“Life as a Black Girl in Panama”

panamabf“Life as a Black Girl in Panama”

Written by Melissa Shepherd.

I was born in Panama and raised by my mother, Cleota, and the “Gibson/Shepherd village”. In keeping with the African proverb referring to the community’s impact on children’s upbringing, this village of sorts also included the neighborhood experience where everyone—biologically related or not—was called “tia” and “tio” (aunt or uncle). The adults in the community actively participated in children’s guidance. Translation: All these tias and tios would get us “flying right” and tell our parents about any mischief. And yes, we followed their directions as if they were our parents…Times have changed, but I digress.

Our family is a rich blend of flavors including: Irish via Barbados; British via Jamaica and St. Lucia; India via Grenada and French via Petite Martinique with names like Shepherd, Eastmond, Gibson, Dixon, Antoine…and the list goes on! This being an example of the melting pot Panama is all about. Growing up in a West Indian community where English and Spanish were spoken, while Calypso, Reggae, Salsa, Merengue and Tipico [folkloric music of Spanish influence] filled the environment inevitably nurtured my love of cultural diversity. Plus, mom’s passion for celebrating and learning from her students’ cultures fueled my curiosity, which is reflected in my clinical work today.

Every weekend my mom and I would be cleaning and cooking to the tune of Boleros, Jazz and Salsa…I can just see her now dancing with her eyes closed and a big smile. In between shouts from the neighbors to join them in sampling arroz con pollo or coconut rice and peas with curried chicken and plantains—our Sunday dinner—and impromptu get-togethers beautiful friendship bonds were forged. I’m thankful for all of these experiences, as they’ve influenced the woman I’ve become and strive to be: a lover of world cultures, art and the people who tell their stories through it.

My grandfather, Leopoldo, was a musician, tailor, and carpenter…jack of all trades and master of several! Being an avid reader and most creative soul, with a third grade formal education he built two houses, designed suits, invented tools to polish his saxophone, as well as carpentry gadgets. Burned in my memory are days of listening to him play or watch him create tools. Last March he would have been 100 years old. I wish he could see me today working with musicians and other artists at a college. I think he’d be proud to know that I inherited his passion for music.

My grandmother, Iola, a powerful 93-year old whom I adore continues to inspire me with her wit, wisdom and tenacity. It’s amazing how often I quote her saucy patois sayings that succinctly express profound life lessons. She instilled in me a sense of pride in my West Indian heritage and its richness. Grandma tells stories about life in the West Indian community including the joys of that village feeling and tribulations of racism in and out of the Panama Canal Zone. She relates how family members and her self disallowed offenses to their dignity years ago, when working for or interacting with Americans imposing the Gold and Silver Roll (equivalent of the “Colored” facilities/entrances in the United States). From her I learned to honor myself and expect to be respected. Now, as for those succulent Caribbean dishes, I’m keep learning by observing her…she doesn’t measure ingredients. So, I “eyeball” my rum eggnog and aim to master our Caribbean style Christmas fruitcake…to die for! I will continue gathering wisdom from her and tradition in all its forms because passing along these gems keeps our culture alive.

Within the Shepherd side of the village I was surrounded by tons of cousins “borrowed” as sisters, being an only child. The men including my father, uncles and godfather taught me—in their unique ways—about qualities to seek in a partner. These qualities I’ve come to value result from their clear sense of history, the meaning of family bonds, and faith in the present and future. They’ve spoken about overcoming turmoil pasts in their histories as Black men, and it impacted me tremendously. Their teachings and my own experiences led to sharing my life with a man whose soul is precious and embodies all those qualities and then some!

Black history in Panama has roots, not only in the migration of West Indian folk during the construction of the Canal, or the years of slavery. Scientists discuss a longer African presence in the Americas, as Ivan Van Sertima documents in They Came before Columbus.

May 30th Panamanians celebrate “Dia de la Etnia Negra” or Day of Afro-descendants. This day culminates a month-long series of festive events highlighting the contributions of Black people to our history in the Panamanian segment of the African Diaspora. Of this stock I was created and can’t say more proudly Viva la Etnia Negra!

3 thoughts on ““Life as a Black Girl in Panama”

  1. Very touching story!! I am descended from a Panamanian Abuela materna, and I’m proud of her country of birth and for having, even a small fraction of Latin/ Central American blood!! Caribbeans have contributed so much to Panama, and deserve their recognition! The Chinese too(Proud of that heritage too!!)!

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