The Black Panamanian-Jamaican Connection: Imperialism, Race and Class in Canal Zone

  • Jennifer Carolina Gomez Menjivar University of Minnesota Duluth
Keywords Latin American Cultural Studies, Panama, Jamaica, Panama Canal, Imperialism, Blackness
Keywords Latin American Cultural Studies, Panama, Jamaica, Panama Canal, Imperialism, Blackness


The novels of the early twentieth century, observes Richard L. Jackson in his Black Literature and Humanism in Latin America, attempted to negotiate the concepts of civilization and humanism in their quest to examine the nature of Latin American identity. Demetrio Aguilera Malta’s Canal Zone (1935) situates the reader in a socio-political context rife with conflicts and contradictions, at the center of which is the debate over the Jamaican labor force hired to work on the Panama Canal. The initial operators of the Canal Zone project were white North American southerners who insisted upon implementing North American Jim Crow segregation measures in the Canal Zone. The white North American labor force was paid on the “gold roll” while West Indians received the “silver roll” rate, distinctions that were later institutionalized in the euphemistically designated “gold” and “silver” towns, schools, toilets, drinking fountains and segregated windows at the post office. Canal Zone suggests that the quest for a Panamanian identity requires revisiting history and upholding the legacy of blackness in the country. I argue that this text is a critical analysis of the debt owed to the West Indian community in Central America and as such, is ahead of its time. Canal Zone is the first to establish a critical assessment of the ongoing black Central American-Caribbean connections scholars are only just beginning to explore today.

Author Biography

Jennifer Carolina Gomez Menjivar, University of Minnesota Duluth
  1. Jennifer Carolina Gómez Menjívar is an Assistant Professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Her work focuses on the transnational Central American literatures and cultures, particularly those of the Afro-Central American and Mayan communities in the isthmus. She has just completed her first book manuscript, Black in Print: Fictions, Discourses and the Politics of Seeing Blackness in Central America, which explores the discussions about blackness that have taken place during poignant socio-economic transitions in the region. Her most recent scholarship focuses on ethno-linguistic borders in Central America. She is currently a Faculty Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study at the University of Minnesota, where she is drafting a book manuscript entitled Language Ideologies, Endangerment, and the Future of Maya Mopan in Belize.
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