When Panama came to Brooklyn

[Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.] Here are excerpts from Kaysha Corinealdi’s new book Panama in Black: Afro-Caribbean World Making in the Twentieth Century (Duke University Press, 2022). Read full piece (and notes) in Public Books.

On April 20, 1963, Las Servidoras, a Brooklyn-based scholarship-granting organization created by Afro-Caribbean Panamanian women who migrated to New York starting in the late 1940s, celebrated their tenth anniversary. As part of the celebration, the organization invited longtime educational leader and former teacher and principal in the Canal Zone colored schools Leonor Jump Watson as their guest speaker. Jump Watson praised the organization for their “understanding of a noble concept of leadership—that of opportunity for service.” She also congratulated the entire membership for using “their resources of intelligence, effort and magnanimity to help young men and women acquire higher education.” In addition to inviting Jump Watson as a speaker, the Las Servidoras membership used the occasion of their anniversary to become lifelong members of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). The event, as a whole, spoke to the Black diasporic networks that throughout the twentieth century connected spaces like New York with the Panamanian isthmus.

Through its organizational and memory-keeping work, Las Servidoras embarked on a project of defining Panama that countered the nation-state-specific, homogenously linguistic, and supposedly raceless articulations of ser panameño. The women and work of Las Servidoras, I argue, served as reminders that claiming Panama, especially when understood as a diasporic process, was about not just geography but the idea of a continuous becoming and a purposeful claiming. Being outside the isthmus, with both inherited and bourgeoning questions about citizenship and belonging, fostered a unique opportunity to revisit the idea and practice of defining Panama and creating new vocabularies for the multiple spaces Afro-Caribbean Panamanians had, could, and would call home.

New York City offered many parallels to Panama. Both had rich Black migrant populations, an inclusionist discourse alongside entrenched segregation, and unequal educational opportunities that undermined students of color. The two settings provide a unique opportunity to further explore Afro-Caribbean diasporic world-making at both a micro and a hemispheric level.

AFRO-CARIBBEAN PANAMANIANS IN NEW YORK

Sarah Anesta Pond Samuel, better known as Anesta Samuel to her contemporaries, made her first trip to New York in 1940. She enrolled in the La Robert’s Beauty School and resided with relatives in Brooklyn. After her graduation in 1941, she returned to Panama. Samuel was then twenty-three years old, a married woman, and the mother of a three-year old son. These circumstances, and her status as a mother, made Samuel a rather atypical foreign student in New York. Yet, given the social expectations and economic constraints of her time, being married and having a husband with steady employment in the Canal Zone made acquiring a visa and financing her beauty school courses possible. Another factor made Samuel’s New York stay significant—she culminated her studies in New York a week following the passage of a new constitution in Panama that denationalized all those with foreign-born parents belonging to “prohibited races.”

The 1941 Constitution made acquiring citizenship nearly impossible for Black people with parents from the non-Spanish-speaking Caribbean. Samuel was born in Panama City, but both her parents had been born in Montserrat. Her husband, also born in Panama City, had parents from Barbados and Antigua. As a result of the 1941 Constitution, both Samuel and her husband became ineligible for Panamanian citizenship (and by extension, passports). By 1946, a new constitution had removed explicit racial exclusions to citizenship but still required all individuals with foreign-born parents to petition for their citizenship. Samuel, and those who like her had traveled before 1941, temporarily avoided the brunt of these changes. Those traveling after 1941, including Samuel and the future members of Las Servidoras, did so entangled by the citizenship and exclusion debates of the time. By choosing to travel overseas, Samuel and her peers, especially those with Canal Zone connections, risked being dubbed selfish and unpatriotic.

Afro-Caribbean Panamanian travel to New York and other parts of the United States nevertheless continued into the 1940s and early 1950s. According to US immigration statistics, from mid-1946 to mid-1949, more than ten thousand non-US citizens departed from Panama (including the Canal Zone) for the United States. One such traveler was Ann Rose Mulcare, an eventual Las Servidoras member. In July 1946 Mulcare boarded the ss Acadia in Balboa, Canal Zone, with New York City as her destination. In her passenger manifest, Mulcare indicated her place of birth as Gorgona, La Boca City, Panama; her citizenship as Panamanian; and her last place of residence as Panama City. She also listed her race as “Negro,” denoted English and Spanish as her spoken languages, and dressmaker as her profession. [. . .]

[. . .] The presence of other Black migrants from throughout the Caribbean increased the appeal of Brooklyn for Afro-Caribbean Panamanians. Many of these new residents came from the Anglophone Caribbean, especially Barbados and Jamaica, in addition to Puerto Rico and Haiti. Although most Panamanian migrants of the 1940s had never lived in the Anglophone Caribbean, some had attended school there and, even for those who had not, the culture of the region informed their identity. Puerto Ricans, like Afro-Caribbean Panamanians, had familiarity with US imperial governance. Although the majority of Puerto Ricans who moved to New York starting in the early twentieth century settled in Manhattan, a portion, by the 1940s and 1950s, made their way to Brooklyn and joined the US-born and migrant Black populations of the borough. [. . .]

For full article with endnotes, see https://www.publicbooks.org/when-panama-came-to-brooklyn

[Also see previous post https://repeatingislands.com/2022/07/24/forthcoming-panama-in-black-afro-caribbean-world-making-in-the-twentieth-century]

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