The Diasporic Worlds of Panama’s West Indian Women: On Joan Flores-Villalobos’s “The Silver Women”
By Nicolle AlzamoraOctober 19, 2023
The Silver Women: How Black Women’s Labor Made the Panama Canal by Joan Flores-Villalobos
In Panama, by contrast, the seaway and the US-controlled Canal Zone around it were seen as part of a history of colonialism that prompted the country’s long struggle to reclaim its sovereignty. Yet, as divergent as these two narratives might be, both disguise the labor of the more than 150,000 workers who migrated from many parts of the world, especially from the islands of the Caribbean, to work on the canal’s construction. These workers, whose toil brought the waterway into existence, were subjected not only to the perils of the labor itself but also to a distinct regime of racism that US officials exported to the isthmus. A variation of the Jim Crow laws in place in the US South established a segregated payroll system in the Canal Zone: skilled workers, largely white and from the United States, were part of the “gold roll”; unskilled workers from the West Indies and elsewhere, including the neighboring Republic of Panama, were on the “silver roll,” and therefore received lower wages and an overall lower standard of living.
In her new book The Silver Women: How Black Women’s Labor Made the Panama Canal, historian Joan Flores-Villalobos focuses on the often-overlooked stories of women who migrated from the Caribbean to the Panamanian isthmus during the construction period. The title of the book is a nod to the segregation system in place in the Canal Zone, as well as a reference to Velma Newton’s seminal work, The Silver Men: West Indian Labour Migration to Panama, 1850–1914, first published in 1984. Newton and others have explored the migration, dangerous work conditions, and racism that Black workers endured while constructing the Panama Canal. With The Silver Women, Flores-Villalobos takes this body of research one step further, examining the ways that Black West Indian women’s labor aided and sustained the canal project. While they built the canal, these women also worked to preserve their cultures and communities on the Panamanian isthmus, across the West Indian archipelago, and throughout the hemisphere’s growing West Indian diaspora.
The subjects that lie at the heart of the text and the revisionist history its author recounts do a great deal to disrupt conventional narratives. The Silver Women unsettles the triumphalist story of the Panama Canal as a white, male feat, instead showing the essential role of Black migrant women in the success of the project. Like Flores-Villalobos’s analysis, the women she studies similarly disrupted the world they lived in. With their mobility—from the West Indies to the Panamanian isthmus, from the Canal Zone to the Republic of Panama, and from Panama to other diasporic communities in Central America and the United States—these women challenged the very notion of geographic borders.
With few exceptions, they traveled without being recruited by the Isthmian Canal Commission (ICC), the administrative body, under the direct supervision of the US Secretary of War, that oversaw the canal construction. In contrast to the West Indian men recruited by the ICC who received a labor contract, paid passage, a fixed wage, and housing upon arrival in Panama, these women migrated on far more precarious terms. Although their condition as uncontracted Black women made them vulnerable, it also allowed them to live “mostly outside the main arteries of U.S. imperial authority.” They transgressed not only physical borders but also social binaries that would classify them as either single or legally married, honorable women or prostitutes.
Although their work as higglers (itinerant traders), laundresses, maids, and sex workers was crucial in fulfilling the socioeconomic needs that arose in the forging of the waterway, these women’s very existence and their fluid movement across geographic and social boundaries exposed the contradictory ways that US and Panamanian authorities perceived them—as both essential and suspicious. In response, they deployed strategies of self-determination and challenged US narratives of how Black women should behave. In doing so, they built and preserved Afro-Caribbean transnational communities that have shaped the entire region. Flores-Villalobos’s narrative does not aim, however, to reduce the “silver women” to either perfect heroines or helpless victims; rather, the author examines the complexities of life under institutionalized racism and misogyny, revealing the nuanced and imperfect ways these women sought agency and consequently forged both the canal and a thriving transregional diasporic community.
As the title’s reference to Newton’s classic study suggests, The Silver Women contributes to a growing corpus of research about the politics of race in Panama, including the works of Sonja Stephenson Watson, Katherine A. Zien, Renée Alexander Craft, and Kaysha Corinealdi. Corinealdi’s 2022 book Panama in Black: Afro-Caribbean World Making in the Twentieth Century is of special relevance here, not only because it was published shortly before The Silver Women but also because both books bring to the fore the Afro-Caribbean experience of migration, exclusion, and survival in Panama. Moreover, the two books establish a dialogue about what Corinealdi calls “Afro-Caribbean diasporic world making,” insofar as they both frame the experiences of West Indians in Panama as part of a larger community that connected the Caribbean, Central America, and the United States. As Flores-Villalobos shows, these women are not only part of Panamanian history; they are also “transnational subjects” who moved within and deeply influenced Black communities across the region. The author tells their stories based on evidence from criminal records; the memoirs of white women who lived in the Canal Zone; administrative correspondence; archival sources from Panama, Barbados, and the United Kingdom; and US archives detailing the construction of the canal. Relying on multiple sources from different countries, the book carefully traces these women and their movements, centering them as key figures in the history of the wider Afro-Caribbean diaspora.
The book draws upon this eclectic source base to navigate its most significant potential pitfall: the tendency to speak of marginalized women either exclusively as victims of their historical circumstance or via a narrative of blind empowerment that glosses over both the realities of their oppression and their own human fallibility. It would be easy to portray the silver women as passive subjects who suffered in silence. It would be only slightly less facile to sketch a triumphalist narrative of superheroines who succeeded against all odds in a strange land. Instead, Flores-Villalobos successfully traces the nuances and contradictions that course through the history of West Indian women in Panama, both in their daily lives and in their broader impact on the region. She tells the stories of women who did the best they could with the tools they had at hand. Through creative strategies, some of which at times worked against them, these women managed to make their voices heard and to protect their communities, both in the West Indies and on the isthmus.
The story of West Indians in Panama is one of slavery’s many afterlives. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, thousands of workers from the Caribbean migrated to various parts of Central America seeking employment. After emancipation, West Indians continued working within the plantation economy until the sugar monopoly of the Caribbean declined and other foreign investors started new enterprises in the region. These changes, according to Flores-Villalobos, sparked a wave of worker mobility that prompted women to expand “their entrepreneurial labor, moving across imperial borders to sell their wares and services in transregional markets,” sometimes against the wishes of British colonial authorities. Their migration to Panama followed a similar logic. While their lack of a labor contract entailed the additional challenge of migrating without paid passage, housing, or food provided by the US authorities, it also granted them more autonomy and flexibility to transit across borders with comparatively little US oversight. Similarly, their work as higglers, laundresses, maids, and sex workers allowed them to move more freely across the border that separated the Canal Zone from the adjacent Republic of Panama.
The nature of their mobility and labor meant that these women did not abide by strict territorial frontiers, nor by societal prescriptions regarding how Black women should behave. The book points to romantic relationships as a prevalent example of how these women disrupted rigid social ideas. While the US authorities viewed cohabitation out of wedlock as “sinful” behavior, Flores-Villalobos writes, “West Indian men and women saw cohabitation as a legitimate, sufficient, and moral relationship practice.” The canal administration categorized women as single or legally married and considered any other arrangement as illegitimate. By maintaining romantic relationships outside of legal marriages, as many of them had done in their home countries, West Indian women flouted US colonial ideas of propriety and constructed life within a more fluid spectrum of social relations.
Flores-Villalobos depicts this fluidity particularly astutely in the case of 300 Martinican women who arrived in the Canal Zone in 1905. In one of the exceptional cases where the canal administrators recruited women, they received paid passage to the isthmus to fulfill roles as domestic servants, laundresses, and even companions for the male workers. Yet the fact that some of these women were single or in common-law marriages, and that many of them chose to work independently instead of for “respectable” American homes, simultaneously exposed and challenged the binaries the US authorities imposed upon them: they were either “respectable laboring women” under formal US employment or they were “prostitutes.” The authorities’ inability to categorize these 300 women rendered them unintelligible to the Canal Zone bureaucracy and therefore ostensibly dangerous to the project. As a result, the unmarried Martinican women were confined to a camp under strict police surveillance. The story of these women is part of the book’s broader examination of the canal authorities’ view of West Indian women as prone to prostitution and immorality, an assumption that prompted constant oversight and state regulation.
This contradiction—the fact that West Indian women were both essential to the canal effort and viewed as a threat to US values—also surfaces in the memoirs of white women living in the Canal Zone. Through these at once revelatory and disturbing sources, The Silver Women explores the racism inherent in the relationship between West Indian women and their white domestic employers. Despite acknowledging their dependence on Black women to run their households, white women perceived their employees as dangerous and were overly concerned with their private lives, their “virtue,” and the way they dressed. The authors of these memoirs mocked and condemned their domestic employees as racially and sexually excessive, unclean, and backwards, even as they relied on their labor.
This anti-Black misogyny was also a reality in Panamanian territory across the Canal Zone border. As in many other parts of Latin America, Panama’s emerging national identity relied on ideas of mestizaje, a legacy of racial and cultural mixing that wove together European, Indigenous, and African ancestries forged in the region’s history of colonial encounter and transatlantic slavery. As Corinealdi puts it, notions of mestizaje were “always connected to white European (Iberian/Hispanic) ancestry, a negation of Blackness, and a mythologizing of an Indigenous past” and were considered an essential part of Panamanian identity. By extension, being Panamanian meant being mestizo, speaking Spanish, and practicing Catholicism. Consequently, West Indians in Panama constituted what Sonja Stephenson calls a “triple Other” insofar as they were Black, English-speaking, and Protestant. Combined with Panama’s subjugation to US interventionism and Washington’s colonial presence in the Canal Zone, this triple othering led Panamanians, according to Flores-Villalobos, to view West Indian immigrants as “unassimilable interlopers, tainted by their Blackness and their association with American empire.”
The author portrays anti-Blackness in Panama as part of a larger nationalist campaign and focuses particularly on Panamanian elites’ contradictory perceptions of West Indian women. Despite voicing nationalist and anti–West Indian ideas, the Panamanian oligarchy owned the housing tenements located in Panama City’s El Chorrillo and Calidonia neighborhoods where many West Indians relocated following President Howard Taft’s 1912 executive order for foreign workers to leave the Canal Zone. Similar contradictions abounded in the oligarchy’s approach to sex work. “[W]hile regulating and criticizing prostitution,” Flores-Villalobos writes, “these elite Panamanians also profited from the expansion of the sex trade during the construction years.” Much like the US authorities, the Panamanian ruling class viewed West Indian sex workers with ambivalence—they were at once economically essential and the subject of moral condemnation.
West Indian women were not mere victims of opprobrium or subjugation, however. One of the book’s notable successes lies in its rigorous exploration of the strategies West Indian women deployed to assert self-determination and claim their legal rights. Here again, Flores-Villalobos’s readings of the memoirs of white women in the Canal Zone offer a window into the small, quotidian ways the silver women challenged the systems in which they lived and subverted power structures to their advantage. For example, they asked their employers to cover the expenses for their businesses as laundresses, wore colorful clothes against their bosses’ instructions, asked for higher wages for their services, and labored at a pace of their choosing. Many also maintained traditional West Indian funeral rites; they claimed their deceased relatives’ belongings and unpaid wages to memorialize their loved ones and make meaning of their passing—a powerful gesture amid an imperial project that treated the deaths of West Indians as a loss of productivity rather than of human life. By asserting their own worldviews and cultural practices, West Indian women undermined US-based social assumptions and thereby undermined Washington’s hegemony in the Canal Zone.
Despite the vulnerability that characterized much of their situation, these women learned to use to their advantage the structures and ideologies that othered them. They played on stereotypes that portrayed them as weak, destitute, and submissive in order to yield favorable results in divorce cases, and argued their honor in contrast to other “less respectable” West Indian women in order to receive legal and financial benefits. Inside Panamanian territory, some engaged in loud arguments with other West Indian women, using foul language to defend their reputation. These disputes often ended in municipal courts, where the women sought to air their grievances and make themselves heard. Though they “sometimes reiterated stereotypes about Black women’s immorality,” Flores-Villalobos writes, “they also forced the new legal institutions of Panama to contend with and recognize their claims to reputation.”
The social and cultural fruits of such strategies extended beyond the borders of the Canal Zone and the surrounding Republic of Panama, as they helped forge a strong diasporic community across Central America, the Caribbean, and the United States. Following her compelling portrayal of West Indian women’s daily lives and contributions during the canal construction, Flores-Villalobos follows their stories of diaspora throughout the surrounding region, where West Indians encountered local variations of racism and xenophobia. She traces the stories of those who stayed in Panama, as well as those who migrated to Cuba to work in its sugar industry or moved to New York, where they became part of the city’s growing Afro-Caribbean diasporic community. The author stresses the role women played not only in managing the economic and social resources that allowed them to migrate but also in replicating the community-building and resistance strategies they had learned during and immediately following the canal construction. Even as The Silver Women offers a thorough exploration of race and gender in Panama, the book is not about Panama alone. Instead, it crafts an essential revisionist account of the overlooked but indispensable role that West Indian women played in forging their diaspora across the Americas.
Nicolle Alzamora is a Panamanian author and PhD researcher in Latin American cultural studies at the University of Manchester.
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