at work receiving several promotions, and eventually became a general treasurer over several areas in Panama. Cleveland worked for fifty years before retiring. He married a nurse who remained in the States when he returned to Panama, and who died several years later. Now he lives to tell the stories of the life he lived in America and Panama with pride in what he did with his life in both places.
Luis Palacio was born in 1937 in Panama. He is proud of his mixed heritage, and can trace his ancestry back to indigenous cultures, the West Indies, and South America. Luis considers himself of West Indian origin, however, because of where he grew up, in Bocas del Toro, which provided him with his rich cultural background. Luis has been married twice, having annulled his first marriage, and he has three children. Though Luis works as an English teacher, he did not originally go to university for such a career. He gained his masters degree from the University of Michigan and studied technical education at a University in Czechoslovakia. He has also studied in South America. While teaching, Luis helped found a Catholic school in Bocas del Toro. As a musician, he has played guitar and sung with several groups that focus on West Indian music. He also prides himself for his West Indian culinary skills.
Larin Perry was born in Vista Hermosa in 1948 and grew up in a “Latin” neighborhood with parents who immigrated to Panama from Costa Rica. After finishing high school he received a scholarship that allowed him to study at the University of Florida. After graduation, Larin worked as a policeman for INTERPOL, where he ultimately became a chief. Through his work he was able to travel extensively around the world, and visited Africa, Senegal, Brazil, Chile, France, the United States, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic. Today Larin is retired from the police force, but is happily working in the tourist industry. He sees himself as both black and Latino.
Elma Payne was born in 1929 in Panama. Her mother was from Trinidad, and her father from Barbados. As a child, she remembers the “gold and silver roll” established by the Americans in the Canal Zone; a system of segregation that permeated even the holiest of places: the church. Nevertheless, she is proud of being Black and thinks that Blacks should be proud of who they are. Elma argues that Black West Indians should work hard to maintain their culture, especially the English language. She thinks that it was important for Blacks to speak English, especially now that bilingualism is socioeconomically important; not only is it culturally conscious, but it is also important when getting a job and/or an education. Today, Elma Payne is a school director and teacher who still lives in Panama.
Beverly Prescott was born in Gatún, Canal Zone in 1944 to parents of Barbadian origin. After finishing her education in 1972, she had hopes of moving to the United States, but ultimately returned to Panama, where she lives today and works as a teacher. Beverly’s most passionate interest is her country’s youth, who she feels has lost its way in many ways. The language, music, and cultural values of young Panamanians and Afro-Antillanos are all in need of change; however, this is not the fault of parents alone—the community as a whole must come back together and return to the solidarity that made it such a strong force when she was a child. Parents and adults need to be concerned about their own children, but also about all children in the community. Otherwise, there is little hope for the current generation.
Nixia Quintero was born in Panama. Her paternal grandfather was from Panama and her paternal grandmother was a Frenchwoman who came to Panama because of the building of the Canal. Her maternal grandfather was Panamanian and her maternal grandmother was from Colombia. Her father was a voracious reader and worked as a scientist, studying animals (mostly reptiles) and bugs. As a youth, Nixia was a talented runner. She participated in the first and only Panamanian Youth Games in 1983. Nixia now has two young children and is proud of her African heritage, believing that it is important to fight against racism. Her message to the youth of Panama is “you should not be ashamed of your race—everyone is equal, black, white, and indigenous—the person is important, not the race or religion.”
Although Ethel Record was born on Isla Colón, she spent much of her childhood in Bastimentos, the birthplace of both her mother and father. Ethel was raised by her maternal grandparents in a home often full of other family members—including aunts, uncles, and cousins—but it was Ethel’s grandmother who was the head of the family. A strong woman to whom she owes much of her success, Ethel’s grandmother encouraged her to be a good student and eventually allowed her to move to the capital to continue her studies beyond the sixth grade. While walking down the street one day in Río Abajo, Ethel met her husband, who was also studying in Panama City at the time. After earning her degree, the couple moved to Ojo de Agua for Ethel’s first official teaching job, and although adjusting to a new community was very difficult, she stayed at the school for four years. Ethel now has three daughters who, like their mother, all ended up in education, and she has nine grandchildren. While her younger grandchildren are learning English in school, she is concerned for the youth in general and believes that they will only be able to succeed if they too recognize the importance of education.
Elouise Roberts was born in 1931 in Panama to parents who were also native-born, but she can trace her family’s roots back to Barbados and Jamaica. Elouise is proud of her West Indian heritage, but sometimes wishes she knew more about her ancestry, and worries that when older Panamanian West Indians pass away, the younger generation won’t get to learn about their heritage either. As an ordained minister in the Revivalist church, Elouise is a member of a group called The Travelling Praying Group of Jesus. Together they go to different parts of the community to pray, and will often visit the sick and help clean the houses of people who can’t take care of themselves. Elouise has been married to her current husband since 1994 and has seven grown children, six of whom live in the US. In her spare time she likes to iron and cook, but particularly enjoys baking.
Carlos Russell, who was born in Panama’s former Canal Zone in 1934, is a retired professor and accomplished poet who has been active in both Panamanian and Afro-American history. During the years he spent in New York, Russell worked with community leaders like Louis Farrakhan, and organized Black protest movements like New York City’s Black Solidarity Day, a day of protest against racism in the U.S. that was first celebrated in November 1969. Russell has also served as Panama’s ambassador to the UN, and is the recipient of the Vasco Núñez de Balboa Award, one of the highest honors bestowed upon a Panamanian citizen. Russell’s greatest passion is the education of both American and African American youth, who, according to him, desperately need to learn about the ways that one’s identification with a larger group of humanity can enrich their lives and allow them to make great contributions to the world.
Ricardo Richards was born in 1946 and grew up in Calidonia with parents of West Indian descent. Though both of his parents were born in Panama, his mother’s family is from Barbados and his father’s family is from Jamaica. As a teenager Richards formed a jazz group named “Jazz Messengers”, but he now insists that his favorite type of music is reggae because, for him, it is a form of protest that can send a powerful message about how to change the world to its listeners—especially the youth, who he considers to be world’s most valuable resource. Ricardo holds dual degrees in political science and sociology, but he lives in a rural environment and works for an association called Futur, a group that is extremely devoted to grassroots activism through the empowerment of local communities. As a Rastafarian, Ricardo sees Africa as the cradle of all civilization, and believes that the concept of Afro-Antillano, if taken too literally, can prevent people from respecting their rich African heritage if it limits one’s concept of origin to just one place on the map. Ricardo says that he is married “sometimes,” and has children who speak varying degrees of English.
Maria Hoyos Roberts
Maria Hoyos Roberts was born in Colón. In spite of the hardships and losses Maria experienced as a child, she stayed focused on getting an education and later became an educator herself. Maria now has three children: one son and a daughter from her first marriage and another son from her second marriage. She also has five grandchildren. Maria’s youngest son now lives in Virginia in the United States and she has had the chance to visit him there several times, always coming back to Panama for her work and for the sense of security that she feels in her country. Maria’s personal experiences, as well as a lack of fluency in English, have taught her the importance of getting an education and learning languages. By telling her story she wishes to pass on this message to younger generations and she insists that, like her, they are capable of fighting for what they want in spite of obstacles and hardship.
Lupita Salmon was born in Bocas del Toro, Panama to parents from Costa Rica whose parents immigrated to Costa Rica from Jamaica. Lupita is a teacher and has been for most of her life. She can read and speak English, but cannot write it. Lupita acknowledges her West Indian heritage, but sees herself as a black Panamanian. She feels she can be a combination of cultures without losing her own personal identity. She also feels that her life has been influenced by West Indian principles and values, which define the West Indian communities in Panama. Lupita is active in her church community and has traveled the globe with her church. She has visited most of Central America, Brazil, Peru, Columbia, Argentina, Chile, England, and Israel. Lupita is married and has three children, one of whom lives in the United States.
Enrique Sanchez was born in the Gorgas Hospital in Panama City in 1951. He grew up in Paraíso and Pedro Miguel with his mother, father, three brothers, and a sister. Always a good student, Enrique was given a scholarship and the chance to go to college at Columbia University, returning to Panama at the age of 24 with a Master’s degree in Civil Engineering. In addition to working as the manager of the Contracting Division of the Panama Canal Authority, Enrique has also served his community as the coordinator of the Presidential Commission of Inclusion in an effort to eliminate racial discrimination in Panama. While at Columbia, Enrique met his future wife and they have now been married for 30 years. They have a son, a daughter, and three grandchildren. Taking into account the heritage of his Jamaican and Cuban grandparents, Enrique defines himself as a Panamanian of Caribbean ancestry.
Clarence Sealy was born in 1937 on the “old side” of Panama City to parents of Jamaican and Barbadian origins. Trained at Georgia Military College, he had an extensive career as a customs agent in the US Army, and lived in the States for many years before returning to Panama after his retirement. Sealy is very proud of his West Indian heritage, and one of his fondest memories is a trip he took to Jamaica a few years ago. The people there welcomed him like family, and this was a powerful and healing experience for him. Because of this experience, Mr. Sealy feels that it is very important for young people to “know their heritage.” Married to a woman of “Latin derived” origins for nearly fifty years, he and his wife have five children who are proud Panamanians and, although they are living in the States, they would love to return home someday. Sealy loves Jamaican food (particularly ackee and codfish), and is a great fan of Mighty Sparrow, even though his grandmother forbade him to listen to calypso (which she called “rough people music”) when he was a child.
Carla Smith was born in 1958 and grew up with her mother and grandmother in the old Canal Zone. Carla learned English from her grandmother, who was from Jamaica, and it was also from her that she learned to love her West Indian roots. Music was present in Carla’s life from a very early age. She grew up listening to classical music and to Roberto Ledesma. She takes pride in her identity as a black- West Indian woman, and believes it is important to preserve the language and the cultural traditions of the West Indian people. Carla worked in the Administrative office of the Panama Canal for twenty years. She is currently married to a pastor from the Methodist Church.
Alvin Sanchez was born in Gorgas Hospital in Panama City in 1947. The grandson of Jamaican and Barbadian grandparents, Alvin grew up in Panama among three brothers and five sisters, playing baseball, basketball, football, and marbles. He enjoyed the time he spent in school and has maintained contact with many of his childhood friends. Alvin met his wife during a parade in Panama City and is the father of three children. Alvin believes that education is the way for black people to move forward in Panama and it is very important to him that Panamanians recognize the truth about all of the contributions that West Indians have made to their country.
Ruben Sandoval was born in 1975 in Panama and grew up with his mother and father in a poor neighborhood. Today, he is married and has two children, and lives in a “turbulent” neighborhood in Panama City. Ruben considers himself a musical person, and says that he has developed a strong passion for music from a very early age. He holds a Bachelor degree in Social Communication from Panama’s State University. He currently enjoys working as a successful DJ transmitting his knowledge and passion for music (and reggae in particular) to all Panamanians.
Ines Sealy was born in 1939 in Panama. Her father was from Barbadian origin and her mother was from St. Lucia. Although her father worked in the Canal Zone, it was often difficult for him to find work, and the family struggled until he opened a tire repair shop in the 1930s. As a young child, Ines loved to play sports; she played baseball, basketball, softball, and was so good at the high jump that she eventually represented Panama in the 1956-57 Olympics. Although she worked for over twenty-three years in the Canal Zone, she now works as a public translator, and is the proud mother of four children and five grandchildren, many of whom live in the United States. Ines is also proud of her West Indian heritage, and she believes that it is a culture that is not confined to the Caribbean region alone, but is “carried in the blood.” Sealy has a special message for Panamanian youth: “Learn everything you can learn.”
Eduardo Smith was born in 1948. He grew up in a poor neighborhood. His grandparents were from Barbados. Eduardo worked at the Panama Canal all his life and is now retired. He has been a preacher of the Methodist Church for thirty years and really enjoys music, especially calypso, classical, and religious music. He is currently married and has three daughters from his first marriage. He is very proud of being Afro-Panamanian and is particularly proud of holding West Indian values. Eduardo believes that it is very important to remember where we come from, and we must work hard to preserve and promote the values and costumes of our ancestors.
José Tito Thomas
José Tito Thomas was born in Bocas del Toro, in 1936, and grew up in both Bocas and Colón. His paternal grandparents came to Panama from Nicaragua, and his maternal grandparents came from Italy. His grandmother from Nicaragua was of mixed Spanish and indigenous heritage, and José is proud of his culturally-mixed background; nevertheless, he sees himself as a “Bocatoreno” (a native from Boca). He also loves music, particularly Caribbean music, calypso, salsa, and the “cha cha cha.” José studied architecture for four years, has been married for fifty years, and has five children.
Augustus "Gus" Trym
Augustus “Gus” Trym was born in Colón in 1915 to parents who were natives of Antigua, but moved to Panama to work on the Canal. Augustus has always had a passion for music and teaching. He became an organist in his youth, getting his start in the Sunday School Christian Mission; and, as he grew older, he went on to pursue a college degree in education. Afterward, he combined his passions for teaching with his love of music to form an orchestra that played at dance halls and cabarets all over Panama. Augustus Trym was a legend in both education and music whose life is proof that when one follows their passions and chases their dreams, they will find esteem, happiness, and great accomplishment.
Yadira Thorpe was born in Panama and is of West Indian origin. Her family heritage was derived from Jamaica, Panama, Nicaragua, and Colón. As she grew older, she married and divorced. From this union, Yadira has a thirteen year-old son. She also has a love for languages, and her hope is to instill this interest in language in her son. Yadira is proud of the style and religion of West Indians. Ingredients in food, drums in music, and the ability to have a good time are all things she associates with being West Indian.
Ricardo Vaz was born in 1954. He traveled all over Panama due to his father’s work as a plantation worker for an American firm. His grandfather was a biochemist who came to Panama from Jamaica. As a child he went to a West-Indian school where he learned English, music, piano, and how to read and write. He has travelled to the United States two times. For Ricardo blackness is more than just the color of one’s skin. He criticizes the phenomenon of “passing” as a way of advancing in society. According to him, this phenomena exists because there has not yet been established a positive history of blacks and their achievements.
Janina Walters was born in 1969 in Santo Tomás to parents who were Panamanians of West Indian descent. Her father was a music professor and a musician with a symphony orchestra, and, due to her father profession, she spent a lot of time travelling to cities around Panama as a child. She also spent several years in Europe with her family. As an adult, she has also travelled extensively and has family members in the West Indies, Hawaii, Alaska, and Asia. Janina currently works as a translator. She is very interested in music, and understands music as a multicultural expression. For Janina, it is important to understand the overarching culture in which one lives, but to never lose sight of one’s own unique heritage. She also thinks that it is important to look at and understand the pride of the Caribbean and Latina woman, because both are beautiful.
Marcos Watler was born in Panama, but his father’s family is from Grand Caiman Island. Marcos is a musician and a professor of music. He graduated from the University, but never received a graduate degree because he was offered a job as a professor as soon as he finished his undergraduate degree, and has worked for the University ever since. Marcos sings and plays several instruments, has always been a part of some kind of musical group, and is an active member of several church and community choirs. Marcos can speak English, but only does so with his friends. He has never married, but has two sons: one who works as a riverboat captain and another who is six years old.
Sarah Williams was born in 1939 and is of Panamanian descent. She lived through a time plagued with segregation and discrimination, and is still frustrated that, in many places, those things still exist. Sarah’s life is intertwined with stories from various cultures: from her days near the rain forest being chased by wild cats, to having educators of Jamaican descent and listening to American R&B and country music in her youth. She has also travelled extensively, visiting and living in America and Europe. Although her story has some cultural distinctions, her testaments are of universal truths: work hard to succeed, love with enthusiasm, persist through tragedy, and embrace diversity. Sarah is a divorced woman who has persevered through the loss of a daughter, but is thankful for the friendships she has with her children who are still living.
Sizo Alan Woodruff
Sizo Alan Woodruff was born on 1931. While both of his parents were from Santa Lucía, Sizo grew up in El Marañón and spent much of his youth playing ball, running in the streets, swimming in the sea, and fishing. He later moved from El Marañón to Pueblo Nuevo, and spent some time in Colón with his grandmother as well. He is now married, and has two children and eight grandchildren. Sizo likes to listen to conga, danzón, and the same bolero music that he enjoyed in the past, and considers calypso to be the most pleasant style of music. In spite of Sizo’s Afro-Antillean background, he considers himself to be Panamanian and Latino because he was born in Panama and has lived there all his life.
Nyasha Warren was born in Panama City in 1976 and grew up in the nearby suburb of Chanis. As an only child, she and her parents were and are extremely close. When Nyasha became ready to attend school, her mother, a Guyanese woman who immigrated to the country after marrying a West Indian Panamanian in the U.S., was determined that she learn and retain English because it was her own first language. As a result, Nyasha attended a prestigious private Episcopalian school, and later went on to study science and education in the United States. After earning her Master’s degree, Nyasha returned to Panama, where she is now an 8th and 9th grade science teacher. According to her, ethnic identity issues are delicate and complicated everywhere, and in Panama, it’s important not to “guilt” people into being something they don’t want to be (i.e., black). “Telling people who they are” says Nyasha, is not the best approach when teaching about the importance of racial pride in Panama.
Enrique Williams was born in 1943 in Panama City to parents who were native Panamanians, but whose parents emigrated from Cuba and Jamaica. Enrique’s father worked for the Navy while his mother had a sewing business, and, unlike many West Indian descendants of his generation, Williams grew up in the city, close to the national palace. Although he and his family witnessed racism as well as periods of political instability and violence, he was raised with strong ties to the community and with a strong sense of his West Indian origins. Not only did Enrique’s parents maintain friendships with members of the Zone community, they went even further, sending their children to school in the summers so they wouldn’t “lose English” as a second language. After earning a degree at Panama University, Enrique migrated to Canada in 1970, where he studied a second degree at York University in Toronto. When he returned to Panama eight years later, he became the first director of the National Railway when control was transferred from the United States to Panama, and finally achieved his dream of seeing a united Panama by participating in this major event. After serving in this position and as the marketing director for the Port Authority, the political climate in Panama forced Williams and his wife to return to Canada in 1989 with their children, where Williams worked for a NGO for 17 years before retiring in Panama City in 2006.He now works as a project manager for non-governmental and non-profit organizations, and is proud of his West Indian heritage, the social advancements made in Panama’s treatment of Afro-Antillanos, and his help in creating “one Panama” through his work with the nationalization of once-Canal controlled functionaries. Since he has always been interested in the contributions of West Indians and their descendents to Panamanian society, and to the oral histories of this group, Enrique is now working to preserve these many histories and untold stories, and he has a specific message to the new generation of West Indian Panamanians, who face different kinds of discrimination today. “Be proud of your heritage,” says Williams, “but [remember] you are fully Panamanians.”
Norman Wood was born in 1935. While he has struggled with his identity, feeling both West Indian and Panamanian, he now identifies himself as Panamanian and works tirelessly for his community and the environment. Norman grew up on a farm in a family with strong moral values and religious convictions. He recalls the time when children entered school praying and exited school praying, and he wishes that the community had maintained this tradition. Though he only completed school through the sixth grade, Norman has served his community in many ways; from working as a fiscal inspector and tax collector, to Governor and Director of Planning. Norman believes in hard work and doing what is best for his community. He is also passionate about saving the environment, and has traveled extensively to do all he can to educate and promote the utilization of items that save the environment and help the economy. In addition to his career, he has also raised five boys and a girl with his wife. Though he vividly recalls the discrimination he grew up with in a classed society, Norman is grateful that blacks have overcome much of this in his country.