West Indian Panamanians: Race, Citizenship, and Diaspora


A review of Redefining Home: West Indian Panamanians and Transnational Politics of Race, Citizenship, and Diaspora, 1928-1970, by Kaysha Lisbeth Corinealdi.

Kaysha Corinealdi demonstrates how several generations of West Indian Panamanians negotiated Panamanian xenophobia, Panama Canal Zone racism, and race and class struggles in the United States to create strong networks across the Americas. The West Indian Panamanian diaspora’s “multiple citizenships” expand the concept of citizenship beyond rights decreed from birth to encompass residency and community formations at different stages of life and in locations far from one’s birthplace (p. 147). To drive this point home, Corinealdi cites West Indian Panamanian newspaperman Sidney Young’s assertion that “place of birth did not always correlate with true belonging. [For Young,] [b]elonging…was a question of experience and desire, not geography or bureaucracy” (p. 28). So for many other West Indian Panamanians: the complexity of belonging is at the crux of Corinealdi’s study. Linking her research to Michelle Stephens’s Black Empire and many other works charting black movement and power differentials, Corinealdi situates West Indian Panamanians within a “hemispheric black diaspora,” (p. 15) whose subjects converged and conflicted along lines of shared racial experience, political ideology, language and cultural heritage, encounters with U.S. neocolonialism, nationality, and gender.

Throughout their histories in Panama and the United States, West Indian Panamanians have engaged “pluralistic understandings of culture, nationalism, and diaspora” (p. 4). Corinealdi opens her dissertation by recounting U.S. officials’ recruitment of West Indians for Panama Canal labor. Citing scholars Michael Conniff and Velma Newton, Corinealdi chronicles the migration of thousands of people from Barbados, St. Lucia, and other Caribbean locales to work in the Canal Zone, a U.S. “neo-colony” formed by the 1903 Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty (p. 5). Whereas the Isthmian Canal Commission and its successor, the Canal Zone Government, policed West Indians in the Canal Zone with Jim Crow segregation and a racially and nationally hierarchized pay scale, in Panama light-skinned and white oligarchs decried the presence of West Indians, which doubled Panama’s national population, as living symbols of the Canal Zone’s encroachment upon Panamanian national and racial unity and integrity (p. 16).

In Chapter One, Corinealdi chronicles the activities of West Indian Panamanian activists in the early twentieth century. In the 1920s and 1930s, two generations of West Indians and their descendants had decisively settled in Panama and the Canal Zone. Corinealdi asserts that West Indians “changed the Panamanian landscape, making the Isthmus the center of a culturally and linguistically diverse black diaspora” (pp. 16-17). Within a generally hostile context in which West Indians were posited as a “threat” to Panamanian nationalism (pp. 18-26), two West Indian Panamanian leaders, George W. Westerman and Edward Gaskin, used distinct yet interlocking strategies to seek improved conditions for the West Indian Panamanian community. Westerman, editor of the Panama Tribune, international public speaker, and ultimately Panamanian diplomat, utilized his connections with international human rights advocates and black intellectuals and politicians, as well as his links to Panamanian political figures, to advocate for West Indian Panamanian equal status, in return for linguistic and cultural assimilation. For Westerman, Panamanian citizenship was a key platform for West Indian descendants’ equality (pp. 17-18). This focus on citizenship is appropriate, for changes to the Panamanian constitution in 1941 threw West Indian Panamanians’ citizenship into doubt. (Unlike the offspring of U.S. citizens born in the Canal Zone, the many West Indian Panamanians born in the Zone were not allotted U.S. citizenship.) Even after Panama’s most stringent anti-immigrant laws were ameliorated, Panama-born West Indian descendants, called criollos, had to formally apply for Panamanian citizenship.

After some gains in this citizenship struggle, certain West Indian Panamanian community leaders shifted their focus to the Canal Zone’s labor and housing discrimination. In the mid-1940s, non-U.S. labor organizing was finally permitted, and Edward Gaskin took part in the formation of Local 713, linked to the United Public Workers Association union, under the aegis of the U.S.-based Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). After Local 713 was disbanded under charges of communism, Gaskin helped to found another union, Local 900, to advocate for non-U.S. workers in the Zone.

In Chapter Two, Corinealdi contrasts Gaskin’s labor unionist approach, focused on the Canal Zone Government, with Westerman’s emphasis on Panamanian ties of nationality and citizenship. Local 713 was frequently lambasted by Westerman, who used his international connections to politicians like Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. to draw attention to the labor problems and racial inequalities in Panama and the Canal Zone (p. 54). The stakes were heightened as West Indian Panamanians attempted to voice their concerns during U.S.-Panama treaty renegotiations (1953-1955). Although ultimately both Gaskin and Westerman focused on West Indian Panamanians as equal citizens of Panama, Corinealdi shows that “[t]his turn to a strategy of citizenship…would re-defin[e] West Indian Panamanian identities in ways that did not always recognize the community’s plurality” (p. 63). West Indian Panamanians’ nationalities, thought to be a bargaining tool in U.S.-Panama treaty renegotiations, were culturally limiting, and limited in their translation into real rights.

Moreover, citizenship questions were perversely weaponized in the mid-1950s, when the Canal Zone began a mass program of deportation and re-education of West Indian Panamanians living in the Zone. In Chapter Three, Corinealdi, concentrating on events such as Gaskin’s labor rally and the sendoff of the Panamanian Negotiating Mission, shows that West Indian Panamanians were still considered an ‘other’ in Panama, despite overt attempts by Westerman and ultimately Gaskin to mobilize the platform of citizenship and nationalism. Corinealdi argues that Canal Zone officials’ displacement of West Indian Panamanians into Latin Americans schools and Panamanian housing was influenced by the context of treaty renegotiations, seeking to avoid desegregating the Zone. Moreover, instead of reverting Zone lands to Panama, the Canal Zone Government repatriated Panamanian citizens of West Indian descent (p. 126).

West Indian Panamanians were pressed to assimilate into essentialist “Panamanian” identities – but even this did not guarantee their acceptance in Panama. When Canal Zone officials pushed West Indian Panamanians out of the Zone’s housing and colored school system in 1954 and denied them commissary privileges, many Panamanians either rejoiced at the thought of more residential rent and mercantile revenues or bemoaned the presence in their country of more people of West Indian descent, whose spoken English was merely one indicator of their foreignness to Panamanian ways of life. Ultimately, as Corinealdi demonstrates, neither the Canal Zone nor Panama aided in the transplantation of West Indian Panamanians from Zone townships to Panama. Left to resolve this situation for themselves, West Indian Panamanians were placed at risk of unemployment, poverty, and homelessness.

While many West Indian Panamanians complied with the Panamanian government’s law that they must “prove” their citizenship, others left for the United States. Corinealdi’s fourth and final chapter chronicles the community formation activities of West Indian Panamanians in Brooklyn, New York. Rather than assimilating into a U.S. ethnic community, these West Indian Panamanians maintained ties to Panama, expanding the definitions of “citizenship” and “belonging” beyond the contours of the nation-state. In Brooklyn, Panamanian cultural traditions of clothing, dance, and song became “cultural fixtures” and “expressions of an expanding diaspora” from the 1960s onward (p. 164).

In particular, Las Servidoras, a women-centered community organization founded in the 1960s by West Indian Panamanian female migrants in New York, has provided college scholarships for West Indian Panamanian and other students across the Americas. Las Servidoras, later renamed The Dedicators, Inc., began hosting dinner dances, luncheons, and other gatherings in the early 1960s to raise funds and honor prestigious and successful West Indian Panamanians, as well as prominent members of the Afro-Caribbean and African American communities. The organization gave specific attention to politics, hosting and honoring black political figures Shirley Chisholm, Waldaba Stewart, Thomas Fortune, and Basil A. Patterson in 1968 and 1970. Also honored were many Panamanians, including George Westerman and pathbreaking male and female teachers like Leonor Jump Watson. Corinealdi states: “Fully understanding West Indian Panamanians required addressing the layered history they embodied. These layers included hemispheric citizenship debates, multiple migrations, and a very personal experience with U.S. neo-colonialism” (pp. 165-166). To this list, Corinealdi adds gender: her fine-grained ethnographic and archival analysis of West Indian Panamanian immigration to Brooklyn shows how entrepreneurial female community leaders have sustained and forged anew transnational ties to Panama in the late twentieth century. These ties persist in forms of active engagement in Panamanian affairs into the present day. Although in Panama citizenship rights from birth were finally guaranteed in 1961, West Indian Panamanians have historically created alternative forms of citizenship oriented around their “pride in belonging” to multiple overlapping communities and networks (p. 203).

Katherine Zien
Department of English
McGill University

Primary Sources

Personal Papers Related to Club El Pacífico
Personal Papers Related to Las Servidoras/The Dedicators
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, SCRBC
Tamiment Library& Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, TLRWLA
U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, NARA

Dissertation Information

Yale University. 2011. 218 pp. Primary Advisor: Gilbert M. Joseph.

Image: Isthmian Echoes (1928), by Sidney Young, and published in Panama by Benedetti Huos.

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