This is somewhat old news…but at least it’s new to you! Since this blog is a research log and I’ve caught a new wind in updating it, I’m catching up on some entries. Here, I visit the Panama Canal, where my family story in that part of the world began.
Puente del mundo, corazon del universo
When shopping for souvenirs in Panama, you’ll find keychains, decorative plates, coffee mugs, and all the other usual suspects emblazoned with the phrase “puente del mundo, corazon del universo” (bridge of the world, heart of the universe).
Though the people I have encountered throughout my life do not necessarily know where Panama is, what language is spoken there, and how the heck black people got there, there is one thing they always know – it is the home of the Panama Canal, a massive feat of engineering that is considered to be one of the modern wonders of the world. (Okay, they also tend to associate the country with a certain U.S.-groomed dictator who was ousted in the 1989 invasion by same Americans.) Being a strategic base for military and trade operations led to the emergence of the diverse society that surrounds the canal, truly making Panama a ” bridge of the world”. And in my family, it is definitely the heart of our universe!
The construction of the canal (and the Panama Railroad before that) attracted laborers from all over the world. West Indians, among them my great-grandparents, figured prominently among this influx of migrants. Though my parents were only the second generation of their family to be born and raised in Panama, they never had any contact with their extended family across the waters of the Caribbean, thus most of the clues I will utilize in my research will rely on family stories, especially from older kin, and records research.
During a visit to New York, my uncle (by marriage – thus no shared ancestors) told me he had found his grandfather’s name listed in a database at a computer kiosk at the Panama Canal Miraflores Visitors Center. I had been to the relatively new exhibit at the Visitors Center once or twice before but had not noticed the kiosk where one could look up laborers who had participated in the construction of the canal. I vowed that on my next trip to Panama I would search the database for my ancestors, which I did on December 29, 2009.
When my family headed into a theater to watch a short film about the history of the canal (that I had probably seen before anyhow), I made a beeline for the exhibit across the lobby. In my imperfect Spanish I asked the attendant where I could find la computadora. She pointed me in that direction and I got to work, typing in surnames with crossed fingers (okay, figuratively they were crossed – I mean, it’d be kind hard to type with crossed fingers!). Though I tried several spellings, there was no sign of any of my maternal surnames in the database. However, I knew that my more common surnames from my father’s side of the family would leave me with a different dilemma. I found several entries for my Bajan great-grandpas, Nathaniel Thomas and James Lewis, but it was unclear if each entry represented a different Nathaniel or James or if each entry represented a different term of employment for a lesser number of persons.
Just when I thought I was off to a great start, I realized that I was at the end of the road as far as the Visitors Center was concerned. The database only provided one single line of information for each entry. Though there were fields for name, date of birth, and employment start and termination dates, most entries only provided names and start dates of employment. I scribbled down all 10 entries for Nathaniel and 17 entries for James, not knowing if the information would lead me anywhere. I found the attendant and graced her again with my broken Spanish, asking if there was a way to get more information about the people listed in the database by perhaps accessing the records that underlie the database. She said that the records I would be interested in seeing can be found at the Balboa Administration Building. I was glad to know that there was an actual place I could go, but sad to realize that it would not be a possibility on this jam-packed family trip. At this point in the trip I had come to terms with the fact that I would need to make a separate trip to Panama dedicated solely to genealogy research in order to make any substantial progress.
Nonetheless, it was a good thing I had about 20 minutes to find out what I did before my family floated out of the theater and into the exhibit. Once they reached the kiosk a crowd assembled as some of my second cousins searched for their ancestors. It tickled the budding genealogist in me to see others getting excited about searching for information about their predecessors.
While the Colomb-Wrights searched for their Wright ancestor, I told my mother there were no Vallees or Colombs in the database. Nonchalantly – that’s how any sort of good, new information seems to come from this lady – she told me that she was not surprised because her grandfathers never worked on the canal. Rather, it was her understanding that they had made their livings as farmers. I was a bit annoyed she had never mentioned this before, but then I realized, I had never asked. I had assumed. You know what happens when you do that…
I find this detail to be rather exciting because it adds another layer of complexity and diversity to the general narrative of the “West Indian experience” in Panama. Not only were my mother’s predecessors among the French patios speaking minority within the WI Panamanian community, their men ended up performing a different type of work than the majority of West Indian men in the region at the time. I can’t wait to figure out the how and why of it.
As for my great-grandmas – where my ladies at?! No sign of them. Yet.