Interoceanic Diasporas and The Panama Canal’s Centennial
Edited by Claudia Milian and Ifeoma Kiddoe Nwankwo
In light of the ensuing centennial of the U.S. construction of the Panama Canal (1903–1914), this special volume reconsiders this interoceanic waterway as a lived space whose academic correspondence exceeds U.S.–Latin American relations and brings in, hand in hand, Caribbean, African American, Latino and Latina, and Afro-Latino perspectives. As a topography of flows, the Panama Canal gives rise to stories that transcend the locality of this referent for American skill and greatness. The formation, development, and promulgation of the meanings of Panama and Panamanianness, coupled with the volatile cultural and racial mixtures imparted by capitalism and expansion, necessitate a reinterpretation of the U.S. Canal Zone’s standard story about its unique geographic location and imperial endeavors. The Panamanian waterway submits another way of “worlding” the isthmus, one that is profoundly characterized by boundary crossings, interactions, adjustments, transnational linkages, and the dissemination of peoples, subjects, and cultural practices.
The building of transit routes and interoceanic communication emerged from the separation and organization, in 1903, of a new state, Panama, Central America’s narrowest and most southerly point. Panama’s emergence as a nation has contributed, in Ana Elena Porras’s assessment, to a widely spread discourse in which said nation is imagined as an artificial state that has been “made in U.S.A.” The Panama Canal generated more than a connection between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The Canal Zone’s 10-square mile territory became a fertile ground that gave form to another set of global relations among North Americans, Central Americans, Panamanians, and West Indian populations of Jamaican, Barbadian, Trinidadian, and Martinican descent. West Indian laborers provided much of the work force for the commercial and political success of transportation routes afforded by the interoceanic canal’s completion in 1914, the Panama Railroad Company’s railway line in 1855, and French canal excavation efforts in the isthmus from 1881 to 1889.
These routes delineated models of annexation, nation building, expansion, and entrepreneurship. U.S. control of the Panama Canal Zone heralded the pejorative naming of “native” isthmanians as “spigoties” by North Americans and West Indians as “jumecos” and “chombos” by Panamanians. The constitution of a “new” Panamanian nationality and personhood were structured under a new racial ladder instituted by engineering and technological triumphs that brought civilization, U.S. grandeur, and travel exploration by U.S. drifters, or “tropical tramps.” Panama became a conduit for hemispheric migrations resulting in conflicts and alliances, cross-cultural skills, settlements, and a new racial frontier, or as Amy Kaplan puts it, a dexterously drawn “global color line” that included, by 1888, Africans and Puerto Ricans, and, by 1906, Galicians and other Spaniards dispatched from Cuba. In the U.S. Canal Zone’s rigid economic geography, gold and silver rolls became the shorthand metonym for a black and white, nonagricultural and modern labor force. And yet an early south-south remittance model materialized between Panama and the Caribbean from the Canal work performed by “the silver men,” West Indian laborers. On the one hand, Panama offered new economic opportunities for West Indian communities, albeit segregation and discrimination. On the other, Panamanians demanded cultural and national assimilation, or a form of Hispanization that led to emergent identity terms like “Antillano,” “Afro-Panamanians,” and “Panamanians of West Indian descent.” In 1999, the United States officially transferred the Panama Canal Zone and the seaway to Panama. This transfer connoted, if not reified, a new Canal culture entrenched in Panamanianness.
This special issue charts the larger constitution of the multiple maps and voices that have framed and contributed to interoceanic lives––or, “Small Lives,” in Colombian author Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s phraseology––as different groups encounter, grapple with, and challenge monumentalized “Great Moments” and “Big Histories” that write them out of the Canal’s corporeal narrative. Our analytical entrance into this isthmanian interspace is precisely through being in two coeval interoceanic “earths” that have been divided and are between lands.
The Canal attracted and generated interoceanic diasporas through U.S. intervention and an unstable set of relations, thereby producing interference. Such interference speaks to forceful movement and the fashioning of worlds between the Canal’s two points, and outside of them, too. We thus invite interpretive possibilities for new configurations of being and methodologies that disentangle the historical events, processes of transformation, as well as cultural and geographic crossings that serve as a resource for understanding the meanings of the Canal in the twenty-first century.
Potential paper topics may include, but are not limited to the following areas of inquiry:
- The Panama Canal as a site of story-making and story-telling (e.g., Harry A. Franck’s Zone Policeman 88; Carlos Guillermo Wilson’s Chombo; Cristina Henríquez’s The World in Half; Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s The Secret History of Costaguana)
- Personal memories/self-knowledge and communities of memory
- Visual representations, popular culture forms, and other artistic treatments
- Immigration, citizenship/unproven citizenship (“nacionalidad no comprobada”) and denationalization
- Mobility and identity formations in Panama, Central America, the Caribbean, and the United States
- Labor mobilization, state power, and political activism
- The Panama Canal and the global south as a conceptual framework
This Special Issue of The Global South is scheduled for publication in Spring 2013. Please send a working title, abstract of 300–500 words, and a brief biographical note by 30 November 2011 to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Completed submissions are due on 1 May 2012. Essays should be 25–35 double-spaced pages long and follow the MLA style.