Panama Canal

Race, Nation, the Panama Canal


A review of Claiming the Canal: Performances of Race and Nation in Panama, 1904-1999, by Katherine Zien. 

The history of the Panama Canal has long fascinated scholars of Latin American and United States history. The building of the Canal marked a seminal moment in the history of twentieth-century U.S. empire-making, while also setting the stage for contentious debates about colonialism, sovereignty, and globalization. Katherine Zien’s “Claiming the Canal: Performances of Race and Nation in Panama, 1904-1999,” examines the particular realities created by the Panama Canal Zone, one of the earliest products of twentieth-century U.S. imperialism. This space, Zien explains, due to its ambiguities or “subjunctives” regarding sovereignty and ownership, allowed the United States to act as a colonial power while never defining itself as such (p. 17). This very ambiguity, however, also facilitated the creation of “counter-worlding,” or alternative culture making that both upheld and troubled imperialist mandates (p. 17). Looking in particular at how U.S. citizens, West Indian Panamanians, and white and racially mixed Panamanians used civic and social institutions, music, and theatre to create identities and communities within and in response to the Canal Zone, Zien moves away from the top-down focus of most studies of United States and Panamanian relations. Instead, inspired by the work of scholars like Erving Goffman, Diana Taylor, and Joseph Roach, who engage historical production through a performance studies framework, Zien presents a culturally grounded study of evolving practices of nationalism, colonialism, and post-colonialism in twentieth-century Panama.

Zien’s first chapter explores the uses of performance as a tool of social control within the Canal Zone. Organizations such as the YMCA, Zien notes, played a crucial role in enforcing notions of morality. Civic associations, funded by the U.S. government in the Zone, employed vaudeville shows, traveling theater, films, lecture tours, and other “clean” modes of performance to keep white U.S. citizen Zone residents, or Zonians, connected to the cultural pillars of the U.S. mainland. “By the 1930s,” Zien points out, “the Panama Canal Zone was labeled a case of triumph over white degeneration, countering tropical stressors with social resources” (p. 53). Given the focus on Zonians, preventing the “degeneration” of non-whites in the Zone did not receive immediate attention. Instead, African American religious leaders, the select few who resided in the Zone, called for the creation of clubhouses and other morally sound forms of entertainment for non-white Zone workers, most of whom were West Indians. Fewer clubhouses and entertainment venues existed for West Indians, but as Zien makes clear, within clubhouses West Indians created a range of activities that, albeit dominated by a British West Indian elite and led by African Americans, “fulfill[ed] social functions, provide[d] supplementary educational and cultural activities, and preserve[d] the rights of their communities to spaces of leisure” (p. 87). In both the case of Zonian and West Indian workers, however, Zone officials and other U.S. citizen cultural and institutional leaders, did not envision how workers and other observers would employ a performance framework to promote their own unique worldviews.

The emergence of the Conciertos Westerman (Westerman Concert), the topic of Zien’s second chapter, provided a concrete example of such worldviews. George Westerman, a noted newspaperman, community leader and diplomat in mid- to late twentieth century Panama, organized the Conciertos Westerman. Focusing on Westerman’s recruitment of African American performers, especially female opera singers, Zien argues that Westerman sought to “create affective bonds and embodied manifestations of the ideal black subject” that linked discourses of race and social justice in the U.S. and Panama and promoted the idea of citizenship equality for West Indian Panamanians (p. 103). By the 1940s and following cutbacks in the Canal Zone, the cultural avenues available to West Indian Panamanians in this space drastically diminished. Nevertheless, West Indian Panamanians like George Westerman, who had some experience with the clubhouse culture of the Zone and a growing range of cultural and political alliances in Panama, spearheaded their own performance projects. Along with shedding important light on the history of black cultural entrepreneurship in mid-century Panama, this chapter is also effective in its detailed discussion of how the musical and repertoire selections of the performers sponsored by the Conciertos Westerman engaged questions of acculturation, “white ethnosympathy,” and “black (inter)nationalism” (p. 149)  As Zien notes, the Westerman artists negotiated identities from exiled raced subjects to global travelers and cultural ambassadors. Westerman understood this reality as one shared by West Indian Panamanians. In this way, his concert series sought to move beyond the realm of entertainment and concretely shape people’s understandings of the potential of black people as cultured and modern citizens.

Through an examination of the comic operetta, La cucarachita mandinga (1937), Zien expands on the idea of cultural and racial nationalism, while also connecting it to ongoing questions of sovereignty, national identity, and the role of performance in politics. As argued by Zien in her third chapter, Rogelio Sinán’s La cucarachita mandiga (The Little Mandinga Cockroach) sought to complicate accepted notions of mestizaje in Panama by using the figure of an impoverished and “grotesque” mulata from Panama’s interior as its central character (p. 188). Furthermore, by depicting Mandinga’s various suitors as greedy foreign conquistadors, Sinán likewise touched on the histories of colonialism that shaped Panama’s history. Of most interest in Zien’s discussion is her comparison of three mega productions of the play in 1953, 1976, and 2006, respectively, and what each production revealed about how politics and entrenched racial viewpoints could affect the textual interpretation of the play. The 1976 remounting, for example, came during treaty talks between Panama and the United States and the motif of anti-colonialism resounded throughout the play. Yet, while emphasizing anti-colonialism, the 1976 production also whitewashed the text. A white Panamanian filled the starring role and Afro-descendant performers only appeared as side characters throughout the production. The 2006 remounting, in turn, took place in the former Canal Zone and as Zien notes, a desire to “nationalize the Zone” shaped most of the production (p. 211). Like the 1976 production, however, the play featured a white female lead, albeit moments of “choreographed racial haunting” also formed part of this production. Specifically, Afro-descendant performers mirrored the acts of the central characters and these parallel movements were unwittingly projected on giant split screens for thousands to see. 

The idea of “nationalizing the Zone” and the postcolonial futures of Panama following the full handover of the Panama Canal and Canal Zone by the United States, shapes the final chapter of Zien’s dissertation. Specifically, Zien examines two handover celebrations within Panama – the Panama Canal Handover Gala sponsored by the Panama Canal Company and the Patria Entera (Whole Homeland) mega concert coordinated by the Panama City mayoralty. The Gala brought together U.S. citizens and West Indian Panamanians who had a history with the Zone (having lived, worked or socialized in this space) in addition to members of the performance, music, and artistic community in Panama. The Gala, Zien argues, ultimately sought to balance a sense of nostalgia about a lost U.S. Zone paradise and the “ambivalent local present and post-handover future” (p. 239). In the end, the idea of the Canal as unifier of oceans and of diverse peoples dominated much of the discussions throughout the Gala. The Patria Entera concert, while also invoking the idea of unity, focused on transitioning from an internationalist perspective to a nationalist outlook. By looking at the particular life story of Rubén Blades, the lead performer during the concert, and someone who attained international recognition before securing national fame, Zien effectively links the personal, public, and political dimensions of performance work. In all, with this final chapter, Zien returns to the idea of the Zone as “a space simultaneously signifying possibility and ongoing, unresolved fissures” (p. 280). For those seeking to partake in the economic and housing opportunities within this space, the Zone continued to represent a wealth of possibility. As a border space now under Panamanian control, the Zone also held the potential to exclude and alienate. Yet, what Zien illuminates throughout her dissertation is that performance work – including clubhouse based recreational and social events, carefully structured musical acts, live theater, commemorative ceremonies, and mega concerts – and the people creating, participating in, and observing these works ultimately etched out the potentials of the Zone.

“Claiming the Canal” is overall a refreshing study on the cultural and political history of Panama and the United States, and in particular, of the Canal Zone. Through a thorough engagement with performance theory and a rich use of archival and ethnographic research, Zien’s dissertation offers an important contribution to the fields of Performance Studies, African Diaspora Studies, and Latin American Studies.

Kaysha Corinealdi
Visiting Scholar
Center for Latin American & Caribbean Studies
New York University

Primary Sources 

Canal Zone Library Museum, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress
Panama Canal Company RG 185, National Archives and Records Administration
George W. Westerman Papers, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Cultures
Rubén Blades Papers, Loeb Music Library, Harvard University
Personal Interviews

Dissertation Information 

Northwestern University. 2012. 325 pp. Primary Advisor: Sandra L. Richards.

Image: Kroonland in Panama_Canal, 1915. Wikimedia Commons.

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